New Year’s Eve

My New Year’s Eve night started off with chicken feet and ended in Timessquare. At dinner after work, we ate in a private room to practice English with some of the employees. After a number of dishes I had already tried before (or at least some variation), Sean brought out the chicken feet that were “his favorite.” It looked like they had just chopped them off the bird. But I buckled down and I ate it. They were very boney. In fact, the only edible parts of the chicken feet are the skin. And that skin, tasty as it was, was heavily spiced with banana peppers, I believe. But this only kicked off the craziness that would be New Year’s Eve.

After dinner, Minnie and I went to a mall where a hot sale was going on in the entire mall. Basically, for every 500 RMB (about $80 USD) you bought, you would get 300 (about $45 USD) RMB for free. Apparently, I was wrong to compare Black Friday in America to Christmas Day in China. That was kid’s play. Black Friday might as well be a Tuesday morning in Fargo, ND compared to China. New Year’s Eve in Shanghai might be the biggest shopping day in the world. People run around, from all directions – buying, selling, and searching for bargains. It was a beautiful display of capitalism in a communist country hosting an anarchistic environment. I’ve been to a lot of rock concerts in my short, 20 years on this Earth and these crowds were more intimidating than any mosh pit.

When we finally emerged from the chaos at 11ish, I need a wide open field of wheat to run in by myself. We met up with a couple of Minnie’s friends and hit a café. Minutes before the clock struck midnight, we headed out into the street, which just happened to be called “Timessquare” and watch the year turn to 2011 while all of my family and friends in the States were still in 2010.

The subway was running later on New Year’s Eve, but it was going to stop soon. So we hustled to the underground and made one of the last trains. After two stops, we were at capacity. It turns out, this was the last train of the night. Hundreds of people must have piled into this tiny little steel bullets hurdling underground. When we arrived at the stop we needed to get off, there was a brief moment of calm as we looked through the window and saw all of the people that wanted to get on the train. It was as if two armies were squaring off for battle. Through this thin glass, we looked at each other, not sure over which one would win. About a hundred people needed to get on and about a hundred needed to get off. But there wasn’t time, or space, to execute a maneuver like that. A lot of people were going to get left behind or stuck on the train, depending on where you were going. There was no way I was going to be one of those people stuck on a place where I wasn’t supposed to be.

When the doors opened, there was a moment where an unstoppable force met an immovable object. We were gridlocked. Like two phalanxes locked in a fight. But as people began to slither through, the dam began to buckle. I slid and pushed and jumped my way through the crowd and into sweet, sweet freedom. It wasn’t easy and I’m not proud of the things I did, but I made it. I was home and in bed by 1:30 a.m.

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Beijing

If you have been keeping up with this blog, you’ll know that I have spent most of my time in China while in Shanghai. Last weekend, I took a two hour plane ride north to the capital of the country, Beijing. I knew very little about Beijing before traveling there. I knew that it hosted the 2008 Olympics, it had the Great Wall and Forbidden City — That’s about it.

What I didn’t know was how different Shanghai is from Beijing. While Shanghai points forward and looks to the future with it’s towering skyscrapers and bustling industry, Beijing points to the past and lives in a rich history.

The streets are wider in Beijing and largely in square formations, like the Forbidden City once was. In certain districts of Beijing, there are also smaller streets and housing formations called Hutongs. Most of the Huntongs in the area of the hotel I stayed at were 300-400 years old.

There isn’t much of that in Shanghai. But the history comes at a price. The subway in Beijing seems dated compared to Shanghai. It’s narrower and more spread out. Transferring from one train to another might take up to 15 or 20 minutes to even get to, not to mention wait for. The city also seems more polluted, dirty and the vendors are harder sellers. I’ve seen more violence fighting for a subway in Beijing in three days than I have in three weeks in Shanghai.

But all these are minor complaints in a city filled with history. From the Hutongs to Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City: Beijing has integrated modern technology with its rich past. Each part remembers a different time in China’s history. Tiananmen marks the rise of the Communist party. The Forbidden City marks the dominance of the emperor. The Hutongs mark the submission of the rest of the country.

It’s a cliche thing to say, but everybody needs to see the Great Wall before they die. I was fortunate to climb it, and it is unlike anything I have experienced. Before the skyscrapers, before the Olympic stadiums, before the congested traffic, the Great Wall was the first marker of man’s conquering of the Earth. It stretches for as far as the human eye can see over mountainous terrain that must have been hard for any army to pass even without the wall. Although it’s been repaired numerous times since it’s heyday, the wall remains in great condition nevertheless. It’s hard to put into words and it’s even harder to imagine the blood and sweat that went into making it.

Finally, Peking Duck has been my favorite meal since being in China. We went to a restaurant that has been in operation since 1864. It’s weird to think that it got started during America’s Civil War. If you get the works, they give the table food from just about every part of the duck: skin from the feet, chopped duck heart (delicious), skin, fat, you name it. Even watching the chef slice and dice the meat was impressive. Thick slabs of duck make for the perfect wraps. The meal was capped off my a soup made from the bones of the very duck we were eating.

After the three days, I was happy to return to Shanghai. Something seems more homely about it. The air seems a little easier to breath and the streets a little easier to walk on. Perhaps it’s just me wanting to grab onto something familiar, but it was good to be back in the modern metropolis of Shanghai instead of the aging landmarks of Beijing.

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Basketball

The whole day was counting down to playing basketball with Ronnie and various members of his team and the Logic staff. I was nervous at first, but quickly realized I had nothing to lose by playing ball with them. Once work got out, I was downright excited to see how differently the game was played in China.

First, as a preface, it should be noted that the Chinese love basketball — especially the NBA. If you’re a sports fan in America, it’s safe to say the NBA isn’t exactly regarded highly. But when I told some of the team members I was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I didn’t expect anyone to know where that was. Almost immediately Ronnie said, “Milwaukee… Milwaukee… the Bucks! Jennings!” He knew all about the Milwaukee Bucks and started naming players.

Now, back to the present. We drove in Ronnie’s car to the courts. I have played on courts all over the country – from Orlando to Michigan to Missouri – but this court in Shanghai has to be in my top five. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, among dark, dim buildings, a large warehouse sat unassuming. When we pulled up, there was a lone light on in the office and one light above one hoop in the warehouse. But when you enter the warehouse, you see about four courts stretching far into the darkness. All of my worries and thoughts faded away. I felt at home and I was ready to play some basketball.

This has nothing to do with basketball. But it's me on top of the tallest building in China.

We quickly organized teams. There were seven of us so one of the teams would have to play a man down. I was selected for the three-man team, which was something that I saw was a compliment. As soon as we were off, the action started – and it didn’t stop for at least an hour. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak the language of my teammates. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the score was, or even if we were keeping score. It didn’t matter how many times I shot the ball and made it or shot the ball and missed. All that matter was the game knows no boundaries. You can hear playful banter and taunting no matter what language it is in. You know when someone takes an awful shot and everyone teases him. You know when someone makes an amazing move and everyone applauds. The language of the net, the rim and the squeaking on the floor are universal. Every basketball player is fluent. Sorry if that’s a little cheesy, but I had a lot of fun playing the game.

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Westerners

China is the first country I have been to where, just by looking at me, you can tell I’m not from this land. My white skin and fuzzy beard make me stick out like a sore thumb. But Shanghai is a very international city. Thousands of tourists dot the streets every day and even more expatriates call Shanghai their home. It’s might be uncommon to see someone from the West, but it happens every day especially in the more touristy areas.

But the fun part about being noticed by the masses in Shanghai isn’t seeing how the Chinese react to me, it’s seeing how the Westerners react. The Chinese are used to seeing Westerners on the streets of Shanghai. But every time – whether I’m shopping, waiting for the subway or walking on the street – I seem to make eye contact with fellow Westerners. It’s also the same interaction too: First, eye contact. Then, a brief look away from each other. Finally, eye contact is made again to see if the other is still looking.

I can just see what they are thinking: “Do you speak my language? You look like you speak my language. Why are you in Shanghai? Are you here for the same reason I am?” It’s so funny to witness the internal dialogue externally that they have with themselves.

It’s also fun to play the game of “Where are they from?” from a distance. The goal is simple: guess which country the people are from just by looking at them. It really comes down to if they are European or North American. Europeans are hard to tell the difference between and so are Canadians and Americans. If the person is a little heavy set, they are probably American. But if the person is heavy set and has a mustache, they are probably German. You can check you’re answers by getting close and listening to the language they are speaking.

I’ve seen French people and Germans the most, but there are a number of Americans in Shanghai doing business who stay at my hotel.

All in all, it’s fun to see other Westerners. Maybe it’s because they remind me of home. Maybe it’s because it’s fun to see other people as out of their element as I am.

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New Year’s Eve

My New Year’s Eve night started off with chicken feet and ended in Timessquare. At dinner after work, we ate in a private room to practice English with some of the employees. After a number of dishes I had already tried before (or at least some variation), Sean brought out chicken feet that were “his favorite.” It looked like they had just chopped them off the bird. But I buckled down and I ate it. They were very boney. In fact, the only edible parts of the chicken feet are the skin. And that skin, tasty as it was, was heavily spiced with banana peppers, I believe. But this only kicked off the craziness that would be New Year’s Eve.

After dinner, Minnie and I went to a mall where a hot sale was going on in the entire mall. Basically, for every 500 Yuan (about $80 USD) you bought, you would get 300 (about $45 USD) Yuan for free. Apparently, I was wrong to compare Black Friday in America to Christmas Day in China. That was kid’s play. Black Friday might as well be a Tuesday morning in Fargo, ND compared to China. New Year’s Eve in Shanghai might be the biggest shopping day in the world. People run around, from all directions – buying, selling, and searching for bargains. It was a beautiful display of capitalism in a communist country hosting an anarchistic environment. I’ve been to a lot of rock concerts in my short, 20 years on this Earth and these crowds were more intimidating than any mosh pit.

When we finally emerged from the chaos at 11ish, I need a wide open field of wheat to run in by myself. We met up with a couple of Minnie’s friends and hit a café. Minutes before the clock struck midnight, we headed out into the street, which just happened to be called “Timessquare” and watch the year turn to 2011 while all of my family and friends in the States were in 2010.

The subway was running later on New Year’s Eve, but it was going to stop soon. So we hustled to the underground and made one of the last trains. After two stops, we were at capacity. It turns out, this was the last train of the night. Hundreds of people must have piled into this tiny little steel bullets hurdling underground. When we arrived at the stop we needed to get off, there was a brief moment of calm as we looked through the window and saw all of the people that wanted to get on the train. It was as if two armies were squaring off for battle. Through this thin glass, we looked at each other, not sure over which one would win. About a hundred people needed to get on and about a hundred needed to get off. But there wasn’t time, or space, to execute a maneuver like that. A lot of people were going to get left behind or stuck on the train, depending on where you were going. There was no way I was going to be one of those people stuck on a place where I wasn’t supposed to be.

When the doors opened, there was a moment where an unstoppable force met an immovable object. We were gridlocked. Like two phalanxes locked in a fight. But as people began to slither through, the dam began to buckle. I slid and pushed and jumped my way through the crowd and into sweet, sweet freedom. It wasn’t easy and I’m not proud of the things I did, but I made it. I was home and in bed by 1:30 a.m.

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Holidays

With Christmas having come and gone and New Year’s just around the corner, I have come to Shanghai in the middle of two of the biggest holidays in the States. But elements of these holidays are all around Shanghai, which is interesting, and each of the holidays are a little different.

Christmas, for example, has a large presence in the advertising in Shanghai. Large billboards feature Santa and other non-religious Christmas icons. But, as I have been told, Christmas in Shanghai is not a religious holiday for most people (and it can be debated that it’s not one in the U.S.A. anymore too.) Instead, Christmas has developed into a holiday similar to Valentines day. Many couples go out on dates on Christmas day. However, this holiday and practice are largely followed by young people.

At restaurants on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, many of the staff wore Santa hats and signs were posted proclaiming, “Happy X-Mas” or “Merry Christmas.”

When I was out and about Christmas day, the streets were packed with shoppers looking for deals. Alicia explained to me that many Chinese workers receive their year end bonuses from their companies and spend the bonuses right away. Therefore, the streets were full on Christmas day with eager shoppers. Think Black Friday times 10.

New Year’s Eve is similar to this, I’ve been told. Since the Chinese New Year isn’t for another month, the western New Year’s Eve is less important, but still celebrated. The shoppers come back out on New Year’s Eve and shop until midn

A Christmas billboard not too far from my house.

ight. Perhaps I’ll do some shopping too, since I still have a bunch of gifts to get for everyone. We are also getting a day off work, which will be nice.

Even though there are some remnants of the holidays I am missing, I can’t say I’m missing them too much. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are nice, but they still don’t beat being in Shanghai for a month.

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Work

The whole reason I’m in Shanghai, besides the obvious tourist aspects, is I’m working. Logic Solutions, a company started by a family friend, holds offices in a number of places in China as well as the U.S. (Ann Arbor, for one). I’m working during the week in order to earn my keep in this amazing country.

After the 45 minute commute, it’s another 10 minute walk through the office park. But this is no dinky office park. Buildings tower all around you. There are two cafeterias within walking distance, a convenient store and a lake all in around five minutes from the office. It’s a high tech park, so a number of advanced tech companies are based here.

The actual work is quite fun. Right now, I’m editing marketing and advertising material in English. It reminds me a lot of being at the newspaper. But instead of snooty students who don’t listen to you, it’s eager Chinese people who want to learn. I am also writing a good deal of material for the company on my own.

Like my hotel, it’s easy to forget that I am actually in Shanghai. I’m writing in English, editing English and speaking English. But when we go to lunch at the cafeteria, the English stops. Hundred of people from all over the office park descend upon the two cafeterias. The food, and the cafeterias for that matter, remind me of middle school and high school cafeterias. There is a small selection each day and if you don’t like it, too bad.

Today, I probably had the best lunch. It was noodles, beef, potatoes, cilantro and some other spices all thrown into a soup. It was hot, spicy and full of belly-filling delights. It reminded me very much of the boiled dinner Grandma Courchaine makes — except with noodles, of course.

After lunch, we take a short walk and then it’s back to work. Work starts a little later at Logic (about 10 or 10:30 in the morning) and runs later as well (we’re usually out by 6:30.) To me, that’s the more difficult part of the job. Throw in the hour or so commute back to my hotel and it’s about 8ish by the time dinner is done.

Still, I can’t complain. I love what I’m doing at the office. I can see why people become teachers: it’s very rewarding fixing something and helping people learn. And since my hotel has such a great location, I don’t want to compromise the location for a shorter commute.

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Cuisine

I think one of the hardest parts of traveling is being without the food you grew up with. However, thanks in large part to the Travel Channel, I entered China with a zest to try anything I could get my hands on. Here is a little introduction to what I have experienced so far.

Meals are presented in a completely different way than in America. In America, you order a dish and it is your dish. In China, every dish ordered is shared by the entire table. If a beef soup with noodles is ordered, the whole table is allowed to help themselves. This style of eating is something I am truly enjoying. There is no longer the stress of getting the wrong dish. If there is something on the table you don’t like, don’t eat it. There is plenty of variety and plenty to share.

That being said, there hasn’t been anything I haven’t enjoyed. Last night, a group of collegues and I had food from western China, near Afghanistan. The hearty dishes were full of mutton, bread and potatoes — none of which I have had much of when eating dishes local to Shanghai and southern China. There was even a dish with stomach and peppers, which I thought to be particularly tasty. And the way I look at it, if you have eaten haggis in Scotland, you can eat just about anything.

Earlier in the day, for lunch, we had some very local Shanghai cooking. Sesame is s

omething I have eaten in numerous dishes, but not like this before. Inside of these sticky rice balls, were sesame so sweet you would swear it was chocolate or pure sugar cane.

Finally, the beverages. I’m from Wisconsin, people, beer runs in my blood. So, of course, I must try Chinese beer. The Black Beer I tasted last night looked like Coke and tasted like a tame Guinness. I have never been a fan of dark beers, but the people at Sinkiang know what they are doing and they have made a fan out of me.

This, of course, is a very short introduction to the food I have had. But it is not the food that I am missing from America. It’s the forks. Yesterday, while wielding chopsticks, I dropped a dumpling in vinegar and it splashed all over my face. Every day is a learning process, I suppose.

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Sun Tzu & Driving

If Sun Tzu lived in the 21st century instead of 2,500 years ago, he would have written about the art of driving, not the art of war. He would, at least, if he lived in Shanghai. Driving in Shanghai is a little bit like a battlefield. If you aren’t skilled enough, you could die. There are few rules to follow and even fewer rules to break. Turn signals are optional and forget about lanes — those might as well not even be present.

Taxi drivers are the modern day warriors of these battlefields. They weave and duck, they cut people off, they turn when they shouldn’t and honk when they should. I have yet to see an accident in Shanghai (knock on wood), which is probably in large part due to the skill of the taxi drivers. They seem to know what kind of animal the streets are going to be.

Shanghai streets usually have three or four lanes going each way. They are constantly packed with cars and buses. In order to get from point A to point B, you need to break a couple of rules. No one ever runs red lights. But no one gets the right away if you are turning on a green light. So, often times, the driver is cutting people off to turn left. Pedestrians are going to cross, but for the most part, they know how to stay out of the way. No matter how fast paced the driving is or how frustrating the traffic jam is, there is never a moment where you feel unsafe in the hands of the taxi drivers. They are experts. And, if you sit back a little bit, it’s almost like you are on a roller coaster. You go left and right at such speeds that shouldn’t be possible in traffic like this. But somehow, you arrive at your destination, and fast I might add.

There is, indeed, a certain art to any skill. But taxi drivers do it with a kind of nonchalant attitude. If they were in America and saw the anger and defensive driving going on, they wouldn’t understand it. Even the horn in Shanghai isn’t used as a weapon. It’s used as a way of kindly telling someone that you are coming up on their side. It’s more of a way of saying, “Look out, please” than “Move over, jerk.” If driving here has taught me anything, it might be to cool it on the aggression on the road. Next time I get cut off in America, I won’t give the finger and honk my horn. Maybe I’ll just slow down and let them pass.

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Commuting

In my hotel room, it’s easy to forget I’m in a foreign country — or China, for that matter. It’s kind of like an American oasis with my Macbook, loud music and Colgate toothpaste.

But when I step outside into the cold, December air, the culture hits me. The honking horns, the neon signs and the Chinese characters quickly bring me up to speed as to where I am.

Today, I am going to work. The work commute differs greatly from the United States. In Shanghai, I’ve been told, the average commute is about an hour to two hours. Few people own cars in Shanghai, so many people rely on the subway, buses and taxis to get around. This isn’t a problem if you can deal with traffic or cramped subway cars.

Alicia, one of the employees at Logic, was kind enough to show me the way to work. The subway is just around the corner from my hotel and you could easily miss it if you were just walking on the street because it looks like a store. The subway is an adventure in itself. At peak hours, trains will come to the stop every two minutes. We are a little late, so the subway only comes every five minutes. After scanning in, it seems like everyone is in a race to the subway car. There is a crowd around the entrance and a short wait for the next car. Alicia assures me that this is no longer rush hour and that rush hour is much worse. We take Dashijie (where my hotel is) to People’s Square (a hub near the middle of the city). The trip is short, but frantic. As is the walk to line 2, where we need to be to go to the office.

The subway is very easy to use. Colored and marked arrows are everywhere. You would really have to try hard to even get lost. Even though much of the directions are in Chinese, there is enough English and enough color coordinated signs for me to know where I’m going.

We take People’s Square to the high tech park where the company is located. This train takes about 25 minutes and is underground as well as above ground. When we do arrive in the high tech park, it’s another ten minute walk to the actual office.

All in all, it took two different trains, about 10 stops and a short walk to get to the office and that’s not including what Alicia traveled to get to my hotel (something that I’m very grateful for. I couldn’t have done it on my own.) It took me about 45 minutes to an hour total with all of the waiting for trains and walking. What baffles me is this is a short commute for most Shanghainese. In San Antonio, it would take 15 to 20 minutes with traffic to get to the offices I have worked at. In Columbia, it’s a 10 minute bus ride to get to campus and a five minute walk. Obviously, those are much smaller cities. But it just goes to show you that I still cannot grasp the size of a city with 20 million people in its city limits.

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