Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Shanghai Morning Commute

I spend two hours total every day going to work and coming home. Sometimes I love it - a nice walk, a book to read, lots of wild and interesting things going on around me. Sometimes I hate it - overly crowded subways, rainy, sloppy streets, getting bumped into at least 20 times ... And sometimes I get lazy and take a cab. This is always a mistake - it costs 12x more, I get no walking in, I can't read for fear of carsickness, and we get stuck in such terrible traffic that it actually takes a longer time.

So here's what it looks like from above:

Well, sort of. I work so far away that no English maps even show it! Luckily this map shows my commute sans one more subway stop and another 10 minute walking jaunt.

And here's what it looks like from the ground:

1. Walking out of my apartment complex:

2. Walking toward the subway:

3. How am I supposed to get IN to the subway?

4. Blogger is taking too long to upload photos ... and I am late to work today!! Second half of the commute photos will be up tonight :)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ode to the Papaya

Back in the States this last trip, I realized the one thing I really really missed for that two weeks was ... papaya. I told people back home that I missed it, and they forwarded me along to the supermarket where they were sure I would be able to find it.

Not the same. If your idea of a papaya is a pallid, dry, gourdlike fruit, usually already cut in half and saran-wrapped to display its few measly seeds left over after processing, you have never experienced papaya.

I must now help you comprehend the papaya and why I missed it so.

Every other morning, I wake up and go on a run around my "neighborhood." Before 7am, the streets are quiet and empty, stores haven't opened yet, and it's the perfect time for a quick jog. By about 7am, I'm turning the corner, heading home, dodging cars and people and motorcycles galore. My stomach is usually already growling, and at just this moment, I happen upon our corner fruitstand, tarp juuuust being taken down to display the multicolored explosion of at least two dozen types of fresh fruits. YUM. I am no stranger to this situation, and I usually have a few RMB shoved in a pocket somewhere, ready to buy my breakfast.

They usually have at least three varieties of papaya. Each with different lengths, color, shapes, skin textures. I choose one that has clear skin, is just lightly soft to the touch, and hopefully the perfect size (they can sometimes be larger than my head). One of these medium-sized papayas costs me about 7RMB ($1.00).

Back in the kitchen while my coffee is brewing (my personal import from Whole Foods on each trip back to the States), I check email, read the NYTimes, upload silly pictures of papaya and soymilk onto my blog ...

And then, as the coffee is just about ready, I slice the papaya in half to reveal its juicy, hot-orange and black-dotted core, put it on a plate, pour my coffee, add the vile soymilk, pull out a spoon and gently dig in to the yummiest fruit on earth. Yes, I eat the seeds too, they're edible, spicy, and add the perfect crunchy balance to the rest of the fruit. Bon appetit!

Running in Shanghai

An essay I once wrote for a tourism book that never got published ...

It was about 4:30am on my first day living in Shanghai, and I had just woken up. The sky was still bright and red as the Shanghai sky is at night, without a trace of stars or the sun. I hadn't connected the internet yet in my apartment, thereby vanishing any chance to chat with friends and family I had recently left behind in the States, read the NYTimes online, or surf Facebook. The fridge was still empty, not even plugged in yet. I had no friends here, no family here, and unfortunately no DVDs yet to take their place. And work didn't start until nine. This was jetlag of the worst kind.

So that morning, instead of lying in that eerie hot-red darkness, I suited up in my favorite sweats from college, an old pair of Nike sneakers, and hit the streets.

Off I went, sprinting straight south on Jiaozhou Lu. Past the Jing'an Temple, and into a clearing just by Nanjing Xi Lu. In the plaza, beggars sat outside with their children, hopefully holding up cans for me to drop a few coins in. Beside them, sleepy, over-boozed couples poured out of the bar nearby that was still blasting hip-hop music into the early morning. Above me, wisps of white clouds raced by, straight west, and I decided to follow them to their source. I turned left on Nanjing Rd. and picked up the pace. The cool wind flowed straight into my lungs. I knew it wasn't clean, but this early in the morning when the cars and buses weren't out yet, the air felt refreshing and clear.

I kept running. On my left was the old Ritz Carlton, on my right was shop after shop of shoes, glasses, Zara, Chinese antiques, on my right was a Pearl Market, empty save for a few street sweepers and beggars asleep by the front gate. I bounded under a huge raised highway called Chengdu Lu, and just beyond it lay People's Square.

The sky was beginning to fade from red to grey, and although the sun wasn't up, I knew it was coming soon. I wanted to reach the Huangpu River before it did.
I sprinted through the Square, and straight onto the Nanjing Lu walking street.

Elderly women with fans were beginning to set up their radios, stretch, and stand in formation, preparing for their morning exercise. I weaved in and out of the different groups – one with red fans, another yellow, another holding fake swords instead. When the walking street ended, the sky was a much lighter shade of gray and time was obviously running out.

I continued to head east, dodging a couple cars that had just come out of hibernation, a few more street sweepers, and was now sandwiched between turn-of-the-century style brick buildings. Go go go! I thought to myself, I HAD to get there for the sunrise. The buildings were stacked so close to one another I could hardly see where I was going, how many more blocks I had to traverse before I reached the end.

And all of a sudden … BAM, I hit the end. A four-lane road with a big gate that kept pedestrians from ever crossing successfully. Shoot!

Desperate to get across the final street to the elevated Bund walking area, I turned left and searched for an underground tunnel. There it was! Boing boing boing down the stairs, across the tunnel, right back up, left right, zig zag around the various elderly exercisers making their way to the Bund as well, up another couple staircases and here, HERE I was.

I had made it, and the sun hadn't come up yet.

I stood there gasping for air, my lungs painfully filled with who-knows-what, heart thumping, calves screaming in pain. My whole body rocked with feeling, and as I moved beyond noticing what was paining me inside, I looked up, and displayed in front of me, just beyond the curved part of the river where barges chugged along lazily was the great, Jetson-like Pudong. A sliver of orange was becoming visible while those white clouds raced forward, straight at me. I watched in awe as the sun gradually made its way above each of the architecturally ridiculous buildings rising from the other side of the river. The sky slowly became brighter and brighter.

The honking behind me suddenly woke me from my trance, the morning traffic had begun. Around me, dozens of exercisers danced under the newly risen sun, waving their multicolored fans, brandishing their swords, banging drums, kicking their feet

Good morning Shanghai!

Fact File:

There are a bunch of great routes for the runner or walker in Shanghai. Beware, however, that traffic picks up at 7am, so getting up early or going out late at night are probably your best bets.

Two other of my favorite routes include:

1. Loops around Century Park – each loop is about 5k, the entry fee is 10rmb, and it's really pretty as long as you're not there at noon on a weekend when the crowds get pretty intense
2. Run from Hengshan Lu and Yan'an Lu to Xujiahui Park, run around the park, then weave your way around the neighborhoods there

Monday, October 27, 2008

Melamine Poisoning

I am back in Shanghai.

This time, as I touched the ground in the Pudong International Airport at 4:45pm, the air was so thick with toxic goo that it seemed I had arrived in a purple-yellow cloud. Exiting the airport, I was shocked by a smell of coal so strong that for the first time in my life, I worried about my lungs as I just stood there, waiting for a cab. Usually, a little scent of coal hanging in the air reminds me of high school days, riding bikes with Meimei in Beijing, eating ice cream with my first boyfriend as we walked along the streets outside of Middle School #2, or morning jogs around my residential compound with the same guards, neighbors and policemen hollering HELLO! at me at least once on each of my six loops. Those were lovely times, and I wallow in reminiscing about them.

Sadly, what was once a delicate sign to reminisce is now something hugely frightening. And then, a few hours later, jetlagged at 3am, I read the NYTimes to immediately come upon this: Tainted Eggs From China Discovered in Hong Kong

When Meimei passed away a few months ago, I realized it was time to leave. At the time I had no idea what I was going to do - business school? Travel? Be unemployed? Apply for positions at domestic VC firms in the US? I went back and forth, trying to decide what was best. I was being pulled in two directions:

A high-profile, exciting, influential job vs. a healthy, safe and happy life

When I finally made my decision a few weeks ago, I went to speak with the head partners at my firm. They balked. "You want to return to the US at THIS time?? Are you nuts? You are in the perfect place right now, everyone wants to be where you are," a very famous VC said to me (hence I'll keep his name confidential). If it's such a perfect place, then why aren't hugely successful, famous VC's such as himself spending more than one week per year in China?

It simply doesn't connect. Needless to say, there is something wrong with the argument for people to stay in an extremely unhealthy place simply for "success."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A REAL Chinese Wedding

I attended the second of my friends’ weddings last week. So I hear, all weddings are pretty unique these days, but I’m pretty sure this one is going to take the cake (rice pudding?) for years to come. Not only was it fun and interesting, not only did I meet a group of happy and garrulous people, but I also had the opportunity to experience the elusive REAL CHINA.

The wedding invitation specified that it was going to be a “Traditional Chinese Wedding” and requested that all guests be dressed accordingly. The ceremony was set for 4pm on Saturday, September 27th in the historic watertown of Zhujiajiao on the outskirts of Shanghai. Buses were to leave promptly at 1:15pm from People’s Square (for those of us without cars).

The groom, a classmate from Stanford, called me the day before asking if I’d like to bring a friend and whether I was SURE I’d be able to attend. I hesitantly responded, “No, I’m ok I think. And yes … of course!” As mentioned in one of my previous columns, the workweek extended for seven days last week. Saturday I was supposed to be working for eight hours. Luckily, we were asked to work from home that day, and no one s.p.e.c.i.f.i.e.d exactly what hours those were to be. Also, I knew no one attending the wedding, but assumed that if a few of my fellow alumni would be there then I’d be able to charm/self-deprecate my way into a group of new friends.

So, on Saturday morning I woke up at 5:00 to double-up my day. I worked for eight hours in the morning, then threw on a hot pink, over-wide but under-long qipao that I randomly had hanging around, stuffed a wad of cash into a makeshift “hongbao” (red envelope), and rushed over to People’s Square for the bus.

I grabbed a window seat at the front of the bus and watched the others board. As each person arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that the local Chinese were dressed in high-fashion, brand-name, non-traditional clothes, and the foreigners and overseas Chinese were generally dressed in ridiculously bright, hokey qipaos and Mao suits. At least I wasn’t the only one.

I promptly fell into a deep sleep when the bus started to move, and was jarred awake X hours/minutes/days(??) later. The bus driver was angrily hollering Shanghainese into his cellphone while the rest of the bus nearly broke into a riot. We were in Zhujiajiao but the driver didn’t know how to drive directly to the site of the wedding. He ultimately left us off at the Zhujiajiao Kindergarten, turning off the engine and directing us all to leave and walk to wherever the location happened to be. Thank goodness I wore flats, I thought.

Off the bus and down the street, I followed the parade of silly foreigners and stylish Chinese. We walked to the closest bridge then turned left into an alley that led to stone lanes, scenic waterways, hawkers galore, and plenty of 4-foot tall, toothless, octogenarian onlookers. 200 meters away we could see the red lanterns hanging outside of a crowded entryway … we had found our destination.

The location for the wedding was a guesthouse that had once been a siheyuan (a traditional courtyard-style home). There was a front door leading to a courtyard, then another entrance into another building that led into another much larger courtyard, and on down the line. It was beautiful in that overly perfectly renovated Chinese way – stone walkways, white stucco walls, cherry wood trim around the windows, fishponds, ornate woodwork surrounding the doorways, I could go on. 4pm had almost arrived, though, and we were told to wait outside along the waterway until we heard the sound of firecrackers.

At this point I had already found the crew of college classmates – a bunch of aggressively friendly ‘00s and ‘01s who had traveled from all over the world for this wedding. Together we stood on the stairs of a stone bridge as the fireworks went off, a Chinese marching band of traditional instruments and clangy music strode by, then the groom in a marvelous remake of traditional groomswear (a red pointy hat, and a long, plastically-shiny red robe embroidered with dragons and other decorations) with a goofy smile on his face, then his best man in a similar, but yellow, costume holding a live carp, and finally the hot-red sedan with the bride inside. This wedding procession was symbolic of the groom having picked his bride up from her home, then escorting her to his home where they were to take up residence after the wedding.

I ran ahead of the procession back into the siheyuan where I took a place in the main courtyard just as the last of the thousands of firecrackers in the doorway went off. At the top of the stairs leading to the inner building sat the bride and groom’s parents. While I stood there, the octogenarians began to pour into the courtyard as well. I wondered, were they invited? Is it a tradition that the entire community is invited to weddings in the town? Of course, this wasn’t the bride and groom’s community – she is Sichuanese, and he is Taiwanese. Hmm…

Nonetheless, everyone else entered, and eventually so did the bride and groom. She stepped elegantly out of her sedan and into the courtyard. She was wearing ruby-red slippers reminiscent of Dorothy, and a headdress of epic proportions that held a magnificently embroidered (but also plastically shiny) cover over her face. The groom uncovered her face, and confirmed that she was his bride. The audience giggled. Then, the rest of the ceremony continued.

The ceremony itself is muddled to me, as I was too busy getting shoved around by the little old ladies. I did get to see the bride and groom give some tea to their parents, step over a little pot of fire, and eventually be led upstairs to the guest room by the groom’s father. He stood there, outside the door, apparently guarding and holding the key. All of a sudden a huge ribbon flew out of the window and landed on a very confused looking foreign guest – a blonde woman in a super-short, uncomfortable looking qipao who was standing next to her husband. One of my new friends elbowed me, “That’s the traditional Chinese version of the bouquet. I guess we missed that one.”

Meanwhile, we were asked to enter into the large courtyard where the dinner was to take place. As soon as we were asked to do so, the old villagers rushed upon the entrance, pushing the guests out of the way. “Let us in! Let us in! Give us candy! Give us candy!” One unlucky guest tried to protect the hongbao in his pocket while a pack of little, old ladies mobbed him and attempted to snatch them away. The groom’s sister came to the rescue, in qipao, up-‘do and all, slapping the ladies’ hands and pushing them out the door.

I guess they weren’t invited.

At this point, it was only 4:30pm and the banquet wasn’t supposed to start until 6:30. My new buddies and I killed some time by walking around the town, tasting a few of the local candies along the way, wandering along the endless stalls of preserved pork, deep-fried stinky tofu, scarves, hats, umbrellas galore, and renting a Chinese gondola to take us around the canals.

By 6:00, we were back to the courtyard and found our table. The groom had sat us all together – the foreign table of qipaos and Mao suits, his sister, and her Seattle friends. We all got on quite well, everyone was making fun of themselves, laughing at the groom’s silly grin with his pointy hat, and joking about the obviously dead and weighted carp that had been put back into the fish pond out front. The sister was giggling about her fake eyelashes and caked-on makeup. “They did this to me!”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Our wedding planner's team,” she responded. “It was kind of amazing, actually. We told them we wanted a traditional Chinese-style wedding without too many decorations. Although they kinda screwed up the decorations part last night, and the bride had a shitfit and asked them to all be taken down. But really, basically all we had to do was show up! They did my hair, my makeup, they found my brother’s silly costume, they found the carp, the location, the sedan, the band, everything.”

Dinner started soon enough, and it was obvious that the wedding planner had chosen the menu too. Alcohol was ginger-infused huangjiu (Chinese yellow wine), snake in a clay pot, stir-fried hacked-up soft shell turtle, at least five pork dishes (wrapped, steamed, fried, preserved, surrounded by peanuts), and a host of other similarly unappetizing but adventurous dishes. Actually, I am sure they were all delicious, I just so happen to have kosher tendencies and couldn’t stomach it.

Up front, one of the groom’s cousins served as emcee. He told funny stories about the couple, brought them onstage, made them play racey games with each other, and eventually led them to each of the 20 or so tables to do a toast at each.
At 7:45 the first bus was about to head back to Shanghai, and I was beat. Time to go. I grabbed my things, gave the bride and groom big hugs, handed my hongbao to the groom’s parents (uh oh, was I supposed to give it to both parents??), and then rushed off to the bus that was still waiting in front of the Zhujiajiao Kindergarten.

On the way back to town, I watched out the window. Zhujiajiao is surprisingly RIGHT outside of Shanghai. It took us at most 40 minutes to return to People’s Square. 8:30 I was back and it was time to go out for some real partying on the town - after I changed out of my plastically shiny qipao, and into a pair of designer jeans and stilettos, that is.