Monday, September 20, 2010

Spots of Contentment

The Chinese internet is a very fickle thing. Our colleagues report some intermittent problems in service, but we really had a bad weekend after our first week of regular school, and that was very frustrating. Seeking some peace, we hopped on the subway to YuYuan Garden, a small plot of land made into a garden for a local ruler back in the 1500s, which is being restored after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. The garden sits amid giant skyscrapers and commercialism of every description, but is itself a beautiful haven, and we were able to relax a little and remember that patience is a virtue. We bought a new router and did what we could throughout the weekend, finally calling our young friend Joey, who is 15 or 16 and knows everything tech. He waited patiently for the second China Telecomm technician to leave, tapped away on our keyboard, physically separated our modem and router, and had us working again by Sunday night. We also had our first Mandarin session with Tony, a young university student who is trading Mandarin lessons for help with his conversational English, so let's hear it for nice young people everywhere!

Our second week with students was threatened by a typhoon, and school was canceled on Wednesday, per order of the Shanghai Education Department. The day in question happened to be the first regular day of classes for the Shanghai public schools (Sept 1), so the local kids just got an extra day of summer. We were summoned to work at school just the same, so we got some extra planning time, which is always welcome. The typhoon, by the way, veered off toward Korea at the last minute, so the rain that fell would barely have been noticed in Phoenix, but it was nice to know that other school districts have difficulty dealing with weather predictions.

We had little bits of happiness during this week. First, I tried leaving a very short note of Chinese characters for Luo Yan, our ayi, to indicate that we were leaving her monthly wages. When we issued her August wages directly to her, we had some trouble communicating the purpose of the money, so I looked up the characters in the Oxford dictionary to say "for you." To my amazement, I got it right, and Luo Yan left a note saying thanks in English and characters. Next, we got our first piece of personal mail in our apartment box, an envelope of Sunday comics from my sister, Jill. What fun! Finally, we went on our first Payday Friday dinner to a Taiwanese restaurant named JoJo. Our Mandarin colleague, Helen, did the ordering, and the food just kept coming. We learned how to ask for a doggie bag (da bao) and how to count with hand gestures, which Joe is ready to use at his next wet market visit.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Meeting the New Students

The weekend was a good one when we finally got the internet connected at the apartment, and we were able to give our families a Skype tour of the whole place. We found a large grocery store much closer than Carrefour, so that will be useful, and we tried our first pizza delivery. It was delivered by bicycle and the toppings all slid to one side during the ride, but once we got everything shoveled back into place, it was "not bad," which is a popular way for Westerners to describe things, especially food related things, in China. "How was the new noodle shop?" "Not bad." We are hoping to find the places that are maybe a little better than "not bad."

The new students are definitely above the food standard. They are energetic (especially the first and second graders!), bright, and very cute. We have a lot of Asian and American students, but also a strong contingent of Swedish and Dutch. One of my first graders speaks nothing but Dutch and has no Dutch speakers in his classroom, so he is really operating under the sink-or-swim method. The kids had a great time laughing at me as I tried to pronounce their names, and many of the Asian students were quick to offer their Western names instead. I have a lovely fifth grader from Germany, so I asked him to say my last name over and over because it sounds so great when he says it. Each class is just under twenty students and I have fifteen classes, so the week stays very busy, but I managed to be in the right place at the right time.

Joe's office is really a work in progress. He has no furniture except a chair, no phone, and (horror), no air conditioning. He has the A/C control pad, but the office is a fairly recent partition of the building, so they forgot to include a vent in the ceiling, but the powers that be assure him it will be done soon. We celebrated our first week with a couple of dining forays, first to a burger place that offers burgers and drinks at two-for-one on Mondays, then to a neighborhood place called Casa Rosita which has absolutely no Mexican food, but we loved the Chinese food anyway (far above "not bad" so hooray). They put us in the front window table so the rest of the 'hood could see the Westerners eating there, and they played some Western pop music ("Barbie Girl" and various Michael Jackson tunes) so we would feel right at home. For those who wonder what one eats at a Chinese restaurant with a Mexican name, I had a Taiwanese fried pork chop and green beans fried with as much bacon product as possible. Joe had kung pao chicken and pork fried rice, although we skipped the pork parts, as they were somewhat wormlike in appearance. Just the same, we'll be back.

We had a tough Friday night because our internet was down when we got home. Joe did some fiddling and got it back, so he left to meet some friends, but was back shortly because he couldn't find a taxi. The internet had gone down again, so we watched some NCIS and went to bed. We have bought a few movie DVDs and decided to try a TV series. We got the entire set, all six seasons, for the low low price of 40 RMB, which comes out to about $7.75 US. Many of the titles are very recent (even some movies still in US theaters) and the quality is, you know, not bad.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Small World Syndrome Hits Shanghai

Last night, we went to hear the London Symphony Orchestra play in the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center. Joe had noticed the concert on a website before we moved, and we would never have this kind of opportunity in the States, so we were looking forward to the concert: Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Liszt Piano Concerto #1, and Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances. Amazing and chop-wrenching repertoire, and our seats were perfectly placed to see the keyboard and hear every note from the stage below, especially the power and precision of the brass section (lead trumpet is 22 years old). We really got our money's worth, as the pianist gave two encores (Chopin Etude in E flat and Satie Gymnopedie #1) and then the orchestra gave three (Dance of the Buffoons, a Chinese piece very popular with the audience, and... wait for it... Star Wars)! It was thrilling from the first note, and I was amazed to be hearing such a great orchestra and proud to be from the country that produced Bernstein.

Our friends the Giffords were there, because one of the violists from the orchestra is also the piano teacher to the Gifford children. We weren't sitting with them, but we talked to them before the concert and they asked us to come with them after the concert to meet the violist, so we agreed. By the interval (called the intermission by us common folk), we were looking for food and drink of any kind, but nothing was available, to my surprise. However, we discovered that meeting the violist involved getting on one of the orchestra buses and riding over to the hotel with the players post concert. In addition to the violist (Caroline), we met a violinist (Colin) and a cellist (Jenny), all of whom spoke to us as if it were perfectly natural to have strange Americans on the bus. We got to hear the story of the orchestra's flight over, when an oil light came on over Holland. Without the ability to check the dipstick right there, the flight was returned to London Heathrow, where the orchestra sat for the rest of the day. The funny part is that the concert tour is sponsored by Rolls Royce, and the engine that blew was, you guessed it, a Rolls engine. What sort of karma is that?

Upon arrival at the hotel (after I slobbered over both the principal clarinet and the principal bassoon), we went up to Caroline's room with Colin and found a great spread waiting for us, including lovely English cheddar, which is a great delight in this land of unbelievably sub-standard cheese. While we munched on cheese, grapes, chocolate, drinking either Chinese wine or Earl Grey tea (from the real country - Caroline believes in bringing her comfort food), we were joined by Nigel (violin), Jenny (cello) and Dick (viola). While chatting about this and that, Colin asked where we lived and when we told him about Flagstaff, he said he had been there to visit a violinmaker. Well, there's only one in Flag, so I mentioned Jeff's name, and all of a sudden, Colin didn't seem like a stranger at all. When we also mentioned our friend David (former LSO horn player), the room erupted with people who knew him, and somehow we were then among friends. The evening went until well after midnight, and Joe and I were pinching each other to be sure this was really happening. If you had told us a year ago that we would be partying with the LSO and talking about the next time we might get together, we'd never believe you, but this is China, where unbelievable things happen all the time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Getting Around

To properly enjoy the traffic in Shanghai, it helps if you are a die-hard roller coaster fan, which I am. Let's start with the taxis. They are very cheap, about $2.00 for a short ride, maybe $4.00 if you're really going somewhere (30 minutes or so). We have ridden with cabbies who got lost a couple of times, and the driver turned off the meter both times, which was very impressive to me. I was in a cab in Louisville and we got lost in Cherokee Park, an easy thing to do, but believe me, the ride was full fare even on the scenic route. While there are traffic laws in Shanghai, they are taken more as suggestions, so trips really feel like a giant game of chicken, and the cabbies are often the boldest drivers on the road, even against buses and delivery trucks. I like to sit behind the driver, because you really get the best view of what is coming, especially the creative lane changes and mergers. Horns honk in abundance here, so my genteel friends from the South should probably bring earplugs for their visits. I gasped a lot in the first couple of weeks, but now I tend to laugh more and give the cabbie encouragement where I can.

You can also use the buses, which we haven't tried, but many of our colleagues swear by them, or the subways, which we use with pleasure. Our neighborhood subway line (Line 10) is the newest in the rapidly expanding system, which means that it is the cleanest, best air-conditioned and most high-tech. While waiting for a train, which comes every five to six minutes on the weekdays and twelve minutes at most on a weekend, we are entertained by video feeds of Expo commercials, sports highlights (a surprising amount of volleyball lately), or news. We have tried some transfers to other lines, but still have a lot of work to do in that area, as the maps are obsolete almost as soon as they are printed. We found our English map underneath our sofa, and it's not bad.

Another transportation option is the scooter or bicycle (electric or otherwise). These vehicles have a special lane at the edge of all major roads, one way with that side of traffic. Most of the time they all go that direction, but this lane can be obstructed by someone who decides to ride opposite traffic, a four wheeled vehicle that decides to park (usually quite suddenly), or (God help 'em) a cabbie who is tired of sitting in traffic and uses the two-wheeled lane instead. Again, horns are honked with great enthusiasm, and absolutely every human-powered bike takes special pride in having the squeakiest brakes possible so that you know that you have offended the rider by walking too slowly in front of him. The really impressive bikes have giant loads of all sorts of material that dwarf the rider and make the vehicle slightly more dangerous than a car, mainly because the brakes probably aren't as good.

Now we come to the lowly pedestrian, farthest down on the transportation food chain. The sidewalks are beautiful, tree-lined and broad, but that only makes them more convenient for the bikes and scooters, who are trying to avoid the cars and cabs in their lane. We have seen one car driving on the sidewalk, but usually cars are just parked there. Nevertheless, the sidewalks are the best place to see your neighbors out relaxing, sitting on various blankets or other ground cover, entertaining the preschoolers and babies. If you are walking late enough at night, you will also see people sleeping beneath the huge trees, as it's pretty hot inside at this time of year.

Of course, you can't walk down these beautiful boulevards too far before you have to cross a road. One of our friends who lived in China says she is only afraid of two things here: using a public toilet, and crossing the road. The intersections are governed somewhat by traffic lights, but again, these are merely suggestions and don't always apply depending on the type of traffic that is approaching. Government or police cars are completely immune to traffic laws and lights, and the hapless pedestrian has to watch out for right hand turns, because those are lawful regardless of the light color. Seriously, they don't even slow down, and don't forget, you have two lanes of turners, the cars and the bikes/scooters. The new arrival book suggests that you just cross when you think you can, and don't take too much time. I start just off the curb, move quickly through whatever two-wheeled traffic is coming (figuring that my large bulk will scare them off a bit), then stand at the slight curb to watch the four-wheeled traffic. If the road looks clear, I book it across, regardless of the color of the light or the pedestrian signal, although I do look behind for potential left turners from the intersecting road, because they can take you out and you never see them. I'm pretty sure a lot of the locals are laughing quietly at me, but I'm getting good at this. If you are good at the video game "Frogger," you're probably ready to cross a Chinese street.

Our neighborhood is fairly well off, and we see a startling (for us) number of very expensive cars; Audi, BMW, Mercedes, a Bentley, and even a lovely Rolls on frequent occasions. They tend to be black, perhaps because the earliest cars on the road were government cars and they were black. In all this controlled chaos, we have seen only one accident so far. A delivery truck had rear-ended a cab (most of the good cabs are VW sedans - not Beetles) on Hongqiao Road and the two drivers were out discussing the matter while the rest of traffic darted around them, honking angrily. Although the accident occurred right in front of a police station, the police were not involved, and after a lively discussion, the cab driver picked up his back bumper, somehow stuck it back onto the rear of the cab, and they both drove off.

Moral of the Chinese transportation story: Mao helps those who help themselves.