Archive | August, 2011

China Curiosities

31 Aug

I’m back in London now, battling the jetlag beast, but there are a few more China topics I wanted to tackle, so I thought I’d lump them into another post.

First off, in Hangzhou we encountered a street cleaner that blasted the Happy Birthday song like an ice cream truck the entire time it cleaned. I don’t have much else to say about that, except that it made me laugh entirely way too hard and our Chinese companions probably thought I was loopy.

Topic #2: Our favorite hotel in Shanghai charges the equivalent of $8 for a glass of orange juice. It may cost more than their pancakes. As far as I know it’s not hand-squeezed by baby pandas or anything (oh, to witness that!), so I have no idea why it’s so expensive. Stephen even asked the front desk guy about it last time we were there. “Yeah, even I think that’s crazy,” he replied.

Normally when I’m in China I just drink bottled water, which is also ridiculously expensive if you don’t specify the brand and they bring you Voss. I always have to make a point of ordering it cold. The more I travel the world, the more something becomes clear — Americans are the only ones who like to drink really cold water. When you order a water at a restaurant in the US it usually comes with more ice than water. But in Europe or China you have to specifically order it with ice or cold, and even then it’s never that refreshingly cold. Most people in China only drink tea with meals, but if they do drink water they drink hot or lukewarm water. This boggles my American mind. It’s 40/100 degrees outside, why are you drinking hot water?! We were discussing this with one of Stephen’s friends in China who frequently visits the US. Her complaint? “No hot water to drink there!” Ha!

We went to a ramen restaurant in Shanghai and I told Stephen to order me water. After going back and forth with the waitress he told me they didn’t have any. They weren’t out of it, they just didn’t sell water. My sensitive only-likes-water-with-meals stomach couldn’t believe it, and so we were stuck with this artificial sickly-sugary mango juice. Back at the hotel I chugged an entire complimentary bottle of water. The hotel lobby bar also rips you off when you order water. I’m always tempted to ask for “one of those free bottles you leave in the room. And some ice.”

While we were waiting to board the plane to Shanghai in Munich, these people showed up at the gate:

We’re still unsure if they got married at the airport or on the plane (and why?!), but they did board the plane dressed like that. This prompted two questions — 1. How did she sit in that dress for 10 hours, and did the person sitting next to her hate her? and 2. (of course) — How did she use the toilet cubicle while wearing that dress?!

Speaking of toilet cubicles, we had the privilege of flying business class to and from China, thanks to Stephen’s high frequent flier status. Time after time I watched passengers from coach sneak into business class to use the toilets (which reminds me of a scene from “Bridesmaids.”) This Chinese boy crossed the class curtain to use the lavatory. I’m guessing he was around 12 years old. What puzzled me was that he had absolutely no idea how to open the door. I watched as he repeated pressed the green “vacant” sign to no avail, then started tapping random fixtures on the outside of the door. There was a giant “Push” sign on the middle of the door, but this poor kid is probably still learning “My name is ___, how are you?” in his English class. I shouldn’t have laughed at this kid’s misfortune, but it was so weird to see someone not be able to use an airplane bathroom — all airplanes, no matter what airline or country, have the same basic toilet cubicle doors. Perhaps this kid’s first flight ever was from Shanghai to Munich and I shouldn’t make fun of him. Who knows. Eventually the Chinese-speaking flight attendant found him and ushered him back to the coach toilets.

So that’s the last of my China posts (I think…) One of these days I will get around to writing about our Austria-Italy holiday.

China Impressions: The Karaoke Phenomenon

28 Aug

A karaoke room at the posh Shanghai joint

To say karaoke is big in China is to say chopsticks are big in China. Turn nearly any corner in any city and you’ll see a glaring neon “KTV” sign. But karaoke in China is very different than the American “I’m drunk and am gonna sing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ with my buddies on stage” – it’s a very private affair. You get your own room, equipped with a TV, plush furniture and a high-tech song-selecting system. The place we went to in Chongqing last week even had a tambourine and maracas, and at a posh establishment in Shanghai we had our own butler who refilled our wine and fruit plates and mouthed the words to Lady Gaga when he thought no one was looking.

Last weekend we had lunch with some of Stephen’s old classmates in his hometown of Chongqing. They suggested we go to karaoke afterwards. Karaoke has always been a nighttime two-drink-minimum activity for me, but once we arrived it was clear why we were there in the middle of the afternoon – they were both excellent singers who needed no liquid courage.

Time Out Shanghai wrote that the karaoke singers who get the most attention are the best and the worst – the mediocre singers get the shaft. Unfortunately, I’m one of the latter. It takes me awhile to get the courage to sing. Stephen’s friend had no problem – the minute we arrived in the room, she picked out a song and grabbed the microphone. Then she picked Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl” and thrust the microphone at me. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that, so I politely declined. She then proceeded to do the best Britney impression I’ve ever heard from a Chinese girl.

The problem I have with karaoke is that I’m afraid I won’t be able to hit the notes. Singing is one of those things you need to give 100%. It reminds me of the run-walk we do while crossing the street when the light is about to change. You can’t walk because you’re running out of time, but you don’t want to look stupid doing a full-speed run. So you do a half run, half walk jog and end up looking more stupid than if you just ran. That’s what I end up doing while karaoking – run-walking. I’m afraid to “run” and really belt the song out for fear of sounding out of tune, but I end up sounding out of tune by not stretching for the notes.

Stephen’s friend continued to pick out songs and belt them out like a pro. You could tell she did this a lot. Which brings me to my next topic – karaoke etiquette. What are you supposed to do while a person is singing? Do you give your undivided attention, like you’re at their concert, or do you talk, play with your phone, and eat fruit like the singer isn’t even there? The former seems too formal and puts too much pressure on the singer, but the latter is also awkward, like you’re hanging out with your friends at a coffee shop and one of them just happens to be singing in the corner.

Eventually, after much insisting from Stephen’s friends, I decided to sing a Chinese song. I properly butchered it, not just run-walking with my singing, but my Chinese pronunciation as well. (Wow, the British use of “proper”… yikes!) I then had to redeem myself with “Eternal Flame,” my karaoke standby, which I’ve been singing since I was a baby. The problem with karaoke is that once you start, it’s hard to stop. Once Stephen’s friend got me going, she queued up a bunch of English songs and we sang duets to Maria Carie, Rhianna and Beyonce. I was impressed with her English singing, as well as her knowledge of current music – it seems that bit about the Chinese being 5 to 10 years behind in American music is no longer true. She carried most of the songs, as it’s hard to run-walk your way through “Halo.” Eventually it was time to leave and we practically had to pry the microphone from Stephen’s friend’s hand. I’m sure she’ll be back for more next weekend, but I think I’m OK making karaoke a once or twice a year thing (that is, until I practice and learn to “run.”)

Growing Chongqing, heslthy Chongqing (Where is Chongqing?…)

24 Aug

Well, that was a longer hiatus than expected. I’m currently in Shanghai where the hotel has blessed me with uncensored Internet. We were in Chongqing for the past few days visiting Stephen’s family. The hotel Internet there would not allow me to Access Facebook, WordPress or Tumblr — I couldn’t even download Gmail attachments! It was particularly frustrating because social media is the best way to vent about such first world problems as not being able to complain about your lack of social media on social media.

The day we left for China we had breakfast with Stephen’s coworker and his wife. We informed them that we were going to visit Stephen’s family in Chongqing.

“Is that near one of the big cities in China?” the coworker’s wife asked.

“It is the biggest city in China,” Stephen replied. Chongqing has more than 30 million people, but most Westerners — including myself before I met Stephen — have never heard of it. I guess that’s because it doesn’t have China’s tallest building or The Forbidden City. That, and it’s hard for white people to pronounce. (“Chong ching”)

We were in Shanghai before we left for Hangzhou and Chongqing.
“You will not recognize Chongqing now,” said Stephen’s friend Stock Exchange Guy (we give all his Chinese friends and business associates nicknames because I can never remember their Chinese names.) “Much growth.”

While the area we stayed in near Stephen’s uncle’s place looked relatively the same as when we were there in 2009 (save for a fake Apple store on every corner), I couldn’t get over the amount of growth we witnessed on the drive from the airport. I have never seen so many tall building cranes in my life. Clusters of new buildings were going up on every corner. Banners featuring pictures of happy Chinese families and Chongqing’s new slogans graced every turn: “Safe Chongqing,” “Eco-friendly Chongqing,” “Traffic-easy Chongqing,” and my favorite, “Heslthy Chongqing” (typo included). Stock Exchange Guy was right — Chongqing is growing at an insane rate. Perhaps in five years white people will know it exists.

If I had to give Chongqing a slogan, it would be something along the lines of “Glorious newness arises amongst the old” — I bet it sounds better in Chinese. By “old,” I mean utter crapholes — I use “craphole” in the nicest way possible, but it’s the only way to describe some parts of China. There are these decrepit buildings that no American would ever step foot in — yet alone live there as many people do. A lot of these crapholes inexpicitly sell very fancy tile, which I’m sure people buy for their very fancy high-rises. It seems so pecular, buying furnishings for your expensive place from this craphole. And of course, around the corner from the craphole area there is a shiny new Gucci store and a multi-story mall. Maybe that would make a good slogan for China in general — “Around the corner from the craphole is a shiny new Gucci store.” That probably also sounds better in Chinese.

Anyway, we were there to visit Stephen’s family, which is always an interesting experience. They speak absolutely no English, and I speak no Sichuanese. But we still manage to talk to each other, either through Stephen’s translation, pointing, or laughing. It sounds cheezy, but laughter really is the universal language. Stephen’s family laughs a lot, and I often laugh with them — not because I understood the joke, but because Sichuanese just sounds so funny to me. Mandarin Chinese I’m used to and can even occasionally get the jist of the conversation, but the Sichuan dialect sounds like Jabba the Hut’s language to me. So when Stephen’s little cousin says something and everyone laughs, I laugh too, imagining she’s talking to Jabba the Hut.

I really do need to learn Chinese though. I get that urge every time I’m here. One night we were hanging out at Stephen’s aunt and uncle’s place and Stephen’s younger cousins decided to make me a dessert (I could make a whole China Impressions post about Chinese desserts). It was chunks of gelatin in a sugary molasses-like syrup.
“Hao bu hao?” Stephen’s aunt asked me. I knew what this meant. “Is it good?” I even knew the appropriate response — I saw the Rosetta Stone picture of the woman smiling while eating rice — “hen hao chi.” But for some inexpicable reason I didn’t say it, I just smiled and took another bite. I don’t just need to learn more Chinese, I need to get over my fear of speaking it.

I’ve got some other China Impressions posts in the works — this was supposed to be a short post to let you know I’m still here. I’ll leave you with this image to let you know just how “comfortable” it was in Chongqing this past weekend.


5 Aug

Tomorrow we leave for vacation — I’m sorry, “holiday.” Sometimes I try to use British terminology (I’m so close to understanding Celsius, too!), but something about “holiday” makes me think of the Madonna song. In fact, just typing it has Madonna singing in my head now.

We’re going to Vienna, Milan and Venice for a week. Quite the random itinerary, I know, but they were all “tick the box” places for us. So to Austria and Italy, it is.

I’m trying to get myself pumped up for the trip, but I always get bogged down by the details. I miss the days of my dad planning the vacations and all I had to do was show up and not throw up on the airplane because I forgot to take Dramamine. Now I somehow got sucked into doing all the trip planning, from booking the flights, trains and hotels to figuring out how to get to the hotel from the airport (which is complicated in cities like Venice where there are no cars). I also am trying to strike a balance between seeing and doing things and taking time to relax. Going from museum to palace to church to restaurant is the kind of vacation you need a vacation from, and we don’t have time for that — we get back to London from Venice on midnight Friday (which is really Saturday), then fly out to China on Sunday to spend some time with Stephen’s family. I guess I’ll have a 12-hour plane ride to recuperate and switch from “danke” and “grazie” to 你有一个下拉厕所坐吗? (“Do you have a sit down toilet?”)

So expect my posts to be few and far between over the next few weeks (not that I’ve been posting more than once a week lately anyway, sorry about that!) Hopefully my European holiday and Meet the Non-English Speaking Family Part II will provide for some good blogging material in the near future.

“Holiday… Celebration, Come together in every nation….” —Darn you, Madonna! Get out of my head!

Why London summers aren’t so hot

4 Aug

Let me begin by saying London summers are great. For the most part, the weather is phenomenal — 60s and lower 70s, in July and August. Unbelievable. There was one day in the 90s and a few in the 80s, but it doesn’t compare to the muggy midwest summers I’m used to. But as I’ve complained about before, the downside to London’s consistently cool summers, is that when there is a heat wave, it’s absolutely miserable because the city isn’t prepared for it. For example, the Tube. The trains and stations are not air conditioned. So when it’s 80 degrees outside, it feels like 100 on the train as you’re crammed up against other passengers in some kind of sick smelly sauna, because a lot of those other passengers have not discovered the wonders of aerosol deodorant. I don’t know how daily commuters handle it. Had I been wearing slightly better walking shoes yesterday, I would have walked the three miles home just to avoid the heat train. I’ve heard they are working on upgrading the trains with air-con in preparation for the Olympics, but I’ll believe it when i see it (or feel it, rather).

Lately I’ve realized there’s another downside to London summers. This one’s personal. You see, our flat is really quiet. Except for the occasional toilet flush that sounds like the Smoke Monster from “Lost” is near (not to be confused with the bird outside who makes the sound that the Smoke Monster is approaching), I wouldn’t know we had neighbors. But I soon realized my upstairs neighbors here have been so quite because they have not been home. Until this summer. You know how Florida gets “snow birds” — elderly folk from places like Ohio or upstate New York who have winter homes in Florida to escape the cold? Well London has an abundance of people from the Middle East who come to the city to escape the heat during the summer. We discovered this last year when we tried to find a flat in the summer and they were all tied up in short lets. It appears my upstairs neighbors are the equivalent of snow birds (what might that be? Heat birds?) I can understand the need to get away from cook-cookies-on-your-dashboard heat, but it seems this particular family loves their stuffy London flat so much that they feel no need to leave and frolick in the park. All day, everyday I hear children running, screaming and singing. When they go on the balcony, it’s almost like they’re in our flat it’s so loud. These children must love London so much that they can’t bear to waste time sleeping, because they are up making noise until 1 a.m. some nights. I guess it still beats my Chicago neighbor who had bumping dance parties in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, as well as at 3 a.m., but it’s a part of summer I could do without.