Thursday, December 22, 2011

Eyes Wide Open

If I weren’t studying Chinese, I would never have come to China. Period. I’ve never loved traveling as much as some of my peers do. Perhaps my easy-going nature has allowed me to feel content in a predictable and familiar environment. But I can’t imagine not having studied in China for a semester. In just 118 days, not even a third of a year, I have learned so much, about Chinese culture, business, language, and myself.

I’d like to say that living in China has completely changed my life, that I had life-changing moments of self-discovery, that I’m a whole new man. But I can’t and I won’t. In many ways, I’m the same person who arrived in Shanghai four months ago. There are definitely a few indicators of my time spent here in China: stronger Mandarin skills, tendency to choose tea over coffee, greater liking for Asian haircuts, much-improved wardrobe largely owing to my beloved fabric market, etc.  However, when I look past what the eye can see, I realize I can find something more meaningful.
All my life, I’ve been stuck in an America-centric perspective. After living out of the country for a semester, there’s no way I can continue to think of the world in such a narrow-minded way. I care more about what’s happening around the world because I’ve lived on the opposite side of it. I want to know what China is up to and what policies they’re implementing because I feel invested in their future and have opinions on what direction the country should go in.
 In digging deep, I realize that gaining a greater understanding of China has led me to a greater appreciation of my own country, the United States. The American system isn’t perfect, but I am very grateful for the many comforts and liberties that our Chinese counterparts do not enjoy. China has a very long way to go if it wants to be a creditable first-world country. Their income disparity is disgustingly large, government corruption is widespread, policy-makers focus on short-term goals like raising GDP at the expense of long term problems like environmental damage, intellectual property rights are scarcely protected, the education system overemphasizes rote memorization and test taking and underemphasizes critical thinking and individual thought, the list goes on.                                              
 At the same time, I truly believe that communism is the best system of government for China right now. And in that regard, I’ve come a long way. American education has taught us, in layman’s terms, democracy good, communism bad, but no other system of government could have pushed China through such rapid economic change. You simply can’t bring an agrarian nation through the Industrial Revolution if you have to constantly battle with political disputes and partisan disagreement.
 I love the USA. Being away from my homeland has made me realize all the strong American values that I have. I feel proud and fortunate to be born in the greatest country in the world. It’s not just our toasted everything bagels with lox and cream cheese, nor our freedom of speech, nor the waiters who actually want to know how your meal is. It’s the common sense of pride in being American, in knowing what our great nation has done and is capable of doing and all the rights that it protects and guarantees its citizens. In a land of 1.3 billion people with a government that is largely out for its own best interest, the Chinese people don’t enjoy this same sense of nationalistic pride.
As happy as I am to be home, I will miss certain aspects of living in China. My new friends, my roommate, my teachers, speaking Mandarin with locals, street food, bargaining, nightlife, traveling. I’ll miss hardly having to spend any money to live like a rock star, being able to talk about people in English right in front of them, and being stared at because I look different. And I’m going to miss that feeling I got every once in a while where I just stop and say to myself ‘Oh my god, I’m in China’.
I don’t know what my future looks like, but China may very well be a part of it. I’m scared to commit myself to doing business in China, yet I am enthralled by its endless opportunities and its imminent rise to the world’s number one economic power. For now, I’ll just keep at it with the Mandarin and let life take me where it wants to take me.
Living in China wasn’t easy and definitely took a good getting used to. Even in Shanghai, an international city, I really did feel very far from my comfort zone. At times I missed home, I missed school, I missed my friends, but, in the end, my experience was nothing less than incredible. I accomplished so much in a mere four months. I really feel that I didn’t take my time in China for granted. I knew it would go by fast, and I often felt the urge to learn something new every day, or go somewhere different. It was an exhausting semester. Like any semester of college, I often felt stressed, and I didn’t sleep nearly enough. But that’s life. And it's always better to keep your eyes wide open.

Thank you to my friends for making it the incredible semester that it was.
And thanks for reading.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shanghai: Still a Stranger

With so many days in the semester spent traveling and studying, I still feel like I don’t even know Shanghai that well, and the reality that Shanghai is simply too big to cover in just four months has kicked in. Yesterday, I walked along Nanjing West Road, Shanghai’s main shopping street and one of the biggest shopping areas in the world. I hadn’t been there since my first week here. I felt like a tourist all over again. I was taking pictures and marveling at all the stores and people filling the street.  It was like I had forgotten how amazing the city I’ve been living in is.

 I followed my way down the road to the Bund, the waterfront area that offers the most famous view in Shanghai: Pudong’s skyline. Just in standing at the edge of the Bund for a moment, I knew there was something about Shanghai that’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Perhaps being in Shanghai affords me the luxury to make a cliché comment but having studied business in China for a semester, I can’t look at that Pudong skyline and not see a symbol for China’s economic growth and transformation into a first-world superpower. I can’t help but feel that I’m a part of the future here, that I’m part of something very special. 
Nanjing West Road, Shanghai's biggest shopping street.  

View of Pudong from the Bund. Pudong is Shanghai’s financial and commercial center and is home to some of the most well-known landmarks in Shanghai, including the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center.
This past Saturday, with my time in China running out, I was looking for nothing other than an authentic Shanghai experience. So I did what any worldly traveler would do: go to an American style steakhouse and participate in their burger challenge. 
Location: Yasmine's Steakhouse in Pudong.
What: 2 kg burger loaded with three fried eggs, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers on a sesame bun; fries.
Time Limit: 2 hours.
Reward if plate is finished: get my 138¥ back and my name on their Wall of Fame.
End result: At the 95th minute, with just the bottom bun left, I gave up. Let's just say I didn't have that big fat smile on my face anymo
I’ve never felt unsafe in Shanghai, but it’s never been because of the presence of our campus security guards. In fact, every weekend night that I return home late, I don’t even need to search around for my student ID to enter my dorm building. I can simply pull open the unlocked door, snicker at the security guard passed out on the lobby couch, and casually make my way to my room.
Aww, isn't he cute?

With a speech contest, two research papers, two presentations, a case study, and never-ending Chinese homework and tests, I’ve been busy and stressed out these past few weeks, but I’ve really gotten a lot out of my work. Just to be able to talk intelligently about China from a social, political, or economic standpoint after just a semester of study feels to me like a real accomplishment.

My longest paper was about China’s music production and distribution industry. I’ll just leave you with some funny bits I came across in my research:

Music piracy in China has been extremely prevalent ever since the music industry first emerged. Right from the get-go, consumers were illegally downloading single-track MP3 files on the Internet with little perception of the song’s musical genre or the artist’s style. Whereas in the United States fans’ identities tend to reflect a musical genre to which they are loyal, Chinese fans, on the other hand, do not have this same concept of music classification. No two elements of Chinese young people's identities seem to be consistent. One author described walking into a Shanghai bar and encountering a young Chinese woman who, with her messy hair, black eye shadow, and torn clothes, looked like the stereotypical punk rock fan. When the man asked her to name her favorite band, she passionately exclaimed "Backstreet Boys".

The Chinese government, in its effort to closely monitor public entertainment, requires that foreign bands submit their lyrics to the state before participating in a music festival in China. Some California punk band once sent in Billy Joel lyrics.

The 2004 season finale of SuperGirl, a reality television singing competition, was watched by about 400 million people. So many mobile votes were sent in to the show that the government freaked out and prevented the show from ever happening in the same format. Apparently, the one-party state system couldn’t handle the idea of a democratically decided pop show.

This picture was taken at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. Most of the great modern scientific discoveries were made by Westerners, but whoever wrote up all these signs seemed to always want to throw in minor accomplishments of the Chinese to assure visitors that China played its part too. I really wonder if most Chinese people read this and are like "1%... nice".

Even before I came to China, I had read about Shanghai’s ‘marriage market’, an outdoor gathering of Shanghai residents all hoping to find their soul mates, or, quite often, soul mates for their children. It wasn’t until this past Sunday that I finally got to experience the frenzy of Chinese matchmaking firsthand. Walls of flyer after flyer telling about candidates' credentials confined the area, where hundreds of people excitedly discussed their romantic prospects. It was truly a sight to see.

In a society where people can't just go to a bar to meet people, this is what happens.

This one's fantastic. The only information that the man chooses to share is his age, height, salary, and phone number. When you're 63 years old in a mature market, I guess it's really all about efficiency. 

Let me just go ahead and say it: I ate dog the other day. Yes, I have two dogs at home that I love very much, but, I mean, I also like chickens, pigs, and cows. I don’t really see the big deal. I’m not a monster. I’m not going to go home and eat my dogs. I just wanted to try it and put an end to my curiosity. Dog meat, upon review, has a nice texture; it reminded me of pulled pork but a little chewier perhaps, and the meat was nicely complemented with stir-fried vegetables and chili peppers. I was really enjoying the dish until I started hearing noises in my head of my dogs whimpering. That kind of ruined the whole experience for me.

Kehoe, my dining mate, enjoying some dog.
While I know I may never be as familiar with Shanghai as I'd like to be, I've still accomplished almost everything I set out to do this semester. In these last few days, I can feel relaxed, add some new activities to my list, and make the most of my time left. Here's what I plan to do:

- ace my Chinese final on Friday
- go to the top of the Jin Mao Tower, the second tallest building in Pudong
- go to a chocolate amusement park that's opening in Shanghai on Friday
- shop for gifts for family and friends
- go on a boat cruise on the Huangpu River (the one in between the Bund and Pudong)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Much?

“Hey, check out this painting I bought in Beijing”
“How much was it?”
“No, just look at it, isn’t it great?”
“How much?”
“Huh, oh, uh, I don’t know, like 200 yuan, why?”
“Oh my god, so expensive!”

This is what I imagine my conversation with my roommate might have been like had I had the nerve to show him the beautiful Chinese painting I bought at the antique market in Beijing. He, like so many other Chinese people, would almost entirely decide the painting’s value based on how much money left my wallet.

This trait of the Chinese bothers me a little. Prices are so low here that I feel I’m being cheap if I try to fight over every last penny. When my roommate or co-workers let me know that I could have gotten a better deal on something, it makes me regretful and takes away from the great qualities of the product that led me to make my purchase in the first place. It’s not their money. I don’t understand why they care so much!

Well, actually, I do. China is full of piànzi [swindlers] and as a foreigner, I’m undoubtedly a prime target. Thus, my roommate and co-workers, in some sense, are looking out for me, making sure that I am not being cheated by some no good swindler. In the end, though, it’s hard for me to view their concern for my expenditures as a concern for my well-being.  I’m just so not used to being asked “How much?” all the time. I’m still used to American culture, where scruitinizing another’s spending behavior can be considered rude and uninvited .

That the Chinese basically only use cash in their purchase transactions, in my mind, makes a difference as well. Whereas many Americans use their credit cards everywhere they go, the Chinese are much more conscious of everything they spend, since all their money tangibly comes and goes from their wallets. Accordingly, they are more deal-seeking in nature and do not spend as freely (their weaker purchasing power is a contributing factor as well).

I’m definitely concerned about going back to the U.S. where prices are so much higher and nothing is negotiable. To some extent, I have adopted the Chinese consumer mindset. For instance, the other day, I refused to buy two bananas for $0.80 because I knew I could get them for half the price on another street corner. I also get really excited to tell my Chinese friends when I get a good deal on something, so that I can prove to them that I don’t get ripped off all the time. In fact, the other day I was eager to tell my co-worker that Kehoe and I had gotten great haircuts the day before for RMB 10 each ($1.60) because I knew she’d approve.

Pointing to my head, I said to her, “What do you think of our haircuts?”. I was expecting to hear some positive feedback about how the barber did a nice job or how we both looked good. But I guess I should have known better. 

She responded, “How much?

Last Thursday, I went with a big group of friends to an American restaurant to celebrate Thanksgiving. We booked a private area on the third floor with a large buffet and open bar. I was extremely looking forward to our attempt to replicate Turkey Day. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Food is definitely a big reason but I truly consider it the perfect holiday: there are no religious services to attend, no pressure to give and receive gifts, and no sacrifices to be made. Thanksgiving is simply an excuse to be with one’s family, eat well, and be thankful for one’s good fortune.                                   

However, on that Thursday night, I felt as far away from the U.S. as ever. I did have a good time, but I was definitely given a clear reminder of my distance from home. The food was incredible, but all the good food in the world couldn’t replace the absence of my family and the comfort of spending my favorite holiday in a familiar place. But their pumpkin soup was downright phenomenal.

This past weekend, we went on a group trip. Our first stop was Zhouzhuang (周庄), considered the most famous water town in China. I'll admit, it was very beautiful.
This one, also in Zhouzhuang, is one of my favorite pictures I've taken this semester.

Because of Zhouzhuang's popularity, it has quickly transformed from a small, remote area into a commercial, tourism-driven town. While the somewhat large crowds took away from the scenic beauty, there are definitely some perks to commercialism. For instance, for 10 yuan, I got to dress up as a Red Army soldier and hang out with Mao.
With a mere 16 days left until I fly back home to the U.S., I can’t help but to start to get excited for my return.  I’ve already allowed myself to start getting sick of Chinese food. This past weekend, I lost my cool, and splurged on American fast food, consuming a beef wrap, spicy chicken sandwich, chicken nuggets, and french fries from McDonalds and a 6-inch sandwich from Subway. That same evening, I used a toilet.   
There’s one particular food that I’ve been craving terribly because I just can’t seem to find it in China. I’ve already arranged with my mom that she will be holding it in her hands when I arrive at the airport on the 18th of December. An everything bagel with cream cheese and lox. This is the longest span in my life that I have gone without satisfying a food craving. Words cannot describe how I plan to savor every last crumb.
Speaking of lox, Jews happen to be highly regarded by many Chinese people. My marketing professor told our class how the Chinese greatly admire the Jewish people’s strong work ethic and commitment to their children’s eduation, and that many of them strive to mirror Jews in this regard. In my desire to not be a religious person, I’ve definitely lost a certain degree of kinship with other Jews. Ironically, it was my Chinese professor who renewed my sense of pride in being Jewish.

On Sunday, we went to the Nanshan Bamboo Forest in a town called Liyang (溧阳).  Nevermind the natural beauty of the forest, for me, the best part was the Chinglish on all the signs. Enjoy.