Saturday, January 31, 2009

Men, Purses and Tea

At first glance, it seems strange to see men carrying purses (not masculine-leather-man-bags but strappy-pink-suede-glittery-tassled-large-and-female-bags). After a few moments, a woman will inevitably exit a clothing shop, saunter over to the man and toss a few shopping bags in his direction. On occasion, one will see her return his credit card but it normally remains comfortably in the back pocket of her slim jeans. If her shoe lace comes undone after having had run up and down the aisles of the clothing shop, she will toss him a curt phrase and he will kneel on command. And yes, she will often place her foot on the thigh of his clean trousers to facilitate his tying her shoelace.

Less-urban-wealthy-imposing women lumber past, their arms filled with children-shopping-laundry-a-purse-and-a-briefcase. They will glance over their shoulder longingly as their husband calmly walks a few paces behind them, concerned only with opening a box of cigarettes while shouting into his cell-phone. And yes, he spits his gum onto the sidewalk along with the plastic wrap from the cigarette pack.

Please note that the joke in town is that a man who was born in Shanghai will carry his wife's purse, whereas a man who was born outside of Shanghai will have his wife-girlfriend-concubine-carry everything but his over inflated ego. Of course, this is a gross generalization. The man does not always accept her reign and a power struggle can ensue, transcending to entertainment as we saw on Saturday night.

We joined our friends Josie and Gregor for dinner on Saturday and afterwards, we ambled along the cobble stone streets of Xintiandi in search of a bar with live music, stiff drinks and no prostitutes. We found a great anonymous bar squeezed in between a Starbucks and a corner alley. Our timing was perfect and we had a table right in front of the band which hailed from the streets of New York City. The gender of the singer will be debated endlessly but nevertheless, her/his voice was tremendous and she/he could certainly twist her/his hips in a very inviting fashion, the shirt’s tassels shaking wildly in tune with his/her hair extensions.

A not-very-discreet argument broke out at the table to my left. Two couples had entered (the men carrying the purses for their partners) and sat down at the table directly in front of the band. The wives had ordered tea with milk for their obviously inebriated husbands but one of the men loudly protested this choice, disrupting the band. He stood and waved towards the waiter, shouting for some beer across the room. He laughed at his wife, who was tugging his coat sleeve in an effort to pull him back into his seat, and shrugged off the coat and his tie as he started to perform the drunk-man-who-also-has-no-rhythm-when-sober dance. Since everyone’s attention was on the ensuing power struggle between man and woman, the band was struggling to captivate the audience. The man helped resolve the issue by trying to climb onto the stage, pull the microphone away from the singer and wrap his arms around the singer’s waist.

Now, wouldn’t it be funny if the singer really was a man?

Later that evening we walked home from the bar and, although Andy offered t carry it for me, I preferred to carry it myself.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Bad news travels fast. I am sure one could find a few women in China who would also enjoy membership to the newest shallow-superficial-demanding-self-centered-never-worked-a-day-in-her-life-NYC (um, came over the bridge?)-girl-group.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

My Alley and Chinese New Year

The alley behind our building is a glimpse into daily life in Shanghai, a place where old and new world collide. There are no cars but thousands of pedestrians and bicycles filter through this narrow passageway each day. The streets are filthy, scraps of paper, plastic bottles and lettuce heads are scattered.

I watch as the lady selling fish throws a bucket of water into the street, choking the antiquated sewage system with the scales and guts of the fish she just sold. The heads are not disposed of but rather sold to those who appreciate its delicate meat. A woman approaches the man selling roosters and, interrupting a woman who was speaking to the man, pushes her aside and points to the roster she wants. The man grabs a rooster, plunges it into a cauldron of boiling water, pulls it out, slices the neck, and scrapes off its feathers into another drum. The wind sweeps away a handful of feathers and they scatter in the road, collecting and swirling as roaming alley cats swipe in the hopes of catching something worthwhile. The butcher, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, wipes his brow with his hand and continues to hack away at the meat. He does not wear gloves and I note that he forgot to squirt some disinfecting Purell on his palm (note the sarcasm). The meat is laid out and the stall has no false ceilings, allowing dust and dirt particles to settle on the meat. A woman walks up to the stall, picks up a slab of meat, inspects it, bring it to her husband across the road, he then handles-pulls-and-inspects the meat, rejects it, and she tosses it back on the butcher’s wooden board.

He claims to sell beef but I doubt this is true since my friend photographed the slaughter and skinning of a dog on this very corner.

Dangling above the vendors are dozens of dried fish and chickens. The chickens have been pressed flat before being salted and dried, and they have taken on comic features, resembling the rooster from the Road Runner cartoons. The former range from 1-6 feet in length and are hooked onto the window sills with bits of string. The heads are dried and hung separately, and their eyes seem to peer at the baskets of swirling water snakes and snails found below. The baskets share the road with burlap bags of frogs whose bounce diminishes with the passing of the day.

The garbage collector peddles by, collecting and weighing items as he passes. He draws his cart behind him, filled high with stacks of paper and even a small refrigerator. Children run behind him, tossing pebbles and shouting recriminations. His muscles bulge under the strain and he looks straight ahead, a glimpse of sadness reflected on his face that has been aged by the sun.

There was no activity in the alley the day of Chinese Lunar New Years Eve.

Days before the New Year, however, every family was busy giving his home a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away any bad fortune to make way for good fortune. People often paint their doors red and decorate them with paper-cuts and couplets, symbolizing themes such as happiness, wealth and satisfactory marriage with more children and better s-x. People are even encouraging to wear red clothing and as a result, there are dozens of overstretched red underwear hanging from the makeshift clothing lines along the road. But the silence found on the roads today was a bit disconcerting.

That evening I waked home after enjoying a dinner party at my friend Clancey’s home. The 4 inch heels - which had seeming so fetching earlier that evening -were, after a 75 minute walk, about to be donated to the nearest garbage bin on the road. I limped along on roads that were normally rife with horns honking, thousands of cars racing, vendors shouting, and the daily cackles of life vibrating. I normally have to look-both-ways-run-and-pray before crossing the road whereas tonight I stood in the middle of the road watching. It seemed like a war zone since the streets were virtually abandoned except for two groups of people a) those setting off firecrackers and b) those or running away from the pyromaniacs-in-training. The police laughed as the 6-packs of roman candles that were stacked in the middle of the road were lit by the flick of a cigarette of someone passing, unknowingly causing an explosion and a cacophony of car alarms. The few cars and scooters that had taken to the streets swerved to avoid the sparks and explosions.

The dust began to settle in my throat. I watched as children searched piles of firecracker shells in the hopes of finding one that had not been detonated, their parents too consumed by the communal sense of celebration to take notice. Perhaps the government could limit to the explosion of ungodly quantities of techni-color gunpowder but only allocating ONE FIRECRACKER per family?

I made it home and climbed onto our terrace where I could see the fireworks stretching towards the Bund. I started to film but suddenly - yelp - had to return inside to avoid the firecracker fragments that were falling onto my feet. Yes, on the 21st floor. I pressed my nose to the glass and watched as the firecrackers competed with the millions of lights emanating from the created-by-a-comic-illustrator-from-the-1950s skyscrapers and the 50 story high futuristic electronic billboards.

After having had lived in Johannesburg, I associated bangs and booms with gunfire and its respective criminal. As such, sleeping was impossible and I tried to read in bed. This also proved impossible. I tried to watch some television but even at a maximum volume with the television actually vibrating, I could not hear the dialogue. I was left with no option and trudged to the sink to fill my balloons with water.

The city began to awake the following day and with each day, the activity on the streets increased. On the last day of the lunar spring festival one assumed the dragon has already been scared away. It seemed that the celebratory agenda still has milestones that needed to be reached and the explosions continued. I was startled by the simultaneous explosion of thousands of firecrackers while making dinner and the stir fry catapulted onto the ceiling, crawling down the walls like millions of spiders onto the floor. At the same time, my husband’s passionate and indignant shouts (directed towards Federer who was losing the tennis match) alternated with the staccato sounds of the last few fireworks. 

There are a number of traditions associated with this evening and I was amazed at their ability to multi-task; while guessing the riddles found in the lanterns, they set off firecrackers with one hand while eating yuanxiao (rice dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling) with the other.

Since the last day is called Lantern Festival and is meant to show respect to the Buddha, people carry lanterns and allow them to drift into the sky. I had hoped that this would be done silently, without the accompanying cacophony of the firecrackers, so that neither Buddha nor the rest of the neighborhood would be disturbed. However, people did not feel that their firecrackers had paid proper homage to the Buddha and a few seconds after the first explosion, they set off a thousand more. And this continued every five seconds for the next six hours. It was lucky that I was not in a chatty mood.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Special Massages

One can easily journey through the underbelly of Shanghai without even realizing. As I waited for my turn with the fruit lady I subconsciously ticked through my learnt Chinese phrases to find the ones relevant to measuring-shopping-and-calculating. Distracted, I began to take in the activity in my immediate vicinity. I giggled at the sight of two toddlers who were arguing over the use of a plastic children’s scooter. Neither child wore a diaper but wore split pants, and this allowed the furious wiggle of their tiny rear ends to be available for public consumption. More prevalent in rural than urban China, split pants (they have no crotch but rather a huge hole) have still not been eclipsed by the disposable diaper since many parents still prefer that their child be able to relieve himself whenever and wherever he likes. I am certain that a communal scooter would defy all rules of common hygiene. An older woman crouched a few feet away, looked away from her task of extracting peas from their pods and simultaneously shouted at the children, throwing a few pods in their direction for effect. The children did not seem to feel threatened and continued to battle.

The sun flashed on the transparent but slightly frosted glass door behind the children. I strained to adjust my eyes to the milky-outlined figures in a room that was dimly lit with Christmas lights and pink neon tubes. I saw a few scantily clothed women perched on stools next to barber chairs. However, there were no magazines, brushes, blow-dryers or scissors in sight. A young man pushed past me and entered the salon. One of the women sighed and placed her knitting in a basket by her feet. Her makeup was heavy and exaggerated and after a few minutes of vibrant banter, she took him by the elbow and disappeared from my view.

Despite the measures enacted by the government, prostitutes still work within such pseudo hair salons. The government is debating whether an AIDS outreach program should be extended to include workers in the sex industry. The issue of safety, no longer morality, has thrown the industry into the spotlight. Many wonder, do the same rules apply to the salon workers, the street walkers, the KTV escorts? I was surprised to find that certain salons, frequented by conservative expatriate women and men, also cater to the industry. Those in the know offer a special code when booking a ‘treatment’ and are able to choose services that do not configure in the pristine book located in the lobby. Wouldn’t the conservative housewives from the mid-west be pleased to discover that they were given a massage from 1-2pm on the same bed where less discreet activity took place from 12-1pm? Perhaps expatriates should consider purchasing and utilizing a portable black light.

I mentioned my recent discovery to a friend who has been living in Shanghai for some time and he was not surprised. Rather, he transitioned into a conversation about the potential union of the quintessential male (African) and quintessential woman (Asian) in the sex industry. Let us stop here…

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Drying Beef and Vienna Cafe

News of the day: human surgeons operate on a gorilla; a Chinese Ayi takes revenge against her employer by slashing her toddlers face to pieces; and Queensland welcomes applications for a job in which one will get-paid-loads-of-money-to-live-on-a-deserted island-and-write-a-blog. I would do the later for free. No, I mean I would pay-someone-give-my-soul-to-the-devil to let me do the later.

And of course, President Obama’s 18-minute Inaugural Address was broadcast live in China until the moment that Mr. Obama “mentioned communism in a line about the defeat of ideologies considered anathema to Americans.” After this, the audio faded out and I no longer had entertainment during my run on the treadmill. There were muffled grumps-groans-and-sighs from my fellow athletes who were also irritating by the obvious and sudden censorship. I find myself constantly taking in and trying to digest the often conflicting-often-courageous-sometimes-ignorant-but-occassionally-inspiring messages on the streets of Shanghai. Democracy exists here but one can never forget that it is a concept wrought with relativism and defined by local terms. I left the gym and strolled down Hua Hai road, quite suddenly stopping short in front of a posh building. Swaying in the wind were two carcasses, partially wrapped in newspaper and hanging from the apartment’s window. Surely this apartment, unlike those found in the older neighborhoods of Shanghai, has a refrigerator? I wonder how the neighbors would react to the pool of blood collecting on the pavement, drip-drop-drip systematically falling.

I continued on my walk, arriving at Vienna Café where I was to meet two girlfriends. The ballads of Julio Iglesias welcomed me and I walked towards the atrium at the back of the café. Seated at a table with a rounded marble top, I peered through the pile of magazines scattered to my side. Ancient wooden skies were mounted on the wall and closing my eyes I took in the scents of winter in Europe.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pinkie Nail and Skin Whiteners

Just as almost all men in Switzerland wield a Swiss army knife, almost all men in China wield a long pinkie nail. It usually measures over an inch and bears a startling resemblance to the formidable talon of an eagle, curling under and becoming more narrow and pointed with length. Foreigners are often wary of shaking the hand of a person who bears such an internal arm.

Why have nine groomed nails and ignore the pinkie? They could consider painting it to make it somewhat decorative.

Some claim that the growth of the nail has an actual basis in history since, in the days of the emperors, members of the royal court grew their nails to great lengths to reflect their status as members of the elite and people who never engaged in manual labor. This set them apart on sight from the common workers of the field or household. It is against this historic backdrop that many men today who are not engaged in work requiring manual labor continue the tradition of growing their nails.

Much like the nail, fair skin also has been a coveted sign of status as it demonstrates that one is not a farmer or otherwise working outdoors all day. Store shelves are filled with whitening products, and ladies of all ages walk along the busy Shanghai streets clutching umbrellas. Entering a drug-store-department-store-shopping-center has become somewhat of a stressful activity for me since the sales ladies launch themselves towards me, shouting and gesticulating as they grab my elbow and shout "Lady Black, Lady wrinkles." This does not do much for my ego.

Of course, other people argue that the nail serves a hygienic purpose. Seated in the back seat of a car makes me privy to continual-disturbing-and-vigorous-and –passionate-nail- and-nose picking. Since I have noticed that a different finger is usually toiling to extract the unwanted unmentionable, I doubt in the validity of this theory. So now lets move on to what happens after they extract the unmentionable.......


I am no longer the token foreigner who is able to arrive-and-immediately-integrate-chat-flirt-make-jokes-and-discuss-politics in the local tongue. In China I am lost and stare vacantly when someone speaks to me in Mandarin. I am thrilled to find that I can extrapolate occasional words and phrases but I panic when people deviate from the set dialogues that I have learned. I envy the foreigners who are fluent (although anyone who can babble a few words seems fluent to my novice ear) but I do recognize that none of them landed in China and learned by osmosis. In terms of language ability, the foreigners tend to fall into sub-groups under the principal Foreigners who Speak Mandarin group:

- Not a Word - Foreigners who do not bother learning any Mandarin at all since they think “why bother, I am eventually leaving and will no longer have any use for this language”
- In and Out - Business people who travel frequently to China and master a few phrases which are sycophantic enough to flatter their local counterparts
- Sexually Inspired - Foreigners who learn the vocabulary needed to conduct a massage related transaction that ends “happily”
- Pseudo Intellectual - Foreigners who are so pedantic that not only do they study Ancient Chinese poetry but insist on reciting it at cocktail parties
- In Love with Anything Chinese - Foreigners who refuse to associate with anyone who is not Chinese and this extends to the food consumed and habits assumed
- Tai Tais and Guy Tais - Foreigners who have followed their spouses and speak enough Mandarin to survive daily life (take a taxi, negotiate the price of a Gucci in the counterfeit market, and argue that, despite the shop keepers’ proclamations, the Gucci is indeed counterfeit)
-Fluent and Normal - Foreigners who have been studying Mandarin for years

I met Elizabeth, Will and some of their friends for dinner at a Hunan restaurant. They fall into the Fluent and Normal group and claim that they were not comfortable with the language until 5 years of intensive study. Perhaps they are saying this to make me feel better about my limited level. I am not willing to invest multiple hours a day to learn Chinese (unless I know that there is a lovely job waiting for me at the end of the road) but I determined to reach a level in which I can communicate with people; even if I do sound like Tarzan speaking to Jane.

The restaurant is a great place to start. In order to practice the few words I know, I am afraid that I begin to harass the waiter with my continual requests "Please can I have some water.....please can I have some napkins.....please do you have any salt...thank you, the food is very good." He probably just grouped me into the Sub Group Foreigners that are Invasive-Demanding-and-Never-Satisfied when I am Very Busy. He was too busy to engage in a conversation so I was spared the humiliation of not being able to respond to any inquiry or comment which deviated from my Chinese 101 Language Course Book. Many Chinese tend to assume a foreigner is fluent in the language if he manages to spit out a few memorized phrases. For example, our Ayi at home is convinced that I miraculously learned Chinese over my Christmas holiday because I am now able to say "Hello-how-are-you-it-is-cold-today-would-you-like-some-tea." Without fail she bounces into conversation and chatters away laughing but always remembers - as a Chinese woman should - to cover her teeth with her hand. Her teeth are yellowing and uneven and I suspect that she probably spent her life, as many people from the villages, swishing Green Tea in her mouth rather than using a toothbrush. Her hand, bloated with deeply furrowed and cracked skin around split and dirty nails, is the hand of a woman who has spent her life toiling in the homes of others. But she too has the right to be a lady.

The restaurant was large but cramped with large plate glass windows to let passersby know that it is popular. Hunan Cuisine is known for its liberal use of chili peppers, shallots and garlic and one is blinded with pain and fear after consuming the blood red chilies that are scattered throughout the platter. Their cumin encrusted ribs were decadent but really, eating ribs with chopsticks was a challenge for me. While recommended, we were not daring enough to try either the fish heads served with green chili sauce or the steamed frog legs.The restaurant was raucous and the tables were filled with patrons shouting Gambei (bottoms up) to one another. The Chinese feel that food and drink bind a friendship forever and as such, it is typical to have 10-20 Gambei toasts at a meal, people inhaling glass after glass of warm beer. It was already late in the evening and I was observed the group at the table to our left. Their faces were glowing red, sweat visibly collecting by the collar of their shirt, their suit jackets had been tossed to the floor and lay in a crumbled heap, their speech was slurred and the person presenting a toast struggled to stand upright, one hand pressed firmly on the table to prevent them from falling over. Beer lapped over the edge of the glasses, accumulating in a sticky mess on the tablecloth which was already crowded with massive amounts of food that had spilled from the platters, dirty napkins, beer bottles, and bits and pieces of discarded (read – spit out) food.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Swiss Gala and Weekend Activities

The Swiss Gala on Friday night was delightful. The champagne flowed generously into outstretched flutes as the guests flirted and laughed with one another, temporarily leaving aside the stress associated with the economic downturn. With the exception of a few women who arrived in terribly inappropriate ensembles (e.g. white tights with sneakers, an acrylic outdated blouse and knee length corduroy skirt), most of the guests were elegantly dressed in black tie. For some reason, one often sees women disregarding dress codes (and no, not in an adventurous-funky-avant-garde manner). For example, how many times have I seen women dressing casually in social situations that require formal wear (e.g. frumpy sweaters with leggings to the theatre) and dressing formally in social situations that require casual wear (e.g. sequin tops, glittering shoes and satin pants at cafes during the day).

Regardless, since most expatriate women do not often have the occasion to play Cinderella, gaggles of women gathered at various points in the room to discuss-criticize-admire-and-devour the outfits wore by women outside of their respective circles. Perhaps we should start a reality television show called Expatriates Gone Wild?

The ballroom at the JW Marriott was impressive and we were twelve at our table. Under the patronage of the Consulate General of Switzerland to Shanghai and organized by Swisscham Shanghai, hundreds of guests were entertained by dance and martial art performances, the flow of wine enhancing our viewing pleasure. However, the casting for the Flamenco performance was a bit disappointing since an emaciated blond eunuch at the male lead and his heavy set Chinese partners did not succeed in inspiring any great appreciation for the arts. We left at midnight, Andy dreading his early morning departure to Europe. The doors were held open by Chinese women who were dressed in traditional Chinese cheongsams. The deviation from tradition is that the dresses were white with large black spots, in commemoration of the Swiss cow.

After Andy left for the airport the following morning, Erika and I went for Japanese lunch. Since the weather was lovely we strolled about our downtown neighborhood snapping photos of the food markets (covering our mouths as we passed since the unusual warm weather made us very aware of street butcher and his wares), bicycles (there are hundreds parked in just one road and I wonder how people can distinguish one dark-20-year-old-rusting-bike from another), children playing with firecrackers (note to self - learn how to say “ “Stop playing with that or you will blow off your fingers” in Chinese), and people gambling in dark corners (illegal yet the police turn a blind eye).

Of course, one cannot dismiss the older men who, dressed in colorfully printed pajamas, shuffle along the streets in their Hello Kitty slippers, a small dog tucked under their arm. Ironically, many of the dogs are dressed in sweaters and some even weak sneakers and hats. I suppose that what is and what is not appropriate to wear on the streets is very relative and I will not venture to judge. For example, I recall that when my father came to a class with me during University, he was appalled that many students wore baseball caps and sweatpants. I had to plead with him not to scold the other students.

Since so much of my day is spent observing Shanghai through the car window, I cherish such excursions. I thought of the film 'August Rush' - a film with fairy life elements in which the young orphan claims that music can be made from the all the sounds found on the streets, and that people should integrate these sounds into ones life. I close my eyes and smile at the cacophony of sounds.

I open my eyes to see a group of women pass. Female Caucasians constitute an insignificant percentage of the downtown local community and as a result, women are drawn to one another when passing on the road. Most often the only point of similarity is their foreign status. However, in the eyes of the Chinese masses, the point of similarity is that they are all Tai Tais. This term was originally used in Chinese circles for supreme wife (implying a situation in which a man was wealthy enough to have several women – concubines - in his life) but has now expanded to include all women who are privileged. While many women accept this title and its associated lifestyle, many women resent being subjected to an array of unflattering stereotypes. Whereas the former was probably a Tai Tai in her American suburb, the latter might even twinge at the thought of a mid-day massage of leaving the child rearing to the Ayi (maid-nanny).

Such a lifestyle can often be very appetizing, even to the most die-hard career oriented woman or man. A new category has recently emerged and it is composed of Guy Tais, or men who followed their wives to Shanghai, found that being hired locally is challenging, and happily succumbed to days filled with golf, 5 star lunches, and excursions to the clothing tailor. However, when men lunch it is assumed that they are in the process of closing an important business deal. Note - could these men please share their market knowledge with the skeptical husbands whose accompanying wives cannot find jobs?

I awoke on Sunday morning and went to a yoga class, continuing my theme of relaxation. After which I joined Amaia and her husband Kaspar for an Indian brunch. The restaurant is located in a run-down building and one must climb precarious stairs to arrive at its second floor location where the floors and halls were suddenly and miraculously cleansed of the outside smut and litter. I experienced a déjà vu but, unlike the restaurants back in NYC on Avenue A, this restaurant does not string Christmas lights throughout its interior for decoration.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pigeon Wings and Outsourcing

Andy is not necessary an adventurous food connoisseur and he would be pleased to limit his experiences of subtlety and oral exoticism. However, his new role in China requires significant socializing and this implies sharing meals with clients. He often finds himself seated at a shaky round table where large platters of food are placed in the middle of the table on a Lazy Susan. There are normally ten to twelve dishes and rice is only served as filler after the principal dishes are finished. As such, he needs to remain calm through meals featuring sea slugs, turtle shells, jelly fish, seaweed, duck tongues, chicken feet, pig’s brains, duck webs, or pigeon wings. It is unfortunate that he cannot minimize the harsh tastes and unknown textures with a healthy portion of rice but claims that, as long as he is never again served donkey penis (the golden coin) or cow testicles, he can survive any meal.

Since he is a foreigner, the Chinese host rotates the Lazy Susan towards him each time a new dish is served, encouraging him to take the first serving. All eyes are on him as he calmly smiles, serves himself a dubious body part, and takes a bite. Of course, since ignorance is bliss, he rarely asks about a dish. However, he is developing a wipe-your-mouth-and-hide-the-bite-in-your-napkin strategy. He is also starting to eat before attending a meal because said dubious body parts are served with large quantities of Chinese white wine (a misnomer since it is 45% proof). He was not prepared the first time he attended such a meal and found himself in a near unconscious drunken state seated on a street corner calling me to tell me that “I lost my tie and if I die, know that I always did and will always love you.” Of course, he has no recollection of this conversation.

With this in mind, it was such a pleasure to find ourselves relishing a Lebanese meal at the home of May and Serge yesterday evening. She had invited me, Andy, Cristina and her husband Inigo for dinner. As she brought the dishes into the dining room, the smells wafting through the air, all conversation came to a standstill and for the next twenty minutes one could hear no more than an occasional murmur of content. Cristina was justified in serving herself a fourth helping of food since she was pregnant but what was my excuse?

The three ladies have been trying to develop a business idea and the husbands asked us about our plan. We are still at the team building stage (we meet for lunch or pedicures) but intend to take our idea to the strategy development stage (we will meet for coffee, a more serious activity) shortly. We may need to eliminate the pedicure option because the saloon ladies are quite started when we flash our pens and notebooks in the midst of their foot massages. Until we succeed in launching a profitable business I suppose we will continue to outsource expenditures (graciously allow our husbands to subsidize our food and coffee intake).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Teaching and Hand Washing Room

As most female ex-pats who held interesting jobs before coming to China, I was determined not to fall into the group called "I-teach-English-classes-while-looking-for-something-more-permanent-and-I-am-sure-I will find-something-lucrative-stimulating-and-rewarding-any-day-now. Although I was constantly informed that one needs to speak Mandarin in order to find a job in Shanghai, I continued to search for a job, motivated by the certainty that leveraging my personal and professional experience would suffice. Of course - wink, wink - I naively thought a sprinkle of charm would facilitate the process.

With time, I found myself printing out case studies and grammar exercises, sharpening pencils and realizing that I had fallen prey to the opium of the masses by agreeing to teach a group of management trainees at a multi-national firm. I suppose that my eagerness to generate some sort of an income, even if it was only enough to buy a fraction of the weekly groceries, overwhelmed my reluctance to teach.

Since the economic crisis has also trickled-slithered-crept into capital expenditures in Shanghai, today was my last day of class. The Western appearance of these 20 somethings often belies their nationalist outlook; one which is protective of the government and its stance on both economic and foreign policy. Couple this factor with a spinkle of their Type A determination and one sees that the dimensions underlying the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are correct. I had to temper the temptation to ease them into a less aggressive-determined-ambitious state of mind but having them read and discuss points of interest in gossip magazines. Before I could do so, one student shifted the discussion from "Market Penetration in Emerging Markets" and expressed interest in knowing the English names for different monekys and apes. Why - does she worry that the word 'orangutan' will often come up in conversation?

Rather, I was taken away by the spirit of the conversation and engaged the students in a discussion regarding China’s relations with both T-t as well Western countries (especially in light of the French president's meeting with the T-tan president). One must acknowledge that I have made wiser decisions in the past; I could feel the tension in the air, see the clenching of the fists, and hear the grinding of the teeth as they each prepared to launch into a discourse regarding the merits of their government. One woman - a Martha Stewart coupled with a dab of Sharon Stone and a dollop of Hilary Clinton - actually raised her voice in protest, something rarely seen in China.

We switched to conjugating irregular verbs right after I excused myself to go to the "hand washing room" (restroom).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Charity Luncheon

I often laugh as to how much my life has changed in the past few months. Some of the changes are welcome but others are not. While I miss working I have reconciled (kicking and screaming) myself to the fact that I may not be able to find a job in Shanghai for some time. I began my day by gingerly sipping a cup of ginger tea, skimmed through emails, called my parents on Skype, researched yoga retreats in Thailand, shifted furniture about in the living room (third time this week), studied German, and skipped off to a Pilates class. The morning was busy but hardly hectic, hardly comparable to being in an office. Those days I gulped my coffee, scoured my agenda-emails-memos-deadlines-budget simultaneously, called clients and ran off to meetings, my heels clicking as I inevitably left papers flying in my trail.

After my class I met Cristina and May at a charity luncheon at M1NT, a posh (read-arrogant) members-only restaurant overlooking the Bund. The view was phenomenal and the six course menu seemed promising. There were six of us at a table and we were a bit surprised when the waiters served us the first course - three people were meant to share a plate and the portions were miniscule. Each course seemed to offer a smaller portion and although the food was delicious, we were left hungry, muttering complaints under our breath and wondering whether anyone would notice if we licked the plates clean. We finally ventured to ask for bread, however our request was met with apparent shock from the manager and we were politely denied in his I suppose the usual model-anorexic clientele only requests lemon water.

After consuming little food but 1.5 glasses of wine (Cristina is pregnant so we snatched her glass, ignoring her tears of protest), May and I began to critique the guests. Even though we also teeter on the edge of Desperate Housewives -ism, we can be very righteous and pretend that we are better than all the ‘others.’ However, most of the women were lovely and were also a bit shell-shocked to find themselves in positions similar to our own (had-great-career-but-accompanied-husband-and-cannot-speak-Chinese-so-job-is-impossible-and-will-have-babies-but-feel-very-lonely-and-searches-for-any-sort-of-social-outlet-and-activity-that-gives-feeling-of-self-worth).

Regardless, there were a number of women there who were very happy to spend their days meandering between the spa and restaurants, complaining about their drivers and Ayis, and ending the day with a shot of Botox and a cocktail on the side. I was quite taken by two women in particular who shadowed one another. When snapping their fingers to the waiter, they smiled but their features bore no expression and they looked away from the waiter and towards the manager, coquettishly tilting their heads in the hopes that their mini-skirts and Double D’s (not natural, might I add) would gain them access to this club. The manager approached the table and began chatting in a pretentious French accent that boasted a trickle of French mannerisms. Someone who tries so hard probably went to school in an American blue-collar suburb, had a few hidden tattoos and did not get a passport until age 27.

I could imagine them back in NYC linking their borderline anorexic arms (toned from daily classes with the personal trainer) and strolling to Jean George, their coiffed blond hair (perfectly dyed with the appropriate number of hues) intact, their Birkin bags swinging, Manolos clicking, and blackberrys ringing. They would lift their freshly manicured hands to re-apply lipstick at the window of Neiman Marcus, sighing under the weight of their jewels. The jewels are real but one should not worry since their jeweler on 5th Avenue would never think of selling them a blood diamond.

Every country has a group of women who are so wealthy that they can wear white satin on the soles of their shoes. However, as someone who worked in development, I do not care if such women pay full price for their must-have-season-fashion-hit-as worn-by-all-the-fashionistas-peach-colored Chanel suit or buy it at Michael’s Consignment Shop on Madison as long as they keep contributing to meaningful charities.

When we left the restaurant it was amusing (only slightly but I must be honest) to watch one of the two gum chewing platinum Barbie blonds maneuver a newly dug-up sidewalk and around fresh, huge piles of sand and stone that blocked most of the rest of it. She let out a visceral moan and gnashed her perfect teeth; her eyes rolled upward in despair as she clutched in rueful hands the hem of her skirt, frantically waved to her driver so that he would pull the car around the curb but he did not notice her. Or did he?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Chinese School and Heating

I trudged downstairs to greet our Chinese teacher this morning. Andy had finished his class and my turn had come to struggle through pages of incomprehensible text. I experiencing the déjà vu of wearing thick boots which fill with muck as I plow across an open field drenched after a strong rain.

Perhaps sensing my hesitation, I was pleasantly surprised when my teacher pushed aside the textbook and suggested we learn dialogues which were relevant to my daily life. She snapped the book shut but still looked about anxiously, as if she had insulted the Chinese teaching Gods by deviating from the planned-organized-structured-boring-irrelevant-pedantic-book. I had already suffered through two - and it was only Wednesday - situations in which my lack of Mandarin was an impediment. On Monday, my quest for a wrapping paper took me to two malls, innumerable shops along 15 city blocks; a literal path of minor humiliation as I found myself, on more than one occasion, tapping and singing Happy Birthday in Shirley Temple fashion. I never did manage to purchase paper but this was a minor event, in fact. 

Later that afternoon I was traumatized as the towel fell from my hair at the beauty salon to reveal brightly orange tinged hair. I promise, I did not say orange. Never did I tell you, Mr. Asexual-nervously-giggling-hip-swinging beauty stylist, that I wanted to grossly deviate from my chocolate colored strands. The debacle continued for hours because I could not communicate in Mandarin and started to shout, which made him more nervous as more people observed. And all the while, my hair started to dry, curling into a Mr.McDonald orange mop. 

Shaking away the memory, I was suddenly motivated to learn new phrases. The teacher's ability  to function in a non-structured manner lasted about 5 minutes and she began to finger the edge of the Chinese textbook, slightly drawing it towards her on the table. Soon after teaching me how to say 'McDonalds' and 'Kentucky Fried Chicken' in Mandarin (no, I did not request this information), she re-opened the book, mumbling something about having to follow the rules. Perhaps my Chinese is not improving because my teacher is mind-numbing-monotonous-tedious-wearisome-and-dull?

This inability to deviate from the rules reminded me when a female Chinese acquaintance asked me if I perceived the Chinese as obedient. I had struggled to answer, squirming in my seat and unable to look at her directly, trying to maneuver the discussion by incorporating larger themes of cultural relativism. She laughed as I mumbled my incoherent response and said that the next generation of Chinese would be different. But how can they change when the formal education system forces them to follow the rules (stymieing creativity), the social structure dictates how they should behave (but beware, a passive woman is not always obedient when you turn your back), and the economic system has rewarded people (why be creative when you can follow the masses and simply copy things).

Another reason that I am not advancing is because drudging through the moans and wails of the distinct tones is challenging for someone with my limited-attention-span-tone-deaf-ear. For example, the meaning of a word is determined by the tone applied. Since there are four tones in Mandarin each word (e.g. MA) has a number of meanings in Chinese. On some occasions I am unable to distinguish between the tones and on others I cannot focus and am overwhelmed by all the sounds, pleaded for the sounds of silence. Nevertheless, I continue to pencil in classes and study sessions into my agenda, the later being promptly erased every time a more appealing option presents itself.

This morning was even more complicated since my near hypothermic state does not heighten my attention level. As the teacher speaks, following the dialogue on page 3 of the textbook, I smile and adjust the wool hat and scarf I m wearing inside my apartment. My fingers are tingling but how can I hold a pencil when wearing mittens? Since the apartment building is a compilation of concrete blocks, there is no insulation. As such, I will continue to wander about the apartment, fully clothed in skiing garb, pulling the electric heater behind me as if it were a dialysis machine.

Anyhow, some of the phrases I learned today will be recalled by virtue of their absurdity. My favorite today was ‘so so’ in Chinese (mamahuhu) which literally means ‘tiger tiger lion lion.”