Monday, February 18, 2013


Although we live in Shanghai’s French Concession, the lovely downtown area in one of the worlds most vibrant and sassy cities, I sometimes feel as though I am lost in a stereotypical Jersey mall where long nails, over processed hair and gum snapping teenagers abound. Many expatriate women struggle to live in Shanghai since they feel a bit out of place. In order to create their pseudo bubble of safety, cleanliness and consistency, they organize events throughout the week. In fact, if one was inclined, one could attend events from morning to night every day; every single day. Despite the best of intentions, many of these events take disastrous turns, and a few of my favorite examples follow:  

Charity Luncheon:
My first charity gathering in Shanghai was, by all intensive purposes, a liquid luncheon. Held at M1NT, an exclusive (as least according to their marketing materials) venue on the Bund, a few dozen expatriate and Chinese women passed a shark tank that graces the restaurant’s main door to enter a private room. Here they mingled with strangers, laughing and chatting politely yet awkwardly.

Found on the 24th floor, the venue is understated and elegant in décor and the views from the floor length windows are nothing short of spectacular. At the same time, it is the embodiment   of the worst of Shanghai’s artificiality. As said by a friend “vulgar insincerity, commercial dubiousness, and stylized excess.”

Renown for Asian Western fusion dishes, the event had advertised that they would serve a five-course meal. However, we were served tapas that were miniscule in both size and quantity. Quite frankly, they could have minimized their carbon footprint and served all 5 tapas on one plate rather than serving one after the other on separate plates. While I had neither anticipated nor hoped for an American style buffet with piles of mayonnaise filled salads or deep fried chicken,   I was hungry nevertheless after devouring my 5 appetizers. As a result, the disproportionately (and surprisingly) generous goblets of wine were dangerous - especially for those who, ahem, had not eaten breakfast in anticipation of a gorgeously decadent lunch. To illustrate my point, an hour into the event a woman draped in jewels (the kind that are insured and not the kind that are bought online at Gilt) came out of the toilet with her Chanel skirt tucked into her silk Agent Provocateur black lace knickers. Unaware of this faux pas and more focused on smoothing out her blond extensions as she made an entrance, she walked towards us as though on the catwalk, hips jutting from side to side and as she click-click-clacked her Manolo’s.

Knowing I could not giggle, point or surreptitiously extract her skirt from her knickers, I turned my attention to another woman in the group. She was the veritable opposite. Her Southern drawl was deceivingly sexy until one engaged in conversation. Did we really need to talk about the sex-lives-of-the-rich-and-famous-with-a-dapple-of-what-she-misses-buying-from-Walmart? The wife of an executive, her blinding and hefty engagement ring had clearly been bought with taste and a black American Express. However, her fashion stylist must have been on holiday since she wore a tacky-sequined-strawberry-shortcake-sweater tucked it into high-waist khaki pants that tapered at the ankle to create a ballooning effect, showcasing her love of chocolate. Her makeup artistry, with its heavy hand and offensive colors, mimicked the age of Madonna and boldly contrasted her middle-ages-mid-Western choices for clothing: glittering yellowish eye shadow, powerful streaks of orange blush, eyelashes heavy with mascara, and this was all complimented by pink lipstick on her teeth.

There are hordes of frustrated expatriates in Shanghai who struggle to enter the local workforce, despite their extensive professional credentials. As such, many of these professionals (male and female) take a professional hiatus to enjoy-life-while-flittering-from-massage-to-lunch-to-pedicure-to-vacation, while others redefine their professional trajectory. I know a female doctor who became a food-blogger, a finance guru who became an online entrepreneur, and an advertising executive who became a baker! As of yet I do not know any talking girls. **

Some people (read: A-type-MBA-touting-New-Yorkers) dedicate themselves to networking, convinced that professional options abound. In fact, I initially fell into this later category and naively engaged in project work for an illegitimate-Mafia-linked group-that-used-the-name-of-a-well-known-American-investment-group! (Refer to my entry Rooster Decapitations and Con Artists With all fingers and toes intact, I terminated our relationship fairly quickly.

After my unfortunate glimpse of the underworld, I attended networking events ad nauseam organized by legitimate sources such as the Chambers of Commerce, multiple Embassies (inclusive of countries I could not even locate on a map), my university Alma-Matter, and friends of friends. My takeaway - both comprehensive and based on multitudes of qualitative and quantitative research - is that networking events were organized under a false pretense. They simply served as a way for and dozens of other matchmaking businesses to serve their own agenda.

How else could one explain why a professional networking event boasted tiny Asian cocktail waitresses balancing enormous trays of whiskey shots? Should my name card read: Take—Advantage-of-Me and provide my physical measurements? Ahem, 34-24-36. Copious amounts of alcohol were served to nervous networkers and whiskey shots left me giggling, stuttering and swaying rather than eloquent, articulate and compelling to potential contacts or employers.

Going forward I became cautious in accepting invitations. But then a few months later - Click: you’ve got mail - I received a seemingly innocuous invitation for a networking luncheon organized by a woman I knew. I accepted, encouraged by the possibility of spending a few hours with like-minded professionals. I had a series of misfortunes the day of the event and arrived only for dessert. I stood at the door and, as I saw many fingers lingering on ever so so so many knees, I realized there was more on offer than just chocolate cake.

Play dates:
Why do we assume that we will become friends just because our children are the same age? Almost all first time mothers fall into the inevitable trap of attending and organizing play dates for strangers-in-their-home-with-babies-who-are-not-yet-capable-of-social-interaction. Awkward and often painfully boring, we fall into the trap of assuming that play dates are our maternal obligation. Much like learning how to bake glutton-free gourmet muffins, knit baby booties with organic materials, purchase a plethora of learning-educational-stimulatory toys, never raise our voice, and enroll them in Chinese-French-and-Ancient-Greek classes.

Over time I learned to avoid play dates where the demographics were somewhat alien. I often took the initiative to organize them at home, creating finely thought out invitation lists and serving Chardonnay as well as apple juice. I recently received a phone call from my friend Carmen when she was a new mother. I had warned her about the risks associated with play dates and my email-phone-and-carrier-pigeon messages were not subtle. She wanted to see for herself. The host had prepared a veritable luncheon with a display of gorgeous sweets from her hometown. My friend Carmen happily (read: greedily) ate half a bag of Japanese beans. Later that evening when she started to consume the rest of the beans, she discovered part of a worm. 

This begged the question: where was the other half of the worm?
What is the moral of the story? Pay dates are bad for your physical and mental health.

** One frequently sees advertisements in restaurant windows for talking girls, or women hired to accompany single travelers in the restaurant and talk with them. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hiccup in Hong Kong

Our evenings were spent with friends, weaving from one restaurant to another. We even ventured to an Irish pub after a bit of a scuffle with the inebriated 18 year old whose preference for 16-year-old-buxom-and-sexually-adventurous-girls compelled him to assume the role of doorman. Yes, to let them in and keep out the middle-aged people such as ourselves. I was tempted to pull this child by the ear and whisper ‘Silly boy, don’t you know you can learn more about life and its pleasures from an older woman?’ Our efforts were not justified by the reward: we stepped into a trendy yet tawdry bar with explosive music-from-the-1908s-that-should-have-been –discreetly-swept-into-the-rubbish-bin-along-with-Madonna-like-clothing. After consuming a few drinks prepared with cheap liquor, we exited the bar with newly sprouted hairs on our chest and already pounding skulls.

Our days were spent exploring the wonders of Hong Kong Island. The humidity and scorching temperatures threatened to leave us looking like a rumpled-and-discarded-piece-of-wrapping-paprer-from-a-childs-party. We were torn between sitting in a café and exploring the city. The Central-Mid-levels Escalator, consisting of a mile-long stretch of covered, mostly elevated escalators and walkways that takes less than a half-hour to navigate without making any stops, served as a compromise. Nevertheless, we still depended greatly on our baby wipes to remove the never-ending accumulation of sweat!

When crossing the walkways that crisscross the city, I heard a strange chattering sound as if a thousands trapped birds were flapping their wings. I turned to find hundreds of Filipino women seated on the floor, as far as the eye could see, on makeshift chairs and flaps of cardboard. Immigrant workers with their children reared by grandparents back home, they gathered every Sunday - like flocks of colorful migratory birds - to gather in clustered groups. Their collective, melodic chatter sounded somewhat surreal on a Sunday, the day of the week when the urban heart beats less frantically, when the exhaust-spewing buses thin out, the motorized din dies down and the commuting, shopping masses rarefy.

From dawn until dusk they talk, laugh, paint one another’s nails, sell the occasional odd and end, and play cards. They also picnic, cross-legged on blankets or slabs of cardboard spread out on the concrete or crouched on camping stools, placing dozens of Tupperware containers filled with homemade goods on the ground to share. These tiny yet tangible extracts from their island created a tapestry of scents and colors.

Our day was a sensory discovery of a constantly changing cityscape - from traditional, to modern and elegant, to seedy - that delighted our 6 senses. Avenue of Stars, where commemorative plaques, cartoon characters, and a life-size statue of kung fu action hero Bruce Lee set the glamour of Hong Kong’s film industry against the captivating dazzle of Victoria Harbor. A bit tacky but from a cultural perspective, it was fascinating to witness the locals borderline-slight-obsession with cartoon figures. Hello Kitty anyone?

The subway system was also intricate and well managed, extending even to the boats that traveled between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. And strolling in the city was not stressful as it is in China where one runs across the street  - hoping not to slip on the great globs of split that populate the roads - since cars do not pause to let pedestrians cross. People from Hong Kong do not usually refer to themselves as Chinese and their insults towards the mainlanders can be quite intense ( Were the differences between them inherent character or socialized? 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Yesterday’s earthquake reached 7.8 on the Richter Scale. At this point, more than thirteen thousand are dead, including more than two thousand children, and the toll of dead reached 65,000. Russia, Japan and Taiwan joined China's rescue operation as troops poured into Sichuan province to free those trapped in collapsed buildings and it marks the first time the Chinese government has accepted foreign professionals to assist domestic disaster rescue and relief efforts. Even dogs have been deployed to sniff for signs of life under the wreckage. 

I read the figures, watched the reports on television, shed some tears and then consigned the afflicted to the same corner of my consciences as the hundreds of thousands stricken in Myanmar. What else could I do? I had been stripped of a large part of my reserves of empathy after living in Africa. For the time being, I had no more capacity to care about others because caring about others, crying for pain of others, witnessing horrors faced by others had left me cold.

And I am afraid I need to be cold for a bit, at least for the moment.

The following week China observed three minutes of silence to commemorate those who perished as a result of the earthquake. The country and its 1.3 billion people stood still to bow their heads as car sirens sounded in memory of the dead. The country was united for a moment but the government disappointed in the coming months, covering up their shoddy construction of schools, and refusing to compensate the victims. The grief of those who had lost their children was palpable, horrifying, and compounded in a country where a people are only allowed to have one child. Wealthy people often have more than one child since they can afford to pay the fine but the majority of the population is subject “to the 300,000 officials whose job is to enforce the One-Child Policy and mandatory abortion, which is often referred to as “remedial measures” (bujiu cuoshi) in government reports, is endorsed explicitly as an official policy instrument in the regulations of 18 of China's 31 provincial-level jurisdictions.”

The protest was so great that the Chengdu Population and Family Planning Committee issues certificates allowing couples who only child was killed to have another child, temporarily rescinding the one-child policy. In addition, the government has also agreed to allow those families who were left with a maimed child as a result of the earthquake to have another child, hence insuring their own security during old age. And for those women who are now unable to conceive? The senseless loss must be insurmountable. In terms of the one-child policy, the government is left with two options - introduce democratic mechanisms that allow families to have as many children as they would like (leading to further overpopulation) or control an individuals right to choose (fomenting social discontent).

Our move to China was recent and a part of me remained in Africa. While China mourned for its dead, South African mobs continued on their rampage, killing and raping foreigners, and pillaging foreign owned shops. The year is 2008 and political analysts have predicted a civil war of sorts for some time, a consequence of the quick erosion of social welfare and social rights.  How can black South Africans who were subjected to tremendous suffering at the hands of racist leaders, now propagate the same hate crimes? 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pakistani Politics and Sex Manuals

Andy left for Europe this morning and my friend Guillaume came to stay with me for the weekend. Our new apartment was still in a state of chaos but men seem to be fairly dismissive of cartons-piles-of-books-and-stacks-of-paintings in the middle of a room. The guest room was filled with boxes of things-we-do-not-need-but-cannot-bear-to-throw-away, as well as an antiquated refrigerator that had traveled from Africa to China, only to find that it was not needed since the apartment boasted a modern refrigerator in its kitchen. Guillaume suggested that we keep the extra refrigerator to store drinks for all the parties we were meant to host in the coming months. I suppose that as long as a bed, bathroom, and beer-filled refrigerator are easily accessible, most male guests are quite content, eh?
That evening we met my friends Sal and Henriette at a local hole-in-the-wall that was renown for an excellent Chinese kitchen. We were greeting by the sounds of oil splattering in a pseudo open kitchen where cooks shouted, smoked and tossed about pans. Complimenting this symphony were customers who slammed their beer bottles on the tables, released a cacophony of deep burps, and snapped their fingers for the waiters to serve them. Bereft of decorations, the restaurant’s floor was covered with a deep layer of spat-out-bones, chopsticks, and crumpled up napkins. A smell of food that had been deep-fried in once-twice-thrice used oil hung in the air and it mingled with the stale smell of cigarettes and sweat. The fact that we were the only foreigners was a confirmation of our choice, and within the hour the cue of waiting diners began to snake onto the street, their stares boring into the backs of our heads.

We were not quite ready to leave and asked for another round of beers. Our exchange with the waitress was a stunning example of how local rules of social etiquette differ greatly from those in the West. Smiling or being friendly to someone you don't know well can be considered rude or too familiar and in fact, diners can be aggressive, dismissive and outright rude to wait staff. As a result, not only was the waitress uninterested in the overtures made by our table of overfriendly smiling buffoons, she also seemed a bit frightened, recoiling from us like a confused deer. She brought our beers but they were lukewarm. We asked for cold beers and instead, she brought us a bowl of ice and some coffee mugs. A game of failed miming ensued and we reconciled ourselves with drinking the local white wine, whose taste bears a startling resemblance to a product I use at home to clean to deodorize the garbage disposal.

After dinner we crossed the road to a bar called Zapatas, and this Mexican watering hole was littered with drunken foreigners belting out the lyrics to songs from the 80’s and wiggling into the shapes of YMCA. We were told that a plethora of Asian prostitutes slithered about but in the sometimes-seedy nightlife of Shanghai there were many subtle shades of prostitution. How could one differentiate between the entertainers, Tiger girls, bar girls, butterflies, hostesses, and flirtatious women? The expectations of the girls waiting on the main road (Tongren Lu) were clear, however since they pounced into taxis if the passenger did not shut the door quickly enough. But for anyone confused about ones own professional inclination, help was at hand from the kindly bouncers at Zapatas as demonstrated by this sign:

Feeling a bit like a virginal maiden thrown into an American fraternity party at 3am after all the kegs had been consumed and the boys were blurry eyed, I stood and watched as people danced. A young man approached me and we started chatting. He claimed to be a young official from the Pakistani government and we began to discuss politics. Note to readers: never mix Tequila and politics. The conversation become quite serious and we were engaged in quite an inflamed, yet drunken, conversation about Pakistani and regional politics. I would spend the following day groaning and moaning about this poisonous drink called Tequila, utterly incapable of rapid movement.

Distracted by a woman who was eying him and realizing that our interaction would be limited to conversation - albeit torrid from a verbal sense - my new friend excused himself, under the pretense of going to the restroom. I resumed my mild voyeuristic journey and watched people interact-flirt-and-conquer from afar. One woman made an impact on me: wearing a midriff baring sequined tank top, plastic white go-go boots and a skirt that tickled the top of her thighs, her jet-black hair extensions reached her lower back. Men were gathered below her, handing her shots, while she danced seductively on the top of the bar. Gyrating and insinuating, I wondered which foreigner prey she would capture that evening.

Was this the new China? The government tries to convince us that overall poverty is lessening and the "Made in China" tag is also morphing into something with more panache and glamour that moves past producing higher-quality flashlights to be a revolution led by style gurus who are fashioning a modern Chinese aesthetic, redefining craftsmanship in everything from architecture, film and cuisine. Passé are the epic films with plum-cheeked peasant girls tilling the yellow earth, as are the urban soldiers marching in ill-fitting polyester Mao suits. Today, discerning Chinese dine on raspberry tea-smoked duck, wear Mandarin-inspired suits and buy contemporized calligraphy to decorate the Suzhou-silk walls of their weekend villas. The movies they watch - on pirated DVDs - portray urban Chinese sipping green tea cappuccinos from Starbucks and perusing sex manuals such as 50 Shades of Grey translated into Mandarin.