Thursday, August 14, 2014

when we were young and happy and PUBLISHED!

I got paid to write a thing!

Adapted from this blog post, xoJane kindly published "Unpopular Opinion: Living Abroad Shouldn't be a Mandatory Life Experience".

I learned 2 major things from this experience:

  • Hyperbole does not translate well online
  • Americans seem to think moving abroad is something rich people do, funded by their parents when my life experience has shown quite the opposite -we move away because we're broke and we can a) make more money or b) live on less (or both) if we go away. 
Anyway, it was good fun and I appreciated many of the comments. Looking forward to carving out some time soon to write something else now that I've gotten the rush of writing something that came with a paycheque. 

(Although I think I'm to like $4 in my AdWords account. Thanks 3 people who clicked on stuff on this blog!)




Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Shanghai answers: Advice for newcomers (Or, 1 year in Shanghai complete!)

We've been here for one year...quite the milestone!

My Chinese is not as good as I expected. My experience with tai chi is still 0. We haven't saved up nearly as much money as we anticipated. But overall, I'm pretty happy with "level 1 intermediate" Chinese, a decent social life, and a job that is actually on my career path. Oh, and a dog that I have an unhealthy obsession with. I think my 1 year ago self would be quite pleased, if a bit concerned about how easily I've adapted to riding my bicycle like a local.

Quick aside to actual Shanghai newcomers:
For those of you who don't know, I work for a community center for expatriates, overseeing their charity programs. Helping people to adjust to life in Shanghai is what we're all about and I love it. It can be so easy to live here, with a bit of support and guidance, especially in the first days. We have a half day orientation session for newcomers that is FREE and includes breakfast, lunch, and childcare. Check it out.

In descending order of importance, here is some of my advice after 1 year in this grand city.
I study on the train. People talk about me studying. I eavesdrop. Free tutoring.

Learn Chinese

You don't need to. You can survive with next to no Chinese, especially if you have a smartphone. Between maps, translation apps, and English customer service from many vendors, you will get by. Most people don't speak English, but in expat-heavy areas, many staff will. Places like banks and post offices, in my experience, often have a token English-speaking employee. 


I have found, however, that learning pinyin (a system of transcribing Mandarin words in Latin characters) at the very least simplifies life in Shanghai. You can avoid completely mispronouncing names of people, places, and products. You can also read out translations from dictionaries/translation sites. While the characters look familiar, you do need to study with the help of online videos or a tutor to get the pronunciation correct. For example, "zh" is pronounced like the letter "j" and "x" sounds like "sh".


I do strongly recommend learning more than just pinyin. Being able to communicate in the local language, whether it's ordering a beer, telling people where you're from and a bit about your family, asking prices, getting directions, or even just asking someone to wait a moment while you grab someone who speaks Chinese can make a huge difference in your experience in Shanghai. It also really comes in handy when traveling to other cities where English isn't as prevalent in signage or customer service. 


Plus, it's really damn satisfying to eavesdrop or complete a conversation with no gestures or confused looks!
Is it possible to overuse this photo? Less than 3 months old...

Invest in appliances

One of the biggest mistakes I made when moving here is not buying an air filter immediately. The air quality tends to be good in the summer. But come October/November, Shanghai is a dirty, disgusting smog pit from factories making Christmas items and the air getting more dense with cold. And you want to be ready.


After the first week of eye watering air poison, I found myself with a throat infection  requiring antibiotics. Two friends also got infections that week.


That freaked me out enough to invest in a simple air filter. It was about $150 (1000 RMB from Carrefour but you can buy the same model on Taobao for 800 RMB). I leave it on every single night. If the air quality is above 200, I turn it on during the day, as well.


In the dirty air season, I needed to replace the filter every two months for less than $12 a pop (75 RMB on Taobao). Definitely worth it.


I could feel a difference right away. My throat wasn't sore when I woke up. The weird coughs went away. It's not that expensive of an investment for a big payoff.


The other appliance I obviously needed to buy sooner (read my blog post about the weather if you're not familiar) is a heater. Since that post, I have acquired two oil heaters that I intend to use as soon as the weather drops below 10 degrees. I suffered through winter last year and I will not do it again. This stubborn Canadian relents! Shanghai insulation (or lack thereof), you win this time. 
Valentine's Day burritos and beers


Stop cooking so much

I enjoy cooking. Our kitchen is no longer in a cupboard. I insisted on cooking basically all of our meals with very few exceptions for the first 6 months we were here. I packed lunches for the Irishman. I made a lot of crappy imitation Chinese noodle dishes in an attempt to save money.

I realized in the end that my husband's $3 work lunches cost almost exactly the same as me making his lunch. When he started buying his lunch at work, it eliminated the daily struggle to firstly get him to remember to bring the lunch (usually me getting out of bed to put it in his bag or shouting from the bed, "If you forget your lunch, I WILL divorce you!" which had mixed results) and secondly, to have the Tupperware return home. Actually, if you factor in the lost Tupperware, I'm certain buying his lunch is cheaper. 

Once I chilled out a bit about food, our diet got much more diverse and barely cost us more. Local street food and restaurants aren't that plentiful in our neighbourhood but I can still get a big steaming bowl of hand stretched noodles with fresh veggies and meat for $2.50 that always hit the spot. Ordering off Sherpa's (an English-language food delivery service that picks up at TONS of restaurants) can be inexpensive and easy. With happy hour free delivery, we can be super lazy and each order from different restaurants. 

Speaking of delivery...
Pup and decorations both delivered. Shanghai style.


Getting stuff delivered

Almost everything in Shanghai can be hand delivered, often with cash on delivery and very low (or no) delivery cost added. Amazon does cash on delivery. You can get tickets, groceries, booze, furniture -you name it. Sometimes within a couple of hours. I've got the number of a guy who will come by within 15 minutes to repair bicycles or scooters. Our dog gets groomed by people who come by the house. 

If I got a dog walker (who would obv come to the house), I could stay inside indefinitely. 

I spent a lot of time in miserable fluorescent lit supermarkets until I got a job. I hadn't realized that Tesco does groceries and household items for basically the same price I was paying at the shop. They bring it to my door, I pay by debit card at the door, and I save myself the hassle of trying to balance cheap wine, oatmeal, soy milk, tinned tomatoes and whatever other heavy items I have on my bicycle.

Fields (use referral code FDRD73F5AC92 to get a 50 RMB bonus!), Kate and Kimi, and City Shop are great expat (read: expensive) options for home grocery delivery, especially for organic produce and imported goods. Taobao has tons of food sellers --it's the cheapest place I've found for buying Heinz baked beans for our weekend Irish-style breakfasts! But Chinese language only, unlike the options above. 

I still favour my local wet market for veggies and the dude in the truck on the corner for my fruit. But my days of waiting in line at checkouts are now few and far between. 



Sometimes it can be frustrating to live in Shanghai. Even expats who have lived here for years encounter cultural blips and frustrating misunderstandings. Bureaucracy, face saving tactics, people trying to take advantage of foreigners...there will be very bad days. But, one year in, I can say that it really does balance out. Many of us have job opportunities we couldn't dream of back home. People are typically very friendly and welcoming (and get a good laugh out of a foreigner speaking Chinese). I can go places that remind me of home and then turn a block and be in an old-school Shanghai alleyway complete with cats, street vendors, and laundry flapping in the smoggy breeze.

Newbies, an open mind, a Chinese tutor, and an internet connection will get you very far in the city that is increasingly feeling like home for me. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Typhoon time: In awe of Shanghai weather

Last Sunday, after having his phone drowned in typhoon rain on his way home from football, the Irishman and I took a walk to our local Xinjiang/Muslim Noodle restaurant. The rain had cleared, leaving the air thick with moisture and heat as it had been for the last week or so. Shanghai occasionally has thunderstorms, especially at this time of year, so I am told. Usually when these storms occur, they clear, leaving cooler weather and cleaner air. So I opted not to bring an umbrella.

After I got my spicy take-out noodles, we started to walk towards home. Ten steps into our 15 minute journey, we saw people ahead of us sprinting towards the buildings on our left. I had just enough time to say, "Why are all those people running?" when *click*, like a switch had been flicked, some of the hardest rain I have experienced in my life started to beat down on us.

Car and motorcycle alarms were triggered by the force.

Immediately soaking wet, we took shelter in a real estate office that was nearby. Some teenage boys, absolutely drenched, followed us in, sprinting. Employees stared at us awkwardly as we all peered out the door at the sheets of rain coming out of the sky. An English speaking Chinese man who had been standing in the doorway when we ran in kindly offered us his umbrella. We declined and, against the urging of the others gathered in the office, braved the storm for half a block, ducking into the DVD shop that was next on our itinerary.

The DVD salesman quickly got us tissues to mop up our dripping bodies while we browsed pirated movies. (I admit I would normally have guilt about this but if you have experienced Chinese internet speeds, you would understand why we cancelled our Netflix account. And legit DVDs are all but impossible to acquire.)

After grabbing a few terrible comedies and a depressing Irish movie involving a lot of sarcasm, death, and casual racism (how many of these are there?), we trotted ourselves back out to the street to grab a bottle of wine from the convenience store (49 rmb/$8 for a Chilean cab sauv at convenience stores located on basically every block in urban Shanghai...I may never leave) and head home.

Hand in hand, we relished the full force of water that was unrelenting. Chinese people, loathe to have rain or sunshine touch their skin, gawked at us through shop doorways and windows.

In such a busy metropolis, typhoons force everyone to slow down, take a break, and be a bit patient. A typhoon on a Sunday, with no work, no plans, and no damage caused is a gift. People in our neighbourhood find us strange but are hospitable and friendly. I felt so happy.

Typhoons do not make Charlie happy

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Post-first visitor recap - On being Shanghai tour guides-ish

My butt has been kicked back into blogging mode now that we have hit some milestones: the end of our first school year here, first round of friends moving away, and, most importantly, our first guest!



Lynda is a former coworker of the Irishman's. They were instructors at a University of Toronto Engineering Outreach camp in our last summer in Toronto. Previous to this visit I had only met her once, for about 2 seconds. Regardless, I was still excited for another female to even out our house and start hosting!


I should mention that Lynda's parents are Shanghainese so she had the added bonus guest attribute of being able to communicate with the locals. Interestingly, she speaks no Mandarin, which is much more commonly spoken since so many people migrate to the city. In some instances, she was able to communicate really well with locals and in others, like at Hai Di Lao restaurant, she wasn't understood at all. Locals, as you will see later on in this post, got a real kick out of it, anyway!

Eating


Lynda's main priority was food. We took her to a few places of note, mostly on the expat circuit.


Sichuan Citizen - Basil martinis anyone? For the first Friday of her two week visit, we visited this expat staple and kicked off the evening with their flagship evergreen, frothy beverages. We were lucky to be joined by a friend's partner who knows his Sichuan food and made delectable choices. I'm salivating just thinking of all of the hot pepper goodness. (Admission: We were back 2 weeks later when other friends of ours were playing host to their Canadian friends. Basil martinis and introducing more people to the deliciousness that is bass in oil with a million peppers. Sigh.)


Pistolera - In Pudong, not far from our place, this Mexican joint seems like a strange pick for someone on holiday. Possibly just humouring my non-Asian-food-loving husband, Lynda was game. The free tortilla chips on the table didn't last long. We bumped into some adorable girls playing outside the restaurant, one of whom (clad in a pink tutu, of course) giddily exclaimed, "I threw an egg at your face!" to the Irishman. The logical explanation being that, at a school fair, she paid to throw an eggshell full of paint at him to raise money for charity. Shanghai is big, but the expat hotspots teem with familiar faces.



Lost Heaven patio, or The Time I Made the Group Photo Awkward to Save Space

Lynda's top 3 in no particular order

Hai Di Lao - (Note: they don't take reservations in English and their website makes no sense. Just Google for locations and phone numbers. Also a warning - they are open 24/7 so if you are a newb like me and reserve for "8 o'clock" they might think you mean in the morning...so specify.) Just the two of us had a lunch date while the Irishman sat on the bench at a softball tournament. Both fans of spice, we opted for a totally Sichuan spicy hot pot. Most people order a split pot: half spicy, half not. I was very pleased to be able to burn my mouth with every item I consumed. Hot pot is tricky with only 2 people but for two small women we managed to pack away a ton of food: beef balls, fish balls, mushrooms, bamboo, several plates of veggies, plus fruit. If you pay a bit extra (9 RMB or $1.50 if memory serves), you have access to a "make your own hot pot sauce"-bar and an array of fruit. Always choose to pay the little bit extra.


Hai Di Lao is a chain but don't let that lower your expectations. The food is delicious, service impeccable, and the little touches will blow your mind. Need to wait for a table? Don't worry, you can play board games, eat cereal and drink juice, get a manicure, have your glasses cleaned...etc. Lynda was given a ziploc bag to protect her phone and a hair elastic by our servers, plus we both got aprons to shield our clothes. It was a bit too early for us to partake but a nearby table of middle aged Chinese ladies had a bucket of cocktails in champagne glasses and giant bottles of beer. Living the dream.


Lost Heaven - Lynda casually described Lost Heaven, a Yunnan (southern China) restaurant popular with expats, as the restaurant from which she would order her last meal. Of her life. You can't get much of a bigger endorsement than that. Even better, it's right by the Bund. You can't go wrong with anything on the menu, especially the Ghost Chicken Salad, Broccoli (for real), and Green Tea Leaf Salad. Pro-tip: ask for the 3rd floor cocktail menu to get delicious (if pricey) drinks. The Yunnan Mule will change your life.


Goodfellas - For our last group meal of the trip, our guest was craving Italian, of all things. We hadn't heard many good things about Italian food in Shanghai so we trusted Trip Advisor to do us a solid. And it did. The three of us went Asian-style, ordering 3 main courses that we all wanted and splitting them (lasagne, pizza, and gnocchi  -gnocchi was the unanimous winner). Free bruchetta, free amazing bread (a rarity in China. Read an amazing rant on Shanghai bakeries that a friend penned on Reddit -warning for profanity- here), and free grappa shots? LOVE. Just down the street from Lost Heaven, it's even closer to the Bund, where we stopped for photos and then a ferry ride back to Pudong. The service was in English and the music was top notch. Future date night destination? You bet.
Mere hours after Lynda told her dad in Canada that the Metro wasn't that busy

Sights


Sadly the Irishman and I were working during the day so we mostly left Lynda to her own devices. She hung out with her family and shopped, walked around, and chilled out with Charlie. The stuff we did as a group was certainly not a list of the best things to do in Shanghai, but it was an entertaining couple of weeks regardless!
Ales and tails. Amazing Sunday afternoon.


Cat Eyes Cat Cafe - Stuffed from Hai Di Lao, Lynda and I made our way over to a cat cafe, one of her only requests for activities in Shanghai. We were not disappointed. I have been to a cat & dog cafe in Korea, which was mostly a depressing experience with animals being harassed by patrons and staff, unable to scamper off to bed despite desperate attempts to hide. This cafe was completely different. Chilled out, some of the cats slept while others wandered from table to table for attention. People didn't chase them and it seemed like a nice life for the kitties. Plus, they had good beer and awesome cat themed art. (Credit: We chose this cafe out of the many options because of this blog which features photos of the aforementioned art.)


Marriage Market - We decided to put Lynda's Shanghainese to good use. Sadly, she has a boyfriend so we couldn't try to find Mr. Right for her in this market right in People's Square. Held every weekend, the park is packed with parents, grandparents, and marriage brokers trying to find love for often unknowing or unwilling young adults. It's a bizarre sight with thousands of profiles hung from string, taped to umbrellas, or just lying on the ground while middle aged and elderly people mill about, chatting. Lynda's eavesdropping made the experience all the more interesting as she overheard attempts at matchmaking, such as a mother desperately talking up her daughter's English skills and travels. She did not find it fun; overall she ranked the experience depressing and one she wanted to end quite quickly.


Mr. X - Mr. X is one of the trendy "fun house", "mystery room", etc places that are popping up around the world. Basically, you pay to be locked in a themed room with several of your [likely intoxicated] friends and then solve clues to escape. While my husband has been several times, I chose to be the un-fun partner, as usual, and sit it out. The beauty of not paying to be held captive is that I am already free. Lifehack. Shortcut. Boring person behaviour. Whatever you want to call it, I am happy with my choice. But everyone else had a blast and actually made their way out, which is a rarity.


Jin Mao Tower - We didn't do many of the mandatory Shanghai tourist activities with Lynda (boat tour of the Bund, bus tour of the city, Shanghai Museum, etc) but the Irishman should get tour guide points for taking her up for a drink at Cloud 9, a bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower. After cramming onto the public ferry to get back from our Last Supper at Goodfellas, I hopped into a cab to call my bestie in Toronto while the former colleagues got their drink on above the city (well, above some of it, there are a lot of tall buildings here!). Given seats that were not much more than a window ledge, they actually had a perfect view of the Shanghai Tower at night. Plus, you just pay for your drink, no crazy observation fees that other viewing areas charge!

Our Highlight


"People's Court" - Not far from People's Square is a corner where small groups of people can be found on occasion, shouting and listening intently to one another. We have no idea what it's called --if you know, please comment! After the icky marriage market experience, the Irishman and I were up for another round of "use the Shanghainese speaker for our entertainment". This turned out to be our favourite experience in Shanghai. Approaching the corner, Lynda could overhear disputes about property lines or something similarly banal. There were about 4 or 5 groups of about 7 people each spread over the corner. She asked a man on the periphery of one of the groups what was going on. Well, this started a circle of our own!
Making friends near People's Square

People crowded around as the man explained that, twice a week, people get together here to solve minor disputes. He told us that in North America, these types of issues would be solved with just tickets or fines. (This started a whole conversation between the assembled masses about whether or not these types of corners existed in North America with some people insisting that they do.) The group had lots of questions for Lynda, obviously intrigued by a foreigner who can speak Shanghainese. They asked about her family, about where she lived, why she was here... Entertainingly, she doesn't speak Mandarin so some of the non-Shanghainese's questions were translated by myself and the Irishman.


When the swarm grew beyond a comfortable dozen or so people, we made our exit. They bid us a fond farewell with waves and good wishes all around. It was an experience that didn't feel like it could come out of a metropolis like Shanghai. Lynda gave us the coolest interaction we've had so far!

We were almost eaten alive by half a shark piñata converted to a hat.

Other Activities

Like good Shanghai ladies, we got our nails done. For about $6.50, Lynda got a manicure and for around $25, I got a UV gel manicure. We just went to a place outside of the grocery store and they did an amazing job. Estrogen in the house win.


Taobao shopping was a must. Taobao is like eBay's Buy Now feature/Amazon with super quick delivery and low, low prices. You can buy anything from lobster to a car to toilet paper. Obviously Lynda had to invest in half a dozen onesies of varying types. Anyone who has been to Shanghai without acquiring a giraffe or dinosaur onesie hasn't really been to Shanghai.

Karaoke. Terence being epic with a tambourine. Etc.


She and the Irishman ran a 5 km race in her first weekend! Then they went to the aquarium (verdict: missable) and fell asleep at 5 pm. We also hit up an electronics market, fake market, painter's street, food court, karaoke, and end of the school year parties.


All in all, it was a successful first visit! Charlie was very pleased to have another human around to pay attention to him and we had an excuse to splurge on delicious food pretty much every day. Bring on the visitors!
Future visitors, good luck beating this thank you card 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shanghai Answers: How are foreigners treated? (Part I)

It's been hard keeping up a blog, not just because I'm busy but because Shanghai is starting to feel like "normal life". I'm sure things happen that would be interesting or strange to someone who doesn't live here, but I'm getting to a point where I stop noticing these things. Which is great for me but not so great for blogging. Sorry y'all.

Yesterday was a pure "foreigner" feeling kind of day, though, so back to the blogging I come! As always, these are generalizations based on my experience so I encourage anyone who disagrees or has differing experiences to add to the comments.

I'm calling this "Part I" because I know there is much more I will learn and observe over my years in Shanghai.
video

The Good


Language

Firstly, I am thankful on a regular basis for how incredibly patient Chinese people are with non-Chinese speakers. The Chinese tendency to express delight at any laowai's attempt at using Chinese has been extremely helpful as I struggle to learn Mandarin. I imagine if the tables were turned and I were in much of the English speaking world, speaking English as poorly as I speak Chinese, the "learn English" folk would be out in full force. Google Translate & Maps have only recently been enabled on my phone (never buy an Android phone in China...should have been obvious) and I need to express my appreciation to the probably dozens of kind people who have painstakingly tried to give me directions over the past months.

Eating 

On top of language, dining is a huge cultural marker. I had a lot of anxiety about going out to eat with Chinese people since I read the book Decoding China (highly recommended btw). All of the etiquette surrounding food is a lot to take in. Where to sit, the dance around who pays, how to share, how to politely not eat food you don't like...there are thousands of blog entries and online magazine posts that try to detail it all. There are even courses and workshops for foreigners to try to be polite diners.

Amazing everyone with our inability to transfer noodles from the serving bowl to our plates. 

We've been out to dinner at Chinese restaurants a couple of times with incredibly generous, patient, and overall awesome friends of ours. And it has always gone fine, as far as we can tell. The people we've gone out with work with foreigners and understand that we typically eat very different food and have different customs. While other cities might have more cross-cultural issues, I think, especially with food and language, people in Shanghai give us a lot of leeway. The hardest thing about the meals has been trying to keep up with the number of courses that our hosts order!

Yuyuan Gardens, aka tourist central

The Not So Good

The bumbling foreigner schtick and hospitality of Chinese people doesn't carry over into all aspects of expat life, unfortunately.

Language

Okay, I know I said above that Chinese people are super patient and amazing when it comes to language. It isn't always the case. The concept of  "face", so different from Western conceptions of communication, means that people want to maintain their dignity, even if it means bending the truth, avoiding situations, or outright lying. I could write volumes about "face" and the difficulties for the uninitiated to adapt, but I'll just quickly point out that it can cause Chinese people to avoid foreigners to not worry about language differences. 

Taxi drivers, customer service staff, sales people...if you look like a foreigner, sometimes they will look past you altogether. Some chalk it up to laziness or impatience (and it probably is for some people) but from talking to friends who have been here longer, at least sometimes this has to do with shame at not being able to speak English. This is most frustrating when it comes to taxis that avoid stopping for foreigners but comes in handy with pushy sales people in the streets. 

Money

Foreigner = rich. That's the basic perception in a lot of the world, certainly not unique to China. While we are rich compared to the average person in Shanghai, we don't spend the way your typical expat in Shanghai probably does. As a result, we continually disappoint salespeople who can quickly identify us as laowais. 

Once, while shopping at a fabric market to have clothes made, a vendor yelled me that the $15 reduction in price I was asking for was "nothing in your country". I have had a sales person scream and throw a calculator, telling me that I am not welcome in the market where she works because I didn't have enough money for the boots I asked her about. Partly sales tactic and, I think, partly genuine belief that we are selfishly hoarding our cash.

On a more serious level, medical professionals will also try to get as much money as possible out of us and our insurance companies. The dentist closest to the teacher housing is known for recommending unnecessary and expensive procedures. And the whole reason I decided to write this post is that I was pushed to have an unnecessary surgery yesterday so someone could make a buck. 

I went to a local hospital for a "female exam" not covered by my insurance. It was recommended by a friend of a friend, both Chinese. The Irishman and I thought we were getting great (if hygienically questionable and more expensive than expected) service. I was rushed to the front of every line for tests. The doctor was very patient with my language skills. She made a big show of taking images of my reproductive organs and sympathetically expressed that I would need to have surgery then and there. Feeling a little uneasy with just Google Translate, we called my husband's Chinese coworker, and had her speak to the doctor. When I took the phone back, she told me, "Get out of there right away." 

Scrapping her Saturday plans, and with husband and daughter in tow, she took me to a better, cleaner, non-price gouging hospital where the doctor confirmed what Google had told me on the way: I most definitely do not need surgery of any kind. I went from thinking I was going to need to be sliced open and have my reproductive organs tampered with to being told that, like after every other similar exam I have ever had, I am perfectly fine and healthy. The surgery would have been both cosmetic and internal...think about that. 

The second hospital confirmed that the initial hospital that I visited (PLA 455 Hospital near Hongqiao Road, also known as a place where they killed a guy after taking his money with unproven stem cell treatment) was trying to make money off of me and that army hospitals are known for giving foreigners unnecessary procedures in order to make a buck. My guess is that the original woman who recommended the place hadn't realized how greedy they would be when seeing two expats come in their doors. 

Naive foreigner bubble officially burst. 
Life is good.

Overall, being a laowai is wonderful. But there is a dark side. I don't mind paying an extra dollar or two on items in markets. I get way more out of China than I put back, financially and experientially. That being said, when my health is involved, I've learned to ask for help from locals to ensure I stay safe. 

On top sometimes using foreigners for money, race is an issue. White foreigners especially get unfairly good treatment and respect, sometimes at the expense of Chinese people. I have several anecdotes around this and eventually I'll type up some thoughts!

This post is just the beginning of thinking about my life here and I look forward to more experiences, conversations, and reading that will give me insight into expat life in Shanghai.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: 101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People


101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People is written by Yi S. Ellis, a Shanghai-born woman raised in America. She moved back to China as an adult with her American (presumably white) husband, Bryan. Through the cross-cultural experiences she's had with Bryan interacting with her family and adjusting to life in China, she has compiled a trite list of 101 anecdotes that demonstrate behaviour that Chinese people find weird about Americans/westerners and vice-versa.

As one Goodreads reviewer points out, the book's biggest weakness is that Ellis writes at approximately a 3rd grade level. One of my friends' kids is 5 years old and, with little assistance, she could write (or at least dictate) a more sophisticated guide. Paradoxically, it is a remarkably easy read and painful to get through due to errors. 

This book is not researched in any fashion. If you are looking for insight into the origins of some Chinese behaviours or reflections by the author about their experiences, you have come to the wrong book. 

I found a copy of this book at my work's expat library. I thought it would give me some help navigating a Chinese workplace and I wasn't completely wrong. Some of Ellis's examples of "saving face", especially at the office, have come in handy now that I'm in a Chinese work environment. (With the caveat that these are stories her husband has told her about his experience as a boss with 100% of these stories ending with him devising a clever strategy to mitigate cultural differences. Some of these strategies come across as condescending and verging on racist.) 

About 10% of the content was useful with maybe 1/3 of the stories coming across as interesting. For example, a western friend told me the other day she found it rude and strange that the Chinese CEO of her organization always left events early. That night, I read about high ranking people leaving celebrations early so guests can start partying without feeling judged or leave if they want to without offending their bosses. I'm not sure how accurate this is but it provided a plausible explanation. Conversely, multiple stories about how her husband made mistakes while learning Chinese are neither educational nor interesting.  

All of her stories should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt. She vastly oversimplifies and generalizes. Any middle-aged or older Chinese couple displaying affection, including holding hands, is engaged in infidelity. Blowing one's nose into a tissue offends Chinese people. 

The author's perspective is very limited. Even though she has Chinese parents, speaks Chinese, and has lived in China for several years, she gets around by driver and does all of her shopping in supermarkets. She doesn't want to buy off local vendors because she doesn't know the prices and might get ripped off! God forbid she interact with a Chinese person who isn't hired by her husband or raised her. Of the 101 anecdotes, nearly all are about interactions between her husband and business associates, her family, or their nanny. 

Keeping all of this in mind, I would still recommend this book to people coming to China for the first time. You can read it on the plane, cover to cover. If you already live here, you won't have any major revelations but might get something out of it. Even better, if you have literate children over the age of 9, you can get them to read it and clue you in on the best parts. 

101 Stories is out of print but you can find it in libraries or used.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

when I was a young and happy taitai

My job search has come to an exciting end. Starting tomorrow, I'll be managing two nonprofits in Shanghai and I am delighted, to say the least. It is a bit sad to be leaving behind my taitai life and I figured I would share with you all what exactly that entailed.

I decided to embrace the taitai (housewife) label when we got here. I think it's silly to define a person by their marital status but, frankly, I would have gone mad long ago in England and China if I let it get to me too much. The term "guytai" has been coined for travelling male spouses but it is far less common than foreigner women not working. There have been a few times when I've explained that I came to Shanghai with my husband and "我找工作" ("I'm looking for a job") and the response is, "Oh, so you're a housewife". Even when I opened a bank account on Friday in order to deposit my paycheque, the employee ticked off "housewife" as my employment after hearing I was married. Probably easier than explaining nonprofit manager, I guess.

Okay, fine, taitai it is. But I was a terrible housewife. We have an ayi (housekeeper) who comes for 2 hours each week to clean the floors, bathroom, and kitchen, and iron. Housewife fail #1. Some days I didn't even have dinner ready for when my husband got home! Imagine that. Without kids or even a dog for the first 3+ months, I didn't have much of an "excuse".

So what did I do exactly? One reason I resurrected this blog was to share what I was up to. This isn't quite advice, but if you're someone thinking about how to fill their days, it might help you brainstorm.
My husband loves my cooking

Housewifely things


While I got a wonderful break from the full-time grind, the Irishman didn't do too badly either. Cooking, dishes, groceries, other errands -things we normally share- I did a vast majority of. (Anyone want to take bets for how long it takes for us to cave and hire the ayi for more days per week?) We've hosted people at our place for dinner once or twice a week since we've arrived. And before Christmas and our trip to Harbin, I was able to park in front of Netflix and spend afternoons knitting. Luxury! Plus, I got to do a lot of yoga at home. Does that tick off enough taitai boxes that I'm forgiven for not doing any ironing all year?

I'm not allowed to do this anymore

Learning Chinese


Learning Chinese has been the most time consuming, rewarding, and expensive thing I've done since we moved here. Within a few weeks of arriving, I started classes, 3 hours a day, Monday-Friday. In order to keep up with the superhuman Johanna (18 year old German girl fresh out of high school who remembers everything) who I had class with, I studied for another 5 hours a day. No joke. Flashcards galore. Husband aggravating post-it notes all over the dining room. It paid off but I was definitely burned out after 10 weeks!

I took December off from class, doing a bit of review here and there, to let my brain recover from what amounted to 3 months of information overload. This year, I'm back at it but for fewer hours of tutoring per week.
Coin purse purchased for $3 on a taitai [grocery] shopping spree!

Other learning


I'm just finishing up Critical Perspectives on Management, a great MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, Wikipedia has great info about them) offered free through Coursera. It took about 4-6 hours per week to do readings, watch lectures, and complete exams. The professor was a capitalism-critical Canadian teaching in Spain so that may have added to its appeal...

I had tried to take MOOCs in the past but with work (and wedding) commitments, I never managed to complete one until now. I am registered to retake a free course in two weeks on behavioural psychology which I did all the reading for last year but no exams. We'll see if I can manage it once I'm working full-time again!

I highly recommend looking into MOOCs. The range of topics is endless. They are often completely free (e.g. management course), only require you purchase a textbook (e.g. psychology class), or are very low cost. MOOC List is an aggregated list of courses and start dates that you can peruse. Check it out!
Trying to sabotage my job search

Job hunting


Job hunting involved a mix of networking and finding gigs on CareerEngine and LinkedIn. The actual hunting bit, following up on business cards garnered at events and checking job postings, wasn't very time consuming. There weren't that many jobs out there in the marketing or non-profit spheres that weren't super specific to an industry or had language requirements I couldn't fill.

Early on in my search, I interviewed for one job that was out of my field. In the interview, the manager gave me a speech about how my resume needs a job on there that has lasted for several years. Rather than inspire me to commit to the role when he offered it to me, he made me realize that my next role needed to be something long-term that I could build off of. (Yes, I am very lucky that I was in a position to be this picky.)

Interviewing was the time consuming bit. I had several interviews before I landed this job. I did a lot of preparation for each interview: getting advice from friends and contacts, researching the organizations, thinking over my own work experience and history, coming up with suggestions and proposals. I had to prepare full social media proposals for a couple of the jobs and a few gave me more than one interview. Unemployment fills a surprising amount of time!
Buy a bear, help save a life!

Volunteering


I spend a lot of time with my foster dog. This is clear. No need to go on.

I also have volunteered with Chi Fan for Charity, Heart to Heart, and Bean in Shanghai. And I've kept up my role as digital media consultant/newsletter director for the Alliance Against Modern Slavery in Canada. I've been volunteering regularly practically since I could walk and Mama Cruz would be most disappointed in me if I didn't keep up the family tradition.
I should have starred in Real Housewives of Shanghai. So fashionable.

Explore Shanghai


I didn't do very much of this, especially after the air quality plummeted and Charlie became my stay at home buddy. I had a couple of mini-field trips but otherwise was mostly at home, studying. Either I could go out and lose momentum in my classes or I could stay in and lose the opportunity to visit things in off-peak hours. I'm okay with my decision; I'd rather go visit things with friends, anyway!

Lazy: celebrating a cancelled day of classes

Final thoughts before I enter the workforce


The hardest thing about taitai life (without kids) for me is the lack of stuff to talk about. Critical Perspectives on Management and hours of Chinese studying don't make captivating dinner conversation. I have been reminded by my husband that I talk about the dog a bit more than anyone wants to hear. Sorry everybody.

Loss of identity and marital trouble seem to be issues that other couples face when one partner is a non-working traveling spouse. This article, which is hidden behind a membership thingy now, basically advises women to get a job. While I was lucky enough to find a job in my field, I think that's a bit harsh. If we had moved somewhere where English wasn't used at all and I wasn't employable, I would like to think that I could still maintain my identity, build a skill set(s), and keep a strong marriage.

The main takeaway about why my experience worked out so well is two-fold. Firstly, I had a supportive partner who was 100% on board with the plan for me to invest in learning Chinese as much as possible from the get-go and to not settle for a job that wouldn't be a career builder. In addition to that, I had "jobs". Every day, with few exceptions, I studied Chinese, took care of my dog, and cooked. Some other traveling spouses (I can't seriously say "family relocation managers") start their own small businesses, take courses, explore the city, make art/write/craft, or freelance. Especially if the non-working situation isn't a permanent plan, coming away with skills, hobbies, and experience that will serve you in "life after staying at home" is crucial. Repatriation is often harder than moving out here in the first place, but that's another entry for another day.


If you have any tips for staying fulfilled and happy while being a traveling spouse, please add them in the comments!