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!


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 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


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 piƱata 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