Friday, August 31, 2007

Chinese Confession - Life Under the Sea!

Here I am in Shanghai. I hope this blog posts alright because everything on this site is in Chinese, so I'm relying on my computer intuition to know which button to push and where. If anything, however, it's a good way to learn Chinese!
I am quite sure that the day I spent traveling here was the longest day of my life. I mean this, of course, both the literally and metaphorically. The day technically began at 3:30am when I got up to go to the airport. The flight to Chicago was only a bit over 2 hours long. The flight from Chicago to Shanghai, however, was 15 hours long and landed us 14 hours ahead from Colorado time. The flight took us straight north from Chicago, up over Canada, the Hudson Bay, and even over the North pole! We then came down through Siberia, Mongolia, into China where we flew around Beijing, then finally landed in Shanghai a bit after 2pm on Wednesday. Had I had a window seat I would have taken some of those sweet pictures from up at 10,000 meters, but I didn’t. Oh, and my Cannon camera is a piece of junk anyway, so they would not have turned out well.

My first impression of Shanghai was a complete slap in the face. I had no idea this place is actually under water. Okay, it’s not actually underwater, but it might as well be. The humidity here is insane. I half expect to see goldfish floating in the air. They certainly have enough live, consumable aquatic creatures at the market. Perhaps that counts. Suddenly Colorado seems so dry. I don’t think you are ever really dry here. The instant we stepped out of the plane the humidity made all of our clothes about 10 times heavier. And the temperature right now ranges from the low 90s and dips down into the 70s at night. I am quite surprised, however, at how not unpleasant it is. I don’t mind it one bit. I sleep quite well at night when it’s hot and humid, unlike everyone else who came with me who has their air conditioning running at full blast and set to -3 degrees. I truly am a warm climate person, and that is definitely a good thing here.

As for the city itself…wow. I find myself at a loss for words. I now know why my friend Nathan said the best word to describe this place is “nuts!” I think I’m going to have to rely primarily on photos to describe this place. Even then, photos don’t do the city justice in certain aspects. First of all, this place is enormous. The population is estimated to be around 20 million and growing – fast. There are high rises everywhere. When I walk around the neighborhood of the school, it’s hard to get a true feeling of just how big the place is. But the city has a highly developed elevated transit system, and when you are driving on that, you see just how big the city is. You are about 6 stories up on these roads and as you drive along, you see and endless sea of skyscrapers. During the day, the haze grays everything out, so it’s simply a bunch of neutral colored buildings. But at night, everything changes. The lights flash, blink, dazzle, and inundate your mind. It’s kind of like Las Vegas, just multiplied by about 20 times.

At the street level, this place is replete with photo opportunities. It’s incredibly picturesque, but not in a romanticized, idealized, or mother nature-y kind of way. When you look around, you see things as they really are. You see people as they really are. A short woman in her 50s pushes an elder woman in a wheel chair, while another person sitting on the sidewalk asks if you want to buy some fish or crayfish – all piled up but still alive and squirming within a pail of water. A man rides a rusty, three-wheeled bike down the tight and crowded street ringing a bell. He is collecting cardboard. His clothes are dirty, his hair messy and unkempt. On his feet he wears old sneakers, dirty and abused – reflecting the nature of the work he does to provide for himself and his family. Two women wait as a man negotiates a price on a dish scrubber. This all is taking place within about a 5 foot radius. Oh, and don’t forget the other 8 people, 3 bicyclists, and 2 scooters who are merely passing through. Meanwhile, I am waiting for a woman in her late 40s making what I can only describe as a “Chinese crêpe” about 3 feet in diameter atop a giant barrel filled with what I assume to be boiling water. She spreads it so that it ends up paper thin as her husband spreads an egg, some seasonings, and a peculiar but tasty brown paste on top. They then put on something crunchy and rectangular, then fold the crêpe-like thing all around it, but not before I ask for them to put on a spicy sauce. This will be my breakfast. The cost: two Yuan, which is about 30 cents. Not bad. It certainly beats a $0.99 Egg McMuffin at McDonalds, or a $4 cappuccino at Starbucks. A cool bottle of orange juice or a cup of fresh soy milk will help it go down nicely.

You see how the people here live, what they do, what they sell, and how they get around. They, in return, look right back at you with a look of complete, unabashed curiosity. They may stop and just watch you for about 5 or 10 seconds before they move on. Perhaps they will just watch you for a moment as they go about their daily routine. Or they may stop and start talking with you. You never really know. It’s quite an adventure. And this all happens within about 5 minutes in the morning as I seek out some breakfast. You can imagine what the rest of the day would be like.

If I had to pick one word to describe the Chinese people, I would pick “curious.” Although Shanghai is much, much more exposed to foreigners than most cities in China, everyone I come across or talk to is very kind, hospitable, and incredibly curious. Having also lived in France, I can readily compare both cultures. The contrast between the two is quite sharp. In France, people were largely apathetic. Maybe they would talk with you, maybe they would sneer at you and go on, or maybe they would be quite nice. But overall, they are quite apathetic. They are rather closed until you get to know them really well. At that point, they will remain your friends forever. Here, however, the people are incredibly friendly. They are so eager to talk with you, see what you do, find out what interests you, and just watch you. They ask you where you are from, not because they would judge you on your nationality, but rather as a representation of their curiosity of the world outside of China. Whether you are American, Canadian, Brazilian, or even Azerbaijani (we can pretend that’s the right word), they would treat you the same. You are a foreigner, and they want to know more about you.

We were at a supermarket getting some drinks and one of my colleagues said hello to a lady in front of the store on the narrow street. She instantly began asking him questions. His Chinese vocabulary consists of about 5 words at this point, but she had no hesitation or frustration as she kept asking him questions, even though he couldn’t understand a thing. She had seen his cross he wore around his neck and asked him if he was “Hallelujah”, which meant she was asking if he was Christian. As we emerged from the store to catch up with him, more Chinese people walking and biking down the street stopped and just watched. A crowd began forming, and as it grew, more and more people stopped. They didn’t watch from a distance. They would walk right up in the middle of the circle where we were conversing and look right up in to our faces. It’s simply amazing how eager they are to learn about people from outside China. They aren’t rude or anything. They are quite the opposite, in fact. You may feel like they are stepping into your space on a perpetual basis, but that is the norm here. It’s hard to have 1.3 billion people in a country without people getting a little cozy.

Whenever we go around as a group of 30-some American students, we draw a lot of attention. Today we all went into a gallery that was selling some incredibly amazing Chinese art. The ironic thing here was that the people who were working in the gallery busted out a camera and we taking pictures of us! I took a few pictures too, including a giant stitched panoramic picture of the Shanghai skyline. I hope it turned out well, because it was jaw-dropping amazing. They even had a dozen chairs set in front of it for people to sit down and just look at it. It looked more like a painting than something stitched, and that’s saying quite a lot.
We were also at a bus stop waiting for a bus to come to pick us up, and I looked up and saw someone opening a window in an upper-floor restaurant across the street. They pulled out a tripod and a camera, setting them up on the window sill, and took a picture of us. Of course, I couldn’t resist documenting this moment by taking a picture of someone going to that much effort to get a picture of us. As I said, this place is nuts!

Person Taking Photo of Us

The Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, which I shall hereafter refer to as SUFE, is pretty nice. This school actually has three campuses in Shanghai, but we are on the smallest one. This is where the graduate, international, and highly gifted students go, and all of our classes will be here. We will have an economics class taught by one of the most important economists in China, which is pretty impressive. Apparently he often travels all over the world to speak. I will also have a finance class and a management class. This will all be in English. We also will be doing a relatively extensive research project on a topic of our choice that will require us to go out and meet with people in the city, interview them, and write a final report. We even have a budget for this project! This will certainly be no equivalent to a spring break in Cancun or in Macau, and I’m quite happy about it. The opportunity to learn here is limited only by my own motivation, energy, focus, passion, and curiosity.

The Chinese students start classes a week after us, so the campus is pretty much dead right now, aside from a few faculty members, us, and the local wildlife. At CSU, the local wildlife consisted primarily of squirrels. We don’t have squirrels here though. What we have, instead, are kittens! Yes, I am completely serious. If you go out in the afternoon, you will see kittens lounging under bushes or sprawled on the curb of the gardens relishing in the heat. Occasionally one will get into a building, at which point you see someone scoop it up and carry it out in their hands, its disproportionately large head popping out from their two hands holding it. They let go of it outside, where it scurries off. I haven’t seen any fully grown cats yet. Sometimes a person will have some food and set it down for them. They see it and all come running, even from across the plaza and devour the meal. They are all very skinny and, up close, a bit mangy. They certainly don’t lead a spoiled life. But they do provide some great entertainment.

Speaking of food, Chinese food is also quite nuts. Well, sometimes it’s literally nuts, as peanuts are a popular dish. But it is certainly not much like Chinese food in the US. That doesn’t mean it’s bad though. At first glance, some of this food would look a bit unpleasant to someone who eats nothing but typical American cuisine. There certainly are some things that I don’t like, but it’s pretty good for the most part. At the more formal meals, they have a giant Lazy Suzanne in the middle of the table and the servers just bring out dish after dish of food. You just serve yourself with chopsticks or a soup spoon. I quickly gave up on cross-contamination of food, as it’s impossible to clean your chopsticks. Just make sure that if you try to pick something up, you get it on your plate instead of dropping it and loosing it back in the dish. That’s about the best you can do. And if you only want a tiny bit of something, you can just use your chopsticks and grab one bite from the dish and eat it without having to dish it up on your plate. I could definitely get used to this. We eat a lot and there is a big variety of things. My favorite dish so far is definitely Squirrel Fish. I’m pretty sure it’s fish, though I have no idea what kind it is. It may be a different kind each time. I’m not sure. Either way, it’s a culinary work of art, sometimes served with a small flame burning from the mouth. On the tastiness scale of 1 to 10, it easily gets a 9.5. There is no fishy taste at all. It’s incredible.

Yesterday we went out to get cell phones. Wow. You would not believe the cell phone stores here. We went to one digital store and it was probably as big as Best Buy, but literally at least half the floor was devoted entirely to cell phones. Compared to the USA, where you pick your carrier, then get slim pickings as far as phones go, here you pick your phone, then you buy a SIM card to pick your phone service. And as far as phones go, you easily have hundreds you can pick from. It’s insane. Oddly enough, however, I didn’t see any desktop computers in the store. They only had laptops, and even then there weren’t nearly as many as there were cell phones. Overall, though, I would say the prices in the world of high-tech are about the same here as in the US, if not even higher. So, there will definitely be no flat panel TV in my dorm room, not that I plan on watching TV anyway. We have one, but I haven’t even turned it on to see if it works.

The dorm rooms are relatively nice, I think. I mean, they are slightly more ghetto than in the US, but we have our own balconies in each one and our own bathroom. Mine has an awesome view of the huge Shanghai World Financial Center skyscraper in downtown that they are constructing in the financial district. This thing is MASSIVE. When competed, it will have 101 stories and will be the second tallest building in the world from floor to roof. I have followed its construction for the past year because I’m an architecture buff. Most days I can see it from our room, but it’s very hazy. For some reason, our rooms have two beds, two desks, but three closets. Oh, we also have three bookshelves on the wall. I don’t have too much stuff, so I don’t take up much of this space. The bathroom is an adjustment. We do have a normal toilet, compared to the common hole in the ground. But the shower simply hangs from a bracket attached to the wall. There is no shower stall or anything, just a drain in the floor in the middle of the room. There is also a large basic affixed to the wall with one facet that provides cold water only. It’s a deep sink, but there is no counter or anything, so I’m working on getting used to it. The hot water heater has to be turned on an hour before showering so that it can heat the water. We do have air conditioning though, and that is nice. When it’s in the mid 90s outside with 100% humidity, a small room featuring cooler air can make for a nice retreat.

My Room

My Bathroom

View from Balcony

View from My Balcony

The bed could probably be more comfortable. It’s quite hard, as is the pillow. But I sleep well enough, especially after being out in the heat all day. And in the end, I think we have it pretty well here. I certainly have no cause for complaints. And the cockroach I found in my luggage as I unpacked is the only one I’ve seen in here and the only one I expect to see in this room. As long as that remains the case, I will be quite at peace.

More Pics:

Monday, August 27, 2007

Confessions of One Too Nerdy for His Own Good

Here it is. I leave for China in less than 7 hours. If I were to go to bed right now, I would get 3.5 hours of sleep at best. That’s assuming I could even fall asleep. That doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest right now. I’m not tired. I’m savoring the feeling of anticipation and tying up loose ends. I installed Skype on my laptop so that I can talk with people for free (assuming I can get the microphone to work – yet another thing I shall have to test before I go to bed). The past several days have been absolutely perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing. I got to go out with a bang at a farewell/stuff yourself stupid party at Cinzzetti’s. I would much rather have an additional reason to celebrate besides my leaving. That would just seem too, well, “putting me at the center.” So it also had this second theme to it. There’s nothing quite like going out American style and just stuffing oneself stupid. If your IQ doesn’t drop by at least 10 points from being so full, then you have failed. Failed! And of course, I must not fail to mention that I was given the gift of a Hotwheels taxicab with which to take random pictures in China. The cabbie confessions will live on!

Saturday I spent virtually the entire day packing, moving things up to where they will be stored in Loveland, and driving way too much. I watched a movie with Jearime and Jessica, The Painted Veil, which was an interesting film about a British couple who moved to China and worked in a remote village stricken by Cholera. Aside from that, the highlight of my day occurred, ironically, at 3:00am when I arrived at my brother, Jake’s, condo where I would crash for the night. He wasn’t there. I called his phone. No answer. Lovely. It’s 3 am and I had little choice but to proceed to call people until I finally found someone who would be willing to let me sleep in a spare bed or sofa. Fortunately my Mom was willing to answer the phone, which quickly resolved that issue.

Sunday was another busy, run-around day. Between saying “see ya” to Zach, gaining temporary custody of his “The :::insert vulgar word here that begins with F and ends with K and modify it to serve as an adjective::: Dollar” (I much prefer this title, but apparently I’m weird), unloading yet more things, and enjoying a China-centered common interest gathering at Chiu laoshi’s house (CSU’s infamous Chinese teacher who, students would unanimously agree should they be asked, is truly “the shizzle” (in the superlative of “good” way, of course)), it was another great day. And I think I just set a new personal record for an overly complex and multi-layered run-on sentence that simultaneously demonstrates my unabashed nerdiness. Go me!

But seriously, the party was awesome. We ate an abundant amount of Chinese food, played ping pong, talked with Nathan in China via Skype, and had a great time overall.

Apparently I am such a nerd that I am actually willing and eager to go to school and attend classes even when I am not even enrolled in them, let alone expected to attend. Yes, it’s true. I am that much of a nerd. I went to three Chinese classes, all back-to-back. I got to see some familiar faces, meet some new ones, and make a vain attempt to quench my unquenchable thirst to learn as much Chinese as possible. I went to class from 11am to 2pm, and it was awesome. The whole time, aside from enjoying the fact that I could actually manage to convey a semi-moderately slaughtered attempt at responding to the unexpected questions that were being thrown my way, I was counting down the hours that remained before my departure. I also still had a list of things I needed to get or accomplish before I left. If anyone is in a similar position of anxiously awaiting an upcoming event, I highly recommend making lists. Make many lists. It offers a good distraction that also happens to be quite productive and makes you look even more organized, responsible, and prepared than you probably are in real life. Way to boost the intangibles!

Finally, after unloading the last remaining things from my car, two of my siblings, Annelise and Ben, brought me back down to Denver where my roommate, Dave, has agreed to take me to the airport at 4am.

Yes, you read that right. Someone has actually agreed to get up by 4am. I am still shocked by this. I even know this person personally! I really need to get his autograph.

If you have managed to stomach my seemingly unfocused ramblings thus far, I congratulate you. The next time you read another post by me will probably be after I have arrived in China! I now have just 6 hours and ten minutes left! And I think I’m even less tired now than before. I guess I shall direct my productivity elsewhere. Until my next post, which will hopefully include pictures!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

ZOMG, I Refuse

A survey was conducted recently, according to CNBC and the Wall Street Journal, that indicated that the biggest fear of 52% of Americans is not a recession, a certain individual becoming president, world war III, or anything like that. This fear, instead, is one thing: China.

I'm confused.

Or perhaps America is confused. Actually, I think this is quite possibly the case. I won't put money on it, but I wouldn't be surprised if half of these people couldn't even locate the country on a map. *sigh* I suppose not everyone enjoys such a nerdy appreciation for geography as I do.

I don't mean to be all political, but knowing what I know about China (as limited as that is) actually makes me far less afraid of the country. Of course, I will be over there in Shanghai for the next 4 months, which I incessantly repeat whenever the topic arises. But am I worried? No. Am I afraid? Certainly not.

My fear, instead, lies in something completely different. You may scratch your head at first, but it is with good reason that I announce that my biggest fear right now is of the local law enforcement and/or judicial system.

You are probably confused. Let me demonstrate. Imagine my scenario. I'm fascinated by big cities. I've always wanted to live in a big city and see the fast-paced life, people so busy going from place to place that they have no time to notice you. People watching is terribly fun. I also love architecture - especially dense urban architecture. Shanghai is probably one of the top five fastest developing cities in the world. It is absolutely incredible. If you don't believe me, check out this video:

I also love learning foreign languages, and Chinese is by far my favorite that I've studied. It would take me far too much space here to explain why I like it so much, so you'll have to take my word for it. Basically, it's the shizzle.

I also like what I study. International business and finance is fascinating to me. It just so happens that in the realm of both of these areas of study, there is probably no place more happening than Shanghai.

My fear is that something is going to arise that will keep me from being able to go. I am doing everything in my power , while trusting that everything else will work out, in order to be able to go. I have my passport, visa, luggage, schedule, plane tickets, stuff, list of stuff that I don't have, and even money. I'm set.


More specifically, my fear is that I am going to be cited for some seemingly minor traffic violation that, as petty as it may be, would require that I make a personal appearance in a courtroom at some point between August 29th and December 22nd, thus rendering me unable to go to China.

Is this fear irrational? I think so. But given my track record, I'm trying to play it as safe as possible. I have been pulled over for quite random reasons. Fortunately, I have not received a ticket for any of these times. I'm a safe driver and I think the police understand that I am quite willing to comply to their requests.

Some of the recent reasons I have been pulled over include:

A crooked license plate
Burned-out license plate bulbs
A burned out headlight

Just today I discovered that the rear license plate on my car is MIA (missing in action). I don't know exactly when I lost it, but I have a sneaky suspicion that it was Monday. If that is true, then I have been driving around in a car without a license plate on it for the past week.

I haven't gotten a ticket yet, but I'm pretty sure that there is no way I could talk my way out of this if I got pulled over. This is why I am so relieved that I happened to be up in Loveland this weekend, where I would have to go to get a new license plate. I also just happen to have the necessary documentation to get a license plate (according to the county clerk's website, at least). I also happen to have tomorrow off from work in order to attend a big energy and oil conference in downtown Denver. But alas, I will have to get new plates instead.

Phew! I think I may be able to narrowly avoid getting slapped with a traffic violation that may require a court appearance and foil my China trip.

Maybe I'm just paranoid. Maybe I'm just excited beyond words to be able to go. It's probably both. But I can assure you that I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that nothing keeps me from going. And when I do arrive, rest assured that many, many photos will be posted. So keep your eyes peeled!