Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chinese Confession - What If?

What if…? We probably all ask ourselves these questions on a pretty regular basis. As I often do, I allowed myself to get lost in thought today as I thought about some of these classic “what if” questions. For some people, these two words are almost completely retrospective. It’s as if they open up feelings of pain, regret, remorse, or despair. “What if I had only done this?” or “What if I had done that instead?” are classic examples.

Perhaps it is just naïve of me, but I actually don’t find myself pondering these kinds of questions. I don’t have any major regrets, and I am pretty happy with how life is going for me. I am happy with what I have done, what I am doing, and what the future may have in store. As a result, my “what if” questions tend to reflect more of an optimistic outlook. They also are a good source of laughter every once in a while as I contemplate those random things that can happen in life.

One of my “what if” questions came into my mind as I was watching a boat travel up and down the Huangpu river that runs through the heart of Shanghai. This is by no means an ordinary boat. It’s literally a giant television. I am not joking. This boat just goes up and down the river all day and night showing video clips and advertisements on the largest television screen I have ever seen in my life. It’s rather far away, but I would say it’s easily over 30 feet wide. It’s huge. I snapped a picture of it, of course, and I decided to use my Photoshop skills to see what it would look like to have one of my paintings on display in the most public and conspicuous place in the entire city. I picked my piece “Tropical Storm” as a tribute to the typhoon that gave Shanghai the cold shoulder recently.

And so, with no further ado, I present to you “Tropical Storm in Shanghai”:

Monday, September 24, 2007

Chinese Confession - A Brief Glimpse at the Beauty of Shanghai

Every once in a long while the elements all line up perfectly and harmoniously. You can put life on pause, even for just a few short minutes, and appreciate life and the world for how amazingly beautiful it truly can be. These priceless moments are very rare. Tragically, often times we are too busy and our thoughts too focused elsewhere to stop and savor such an amazing moment. I know I am certainly guilty of this. Yesterday, however, was one of those amazing and rare days.

The early morning drizzle unexpectedly cleared out by the early afternoon, leaving behind a freshly cleaned and lively city. The clouds broke apart, allowing the sun to shine down on all of Shanghai. This alone is a rare treat, but the fact that I had an entire day to do whatever I wanted meant complete liberation. The temperature was perfect. The humidity was perfect. The clouds were perfect. My schedule was perfect. I could stand out on the balcony, nine stories up and rising above all of the nearby buildings, and see to the end of the horizon. Well, I would have been able to see to the end of the horizon were it not hidden behind the endless sea of skyscrapers in every direction. But even this sight was amazing.

I wasted no time in deciding what to do for the day. I quickly grabbed my camera, a little bit of money, my transit card, and headed out the door. I wanted to take as many pictures as possible, and I certainly did not hold back. Shanghai may not have the same kind of beauty and awe that is so prevalent back at home in Colorado, where virtually everyday we enjoy an unobstructed view of the mountains as they rise majestically from the great plains. The beauty of Shanghai, however, is equally present. If you make too much haste, however, that beauty can too easily be overlooked.

The beauty of Shanghai is in the faces of its people and their immeasurable kindness. It is in the harmonious parks that are so abundant and truly cherished, where the locals come together and, in unison, execute the careful, controlled movements Taichi. It is in the rotting, dilapidated building that looks over the same park, a witness to what Shanghai was just a few decades ago. It is also in the newly built steel and glass skyscraper across the street that also shares a witness of what the Shanghai has become. It is present in the blood that pumps through the veins of a young and amazingly talented artist as he looks so carefully at my face, creating a flawless portrait of me as I am seated on a bench with an unobstructed view of the modern skyscrapers of Lujiazui on the other side of the Huangpu river. It is present in the hasty flight of a man running recklessly and as quickly as he can while pushing his Korean barbecue cart down the wide, elevated sidewalk, crowded with tourists, vendors, people flying kites, and even those just out for the day enjoying the scenery. It is simultaneously present in my own mind as I ponder what could possibly have caused him to so abruptly take flight. It is present in the moment that shortly followed when the artist took a pause from the picture, hid his folder and supplies, and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible as a local police patrol cart slowly drove down the same wide sidewalk. It was present once again as I wondered what kind of sketchy operation this artist had, even though he was only charging me about $4 for the portrait. It was present in the conversation that I struck up with a local Chinese man as I walked down the sidewalk, and even more present in the fact that I have been able to learn enough of this challenging language to even be able to have a pleasant conversation. It was present when I arrived in the neighborhood that displays the breath-taking architecture of the China of yesterday, either perfectly preserved or perfectly recreated as a way to draw in tourists. It is present in the lights of this same neighborhood as they lit up these buildings by night, adding to their brilliant beauty the vibrant energy of the city at night. It is equally present in the reflections of the light upon the water of the pond that surrounds an old tea house. It is in the fact that I am even able to be here in this city, in this country, at this time, with these people, and can appreciate it first hand. It is even in the flu or food poisoning that I somehow caught that is affording me the time to sit down and write this blog in the first place.

Fortunately you don’t have to rely on my insufficient words to see what I saw. Here are some pictures that I took as I tried to capture the beauty of Shanghai.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Chinese Confession - Life Post-Wipha

She’s crafty, that Wipha. I admit that I was a bit skeptical when I was watching her on the weather maps and the predicted path didn’t seem to be lining up with what I was seeing. She ended up unleashing her fury south of Shanghai late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. She must have detected my building anticipation for witnessing a true storm firsthand. Rather than give me even a slight taste of nature’s fury, she decided to rein down upon Fujian, swing to the north over Nanjing, then ditch China to go torment Kim Jong Il for a while. *sigh* My hopes were crushed. I won’t lie though: if I were a typhoon, I would do the same thing. That man has got such a Napoleon complex that I wouldn’t be able to help myself. But I digress…

After landfall, we received no more than half an inch of rain at the most and the winds weren’t too bad either. Well, being in a city this size with so many big buildings, it’s natural for the winds to die down, I suppose. The bulk of the crazy weather that we received was on Tuesday, a full day before Wipha landed. As I mentioned in the blog, the rain was coming down pretty heavily at times, and we probably got close to two inches the entire day. When I decided to head out to the store to get some water and such, I brought my camera along just in case I saw anything interesting. The narrow two-lane street that runs on the north side of our campus, which gets completely jammed even in the most ideal of conditions, had become a soppy, chaotic parking lot. Horns were blaring. Somehow two lanes had turned into three. Cars had pulled over on the sidewalk and parked, most likely to conserve gas. Meanwhile, scooters and bicyclists zipped through the whole contorted mess. Water had filled the streets so that it was 6 inches or deeper in some parts, and it relentlessly continued to pour down upon all of us. I had my trusty umbrella that I purchased from a street vendor for $1.40 – the best $1.40 I’ve spent here so far – but it did little to keep me from getting soaked from the waist down as an occasional gust of wind would send the rain in a completely different direction. It was a blast. Who would have thought that a trek to the supermarket could be so exciting?

Here’s a short video clip I took as I navigated my way through the insanity:

I was actually really impressed with how Shanghai and the other provinces in this part of the country handled things. China is an extremely populous country, but they are quite capable of moving large numbers of people very promptly. Even before the arrival of Wipha, they set to work and relocated about 2 million people in this entire part of the country – a feat that would be far more difficult for the United States, as is clearly illustrated by Katrina. Most of these people moved on Tuesday, and there were shelters set up for them already. Just think of it: 2 million people have to leave their homes to seek shelter, but everything maintained order. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are things that can be learned from China, just like I am learning so much while I’m here. As for the effect of the storm, the last number I heard for the death toll from the typhoon, at least for Shanghai, was six. Everything is pretty much the same. There is a staggering amount of buildings that have been built in the past twenty years, and they are all said to have been built to high standards. My room is on the 9th floor of a 12-storey building, and it seems quite well built. Even in the wind, it didn’t sway at all. The storm hardly even delayed construction on the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial center. Typhoons, after all, are expected in this area, and the buildings are designed with that in mind.

The rain let up enough Tuesday evening, despite the approaching typhoon, that we all decided to go to the World Cup match between the US and Nigeria. The stadium is a mere 10 minute walk from campus. We fully expected to be completely soaked within five minutes and to keep warm by jumping up and down, screaming our lungs out, and engaging in all kinds of riotous behavior that is appropriate for such an event. Much to our surprise, however, our seats were sheltered by the roof hanging over our head. Those down in the lowest seats, and the actual players of course, were the only ones fully exposed to the elements.

I can now personally attest to the fact that Chinese people are much mellower at sporting events than most other nationalities. I had not bought a ticket before the game, so I ended up in a completely different section, but I had a couple of friends with me. The stadium, which has a capacity of over 25,000, only had 6,000 people in attendance that night. Those of us who did show up were the true die-hards. As our luck would have it, we ended up in the same section as the loudest, most fanatical group of Nigerians. With so many open seats, we moved down as close to the game as we could, and ended up sitting behind a group of Japanese and in front of these Nigerians. The three of us cheering on the US somehow managed to be extremely entertaining for Japanese people perhaps more so than the actual game. As we would commence our spur-of-the-moment three syllable cheers, they would occasionally join in, scream, and share some high fives. At one point a crowd control person came and told us to sit down, which lasted for about five minutes. All this time, of course, there was a huge group of Nigerians jumping, singing, cheering, and waving large banners behind us. Only occasionally did those banners happen to be upside down, not that we would tell them when such was the case. All-in-all it was a fun game, and we didn’t even get too terribly wet in the process.

One strange thing I noted while I was there was the crowd control group they had seated in the same row, forming a ring that wrapped all the way around the field. They all remained there at their seats for the entire match. I could not resist snapping a picture of the sight, just to show how ridiculous it seemed because the crowd was so few in number. For some reason it just makes the word “commie” come to mind.

Now that Wipha has moved on, we are getting excited for our trip down to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. We will spend a couple of days in Shenzhen, where we will also celebrate China’s national holiday on October 1st. The following day we will head to Hong Kong and spend five spectacular days there. I promise I will take a ridiculously large number of photos. It will be amazing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chinese Confession - A Storm Called Wipha

One of the hopes that I expressed before I came to China was to be able to see a typhoon while I am here. Well, this morning I woke up to the thoroughly exciting news that my hope is going to be a reality. Let me introduce you to Wipha.

She packs quite a punch as she creeps along at an eerily slow pace. She has been battering Taiwan to our South for a couple of days already. Her screaming winds are in excess of 150mph, qualifying her as a category 4 typhoon (the Pacific equivalent to a hurricane). She has an eye for just one place: Shanghai. Literally, the eye is expected to make landfall right here in this very city, which, naturally, has all of Shanghai on maximum alert. She could be the most powerful and destructive storm to hit the city in the past 10 years. She is saving up all of her force and energy, becoming even more powerful, and will then unleash it in gales of wind and torrential downpours when she makes landfall near southern Shanghai sometime in the next day or so. You have to admit, when Mother Nature speaks, she commands respect.

All morning the rain has been off-and-on, and the storm is still hundreds of miles away. Right now as I type this, rain is falling like endless ropes from the sky. Traffic on the elevated highway outside our campus is at a standstill, visibility is a half-mile at best. Someone wearing a bright blue raincoat is riding a rusty bike across campus, while another person is scurrying across the central garden and plaza under the limited shelter of a flimsy umbrella.

The storm isn’t exactly coming at the most convenient of times. The Women’s World Cup is going on right now in Shanghai, and the US is scheduled to play against Nigeria tonight at 8:00pm. Almost all of us have been planning on getting painted up and going to show our unabashed support for our team. There has been a lot of excitement in the air for us as the anticipation builds, but most of us did not even hear of the typhoon until today. I haven’t even purchased my ticket yet, but given the weather, I don’t think it will be difficult to secure one or even to find an unoccupied seat with the rest of us Americans.

I wasn’t able to attend the match between Japan and the UK last week, much to my dismay, but I heard it was spectacular. Actually, I heard those from our group that went were spectacular. Literally. They were shown on TV because of their lively cheering. Actually, it’s not very difficult to draw much attention while cheering. Apparently the Chinese are relatively quite and orderly spectators. This contrasts sharply with Americans who are used to jumping, yelling, screaming, singing, and making the most of virtually every favorable (or particularly unfavorable) play or call. If you want in illustration, just think of baseball. The game can bore you to tears. The fun of it is being there with people and cheering to your heart’s content.

We don’t know if the football (US Soccer) game will be cancelled, postponed, or if it will go on as planned. None of us have heard of a match being cancelled because of rain, but then again, none of us have been planning on attending one just before a typhoon hits.

Brief weather update: the traffic is still at a standstill on the highway, and visibility has dropped even more as the rain pounds down even more fiercely than before. And this is just the beginning. Rest assured – I am loving this. I do need to trek out to the store, however, and get some clean drinking water and a few munchies. I am down to the last bottle-full of my water after brushing my teeth following lunch.

So far 200,000 people have been evacuated from coastal and low-lying areas. The central commercial district is also being evacuated as people prepare for the incoming storm, but people are still much calmer here than they would be in the US. In the past I had heard that people considered typhoons to be lucky. Maybe that was India. Maybe I am just making this up. I don’t know. But one thing I can tell you, they do appreciate them for one thing: they clean the city. A big storm making landfall is like the entire city taking a huge, long shower. It cleans out the air and makes things fresh again, if only for a short while.

I honestly don’t anticipate that things will be all that bad. Shanghai gets hit by typhoons often enough, so the city should be well prepared. I just hope the power and phone lines (thus internet) don’t go out. At least the Chinese are smart enough to not build a city below sea level, so this is hardly likely to look anything like Katrina.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chinese Confession - The Ramblings of Insomnia

When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep...and you're never really awake. I echo these words of Tyler Durden. They are all too true.

It is 5am. I have never had the luxury of being a morning person – one of those lucky people who, with every passing day, hold the future of the world in their hands. Their ability to shake off the shackles of sleep and vanquish the foe that is their own mind holding them captive to innumerable, random illusions of its own creation is something beyond my own comprehension. They wake up bright eyed and filled with optimism and appreciation for those little things that make us non-morning people nauseous. The beauty of a sunrise as the light breaks out across the sky, the smell of the morning dew on the grass, the taste of a well prepared breakfast, or even the priceless moments of peace, quiet, and meditation that are so seldomly found during the daytime hours but are so richly abundant during that short time before the world swings into motion. These are the true beauties of life. To appreciate them, to find solace in them, and to relish in them is to know the truly good life. I hate them all.

I don’t hate morning people; I just hate mornings. Morning is like one of those ideas that sounds great on paper but is horrible when it becomes reality. Even now, as I stare at this screen with my eyes blood shot and my empty stomach screaming for substance, I can hardly tolerate any of it. I do not enjoy the luxury of being a “morning person”. Instead, I am subject to it. For me, nearly everyday I must begin with a full-fledged war. Somehow I have to raise my own eyelids, which have inexplicably become about ten times heavier through the night. I have to clear my foggy mind and somehow get the nerves that run through my brain and my body to fire at their normal breakneck speed. Then I have to somehow dislodge myself from the comforts of a warm, welcoming bed. How any person can do this is incomprehensible, especially if must be done at a moments notice with an alarm tearing through the silence that was once a blissfully peaceful night. If this particular moment happens to be before sunrise, then it worsens immeasurably. Every time an alarm goes off, a kitten or a puppy dies. I’m just sure of it. This moment then ushers in the battle of will versus physical tendencies and (thank Galileo and Newton for this one) inertia. Yes, the very concept of inertia, I am convinved, was actually discovered while observing the sleeping habits of people. After all, it does state that a body in motion tends to stay in motion, while a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Perhaps the key then is to become somnambulant. If anyone has any suggestions or information on how to become somnambulant, please let me know. It would be especially nice if the exertions could be channeled into something productive like doing my homework or cleaning the bathroom. But I digress.

At this point in my rambling, I’m sure that you are wondering why I of all people would be awake and even engaged in the process of writing this when it goes completely against my nature. Believe me when I say that I wish this were not the case today. However, there are forces that are so strong, so compelling, and so unpleasant that I can hardly bear to speak of them. These very powers have the ability to shake walls, to make babies cry, to drive others to complete madness. They may even be carcinogenic. Who knows? I don’t think anyone has actually done a study on it, but since everything seems to be linked to cancer these days, why not this too? Not everyone has this divine power nested within themselves. What is so amazing is this power cannot be called upon at will. It is beyond their control. They may not even realize that they have it, and they never witness it for themselves. Only when they are completely unaware of it does it truly break free and wreak havoc on the calm and unsuspecting world around it. I wonder if the people that foster this power know just how much damage they truly do. I often ask others if I engage in such destructive and purely evil behavior. Thus far I have proven to be free from it. But even as I type this, my roommate is demonstrating a particularly unique talent for this action. I am talking, of course, about snoring.

Yes, my morning died quite prematurely today. My dreams were wrenched from me when my roomate found what must have been a delightfully comfortable position during his nighttime shifting and turning. His head was cocked back at a hazardous angle, his legs bunched up, and his arms rested carelessly and extended to each side. It was in this position that suddenly the quite of the night was destroyed. I opened my eyes abruptly to search for the source of such an unbearably raucous noise, and lamentably found it to be merely a few feet from me. It was him. I tried everything I could to vanquish this unwelcome predator to my sleep. Nothing prevailed. My pillow is too stiff to be wrapped around my head to cover my ears. My own attempts to retaliate by raising more commotion would be entirely too much, especially considering the walls that separate us from our neighbors, although capable of bearing the weight of the floors above them, offer the acoustic protection of merely a couple of pieces of paper put together. So convert my pillow into a carefully aimed and finely tuned weapon would probably cause a breach in our international relations. Truly I was at odds.

The snoring is vile beyond description. Every intake of breath is accented by rapid, low pulsations that echo throughout the chamber that is our room. They are so low and powerful that not even the pillow that I tried to hold strategically around my head and covering my ears was able to block it. I can only compare it to the violent sound of a tommy gun and a jack hammer combined. I can distinctly hear every single pulse in this rapid succession, and I hate each one more than the last. Just when they become so intense that I fear my own retaliation and nearly lose all self control, they stop. Relief. It is over. This thought, however, is premature and truly ignorant. Just as this feeling of relief brings comfort to my afflicted self, the air is once again pierced, but this time by the horrid sound of expelling gas that lasts for seconds. During the daytime hours, I hear it all the time. It’s that same noise that issues from the airbrakes of the buses that run through the town. It is powerful and loud enough that it can cause serious hearing damage if one is too close at that critical moment. Somehow, this very force is being produced by my roommate, and not just by him, but merely by his lungs and nose!

This pattern continues endlessly. The jackhammer. A brief pause. A sudden expulsion of air. Jackhammer. Expulsion of air. Jackhammer. Expulsion of air. Jackhammer. Explusion of air. This is the cycle of insanity. I am beginning to lose control. I am so tired that I could just as soon kill or destroy anything that would dare to stand between myself and sleep. My roommate is doing just that, and I hate him for it. It’s not a true, long-lasting hatred, but certainly an at-the-moment kind of hatred.

Jackhammer. Explusion of air. Jackhammer. Explusion of air.

I can’t even think clearly at this point. It shocks me that my simmering anger is not audible at this point, and I want nothing more that to lash out and strike the source of this unbearable uproar – repeatedly. I want it to physically feel the agony and affliction that it is causing me, but I can’t. I just can’t bring myself to do it, at least not yet. Who knows? If it goes on for long enough, I may just go insane.

Jackhammer. Expulsion of air. Jack hammer. Explusion of air.

Unable to bear any more, I jump out of bed. I no longer hate my roommate at this moment. I loathe him. I look out the window. It is dark. A strange cloud has filled the air of the city that I see. This I discovered only after opening the balcony door to step out and hopefully find peace in the more quiet air outside, making as much noise as possible in the process in the vain hope that it will disturb my roommate and cause him to shift positions. Barely had I begun my first step out onto the balcony when a noxious air pierced my nose. It is fowl. Never has it been so thick and deplorable. The air here is by no means clean, but this night it is particularly bad. You can literally see this pernicious filth. Visibility has been reduced to a quarter mile at best. I wonder how anyone is even alive at this point. I can see a few lights in the high rises outside. I wonder if these people had breathed in the fumes, and in their desperate fight to not die from the poison, had turned on their lights, as if its presence alone would spare them from certain death. Or perhaps these same people have been awoken by the same disturbing raucous that my roommate is producing. It’s possible. They are, after all, a mere quarter of a mile away. Their building is barely visible amongst the smog. It’s so bad, in fact, that I make a note to myself to try to not go outside the next day (a sign of the naïve hope that I perhaps will be able to enjoy the luxurious comfort of sleep again soon). I close the door quickly and lock it. I begin pacing the room.

Jackhammer. Expulsion of air. Jackhammer. Explusion of air.

He mocks me. In his dreams he is holding a giant magnifying glass and I am a tiny ant. He focuses the sunlight on me, and it burns my flesh as I writhe in pain. This is the only possible explanation for such brutal treatment. All I want to do is sleep! I continue pacing the room.

Jackhammer. Explusion of air. Jackhammer. Explusion of air.

I throw open the door that opens to the hallway, again making as much noise as possible. I half expect to see everyone out in the hall talking about what could possibly be making so much noise. To my surprise, there is nobody. Instead my nostrils are greeted again by the very noxious smog that is so pervasive in the nighttime air outside. There is no doubt in my mind that this air truly is carcinogenic. The doors to the balcony at the end of the hall are open, and the smog has crept within our building. I quickly retreat to my room, making a note to myself to try to not go outside of our room the next day (naïve optimism speaking again) because not even the air in the hall is breathable.

Jackhammer. Explusion of air. Jackhammer. Explusion of air.

Suddenly, the harsh reality of the situation truly weighs down on me. I am trapped. My hatred for my roommate and his compulsory snoring is no longer simmering. It is boiling and consuming me. I could beat him with my pillow right now. It would save all of us in the building from continual nights of agony. But I give up. I move to my desk, turn on my computer and pull out my headphones. If I can’t sleep, I can at least turn on some music and drown out the echoing roar that fills my room. That is, of course, assuming that these headphones are even capable of drowning out such noise in the first place.

And thus I am found in my present condition. My eyes are red and blood shot. My body is fatigued. My brain stretches to pull these words from nowhere. I’m hungry, but I have no food. I’m thirsty, but all I have is water, which is hardly appealing to my cravings at the moment. I write this blog as means of coping. It’s relaxing. It helps me identify those things that torment me (not that such a feat is particularly difficult at this very moment, seeing as the source of the walls shaking and the dust falling from the vibrating ceiling is quite obvious). I really don’t want to kill my roommate, but this raucous is unbearable. He is a genuinely good guy. He has expressed nothing but kindness, consideration, and welcoming to me. Perhaps this snoring is just the other side of his personality lashing out against the world that may have treated him so unfairly in the past. I have no idea. So for now, my writings will have to be my escape.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chinese Confession - Kung Fu, Fish Follies, and the Grand Canal

At this point in my China experience, I think it is pretty safe to say that Americans, overall, have a rather distorted perception of what China is like. That’s actually a best-case scenario. It would probably be more accurate to say that Americans have a completely wrong image of China. I can now dispel at least one more rumor: it’s really easy to get around in China because (1) everybody in the big cities speaks English, and (2) all the cab drivers speak English.

One of the delightful things about China is that many of the things that are so expensive back in the US are much more affordable here. Take taxis for example. If I decide to take a taxi to People’s Square, which is basically the busiest, most central part of this city, it would cost a bit over 20 Yuan, which converts to about $3 in the US. The best part is that if I have four people in the cab, it’s the same price. The bad part is that if I am unfamiliar with the city and the routes, the drivers can sometimes take a less direct route and drive up the price (no pun intended) by another dollar or so. The trip takes us about 10 minutes – 15 if there is traffic – and is also much quicker than taking the metro, which takes about an hour. It’s also about 50 cents less expensive. I know it’s not much, but you’d be surprised what al you can get here for 50 cents. The bad thing is that I have yet to meet a cab driver in this city who actually speaks English. Fortunately I can actually pronounce things in a semi-comprehensible manner, so the driver can usually figure out where I’m wanting to go. The bad thing is I can understand about one out of five words that they say, at best. So it makes communication a bit challenging at times.

This weekend I went to a nearby city, Suzhou, with a few friends. We took a high speed train to get there, which topped out at 248 kmph (153mph), enjoying the luxury of first class seats for about $4.50 each. Suzhou is widely known for its beautiful parks and canals. Dubbed “the Venice of the East,” it is clearly apparent why it merits such a title.

It also happens to be a “small” Chinese city with a mere 5.1 million people in the greater area of the city. To be quite honest, I was surprised that the population was as high as they said it was. I would have guessed its population to be closer to 500,000. A population of 5.1 million people makes it about twice as big as Denver, but it didn’t even have a business district. It didn’t have very many high-rise buildings either, which lets the truth really sink in about the living conditions for the people. Chinese people really pack into the places where they live. It’s pretty normal for an entire family to live in a tiny one or two bedroom apartment with a kitchen about half the size of an American bathroom, no living room, and often no balcony. Owning an actual house is a luxury affordable by very, very few. In this country, you quickly learn to eliminate your bubble of personal space around you. If you bump into someone, you don’t say “excuse me”. Rubbing up against people is not just completely normal, it’s expected. On the roads, the vehicle with the most mass usually rules. That makes buses seemingly lethal. They are the craziest drivers out there too. If I can make it home without an all-out phobia of public buses, I will be doing well.

In Suzhou, we decided to skip the hassle of getting around the city by bus, and instead opted to hire a couple to drive us around the city in their van all day. Actually, this service was offered to us the moment we emerged from the train station. Now this is living it up! Our own personal guides that knew the city, that were able to drive on the roads without allowing us to get killed by a monstrous bus, let alone even get in an accident. We had our list of places we wanted to go to, and our guides knew the best way to get there, whether they were good to see or not, and helped make everything go smoothly. However, just like the taxi drivers and the vast majority of the people here, they spoke no English. That was okay though because my Chinese was the worst of the four of us, and a lot of people think my Chinese is pretty good. We also bartered the price for this convenient form of transit for the day down to 100 Yuan, which is about $15. Honestly, I don’t know how they make it worthwhile for that little money, but somehow they do. Had we taken cabs all day, it would have easily topped that price and taken twice as long. Gas alone here is well over 80 Yuan per liter, which converts to about $5 per gallon. I expect that they probably got a share of the money that we spent at the places we visited, including the restaurant where we ate lunch. Oh, we also didn’t pay them until the end of the day, so there was no risk that they would take our money and run. It was great!

We saw a park, which was absolutely jaw-dropping with its Zen-like feel and meticulous attention to every detail imaginable. It was a huge park too. We walked around for about an hour and a half and I still never got to see all of it. I have heard, however, that many parks in China are very similar, so I’m not terribly disappointed. The admission to the park was almost $10, which was admittedly a bit steep by my standards, but it was amazing.

We also got to see the canal that runs through the town by getting a couple of men to take us aboard a long, very Chinese looking boat. This was about $6 for each of us, and it was amazing! It took us into the narrow canals of the town too, where people live in these tiny, somewhat dilapidated-looking houses with doors that sometimes open directly to the water of the canal. The white paint of the houses peeled away at the corners, exposing the rustic masonry that made up the irregular and incredibly picturesque homes. Clothes hung out to dry just feet away from us, a seemingly vain effort to dry the laundry in an environment where the humidity is almost always 100%. We passed under low, tight bridges, sometimes by mere inches and carefully navigated by the skill of the boat driver. We passed countless doors and windows, many of which rest ajar with an unobstructed view of the lives and the people inside. One woman was busy making lunch. In another window was a child playing, pausing momentarily to look at us as we passed, curiosity etched in his eyes. Another doorway opened to a dark room where the water of the canal entered into the house. They must be quite accustomed to this kind of life and lack of privacy, but again, this is something you get used to in a country of 1.3 billion people. Although this is definitely a tourist hotspot, we still drew many stairs from people along the banks of the canal, taking a break from their work. In another place, I saw two women wearing wide peasant hats to further shield them from the sun which was already blocked by the thick clouds and smog of this industrial city.

Industry is hardly new to a place like this. The grand canal of China was started as an ambitious project by the Chinese all they way back in 486 BC and was finally completed in its entirety after 600 AD. It’s 1,100 miles long, making the Suez or Panama canals look like mere driveways. It was also constructed during an era when the European nations were too busy bickering amongst themselves to accomplish anything of this kind of scale. It stretches from an area southwest of Shanghai all the way up to Beijing. This would be close to the distance between New York and Atlanta. Needless to say, it’s an amazing project, and we got to see a tiny section of us up close and personal. Oh yeah, our boat drivers didn’t speak English either.

We saw a neat factory where they make silk, which was surprisingly interesting and short enough to accommodate my attention span.

We then went to another park that featured part of a defensive wall that is over 2,500 years old. Okay, at this point I have to change the topic just a little bit. We all know those Kung Fu movies that we associate with Chinese cinema. Perhaps we jokingly think that all Chinese people know Kung Fu and that people just break out into random, impossibly-choreographed-yet-totally-impromptu fighting scenes. I definitely dismissed any expectation to run into something like this. That’s Hollywood, after all. So you can imagine my surprise when we were walking along the base of this really old, huge, and amazing wall toward the entrance part of it. We stopped there, and just gaped at the scene in front of us. We were standing in a big gate about 10 feet wide, with a big sand pit before us and walls at least 20 feet high all around us. In this small area, there were dozens of young Chinese men all waiting for something. We stood there at the entrance gate mere feet away from all of these people, when suddenly one guy in a harness ran straight up the wall at the exact same moment one of my friends tried to ask him what was going on. It must have been a cue, because everyone started fighting. It was obviously not real fighting, but it was still cool to see, if not quite random. Who would have thought that, in coming to China, we would be wandering around and actually randomly see a bunch of people fighting like in the Chinese action movies? Well, it happened. They even did some of the typical moves like having one person fighting 8 others and throws them all off at once. Others were doing flips and dodging swipes, kicking, hitting, shoving, running. It was crazy! I even got pictures! It was really cool. Then they abruptly stopped. I had no idea why or what they were doing. I’m going to just pretend that they did it just for us. It’s either that or this is what it’s really like in China. Who knows, really? This country is nuts!

We wandered around the garden section, which I found to be even more amazing, peaceful, and picturesque than the first one we visited.

When we got to a big pond, there was a whole lot of commotion coming from one area that quickly drew our attention, awaking us from our state of blissful peace. There, along a balcony that overlooked a side of the pond, where hundreds of brilliantly colored fish all splashing around in one tight area along the side with a dozen people looking down at them. We went over there to see what was going on. There was a vendor there selling small bags of fish food for 15 cents that you could drop, pour, or dump into the water and watch the fish all clamor and fight in what must be an oft-repeated feeding ritual. When I got to the side and looked down, it seemed unreal. These fish were HUGE! There were hundreds of Coy, all brightly colored, and as you fed them, the fish would congregate, then get more crowded, and more crowded, and soon enough there were so many of these giant, brightly colored fish that it looked more like a giant feeding frenzy/fish mosh pit. I’m not exaggerating either. You would look down and at any given moment see dozens of colorful mouths gaping wide open, anxiously trying to get some of the food that was so generously falling from above. These fish were, on average, between 12 inches and 18 inches long, I estimated. There were some really big ones that were probably 24 inches long or even longer. They would get so crowded that some would get pushed up from out of the water, then flap their fins and tail wildly because they were out of the water and on top of all the others, eventually working their way to the side of the swarm where it was less dense and they could sink back into the water. They would then turn immediately and fight to get back into the swarm, where they would stick their mouths out of the water, mouths gaping open and closing every couple of seconds, and fight to get yet more of the food. This would go on as long as someone was pouring out food pellets. Once the flow of food stopped, they become eerily silent and the swarm would slowly begin to disperse. It was a very strange sight to see after they made such a ruckus. Within a couple of seconds of food hitting the water again, however, they turned and swam toward that place. It didn’t take long at all for the craziness to resurface (no pun intended).

After this park, we went back to the train station to get a bite to eat, paid our chauffeurs, and waited for our train back to Shanghai. I’m not sure exactly what happened or when it happened, but somehow I ended up losing my ticket while we were at the station. I didn’t realize this until about 15 minutes before our train left, and by then there were definitely no seats or tickets available for purchase. The trains here are almost always filled to overcapacity. What they do is sell all of the tickets for the seats on the train, but they also sell standing-only tickets. When you get one of those, you get to do just that: stand. This was what I had to do, since there were no seats left. I actually had no choice but to buy a ticket for a train that was to leave at 9:00pm instead of the 7:20pm one that we were all planning on taking. I bought the ticket, and we were trying to devise a plan by which I would be able to get on board and still make it back with the others. I was basically going to pretend that I am an ignorant American and can’t speak any Chinese (which isn’t too far from the truth, based on my ability to communicate sometimes) and that I got sold a bad ticket. We were hoping that the crowd would be so crazy that they would just check that my ticket was for Shanghai and that they wouldn’t pay any attention to the time of the train my ticket displayed. When they opened up the gates for people boarding the train, we got through in the mad crowd (these train stations are insanely crowded and even more insanely pushy) and there wasn’t anyone checking tickets. Then when the train arrived at the platform, we were certain that the staff on the train would be checking tickets in each car as people boarded. We were sure that I would get kicked off and told to wait for the next train. Fortunately things worked out and there was nobody there checking tickets either. I did have to stand in the isle of the train for an hour, as did many, many other people all throughout the train (Chinese trains are insanely crowded), but I got home safely and without incident, so I was completely happy. All in all, it was a truly crazy day. I experienced a bit of everything: history, craziness, meditation-enducing gardens, craziness, first class tickets on a high speed train, craziness, standing-only tickets on a low-scale train, more craziness, random Kung Fu, craziness, crazy fish, and even some craziness in there. So, if you ever find yourself in the Shanghai area, I highly recommend you check out Suzhou. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t contribute to my phobia of the fearless, crazy public buses.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Chinese Confession - Growing Pains

I woke up this morning to a completely unexpected but thoroughly welcome sight: blue sky. The bright sunlight illuminated my room and seemed to lighten everyone’s mood, though we are all in quite high spirits to begin with. I ate breakfast from our small balcony at the end of the hall, where, being nine stories up, the view is impressive on a hazy day. Today, however, with the sky being so clear and the smog and haze dispersed, the true depths of Shanghai’s sea of high rises could be fully appreciated. The view was no longer impressive; it was breathtaking. As I savored a meat dumpling, a red bean paste bun, and a kiwi and cucumber flavored yogurt smoothie, I took advantage of the 180 degree view as a priceless opportunity to step back and try to take it all in. There were 24 cranes that I could clearly see in the skyline before me, though this was hardly a complete view of such an enormous city. Some other objects in the distance could have been cranes, but I couldn’t be sure. As impressive as it is, however, this number could also equal a mere rounding error as the urban planning department has plans to add an additional 1,000 high rises by the end of the decade. They already have 4,000.

This city is huge. It’s already big by today’s standards, being one of the ten largest in the world. When you see this place and just how fast it is growing, however, you don’t just see Shanghai for what it is at the moment. You see it for what it will become. It is nearly impossible to separate the two. This is one of the things about Shanghai that is so incredible to experience but no camera can capture. No video can capture it. Words cannot even fully capture it. But it is very much present, alive, and thriving in the air all around you. It is not a question of if Shanghai will reach its potential, but of when. This whisper of things to come is discernable above all of the abundant noises of the city – the rapid poundings of a jack hammer on asphalt, the sound of a shovel as it cuts a muddy crevice, the honking traffic on the elevated highway, the theft alarm of a parked scooter that pierces the morning air, the metro train as it zips overhead, or the welding in the upper level framework of a new apartment building.

When night time falls, the city changes its face but not its pace. Just like your heart keeps beating, nerves keep firing, and body keeps metabolizing as you sleep, Shanghai remains alive, vibrant, and booming through the twilight hours. Even now at 10:00pm as I write this, bright lights shine up from the stadium a few blocks away, drawing bright streaks high up into the night sky. Next door, brilliant neon lights dance on top of a four story building, drawing people in to take a spot on one of the multiple levels of bowling alleys and pool tables. Farther in the distance, I can see the Aurora skyscraper in the Lujiazui financial district lighting up with LED lights all along the face, transforming it from a golden-colored glass and steel building by day into a giant television screen by night. The Shanghai World Financial Center, still under construction, is brightly illuminated as work never ceases. Closer by I can distinguish the flame of welders constructing a new building to house some of the hundreds of thousands of people who come to this city every year, or perhaps some of those who find prosperity and a more comfortable standard of living through their hard work and fortunate circumstances.

Aurora building by night

Shanghai World Financial Center (behind the Jinmao tower)

Shanghai is truly a land of opportunity, as are many other places in China. For some this opportunity will be much easier to capture than for others. The people here do not have the same degree of mobility that we enjoy back in the United States. Some who are born into the countryside will never be able to go to the city, where the vast majority of the nation’s prosperity is taking place. Some will be able to go, but not legally, and once they arrive in the city, making ends meet may be more difficult and painful than they imagined. For some it will be painful and difficult, but not nearly as bad as it was in the country. For some it may be worse. Some of the more fortunately will be born into a well-positioned family, be able to pursue an education, and enjoy the kind of life that their parents dreamed they would have.

I saw a man yesterday who may be one of these people. I followed in his footsteps as he pushed a rusty bicycle laden with stacks of cardboard and numerous, voluminous sacks. I used my camera to record this short scene, if only for a minute. His pace was steady and determined, though slow. We were walking up a narrow that cuts through a scene of massive urban redevelopment – something that can be seen all over the city. He is obviously poor, and he will most likely take this cardboard and the contents of these plastic bags somewhere to be recycled. The money will likely be used to provide food for himself, his family, and perhaps there will be a little bit left over for savings. The whole time I followed him I never really saw his face. He didn’t even know I was behind him. He could be anyone. His story is like that of so many others.

I am going to go ahead and post this short clip here in this blog. It certainly doesn’t have any of the glamour of Shanghai, but it does show life as it truly is here for some of the people. This man, like so many others, works to provide for himself. He doesn’t ride around on the back of a large garbage truck collecting cardboard that has been set out and stacked neatly. His story is much more modest and the truth of his situation is hardly disguised. He collects cardboard and whatever is in his plastic bags. A couple of girls walk in front of him, carrying bags filled with things that they purchased from the large shopping district behind us. People pass by on scooters, bicycles, or on foot, hardly even noticing us and busy going about their own lives. Another person passes by in an Audi – a luxury dreamed of by many but affordable to few in this city. Around us, dilapidated buildings are blocked off for demolition or have already been leveled to make room for new, modern high rises. The road, crumbling in places, may be redone, or it may simply be touched up. Either way, this short scene shows some of the growing pains of this city. The pain doesn’t necessarily mean that things are bad, but it is a necessity for a place and a people with such ambitions and aspirations. After all, the people of Shanghai are all in it together to transform their city into a beacon of prosperity that will awe the world, and each person has a role – even an old man collecting cardboard for recycling.

And with no further ado, here is the short clip.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Weekend on the Town

It is now four days that I have officially been in Shanghai. Time isn’t quite flying yet, but I am pretty sure that it will soon enough. I actually hope it does go slow because there is so much to do and see here that I feel like it would never get dull. It’s a fascinating city.

We were asked to name some adjectives that would describe the city. I think a few good ones would be lively, booming, bustling, full of contrast, polluted, cosmopolitan, international, and smelly. It’s lively because there is always something going on, no matter what time of the day it is. This city never sleeps. It’s obvious how much it is booming and bustling by how much commerce and industry there is here, all of the buildings under construction or demolition, cranes visible no matter where you are, and every street being full of people going about their daily routine. The city is full of contrast because you quite often see someone driving a brand new Lexus or Mercedes down the same street where another person works all day at their little square in the sidewalk selling trinkets for pennies, lucky to go home with $10 at the end of the day. It’s obvious how polluted it is when you can hardly see more than a mile away during the day time, let alone see any blue sky or even the sun. It’s cosmopolitan because people fuss over brands, images, and lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. It’s a trend setting city for China. It’s not uncommon for people here to save for many months to buy a cell phone that would make many Americans envious. It’s obvious how international the city is when you step foot into Lujiazui, the financial district that is booming so quickly that it is catching all of the world’s attention. Multinational companies are racing to set up offices in this city, especially in this particularly prestigious area. The city is smelly because every five feet I walk down the sidewalk, the odor of the air changes. As I venture out into the markets in the morning in search for some breakfast, it’s not uncommon for the smell of cooking meat to be followed by that of dirt, clay, and pollution as a sidewalk is being torn up, then to be followed by warm cake, then live fish. Truly there is never a dull moment here.

Since I last wrote, we have had the chance to venture out into a few parts of town, such as a large park, Lujiazui, a truly massive 8+ story mall, the historic French quarters along the Bund, and Nanjing road.

Despite all we’ve done and seen so far, we have barely even scratched the surface of all there is in this city. My feet ache from all of the walking we have done, but I yearn to continue on. Even as a sit here, with my feet completely lifted up, no weight bearing down upon them, they throb with pain as a constant reminder of the many miles of walking we have done, not to mention the bit of running I did in the morning. If only these shoes could talk, the stories they could tell would be amazing. But alas, my select words will have to suffice.

One of my most important goals with this blog, aside from keeping people informed about how things are going, is to expose China for what it truly is and not dress it up or down. I can already cut to several stereotypes. First off, Americans generally think that Chinese people are short. Yes there are short people, especially amongst those over 50 years old. But as I walk along and look around, they are quite close to the average height in America, particularly amongst those my age and under. I have already met several students that are well over 6 feet tall. I even saw one who easily topped 6 feet and 6 inches. So, the rumor that Chinese people are short is false. They are definitely taller than the French. That is something I can personally attest to. Congratulations France, you now have yet another reason to be made fun of. Oh, and the Chinese are much nicer to people than you are too. Strike two. But I highly doubt you are reading this blog anyway. I figure you are too busy preparing all of those terribly arduous but amazingly tasty hors d’oeuvres that make your 35 hour work week seem too demanding. Or perhaps you are crippling your cities by allowing all of the public transportation employees to go on strike for 3 weeks straight. But I digress.

Speaking of French, I have had a surprising amount of opportunities to use it here. There are several students here that are studying French because they will be doing an exchange program with a university in Nice. I admit that I am almost envious. Nice is, in my opinion, in one of the most beautiful areas and climates in the world. Words don’t quite do it any justice. See, there is redemption for France after all. And besides, I lived there for two years and consider it to be a home away from home, so I am allowed to make fun of it. I may end up helping some of these students practice their French, especially the accent, because it would be quite fun.

We also just happened to get a bit disoriented today while taking the metro and ended up in the completely wrong place. While we were there though, a really nice Chinese man started talking with us. He threw in a few French words, which we noticed, and so I told him that I also speak French. We talked for a few minutes as we waited for our train to arrive, and it was a lot of fun. He had pretty good pronunciation, and his French was definitely better than his English. As I have already said, people are incredibly kind, friendly, and curious here. He and his wife excitedly waived goodbye to us as we boarded the train and got back on track (no pun intended, so stop rolling your eyes!).

The metro system here is surprisingly good. The city has 20 million people, but only 5 lines. That’s pittance compared to how many lines there are in New York or Paris. But these 5 lines get used quite well. The metro trains are very long too. Of all the metros I had been on back in Europe or the US, they were no longer than 4 cars long. This one is so long that I can get on board, look to both ends and not see either one. It’s good because the trains get really packed. There are so many people here!

Even late into the night, it’s surprising how many people there are everywhere. We were out on Nanjing road, which is famous world-wide for its many upscale boutiques that would be found in the most upscale parts of London, Los Angeles, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Dubai, and it was completely packed with people at 10:00pm. In fact, this was just the beginning as most of the clubs, occupying the floors that rose up in the buildings and overlooked the street, don’t really get crowded until midnight. It was just four of us exploring the area. We were actually a very interesting group. There was a huge, well-built and tone black American guy that drew everyone’s attention, a guy who is all-around cool, easy-going, and instantly likeable, myself – the lost-in-thought and always observing type that was also described as being the “Spiderman of the group”, and our Chinese colleague Benjamin (his English name). Here are a few pictures from our stroll along the street.

Yes, we were quite the group. On this very road we met an English girl who had been in China for a month, spoke no Chinese at all, and had been longing to meet some English speaking people. She joined us as we wandered down the road, taking in all of the bright neon lights that would rival Vegas, and trying to avoid all of the people who ran up to us asking us to buy things ranging from flowers to DVDs to wheels that clip onto the heels of your shoes to “massages”. Some were extremely difficult to get to leave us alone. I snapped a picture of a couple who had been pestering us for a while. Here it is:

The picture is kina blurry, but I actually like it that way. It reflects the crazy environment the street has. One of the people nagging us was the lady in orange trying to get us to follow her off of the street but “only a minute away” (according to her). Another was a the guy with his hand on his hip trying to sell us “massages,” but based on the pictures of the girls that were on the cards that would be performing the massages, I certainly had the impression that they were offering other services as well. And by no means do I mean manicures or haircuts. The guy on the right in the purplish shirt is Benjamin. He has been studying English for over 10 years and still hasn’t been to an English speaking country (such a luxury is quite rare for the Chinese), but his English is quite good. We ended our adventure up by People’s Square where we hailed a cab (the metro stops running around 9:30 or 10:00pm). Things are incredibly inexpensive here, even cab rides. Three of us took a 15 minute cab ride back to the school and it was only $3.80. That’s not bad considering back in Fort Collins, a cab ride starts at $3.50.

I’m pretty much adjusted to the time schedule here. I admit that I would rather keep things as they are right now, because I am getting tired at about 10:00pm and wake up between 5:30 and 6:30am. Unfortunately, I doubt that will last more than a week. But who knows? I have giant windows in this room and it’s bright by 6:30am, so maybe I will be okay. Being a morning person would definitely be better for my studying routine, not to mention the fact that I have to wait an hour after turning on the water heater to be able to shower.

Classes start tomorrow morning. It feels like it has definitely been a while since I’ve been in class, but I’ve actually been quite diligent in studying and practicing my Chinese over the summer. I’m obviously making much more progress and at a much quicker rate here. I suppose that would be a given considering that hardly anyone really speaks English here (despite the rumors that everyone speaks English, which is not true.) This is pretty obvious when you try to buy something. When I step up to tell them what I want to buy, my Chinese magically flies out my ears and I botch it all up. I did much better today though when we went to the… umm… *cough cough*… “heavily discounted but posh brands” market… *cough cough* and I got to put my price bartering skills to work. Actually, it was easier than I thought it would be. First off, I have no problem just walking away if something is too expensive or a transaction is too complicated or if it’s something I don’t fully understand. I got a pair of sunglasses that I actually like (I’m really picky about sunglasses) and a really cool, rugged-looking Diesel shoulder bag (the only acceptable form of man purse) for about $15. Not bad, I say. My offer for a watch was shot down and they didn’t even chase after me after I had walked away. Apparently my offer was too low even for them. And I’m okay with that. I definitely need to go back though because I really need a watch and some clothes. We haven’t even been here a week and I’m practically out of clothes already. It’s laundry time!

And to wrap things up, here are a few more pictures. These first ones are some really awesome pictures I took from our residence hall. The first one is from my own balcony in my room! The second one was from the balcony at the end of our wing, and it shows the Pearl Tower in it. The lights are coming from a huge stadium a few blocks away. It had just rained, so the air was really clear and clean and the clouds were visible but the rays of light still lit up in the sky. This place is amazing.

These next couple of pictures are some that I took and offer a slightly more artistic perspective of Shanghai.