Monday, May 21 2012

Shanghai Bound

I have never left the country prior to May 9th, 2012. I didn't have a good reason not to have left the country other than I didn't know where to go.  Now I have been on cruises and such, but I am not counting those because when I did leave the boat and enter another country, usually all I saw was other Americans and I got to use my own money. I wanted to leave the country in a way most people do, where it requires a passport, a exchange of funds, and learning some basics of another language to survive. I can happily say I accomplished those things and more on this trip to Shanghai. I "chose" Shanghai because I figured, if I am going to leave this country for the first time, I should pick somewhere I already know someone. My friend Patty and her husband moved here a little over a year ago for his job.  After I finally booked my ticket I started to get excited. I decided there were three things I wanted to accomplish on this trip.

First, I wanted to experience something new. I was excited off the back that when I used the ATM here and it spit out money that I didn't recognize, I knew i was finally in another place! The airport looked like every other airport, and my first "meal" in china was a ice cream cone from Burger King and a Corona Light from the airport bar, but I paid for them in Reminbi (RMB or Yaun if you prefer)! After traveling for 17 hours all Patty, Kevin and I wanted to do was sleep, so I had nothing terribly new to experience the first day, I more than made for it the rest of the trip.

Now there are not a whole lot of black people in shanghai. Shocking I know. Patty says that since she has been here she has seen a total of 5. While I was here we saw 3! So everywhere we went we got looks, and people wanting to take pictures.  I had people ask me a variety of questions, some even wondering if I was LeBron James.  I took a few pictures here and there.  One day I even played basketball with some local folks and they guys asked me in broken English if I could "slam down". Being relatively the only black person I saw is very new for me being that I live in Atlanta.  I loved being a novelty.  I also loved the lack of assumptions about what kind of person I am based on my skin color since racial stereotypes about blacks don't exist here. (other than we are good at basketball). 

Patty and her family are a novelty all their own.  The Chinese people love seeing white babies it seemed.  Patty shared with me many stories from the past year of all the people and the things they say and do when she goes out.  Apparently the novelty is that white (or non-asian i suppose) babies have the round eyes, and they are amazed by that. Several people want to take pictures with the babies (she has a 2 year old and a 6 month old). So her family already standing out, toss in a black guy, you have what one lady called "Chinese entertainment." I chuckled when she said it but it came to a head less than 20 minutes later when this "entertainment" turned into a mob.  While in a small market we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by several people, taking pictures and touching us.  I can only imagine this must be what its like for celebrities when they go out in public. though they cant get out of it by just saying "goodbye" and smiling and walking away.

Patty and I took this freak show all over shanghai, trying the local fare, and visiting some of its best shopping hubs.  One of these shopping hubs was a place called Tiemzi Fung. It was a small cluster of buildings with a bunch of tiny shops in them. A lot of them selling the same souvenirs, but some of them selling works of art and jewelry by local folks. I had so much fun walking around there the first day I was here I had to get Patty to take me back.  We also revisited a restaurant they had only recently discovered themselves called Kommune, a restaurant playing on the communist economy here. The food was excellent! they had wraps and sandwiches, some of the best fries I have ever had, and a milk shake to die for.

We also visited a place called the Science and Technology Center. Now I didn't see any science or technology when I got there, what I did see was the "fake market" as patty calls it that is underneath it.  Here you can get some of the worlds best knock off and some super low prices! In these tiny hallways were several shops, selling everything from jewelery and clothing, to fake ipads and "Beats" headphones.  Nothing was marked with a price.  Everything had to be bargained for.  One piece of good advice Kevin gave me before we went in, was that if I start a negotiation with someone, I better be committed to finishing the negotiation and buying the product.  My first test was a negotiation over a Red Wings jersey. they guy quoted me a price of 380 RMB (which is roughly 58USD). I immediately told him it was too expensive (in Chinese, Kevin also taught me a few bargaining phrases), and began to walk away. He followed me out of his shop with a calculator shouting "name your price." We ended up landing at 180RMB (roughly 28USD). I was very excited about it and had fun bargaining for several more things while we were down there, including getting a TagHauer watch which she originally wanted to sell me for 580RMB, for only 200RMB. A day of shopping that would have made my mother proud!

We also went to a place called the commodities market.  This place was even more ridiculous than the fake market.  The hallways here were much smaller and the shops even smaller.  Folks crammed all of their wares withing 4 feet of their body and tried to sell them to you.  There was not much room for bargaining here, everything had a set price. This place had everything you could imagine. I saw all kinds of jewelery, arts and crafts, clothing, iphone cases, lights, zippers, clasps, buckles, button. Remember that little part of that thing that broke 2 years ago that you fixed with duck tape? Yeah they got a replacement part for that.

Secondly on this trip, I wanted to reconnect with an old friend.  Me and patty have known each other for almost 12 years. We have seen each other through a lot of things, but with being married and two kids it's hard to hang out, especially after she moved to shanghai. But it was awesome on this trip to have a chance to spend a extended amount of time with her.  First time in a long time I'd seen for for longer than a meal and desert.  I did enjoy spending a lot of this trip at her house, which by the way is huge. I had a lot of fun playing an helping take are of her 2 kids as well, they are a lot of fun.  They have a "maid/nanny/chef". I do not know her real name but we called her ayi (pronounced I E), which is more of her job title than anything.  In Chinese it just means "aunt". A lot of the families here have ayi's to help clean the house, take care of the kids, and cook the food when needed. Patty loved her ayi. She came highly recommended from a family leaving the country when she got here. 

One afternoon while Kevin was at work, we left the kids with ayi and went out to get lunch.  I wanted to go somewhere super local, some small place that wasn't trendy or anything. We went on a small hike from her house and found such a place. Now you do have to be careful here, you don't want to go to a "hole in the wall" you wont be  sure exactly what it is you are eating.  You know how in the states we have those health department grades that restaurants are required to post? well here they system is much more simple.  Every business gets a smiley face, a straight face, or a sad face, and they are not required to post their results.  The place we found was a straight face.  Good enough.  And the food was amazing, we stuffed ourselves and then walked down the block a little bit to get a foot massage. The foot massage included a small back massage and it lasted an our, only cost 100RMB! (15USD). 

The trip that afternoon was extra special because it was the most time I had spent with Patty, catch up, and even found out things about her I never knew, and vice versa.  I was also able on this trip to spend time with her husband Kevin, whom in the 12 years I have known him we have not done much together. We spent most of our bonding time in the mornings when his 2 year old Issac would wake up due to jet lag at 4 am.  we would watch kids shows or sports (since it was nighttime back home we could watch NBA games) and chat till he had to go to work.  He and I played basketball one afternoon with his driver, and his drivers son and friends. I learned a lot about Kevin on this trip that I had not known before.

Lastly on this trip, I wanted to learn something, not only fun facts about China, but I also wanted to learn something that I could take home and apply to my own life now or at least know for one day in the future.  Here are some things I learned on this trip!

1. Ni Hao - "hello" very important, a simple hello can break down barriers between people of different cultures. I would get weird looks because they didn't know if they could talk to me because clearly i don't speak their language, but as soon as I'd say "Ni Hao" I would get smiles and friendliness.

2. China has a class system.  I didn't learn much about the class system but that I know drivers are "above" ayi's. Ayi's do not make much and live in very small quarters, it made me appreciate the freedom we have back home, and appreciate the term "minimum wage."

3. In Shanghai alone there are 30 million people! whoa, that's just way too many people! Kevin said something to me that struck home. I was talking about this crappy rake/brooms they have here to clean the yards and streets with, and how I could make a ton of money if I opened a rake/broom factory here.  Kevin said efficiency is not a problem in a country of 1 billion people, they don't need people to be efficient because if its not getting done on time, they just throw more people at the task. 

4. Thai Guella - this is my phonetic spelling of a Chinese phrase that mean "too expensive." I used it a lot in the fake market along with...

5. Boo Yaw - this is my phonetic spelling of the phrase that means "I don't want." something you have to tell a lot of the people trying to sell you stuff on the street.

6. Smog is a very serious problem here in shanghai. A visible problem. every picture I took is glazed over in smog. Makes me want to almost become a tree huger. Almost.

7. You have to breast feed an infant every two to three hours. This has nothing to do with china specifically except that I learned that while there with patty's kids.  Planning our outings had to be tactically scheduled around Eli's feeding schedule.

8. I guess Chinese people invented the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" Chinese people take a lot of precaution protecting their soon to be mothers and their babies. Older Chinese women would come up to us often complaining that patty's kids  didn't have socks, or they were being exposed to too much sun or something.

9. Part of potty training here is something called "split pants." they are literally pants with a giant split right at the crotch, so that when a child has to pee, they simply squat right where they are on the street, and take care of business.

10. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way here.  As a pedestrian it is on you to not get hit by cars and do what you have to to stay safe.  All those lessons of looking both ways before I cross the street finally paid off.

11. At restaurants in china, you do not tip, and your wait staff will not even come to the table unless you flag them down.

12. Zi Tien - another phonetic spelling of their phrase for good bye.  Had to use this a lot when we were getting mobbed by people and needed to get away.

All in all I had an amazing trip.  I have a ton of stories I can share for years to come, and most of all It has made me now want to travel to other parts of the world. I admittedly do not know much about other cultures and other parts of the world, and have waited far to late in life to start learning, but this trip was a great catalyst. I am sad I had to leave but happy to have had this opportunity. I have loved everything I did there, every experience I have had, every person I met, every sight I saw. I cant wait to see what my next trip abroad brings!


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