Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lesson Learned Today

Learning how to say "excuse me" in Chinese has done wonders for my confidence. I was able to ask, at several little shops today, whether they had phone cards or not, without feeling like a rude laowai (foreign person). I never really knew how to get someone's attention without doing some sort of weird "ahem"/cough thing, or perhaps waving my arms around like a maniac. I hardly know any Chinese, but now being able to be polite can make up for some of my linguistic shortcomings. People seemed to smile a little more when I tried, at least I think so. It felt quite good.

Also, while I'm doing a short post (I know, hard to believe), I have NOT seen Tobias yet. I had a few inquiries and thought I would give an update. I promise I'll let you know the minute I see him. Also, the leak in the bathroom turned out to be from Old Mr. Wang's toilet upstairs, which I prefer not to contemplate too much. It is fixed now, so once we get the plaster redone and painted, should be good as new. At least for a while. The toilet and the washing machine are on the fritz though. Always, always, always something here!

She Paved the Way

In July of 2007, my sister did what no Grooms had done before: studied abroad. She flew off to Argentina for a four and a half month stint as an exchange student in Cordoba.

I think it is safe to say that the first two weeks were fairly traumatic. Communication was a mess. Using the internet to call home was not an immediate reality and her $50 phone card disappeared within a week. Her first call to my cell phone, using her precious last thirteen minutes of air time, was an emotional experience for both of us. I tried to comfort and encourage her as much as I could before time ran out and we were forced to say goodbye. She also faced the challenge of adjusting to the Argentinian accent and improving her Spanish speaking skills. She started school, met new friends, and learned her way around, but it was still hard and we spent much time on the phone trying to cheer her up or calm her down.

She didn't stop missing home, in the way that makes you physically ache at times, until two months had passed. I think she almost felt guilty that she was finally feeling OK. She had traveled around the country a bit, become close with her classmates, spent time with her host family and their relatives. She knew which bus went to the city, to the school, to their favorite haunts. She didn't feel the urge to beg for an easy way out and instead was able to enjoy more of her time there.

As the second Grooms to embark on a global experiment, I would say the pattern has held true in my experience. For the past couple weeks, I have felt better. It's not that I wasn't enjoying some of my time during the first two months I was here, but there was a definite sense of struggle. Now, the air feels a bit lighter.

It may all be because of the weather. The relentless heat of July and August paired with the high humidity dampened my spirits a bit. I am an "open windows" kind of gal, so living with the necessary air conditioning in a closed up environment I usually associate with the cabin fever of Ohio's winters, the isolation I felt was two-fold. Too hot to explore, no one to invite over. But September has arrived and there have finally been some days that could be considered comfortable. A sunny day with cool breezes at the start of the month left me positively giddy, which in turn made me giggle inside, wondering to myself how the Chinese people would react to a crazy white girl skipping down Shannxi Rd.

Weather problems aside, it took a while to just adjust to living here. I had to figure out where to grocery shop and what sorts of Western food I could obtain at specialty stores. I studied the map every time I set out to go somewhere, either by foot or by taxi. It was a month before I tried the subway system. I longed for a shopping trip to Target. I practically fell off my couch in a swoon when my grandpa told me all about a cookout my family had just had with all my favorite summer foods: corn on the cob, steak and Ohio tomatoes. I grumpily ate another bowl of ramen noodles.

I also had a lot of cooking equipment to buy and that proved tricky because any sort of baking dish, pizza pan, muffin tin you could think of were not readily available at the local shops because, news flash, Chinese folks don't even
have ovens. They use the stove top and steaming baskets. Heck, I had to go to an expensive cooking store to buy an oven thermometer because the dial on the oven, instead of listing temperatures, had "1-11" on it. I don't know about other people, but my cookbook has never said "Preheat your oven to 8."

It is tempting to declare that I am past the danger zone of culture shock and all is smooth sailing ahead. I'm not so naive. I am enjoying the sense of accomplishment and calm that I have worked towards, but I am well aware that the challenges do not stop here. I have started Chinese classes, so I am now actively tackling the language barrier. This is, of course, no small or quick task. Chinese is massively challenging to learn, but every word I master helps a little bit. Baby steps. This seems to be the best way to go about this country to avoid being completely discouraged by it's mysteries and challenges.

Back in February, when not even a full week had passed since David had told me about his job offer in China, I came to Amy with my dilemma. I was still very disoriented by the surreal decision I had to make. Move to China, stay in Columbus. I noticed her lips tighten at the first mention of the idea, a subtle sign that she was not exactly happy to hear the news. She waited me out though, let me talk about the scenario, the details, the fail safes, and the time line. She asked questions and we talked about it over our lunch of Greek food. She seemed more relaxed by the time we left. She drove me back to work and pulled into a parking spot. We sat for a moment.

"At first," she said, "I wasn't sure about the idea, but the more I think about it, I think you would have a great experience. I will never regret studying abroad. I wish I had stayed longer even, maybe not in Argentina, but maybe somewhere else. I learned so much." She paused for a second. I focused on her dashboard.

"If you decide to go, I would support you. I'd miss you like crazy, but I'd support you."

And in true Grooms fashion, we both burst into tears. We also chuckled through the tears, knowing full well we're pretty sappy. But I hugged her and thanked her. She'll never know what that meant to me. Her encouragement was exactly what I needed that week. Her selfless blessing made it all seem possible.

Amy had been home from Argentina just three months when I broke the news to her. She had grown in ways she never would have if she hadn't made the leap to study abroad. This conversation was proof. Now my little sister was supporting me and inspiring me to pursue a life changing event of my own. And so far? I'm not regretting it either.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Eating With Sticks

As one might imagine, my life is quite different from what it used to be: different city, different culture, different country. Some changes are obvious and to be expected, but many are not. I’ve decided to make a list…

  1. I often wake up to the sound of a tin bell jangling in the alleys, along with a rather jarring recording of some mysterious words in Chinese. This is most likely a man asking for empty plastic bottles and scraps of cardboard. There’s recycling in China after all.
  2. Yes, I can buy live turtles, eels or frogs at the grocery. I think I could get a live chicken at the wet market if I wanted to be extreme, which, of course, I do not.
  3. I have a translated guide to the buttons on our washing machine, since everything is in Chinese characters. The translation, however, took some trial and error. I mean, what does the “Assist” button do?
  4. I do eat a bit with chopsticks, a skill I was hopeless at acquiring back home. I actually do better grabbing one grain of rice than I do with a slippery noodle. I practiced with ramen quite a bit in the beginning. Now, I find them more useful than a fork in some cases. “Hello, this is the Dark Side calling. Wanna come on over?”
  5. Some men here, when it’s hot, walk around in their underwear and/or push their shirts up over their bellies, creating somewhat of a midriff look. I just…I have no words to describe how odd this is to me.
  6. I don’t drink from the tap. The water most likely does not contain any organisms that will make one sick, but I am not entirely sure if this is because of Shanghai’s water treatment practices or because the organisms can’t survive the exposure to chemicals and heavy metals. It tastes like rust anyway.
  7. Little kids pee on the street and sidewalk. No one even looks twice.
  8. I can buy a bottle of beer that is twice the size of bottles in the states for a mere 40 cents.
  9. I can buy an imported Lean Cuisine for the reasonable price of around $8. This is a prime example of what I label “Ridiculous.”
  10. A housekeeper (or an ‘ayi’ as they are called) comes to the apartment once a week for four hours. She does laundry, floors, dishes, bill paying, water ordering, bathroom cleaning and general helping out. To say I’m not a bit spoiled by this would be offensive, but it can be awkward and uncomfortable. I never pictured myself in this situation. She does make a really good wage of 20 yuan (about $3) an hour and most ayis work at least twice a week, if not all week. Some day I’ll speak to her properly instead of with grunts and shrugs of my shoulders, so then she may also become a language tutor. I am thankful for her help in many, many ways.
  11. Some restrooms consist of a porcelain hole in the floor with no toilet paper and no soap. This usually tends to make me grumpy, but I am happy to report that one’s squatting skills can, in fact, be improved with time. It's good to have goals in life.

Stay tuned for my next “list” in the future. You can’t make this stuff up.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Sublime + The Ridiculous = A Great Thursday Night

Tonight was one of those nights when it feels great to be in Shanghai.

The weather has cooled down a bit from scorching to simply warm, the humidity easing up, making for great patio weather. I really respond to good weather and have noticed what a difference it makes in my enjoyment level. Up until now, evenings were the only bearable time of day to be outside at all, but now I can explore during the day if I wish without wilting and passing out and then enjoy a refreshingly cool evening as well.

Our first friends in Shanghai, Kellie and Gregg, are great companions for such evenings out, exploring new found eateries or watering holes. David met these two before I arrived, when they approached him on the street to ask advice about where to live. They have told me since that they "profiled" him: white guy who looks like he lives here. It's funny to think how this one small chance meeting made all the difference in the world to my life here. When I moved here, we all met for dinner and it just clicked. The guys are similar and the girls are similar. We're all easy going. Kellie is a journalist, so we go to a writer's group here fairly often and talk about writing in general. The guys are really into studying Chinese (cough...nerds...) among other common interests. We all like hiking and camping, having a drink, making new friends, etc. It is also great to have friends who are going through the same stages as you are, so you don't feel too alone in this big ol' town.

I always know it's a great thing when I can hang out with a couple and not feel awkward at all. When David is here, we all get together and get along so well, and it doesn't change a bit when I fly solo. Nights out with Kellie and Gregg are a really fun time. (Now, I know they might read this at some point and think, Damn! We are awesome! All I can say is, don't let it go to your heads. I can very easily tell the "We Got Scammed" story!) Evil grin....

So Kellie is finishing up an article on wine bars in Shanghai and we've been helping her "research."

"Another glass? Why yes, I believe I will..." Homework has never been so sweet.

I've been to a couple of these test visits and it's been a great way to see some different areas. Wine is somewhat new in Shanghai, popular for ages in the expatriate circles for sure, but the Chinese are just starting to catch on. At least with very few wine specific bars in existence, it narrows the search and we don't have to become winos to get the story right.

This evening was projected to be the last outing for the article, and we ended up at Globus Wine in the northwest corner of the former French Concession, the same district David and I, and Kellie and Gregg, live in, although on the opposite end. An acquaintance of theirs, Yan, from France, who also brought a friend along, met us for the evening as well. His friend had a French name that only the French can pronounce, so I decided not to slaughter it, and therefore cannot remember it. But they were very nice folks and the friend picked out the wine for us to share, so it felt more authentic having been picked by a Frenchman. Plus, there was cheese involved. It just felt like the good life. Wine, cheese, friends, sitting outside in the cool night air. Just lovely.

After a couple hours of great conversation, we parted ways, at first in the apparent way of Americans, i.e. the handshake, but then a retry with the French double cheek kiss when we suddenly felt too formal. Ah, culture clash. If there had been a Chinese person present, we would have been in a real pickle, because they don't even shake hands goodbye. Heck, they barely even wave!

I shared a cab back with Gregg and Kellie as my bike was at their apartment. Cabs are very cheap here, but they are even cheaper when you share one and boy was I glad I did on this particular evening. Halfway home, I noticed some music and asked if it was coming from us, as in, from our cab. The three of us agreed that it was indeed coming from the car stereo and that it was, in fact, Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" song. (For those not into the rap/hip hop scene, this is a pretty well known singer/rapper. I am definitely not cool enough to know much about this genre, but I know enough to recognize Snoop Dog when I hear it. Word to the wise: don't look up the lyrics.) Now, cab drivers here are pretty straightforward and all business, at least in my experience, and any music I have ever heard on the radio has been Chinese pop or some type of music that requires only that the lyrics be sappy. So this WAS a change!

We all got the biggest kick out of this and started laughing and dancing in our seats. This got the cab driver excited, so he cranked up the volume! Here we are, cruising down some busy street in Shanghai, blasting hip hop. That, my friends, is living. It made absolutely no sense, and was quite the juxtaposition to the first part of the evening, but that's why I loved it. Start with cheese and wine and end up bustin' a move in the back of a cab. You just never know what this city is going to throw at you!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Fabric Market

It was an intriguing concept, and another of many surprises that China held for me. David and I had heard that there was a market filled with fabric close to the west side of the Huangpu River where you could have clothes tailored to fit your Western self. The possibilities were tantalizing, especially considering the limited clothing options for those of us with hips who find ourselves in Asia.

For me, and perhaps other Americans, the word market is a somewhat exotic term, conjuring up images of colorful stalls filled with goods and crafts and oddities. But when I thought of markets, in general, I thought mostly of food. It was the ancient supermarket, a far cry from the fluorescent lit groceries, mini marts or, egad, Wal-Mart. Columbus had its own fancy schmancy modern manifestation of the old world style cluster of food stalls called the North Market, which was a good place to buy specialty food items in the city, with whole ducks or foreign cheeses at your fingertips. Even if it was a touch pricey, I always enjoyed going there, if only to look around. I was in awe of those who were able to pick one ingredient from 5 different vendors and somehow turn it into a dish. It was a cool place to tap into the old way of doing things, albeit in a pretty high brow fashion. But not all new versions of the market concept in American culture are for the rich or wannabe foodies. If you were not fortunate enough to live close to an actual farm, some towns would have fruit and veggie stalls line up along the main street during the weekends from spring to fall, manned by the local growers themselves. It just sounds more quaint and wholesome to call it a farmer’s market. So with a firm romantic concept of the markets of yore and the hot tip that a market existed in a foreign land filled with textiles rather than with food, my head swam in a sea of colors and patterns.

The realty, while not too far off the mark, is that the market is in a modern building, with escalators to each of the three floors. At first it is inspiring, halls filled with dresses and suits and shirts and skirts and bolt upon bolt of fabric from silk to denim to wool. It quickly turns into a disorienting experience, however, with every vendor trying to convince you to buy something every time you stop to look. I know some people thrive in this sort of environment, thrilling in the hunt and the bargaining that is mandatory in these places. I, however, am at my core a shy person. I basically love u-scans and price tags. No muss, no fuss. It does not feel good to know that I will always pay too much here, even if it is relatively cheap. I just don’t care enough about a shirt to haggle over it.

When I arrived in Shanghai, David had already found himself sucked into the Fabric Market cycle. He had gone once with a new friend, Sanami, who could speak Chinese and frequented the market herself. He had already negotiated a new suit, a couple dress shirts and a copy of a rare pair of pants that actually fit his slim frame. We were told that if you brought a piece of clothing to the market, it would be easy for them to copy it. You could, theoretically, take that favorite shirt of yours and make a copy in several colors, fabrics, patterns, what have you. The stalls, and there were many of them, all had examples of articles you could order, some fashionable, others decidedly not. I personally thought some vendors had bought wholesale fabrics from the 80s. I thought perhaps a delivery truck had gotten very lost en route and sold its load years later for pennies, or rather, jiao. But no matter what the media or the girls five years younger than me were saying, any decade with that much neon, plastic and hair needed to be left alone. I could not imagine who was buying the stuff.

So the way things worked was that you placed an order, picking out fabrics, taking measurements, choosing buttons, and then received a mingpian, or business card, so that you could return a week later and pick up your order. This is how it is supposed to work. Many times you would need to have something corrected, like raising a hem or adjusting the fit on one sleeve. A return trip the next weekend would be in order. This was par for the course. But sometimes, you get the pleasure of going back several times.

I went with David a week after having moved into our apartment to pick up the suit and dress shirts he had ordered a few weeks back. This was his third or fourth time there, having made several adjustments already, and he had only been in China for two months. In addition to picking these orders up, he wanted to place another order this trip, because miracle upon miracles, they had actually succeeded in copying his pants the first time and he wanted more.

I had contemplated having some skirts made, so I brought three of my favorites with me. I figured skirts were pretty simple and a good place to start my foray into the fabric market world. I was soon overwhelmed, however, with not only the number of fabric choices, but the number of crappy fabric choices. I was looking for cotton for the cool factor, but most bolts seemed to hold very thin, very cheap versions of cotton fabric. I receive stares everywhere I go because I look different. I didn’t relish the idea of people staring at me even more because of a thin skirt revealing the color of my underwear.

To jump to the conclusion, I withered under the choices and neglected to place an order. David, on the other hand, scoured the market for the perfect specimens of cloth, opting to hand pick material from multiple vendors, mostly for grays and browns with the right amount of “roughness.” No soft fabric for my man, no sir. He needed thick fabric. It sounded extremely hot to me given that the temperature had been in the high 90s all week with a relentless dose of humidity. I could not stand to wear anything more than skirts and tank tops for the entire month of July and here he was picking thick, dark fabric for pants! I guess I was just lucky I didn’t have to dress up for an office everyday, so I planned on revisiting the pants option maybe in, say, September.

So Sanami and I, after taking a look around for our own projects and coming up decidedly uninspired, followed behind my apparent shopaholic of a boyfriend, a stack of folded fabric hugged close to his chest, as he proceeded to check out all the button vendors, searching for the strongest buttons on the premises. He finally placed his pants order. Four more pairs in all. A down payment was made and we left the fabric market, ignoring the street vendors on our way out.

Two days later, I got a text from David. He was in Yanzhou now, the town where his plant looms large on the horizon.

“I was getting in the car and my pants ripped at the crotch…a huge gaping hole.”

Snorting is really a lot of fun when no one is there to hear you. A follow-up text confirmed that these were indeed his first pair of copied pants. They had ripped, so much so that the driver had to take him back to the hotel to change. And now he had four more pairs on the way. Maybe it was wrong to laugh, but I found it damn funny.

I have been back to the fabric market three times since then, sometimes for pick up, sometimes for return. The Chinese are excellent at copying the look of the clothing, a skill I certainly don’t have despite my mom’s tutoring on the sewing machine. But like so many things here, it only looks good on the surface. Get up close and personal and you will find the buttons are loose, the stitch is not doubled and the thread is cheap. David had picked sturdy fabric, but he could not choose sturdy thread. After the last pick up, he declared enough for a while, which was good news to me. But honestly, I am still waiting for another text message informing me of more unfortunate and perhaps ill-timed seam failures. I can always use the laughter, although I apologize for it possibly being at David’s expense. But I will no doubt pay my dues for this. I will once more join him in taxi rides to the South Bund Fabric Market should the need arise. But with the recent discovery of some decent street vendors close by, grilling meat on sticks and dumplings in a pan, I may yet turn my future fabric market adventures into a more familiar sense of the term. Sounds good to me.