Our family's stay in Shanghai, China

Archive for December, 2011

Our Christmas in Shanghai, China

Our “Charlie Brown” Christmas Tree

I’m not sure we really knew what to expect about celebrating Christmas in China.  We thought it would be interesting to spend the holidays here and see how it was celebrated.  It was the first time any of us had been outside the US for Christmas.  Well, it was an interesting experience, but more for the lack of celebrating than for the way it’s celebrated differently.

People we talked to before Thanksgiving said Christmas wasn’t much in China, that there really weren’t things to see and do.  However, right around Thanksgiving, we started to see Christmas decorations going up all around.  We were surprised and thought perhaps Christmas would be a more important holiday.  The malls had large trees and decorations.  Our apartment complex put colored lights in the trees and had a “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” sign in colored lights.  Hotels and office buildings had decorations around their entrances.  In stores and restaurants, the staff often had Santa hats and/or Christmas apparel on.  And nearly everywhere we went, we heard Christmas music in English, both secular and religious songs.

A few things were noticeably absent from the myriad of Christmas decorating.  Christmas merchandise for sale in the stores was very limited.  There were few ornaments or other decorations to purchase, but no Christmas wrapping paper.  The wrapping paper we found was more general paper than Christmas.  We saw very few nativities either as decorations or for sale in stores.  The chocolate companies had Christmas-oriented boxes of chocolate, but we didn’t see the expanded baking ingredients or food for Christmas dinner.  We did see a wide selection of Christmas dinners offered at restaurants all over Shanghai, but they were extremely expensive- $100-150 per person.  We did not see large lots of fresh Christmas trees for sale.  Private homes and apartments were not adorned with holiday decorations.  And there was no Santa Claus to visit in the malls.

The girls and I found a small artificial tree for our apartment.  It’s only about 3 or 4 feet tall and pretty spindly.  To Jenna’s dismay, Laura and I called it a “Charlie Brown tree without the lean.”  It had lights and a few decorations.  The girls had to talk me into buying the tree, but I was glad we did

Our church with another International Christian church hosted a Christmas Eve service on Saturday evening.  It was typical of Christmas services in the US with Christmas carols and Bible readings.  One unique thing, we sat with families from Germany and England who were also living in Shanghai.

At David’s office and throughout China, Christmas is not a holiday.  There were no days off.  Guys in his office asked him if we really gave gifts in socks.  He said yes, but they were called “stockings.”  He asked if the Chinese exchanged gifts or did anything special.  But, they said no, that all the decorations and things we see for Christmas are for the westerners who are here, not for the Chinese.

The girls and I baked several kinds of cookies and gave to Laura’s tutors, to our mandarin teacher and to the ladies who clean our apartment.  Laura’s tutors are American and French, so the gifts made sense to them.  Our mandarin teacher is Chinese and also a Christian, so Christmas means something to her.  The cleaning ladies, we don’t know what they thought.  They do not speak English, but said thank you in Chinese several times.

Looking back, it was interesting to spend Christmas in China although it did not “feel” particularly Christmasy or festive.  The English family we sat with at our Christmas Eve service agreed that it did not feel like Christmas despite all the decorations and the music.  The girls and I didn’t hear “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” very often.  And almost no one asked what our plans were for the holidays.  On Christmas morning, the activity outside our apartment looked just like any other day.

The experience has left me to wonder if the Christmas feeling comes as much or more from the interaction with people around us as it does from the decorations we see.  I missed our large, live tree this year and our excursions around Noblesville and Indianapolis to see the lights and decorations.  But even more, I missed Christmas feeling and the people and knowing that all our individual busyness was oriented toward the same day and similar celebrations.

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Chinese Food

Last week I wrote about dining out and Chinese dining customs.  This post will focus on the food itself.

Chinese food is not what we would eat in the US, but nor have I had many “weird” foods.  Eel is as unusual as it gets, which I’ve only had a few times around Asia (usually served glazed, and I don’t care for it).   My least favorite to see- and one I have not tried- is chicken feet.  To me, it is just a big piece of unappetizing cartilage and bone.  In the grocery store, they are sold in bulk in huge bins.  Both duck and chicken feet are also commonly available like we see beef jerky- in vacuum packed snack-size portions, everywhere from supermarkets to convenience stores. 

A few of the other “unusual” things I’ve had:

  • Bamboo (very common, tender, and tastes sort of like artichoke)
  • Fish served whole (head and all- use chopsticks to separate the meat from bone)
  • Quail eggs
  • Lotus (root is fairly common, texture and taste like celery), and deep fried lotus flower
  • Duck is also common- which I enjoy, though a bit bony.  Peking Duck is a favorite dish- boneless duck in a steamed bun with a tangy barbeque-like sauce

There are many different varieties of common fruits and vegetables- I recently had what I thought was a slightly pale yellow delicious apple, but turned out to be a round pear.  Dragonfruit is extremely common.  There are raw string beans at least a foot long and curled up like cooked spaghetti noodles.  Tofu is served with a variety of sauces and spices or as an ingredient in other dishes.

Chinese food is focused mostly on vegetables- meat is common but as an accompaniment not as the main course.  Pasta is non-existent except for some vegetable based noodles.

One of my favorite dishes was in Shandong Province a couple hours from Shanghai.  A thin multi-layer flaky wrap (think of a cross between a croissant and a tortilla), that you filled with a scrambled egg mixture containing a little onion and a heavy dose of chives: absolutely delicious! 

Rice is of course served with most meals, often at the end (enjoy the taste of the many dishes, then satisfy any remaining hunger with rice).  It is also served during the meal- just ask for it- and we flavor plain rice during a meal in a bowl with the various other dishes and soups.  

The thing I like the most about Chinese food is the variety.  Like the US, there are regional specialties but even in one region or city, I rarely see the same dish twice.  Something as simple as green beans are served dozens of different ways- with various spices, mixed with other vegetables, with many different sauces, and with or without meats.  The Chinese embrace this variety, I often ask what something is just out of curiosity- “I have no idea” is the typical response I get as they reach for a bite.  The obvious benefit is that if you don’t care for something, you are not stuck with one dish to either suffer through or go hungry if you were ordering individually as is our custom.

In southern China around Hong Kong, Cantonese “dim sum” is the specialty.  Dim sum are small 1-2 inch diameter steamed buns, often translucent, stuffed with all kinds of meats and vegetables, and served warm in wicker or bamboo baskets.   Dim sum can be served at all times of the day, both as appetizers but also as the main course (or courses, since you would have many different kinds for an entire meal).

In the western hotels, dinner (and breakfast) buffets are the norm- a hundred or more kinds of food: western, what I would call pseudo-Western, and Chinese.  These include meats and seafood prepared to order, soups, fresh fruits, and many different vegetables.  One hotel that I was in last week for dinner advertised Western, but the only recognizable foods were lima beans (served cold), a bell pepper and beef dish, and fried rice.  In large cities like Shanghai, these buffets are not inexpensive: about 180-200RMB (again, exchange rate of 6.3), in smaller cities they can be as low as 68RMB.

Desserts are rare, and as Carol Ann has noted, baking is not done in China like we do in the US.  In other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, cool noodle dishes are often served for dessert, but I have not seen that in China.  Some of the dinner buffets have small pieces of chocolate (and green tea) cake but otherwise, a piece of watermelon is about the only dessert that I have ever seen served.

 “Street food” is very common here- something I have not tried.  There are 3-wheel bike carts everywhere, most commonly serving deep fried tortilla like wraps filled with meats and vegetables.  These carts show up in early morning, near the subway stations and construction sites to feed people on their way to work and again late in the day as people return home.  They have huge cooking kettles, and can be seen pedaling around the city and gathered together near subway and bus stops.

Oddly, in Chinese restaurant, drinks are not served with meals much, you must ask.  A small cup of tea is common, but not much else.   I don’t know how the Chinese drink so little when they eat, especially since certain regions such as Sichuan (usually called Szechuan in the US) are extremely spicy, with hot red peppers in many of the dishes.

When drinks are served, they are never cold.  Even plain water is served lukewarm or steaming.  Bing is an important Mandarin word to know- it means icy or cold, so if you trust the water, ask for bing so that your drink is not room temperature.  Chinese that come to the US dislike our affinity for cold drinks, they simply cannot tolerate them and say it gives them indigestion! 

Not surprisingly, the things that we think are strange to eat in China are reversed when they visit the US.  To nearly all my Chinese coworkers, what we think of as a simple lunch of a sandwich is very odd to them and they do not care for it.  They struggle with finding American food they like just as much as we can struggle in China.

So there is a little “taste” of Chinese food!

Shanghai Traffic

(Left) Workers clean up a spill on the street (no cones or warnings); (Right) Buses, taxis and cars park in the right-hand lane; (Middle) Pedestrians crossing wherever & taxis in the opposite lanes of traffic.

After more than a month walking and riding around Shanghai, here are our family’s collective thoughts on traffic in Shanghai.  In no particular order…

Traffic is very heavy and mixed with every type of wheeled vehicle you can imagine including buses, cars, mini vans, motorcycles, three-wheeled vehicles both pedal and motorized, with and without carts, bicycles with and without carts, mopeds, and motorized bicycles with the pedals still operational.  The vehicles range from new, luxury automobiles to rusty bikes held together with tape, wire or string.

We rarely see pick-up trucks.  Sadly, in the rural areas where pick-up trucks would be needed the most, the residents probably cannot afford it.  Of the two pick-up trucks we have seen in the city, one was apparently being used as an ambulance with someone laying in the back, hooked up to an IV.

Horns are as necessary for drivers as tires, brakes and a steering wheel.

The lines on the road indicating traffic lanes are suggestions.  Drivers tend to go where they will fit or see available space.

Right- and left-turn only lanes are also suggestions for drivers.  It is not unusual to see those lanes used as passing lanes for traffic wishing to go faster than the car(s) ahead of them.

Horns are utilized for a variety of purposes including, but not limited to 1) letting a pedestrian, bike or moped know you’re coming and they need to move out of the way; 2) warning cars on the right or left you are passing them; 3) warning drivers you are moving into their lane or they are encroaching on yours;  4) encouraging the traffic ahead of you to move whether there is somewhere for them to go or not; 5) encouraging drivers stopped or parked in lanes of traffic to move.  Horns are ignored almost as often as they are used.

Bike lanes are pretty common in Shanghai and often have sturdy barriers to protect the cyclists.  Unfortunately, bike lanes are used for bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, cars, mopeds, motorized bikes, or as David found one morning, city buses.

Right turn on red is viewed as a green light, no need to stop, slow down or in most cases, even look.  So pedestrians beware.

Left turn traffic lights are sometimes observed, but it doesn’t seem like a requirement that drivers stop, especially if the light is even the slightest bit orange.  And when the light is green, drivers making a left turn typically don’t yield to oncoming traffic, unless there’s imminent danger of an accident.

At night, cars will have their lights on, but scooters and mopeds often do not.

Hazards in the streets are rarely marked with cones or signs.  This weekend, we watched a group of workmen moving a roll of tubing, at least 8 feet in diameter, down the street.  Traffic was busy, but no one warned the traffic around them.

On two occasions, the girls and I have seen a construction guy standing on the side of the street holding a long pole, 4-6 feet long with a rope hanging on the end.  A turtle was tied to the end of the rope.  We aren’t sure why he was there or if the turtle was alive, but one does wonder if he was warning drivers to “slow down”.

Weaving in and out of traffic through the city is an art form and drivers seems to enjoy practicing it.

Century Avenue (above) is a major, multi-lane thoroughfare in Pudong District. The columns support an elevated pedestrian walkway connecting a park, several tourist attractions, office buildings, shopping and restaurants.

No space is too small for a driver, even a city bus driver, to maneuver his vehicle into when changing lanes and/or passing cars.

Parking your vehicle is simply a matter of finding a space to put your vehicle into. That space could be in a car park, along the curb, on the sidewalk, in the far right hand lane of traffic, basically wherever space is available where you need to be.  And, in some cases, drivers don’t worry about getting their entire vehicle into the parking space.

David’s company insisted on providing a car and driver for us.  Now that we are here, I understand why and am quite grateful.  We don’t feel unsafe on the roads in Shanghai, but the journeys can be quite interesting and entertaining.

Dining Out in China

Sharing a variety of dishes around a lazy susan during a Chinese business dinner

Our blog will be almost exclusively written by the girls, but there are a couple topics that Dave will share.  No, I won’t subject anyone to details of hybrid vehicle powertrains or doing business in China, but eating is one thing I can talk about!

Chinese meals revolve, literally, around a big glass lazy susan, 3-4 feet in diameter, for both quick lunches and long business dinners.  Dishes are set on the lazy susan and then shared among diners.   Dishes are served piping hot with many over Bunsen burners to keep them warm and the soups bubbling.  I eat lunch with my engineering team most days, and since English is uncommon in these restaurants, I trust my coworkers to order.  The norm is 2-3 dishes per person, so 15-20 for a group of 7-8.

We all then split the bill equally, typically 25-30RMB each (exchange rate is roughly 6.3RMB per dollar, so lunch is $4-5).  Which doesn’t seem bad, but when you consider that although salaries have escalated 10-20% per year for several years, the average engineer in China still makes only 1/3 to ½ what a comparable position in the US pays.  So that daily lunch is effectively $10-15 for each of my co-workers.

The biggest negative of the lazy susan dining is, as you might have guessed, the hygiene.  Only the soups and rice have serving utensils, so everyone is dipping their chopsticks into the same dishes over and over.

Service in all but the lowest end Chinese fast food restaurants tends to be very good, probably a function of the abundant labor pool.  It is not unusual to have 2-3 waiters for a single table of 8-10 people at a nice restaurant and covering a couple tables in more casual places, so there is always someone close by.   In the cases where there is not, the Chinese aggressive “if you want it, you must go get it” attitude is quickly displayed, and people don’t wait for a waiter to come by.  They just call out load or snap their fingers to a get a waiter’s attention.

Chopsticks are the prime utensil of course, which require some practice but are not hard to use reasonably well.  I am far from masterful with them, dropping and spilling food often.  But that is part of living here, I rarely get handed a fork at a restaurant or get laughed at for my clumsiness, and it is a little way that I can embrace the local culture.

Western fast food has made major inroads in China in the larger cities.  McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Starbucks are everywhere.  Starbucks is pretty close to what we have in the US, except prices are about twice as high (ground coffee to buy is 3X), and there is of course a larger selection of tea.  Pizza Hut has the largest menu of any restaurant we have been anywhere, at least 20 pages.  From every imaginable kind of pizza, to seafood to pasta to pot roast like dishes, they serve it all.  The pizza is similar but not quite the same, a little more greasy.

Unfortunately, the fast food is clearly having the expected impact.  Seeing an overweight Chinese is still very unusual, but definitely on the rise.  And when you do, it is more often than not, sadly, a child.

Due to the immense size of Shanghai, delivery is very common (not just for food, this applies to anything you buy).  There are delivery services that will bring your dinner from a wide selection of restaurants for a very reasonable ($3-4) charge.  And many chains offer their own delivery, including McDonald’s.

Other than American fast food, chain restaurants are practically non-existent.  Of the few there are, my favorite is the Japanese “Curry House”, and fortunately there is one just across the street from our office building.  Curry sauce over rice flavored to your preferred level of spiciness with a wide variety of vegetable, meat, and even egg toppings of your choosing.  You also get to pick from several portion sizes.  A fast and very tasty lunch for about 30RMB.

Table manners are different as well.  I teach our girls to “take the food to your face, not your face to the food” when they shovel food into their mouth.  In China, putting your face in your soup / rice bowl is perfectly acceptable, as is slurping noisily.  I wouldn’t say that slurping indicates enjoyment with the meal, but it is definitely accepted practice.

More to come next week on food in China.

Jenna’s latest news and notes

Dad and I climbing down to explore a cave.

Hi from Shanghai!  It is evening in Shanghai, about 5 o’clock and it’s all ready dark.  The lights are on everywhere and all the lights reflect in the Huangpu River.

I have been to two dance classes.  I have had a lot of fun.  The girls in my class are from China, America and other countries.  My teacher speaks English, but has an accent.  My Mom thinks she sounds French.  I am pretty short for 9 years old and at home I feel small, but in my dance class, I am one of the tallest girls.  We did exercises on mats and did cartwheels to warm up.  Some things were new to me.  We also did a routine with hoola-hoops.  We are going to do the recital in January and I will wear a pink tutu.  I’m very excited about it!

On Saturday, we went to a water town called Xitang.  You pronounce the x with a “sh” sound.  It was cold when we got there.  It was filled with shops of every kind.  Dad and I explored a cool cave.  We saw a garden with a fish pond.  Mom got some cool pictures too.  The town has 104 bridges!  The oldest one is 100s of years old.   We also bought some neat bookmarks at one store.  It was crowded because there were a lot of people there and because the corridors were narrow.  The corridors were covered because of the rainy climate.  The movie, Mission Impossible III, brought more people to visit Xitang because part of the movie was filmed there.

There is a place in Shanghai called the World Finance Center that, at night, lights up in blue.  It has 101 floors.  Dad calls it the bottle opener tower because it has an opening near the top that makes it look like a bottle opener.  Sometime soon we are going to go visit it.  I can’t wait because I really want to go up in the observation level.  It is really high up and I will be able to see a lot of things up there.

Today we made paper snowflakes.  Mom called it “art class.”  We were practicing Chinese paper cutting.  We have seen them for sale in shops in Shanghai and my Mom found a book on it.  Some we have seen are big and some are small.  I am really hooked on one that’s called an accordion.  It is really cool.  If my mom lets me I will send some to Ms. G, my art teacher at school so my friends at school can try it.

That’s all for now!  See you later!  Jenna

The Past Couple of Weeks

A waterway and covered corridor in Xitang, looking from one of the 104 bridges

It’s hard to believe almost a month has passed since we first arrived in Shanghai.  The time is really flying by.  The past couple weeks have been busy, but enjoyable.  I’m getting used to the crazy drivers, and the hectic life of Shanghai.  Though, I’m still not used to the stares.  On Saturday, when we were in Xitang(pronounced shee-tong), it was like we were on a runway.  When we were waiting to enter the city, two Chinese ladies came up to us with a camera.  One stood in between Jenna and I while the other snapped a picture.  When Mom came over, they made it clear they didn’t want her in the picture.  I know blond hair isn’t common in Shanghai, but we aren’t the first ones to have it!

Xitang was pretty cool.  The only downside was that it was a bit colder than we thought it would be, so we were shivering a little bit.  The city was made famous when Tom Cruise did his run through town in Mission Impossible III.  Since then, tourism has been a big part of the city.  The city is also known for its covered corridors and many bridges.  It’s a little bit like Venice, with rivers running all through town.  The corridors weren’t really what we were expecting.  We thought they would have walls on each side, a curved roof, that sort of thing.  But they’re kinda like the little roofs you see outside of shops in downtown areas in the US, like a little overhang over the sidewalk.  But it was still cool to walk along.  There are tons of bridges, with the oldest one being several hundred years old.  So besides the cold, it was a fun trip.

Even though Christmas isn’t celebrated here as much as in the U.S., we still see Christmas decorations quite a bit.  But sadly, you won’t find a nativity set anywhere.  We didn’t think we’d be able to have a Christmas tree this year, but while shopping at Ikea, a huge sort of warehouse store, we found a small one.  It’s not huge, but it’s a good size for what we’re able to do this year.  Mom and I describe it as a Charlie Brown tree without the lean.  Though anytime someone says it looks like that, Jenna loudly states it most certainly does NOT!  We found some small lights, and garland, and it is a really cute little tree.

We aren’t doing much sightseeing this week, since Mom’s decided to keep Jenna inside for a few days.  The pollution is bad in any city, and Shanghai is no exception.  So Jenna’s asthma has been a bit worse, but her breathing treatments keep it under control thankfully.

One problem we’ve run into is electricity.  Seriously, it’d be so much easier if every country had the same electricity system.  Though maybe most do, except for the U.S.  We are known for doing things differently.  We have to use a converter for several things.  Not a huge problem, just a little annoying.

If you want to get your favorite movies really cheap, take a two-week trip to China, see the sights, and buy all the movies you want.  Knock-off DVD’s are a huge market in China.  The first place we found that sold them had mostly Blue-ray, but we still found some good ones.  China is definitely known for making fake, cheap, and knock-off items.

We’ve talked to other Americans and

Laura and Jenna by one of the waterways in Xitang

foreigners who have been here for several years.  Frankly, I can’t imagine it.  I’m fine staying here for a few months, it is a really neat experience after all, but several years?  Part of it is the government.  It really makes you appreciate the freedoms you have in the U.S.  The other part is it’s a foreign country!  I don’t know the language, and while I’m learning a little mandarin, it’s a hard language, never mind the written characters.  I can do 6 months, but when that time is up, I’ll be ready to head home.  China is a cool country, and living here is an amazing experience, but I just can’t see myself living here for years.

It should be pretty laid back this week, so not much going on.  As soon as we do get out again though, I’ll make sure to update.

Baking in China

The pond in the apartment complex is in the foreground with the Huangpu River above. River traffic is pretty heavy and ships this size are not uncommon.

We haven’t updated the blog in a few days, so here is the latest on our life in China.  The girls both have assignments to blog sometime this week, so more should be coming from their perspective.  Life is settling into a routine of sorts with outings for the girls and I most weeks.  There are places to shop that we can walk to including small, family-owned markets where we get a lot of our fruit.  You don’t really know what you are going to find when you go, so you can’t really plan what you want to buy.  You just have to be open to what’s available that day.  We are able to communicate well enough to indicate what we want and they often use calculators to let us know how much things cost.

The Chinese do not bake much.  There are bakeries to buy bread, muffins, sweet treats, etc., but in the average home, they don’t bake things like cakes, cookies or muffins.  If you know me very well, you know that I enjoy baking, especially this time of year.  Every December, the girls and I spend a weekend baking all sorts of candy, cookies and sweets for Christmas.  It’s one of David’s favorite weekends enjoying old favories and taste-testing new recipes.  Although we didn’t think we’d do that this year, we did want to bake some and we always enjoy breakfast breads and muffins.

On his trips to Shanghai this year, I had David scout out the grocery stores looking for baking supplies like flour, baking powder, sugar, etc., which he found.  But, I didn’t have him look for baking pans.  Well, our furnished kitchen did not have them, nor did the Walmart, Carrefour and other stores where I shopped.  Fortunately, by a stroke of luck, I ran into a British lady in one of the western markets.  She suggested Ikea.  The largest one in Asia opened in Shanghai in June, so a shopping trip was planned.  The girls and I spent three hours there and could have shopped longer.  It’s so large, they have a cafeteria where we had lunch.  We found all sorts of things that we needed, including cookie sheets, baking pans, a potato masher and cookie cutters.  Jenna and I did a “happy dance” (much to Laura’s dismay and embarrassment) when we found the cookie sheets.

Of course, having found the baking pans, only half the problem was solved.  I still did not understand how our oven worked.  We had only used the oven twice and both times weren’t sure what we did to make it work.  After several emails with the management company, they sent a repair guy to our apartment.  He spoke only Chinese and my mandarin is almost non-existent.  But, after a few minutes of mostly sign language, he showed me what to do.  And yesterday, we baked a loaf of chocolate chip breakfast bread!  Sweet success, no pun intended!

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