A Day Off from Shanghai

I’m taking a personal day from Shanghai today. I haven’t left my luxury house-sit except to go buy a chicken pot pie from the bakery on the corner. I need a little break, maybe from seeing people, but also from heat rash, and from the allergy response a couple of mosquito bites have given me.

Yesterday Lunch

Yesterday was a big day. I met Davidico for lunch again, but before we went out to eat, he helped me taobao some water brushes, which old people use to write characters on the side walk. It was a fascinating process.

Taobao is the Chinese version of Amazon; Amazon with Chinese characteristics. There were a bunch of different options, and it took us a while to pick one out with the right head, that was made of the right material, that was the right length.

Then Davidico opened a chat window to the merchant. When I was surprised that he could do that, he said, don’t you chat with merchants in the US? Sure, I said, by email, he’d get back to us the next day…

Anyway, Davidico started getting down to brass tacks in the chat box. What material is this? Are the heads replaceable? How long does delivery take?

Once we had all the details about the sale, we got very deliberate about deciding how many we wanted and how much we wanted to pay, significantly less than the price listed on the screen. When that was all figured out, he chatted the merchant: Three brushes, three replacement heads, 100块 OK?

I have heard “OK?” a lot in China, but I always assumed they were code switching for my sake. Now I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t a special Chinese grammatical particle, that means “just take the price.” Now I’m going to listen to see if “OK” occurs in Chinese when a price isn’t involved. I suspect it doesn’t. It’s definitely not as wide in scope as an American “ok.”

The merchant agreed to the price, not with an “OK,” but with a 好的 (which is how you say “ok” in Chinese). Then Davidico turned to me and said, what extra gift do you want? Because once you’ve agreed on a price, you ask them to throw in a gift. Seriously. I think he could see that I had no idea, so he suggested another pen, a small one.

Will you throw in a pen? chats Davidico, and the merchant comes back, “a real pen, or a mini brush?” I was all, mini brush! and I was thinking, what next? and thank God I don’t have to do business in this country myself.

So after the “oral” agreement (that happened over chat), Davidico then used the website to enter the item number and quantity of the things we wanted. “The merchant will change the price to what we agreed on,” he says, and then a minute later, the screen changed to show our price. Davidico placed the order.

I’m pretty sure if that negotiation had taken place face to face, it would have aggravated me. Just imagining it aggravates me. But sitting in the office with a fan, next to my friend who was giving me a cultural explanation at each step, I found it fascinating. I wonder if I should have taken video.

Yesterday Afternoon

After lunch with Davidico, I went to meet Aussie Matt in his penthouse apartment on the 34th floor. We talked about whiskey, marriage, language learning… It was good to see him again, Matt is a good man.

You know, there’s a way that most people think they have to learn Chinese, by hitting it hard, buy doing a lot of programs and contests, and throwing your life at it. Out of everyone I knew in China, I had a mental image of Aussie Matt being the one dude that actually succeeded at doing it that conventional way. I also saw him as the World Champion of learning Chinese, the dude why by sheer will forced his way into full-fledged double-dominant bilinguilism.

No way, he says; everything I know is from exposure and communication. If I have a talent, he says, it’s sounding good, I sound good when I speak Chinese, but it’s what I picked up, not what I studied. I still have a hard time expressing myself; I still lack vocabulary sometimes, I still

I wanted take a moment to be astonished, but Matt being Matt rolls right on. Pasden, he says, he really knows his stuff, his Chinese is better than mine. Your Spanish is better than my Chinese, he says.

I took away a couple of things from that bit of conversation. The first thing is that everyone, everyone, everyone learns language by exposure, practice, and real communication. Everyone. When they tell you they speak well because they studied hard, because they memorized, because they took classes, because they bought a product… all of that stuff is at best, a tiny shortcut, at worst a total distraction. If it’s not exposure, practice, and real communication, it’s not language learning.

The second thing that I took away from this conversation is that we second language learners, we might never feel fluent. Aussie Matt’s Chinese is orders of magnitude better than my Spanish, let’s set that straight, so if he doesn’t feel double-dominant bilingual then what hope to the rest of us poor suckers have?

My parents immigrated to the US 40 years ago, and as a linguist I would diagnose both of them as dominant in American English, but I think they’d self-report feeling a little language lost sometimes.

So if you can bust your ass all your life to speak a second language and never feel fluent, then I guess you just have to let go of your desire to feel fluent.

Back to Aussie Matt. As expats we all take a dive into Chinese culture, and Aussie Matt has taken an extremely deep dive. I’m going to make an effort to check in on him more; to hear what he’s finding at those depths, to make sure he’s not getting crushed by the pressure, to remind him to come up for air once in a while. What an amazing character; the story of his life could be the great American novel. The story of my life, by contrast, might be an E! True Hollywood Story.

Last Night

After my visit with Matt I got in a cab and just talked my face off with the cabbie. She was a woman driver, and I remarked that I’ve been getting a lot of woman drivers lately, whereas three years ago, not so much. She told me yes, there are more women cabbies, more women have to work to make ends meet nowadays. It was a pretty awesome conversation, and because of the rain there was traffic, so it was a good 20 minute ride that might have taken less than 10 minutes if it hadn’t been raining.

At my lesson I talked my face off as well. My teacher couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I don’t think she had time to write down any vocabulary, I was talking so much. Maybe Matt’s jawing rubbed off on me. Maybe it was the whiskey.

When class was over, I went outside and got rained on. And I started sniffling because of the mosquito bites. So I subwayed back to Jinqiao and let the crazy rain and lightning storm dissuade me from going out to Liliana’s party, which would have been a 30 minute cab ride. I felt miserable flaking on such a one-of-a-kind event, but then lightning struck across the street with that searing sound of exploding air.

So I stayed home and ate a banana.


Laundry. Skritter. Some IMing. That’s about it. For dinner I might take a cab to Wagas, have a tuna salad, read a copy of That’s Shanghai.

It’s nice to have time to think.

I had a long think about the verb “need.” The other day I was talking about not wanting to see a certain person, and my friend said “You need to get over that.”

I thought, “need?” Need? That’s not a need at all. Seeing that person is not anywhere on Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

People say “you need” to do something, and it sounds so forceful, but it’s false. I don’t “need” to do that, you want me to do that. There is a huge difference between what I need, and what you want.

UPDATE:  I am deleting the story that I had posted here earlier because it was a stupid story from years ago that is no longer on my heart.

Gotta Get Down On Friday

Plans today:

  • lunch with Davidico, figure out sidewalk pen situation.
  • hang out with Aussie Matt… dang! forgot to bring a copy of his book to autograph!
  • quick drink at Liliana’s party

In my lesson yesterday, I tried to ask about a pretty big scandal involving American diplomacy recently. My teacher didn’t know what I was talking about, so I told her that today I’d give her the skinny. I had to look up a bunch of words, but was hesitant to list therm here, which is a shame. I should probably be safe, though, if I remove the Chinese words. And the English words.

Aussie L is stuck at the airport in Seoul with some kind of 20 hour layover. Brutal. Here’s a shout-out…

  1. chǒushì: el escándalo (el asunto)
  2. chǒuwén: el escándalo(el fenómeno en las noticias)
  3. mángrén: el ciego
  4. lǜshī: el abogado
  5. duòtāi: el aborto
  6. zǐgōng: el útero
  7. qiēchú: la extracción quirúgico
  8. yōujìn: el arresto domiciliario
  9. wàiqiáng: el muro
  10. dàshǐguǎn: la embajada
  11. bìnàn: aislo, solicitar asilo
  12. bìhù: aisilo, dar/ofrecer aisilo
  13. liúwáng: desterrar, estar en exilio

My pre-Line 10 Life

I spent most of the day chilling at the house-sit-house. At lunch time I met Vera at a Japanese restaurant; she was just awesome. She has just gotten back to Shanghai after a three year stint as a Mandarin teacher at a rural high school in Indiana, plus what sounds like a whirlwind tour of big US cities. I asked in Chinese if we were going to speak English, but she wasn’t having it. We also spent a fair amount of time arguing over who was treating whom to lunch. She said that when she goes to Seattle to visit, then I have to treat her. These 请-ing arguments require underhanded tactics in the mainland.

The place we went was at this fancy new shopping complex on Jinqiao Road called the 金桥国际商业广场 Jinqiao International Business Plaza. It’s not far from Old School Jinqiao, where my friends live, and it’s got all kinds of crazy awesome places: the sushi restaurant, for one, but also Burger King, Haagen-Dazs, Wagas, Chamate, BiFenTang, Ajisen Ramen, and oh yes, the golden arches. Plus… a line 6 subway station! I’m going to go there tomorrow morning to hang out at the coffee bean before going to meet Davidico for lunch.

After lunch went back to the apartment for more chilling out, but then later I took the subway to my conversation class at Lavazza. My teacher beat me there so there was no time for an early dinner. The class was, again, awesome, my teacher is hella cool.

After class there was a table of westerners sitting on the patio. I didn’t understand what they were saying, all I could hear were some crazy nonsense tones. Later I realized they were speaking Spanish.

I walked out onto the street and I thought about going all the way back to Jinqiao, but decided on going to Changle Road to try to find my favorite Japanese restaurant, Bankura Soba Kitchen… which I ended up finding with the help of a great woman cab driver. The women cab drivers are just more pleasant to get along with sometimes.

I had karaake, dashimaki tamago, some cold soba, and an Asahi. I was slightly shocked when the bill came out to 101块RMB, but then I remembered… that’s not even $16 bones USD, which is pretty good for some 挑剔 über-fussy Japanese food and a beer.

After that, I thought I’d go visit the old neighborhood. I had the cabbie, another woman, who was delighted to speak with me, she dropped me off at 新天地 Xintiandi. The other laowais were going into the shopping complex, I walked past it, down to where I used to live and work. I walked down South Huangpi, across Fuxing to Hefei Road. I passed where Zentral used to be, the old BSR ("bad service restaurant"), the street kitchen we called "Toxic Smell." I was most hoping to see my old barbershop, the Shandong dumpling place, the small wonton place, and the super cheap xiaolong bao place, but I didn’t see them. Stinky, gross old Hefei Road isn’t as noisy or crowded anymore, although I did hear some people yelling at a truck driver unloading sandbags that he was raising way too much dust.

I walked all the way to the end, to the old Line 8 Laoximen subway station, and saw the Graceland Hotel where I stayed when I came to Shanghai in 2007 to interview with Praxis. Anyway, when I got down into the station, I saw that it was a transfer station; they’ve opened Line 10. I took a look at Line 10 and was kind of amazed…. when I was here, I was living a Line 10 kind of life… before Line 10 even existed. Here are the awesome stops on Line 10:

  • Longxi Road Station: 10 minute walk to Hongqiao Pearl City (Fake market)
  • Shanghai Library Station: 7 minute walk to the JZ Club
  • South Shaanxi Road Station: City Market
  • Xintiandi Station: My house; the old factory office
  • Laoximen Station: The old city, the Dongtai Road Antique market
  • Yuyuan Garden Station: tourist shopping, Dintaifeng
  • East Nanjing Road Station: Duh, East Nanjing Road, transfer to Line 2 for Sunday night dinner in Pudong

Amazing. I wish that had been there when I lived there.

挑剔 tiāoti: picky; fastidious (me, in terms of coffee; Japanese people, in terms of Japanese food, thank goodness)

故意 gùyì: deliberately; intentional; on purpose

其中 qízhōng: among; in; included among these

xiàngmù: item; project

政治 zhèngzhì: politics

y luàn: disorder; confusion; arbitrarily

qióng: poor; exhausted

吵架 chǎo jià: to quarrel; to squabble; bicker

Happy America National Festival Day

Before I do my notes on yesterday, I thought I’d give a thorough explanation of how to pirate music in China.

  • Step 1: Google the name of the song you’d like to pirate.
  • Step 2: Click on the word "download" 下载, which will be on the first item of the search results.
  • Step 3: There is no step 3, you’re already a pirate. You became one in Step 2, Arr!

So as you can see, there’s not much to it.

I showed up early for my lesson last night and ordered dinner before my teacher got there; spaghettini al tonno, or as I like to call it, "spaghetti can-o-tuna." It was good; big capers, olives… Later my teacher showed up and we had a GREAT lesson, from my point of view. It’s funny, though, when I review yesterday’s words, they seem like a boring, academic conversation… which is not one that I was a part of…

  • 利潤 lìrùn: profit (whaaat? when did we say this word?)
  • 發達 fādá: developed (country, etc.); flourishing; prosper
  • 經濟 jīngjì: economy; economic (dang it, I already knew this word!)
  • 高樓 gāolóu: tall building; skyscraper (I figured it out in context, but she wrote it down anyway)
  • 壓力 yālì: pressure; stress (no memory of how this word came up)
  • 願意 yuànyì: be willing; want to; be ready (¡ganas!)
  • 講究 jiǎngjiu: pay particular attention to; stress something; exquisite
  • 話劇 huàjù: stage play; modern drama
  • 實習 shíxí: to practice; field work; work as an intern
  • 政策 zhèngcè: policy
  • 靠邊 kàobiān: keep to the side; move aside; make way

So I’ll do my best to use those words in conversation. I’m meeting Vera for lunch today, maybe I’ll be able to work in a sentence about the economic stress of skyscraper policy.

Anyway, the point was that it was a great class, and I think my teacher is awesome. Can’t wait to talk to her again tonight. This is how my students feel about me as well, right? (crickets)

After class, I walked over to Southern Belle, a southern-themed restaurant that’s no-smoking indoors and respectable patio. It’s where I had my last-day-of-work happy hour a few years ago. It was new back then, and relatively mellow.

On the 4th of July, however, it was chock full of Americans. There was a live duo who picked out some great American hits (Country Roads, American Pie, etc) on guitar and mandolin, back country style. When I met my English friend Cookie, I said, why on earth would you want to meet at an American bar on the 4th of July? We had a laugh about that. There were some Gringo Moments where people started clapping and then lost track of the tempo; or when they forgot the words to, for instance, the Star Spangled Banner.

Later, someone set off a string of fire crackers across the street; a small string of about 500 or 1000, it’s hard to tell. The Americans were all hooting and hollering. After that, some dudes came out of the restaurant with a big box, which Cookie recognized as the 2000块 RMB box of proper shoot-in-the-air-and-explode-in-a-glittery-bloom fireworks. They went down to the corner with that box and set it off.

I’m pretty sure back in the USA that would have been considered a pretty excessive display… some of my countrymen at the bar were moved to the point of howling. But the old China hands, like me and Cookie, we were like… is that it? I’m pretty sure they sell the 1000-string fireworks on the street, people buy it when they’re moving apartments, and set them off when the movers are about to bring in the furniture, to scare off the evil spirits. In other words, the 1000-string fireworks are associated with moving, are totally banal, and are largely ignored.

I had a great time catching up with Cookie. It was really good to see him again. We were there for four hours, talking and enjoying the festivities.

My cab ride home was pretty cool; I got a lady driver. I had forgotten how much nicer the women cab drivers are, you never feel like they’re going to ram their car into someone to teach them a lesson. She chatted with me all the way back to Jinqiao, and when I got out of the car I wished her Happy America National Holiday; she happily returned the sentiment.

What I said was 美国国家节日快乐. When I asked CS later on chat, he said, ahh… I should say "國慶日" that’s the normal way to express that. 美國國慶日快樂, everyone!

CS also gave me a glimpse into the 來 compliment structure (I don’t know the technical name for them):

  • 停下來 slow down and stop
  • 看過來 look over here
  • 走過來 walk over here
  • 追上來 catch up to
  • 跟上來 follow
  • 走上來 walk up here

There may or may not be a systematic way to look at these, but I’m going to wrap my brain around them one-by-one. I have a hunch that they’re easier to learn as chunky collocations, at least at first.

Later today: lunch with Vera. Tonight: Chinese lesson.

4 July, 2012 00:48

So this morning I took a cab to the subway, and immediately as I got onto the plaza, someone’s coming at me saying "shopping?" "you wanna buy a watch?" When they start coming after me, following me, I get tense. I shook off that particular guy by saying 不不不不不不 "no."

Then, down below, another guy is following me around saying "shopping? you want a watch?" The answer, my friends, is no, I don’t want a watch, but when I do want a watch, I will get it my damn self. I don’t need a guide to buy a watch. I’m not a moron.

As you can see, I take things quite personally. Also, I haven’t worn a watch since the early nineties.

So now, I"m already aggravated, and the guy is still following me, and my hands are all tense because I’m trying to keep them from making fists. I turn to and seethe 我来坐地铁, I’ve come to ride the subway.

So the dude makes the grand gesture indicating the subway entrance (there’s no pointing in Shanghai, only the grand gesture), and he says 哦哦哦来坐地铁. Oh, you’re gonna ride the subway. 不要凶 Don’t be so mean.

See, in this country, he is reasonable, and I am mean. I my country you better NOT. follow me around in the subway station.

Anyway, I went to the new ChinesePod office to go to lunch with Davidico. Connie and Jiaojie were there, and they called me 极品, which is a pretty cool apodo. Davidico mentioned that Connie isn’t married, yet, she she says, "yep, you still have a chance! " I told her I’d give her a call.

高級 gāojí: high-level; high-grade; advanced

現金 xiànjīn: cash

交通卡 jiāotōngkǎ: transportation card

悠遊卡 yōuyóukǎ: EasyCard (Taiwan)

極品 jípǐn: [Literary] highest grade; best quality

機會 jīhuì: opportunity; chance; occasion

隧道 suìdào: tunnel

大橋 dàqiáo: great bridge

閃電 shǎndiàn: lightning

xiōng: fierce; terrible; ominous; violent; cruel

I seem to remember the freeway as being called the 高 公, but I’m not certain.

I don’t wanna wait…

It seems my attempt to link to Lawson’s Creek in my previous post has failed. As I cannot go in and fix it, I present to you the URL. How uncivilized…


Mind. Blown.

the websiteSo I went to dinner with my friend Jamie, we were in that Mandarin Summer Intensive program together in Hangzhou in the summer of 2007.

She is now one of the founders/owners of the Shanghai UnTour, which may or may not be one of the coolest jobs in Shanghai. She takes newly arrived expats and tourists on the kinds of tours the China-adventurers WANT to go on…. there’s a noodle tour, a breakfast tour, a running tour for the runners, a Muslim market tour. It sounds amazing. Next week I’ll go on the noodle tour.

I feel like there are two kinds of experiences in Shanghai; the 舒服 life, and the 辛苦 life, and Jamie is living the 舒服 life. I met her at a Hunan restaurant on Wulumuqi Road, a place that I had been to with Kiwi J and LA P before… and S the intern!

Anyway we were trading China stories… China expats can talk China stories for weeks on end without running out of things to talk about. I was telling her about how my crew and I used to hang out outside of the Lawsons on Dongping Lu, drinking tallboys and talking to the girls coming out of the club… as well as the street people. One morning I was down on that street for brunch, and I was recognized by the street people.

So I told Jamie that story… and she said, ok, this is going to blow your mind. The expats totally organize big parties outside of that Lawsons now; they go in, and buy their Tsingdaos and they hang out outside on the street. Hundreds of them.

It’s totally a thing. They organize costume themes; the last one was a Rubik’s cube theme. Everyone wore a solid color and then traded articles of their clothing so that by the end of the night they were all scrambled Rubik’s cubes. It’s a thing.

It’s a thing? Yes JP, it’s a thing. They call it "Lawson’s Creek." There’s a website.

So she pulls out her phone to show me the website. Of course, it takes forever to load on mainland internet, so the loading message… wait for it… says "I don’t wanna wait…"

Dinner with Jamie was full of hilarious stories like that. What a blast.

I took a rainy cab ride home back to Jinqiao. When I told the driver I was going to Jinqiao, he launched into an angry story about how he once took foreigners to Jinqiao, and they stiffed him. I wasn’t sure what he said, so I just answered with a scooby doo "eh?"

He repeated what he had said, and he sounded even angrier. At me.

I said, "it wasn’t me."

He said, "oh no no no, of course not you. This was before. They stiffed me!"

And I said, "I’m sorry."

He answered immediately "No no no." And it sound like he realized that I had understood that he was mad at me. He was not, actually, but I had forgotten how angry that Shanghainese Mandarin sounds sometimes.

We had a pretty good conversation on the ride home after that.

Tomorrow I’m meeting Cookie and Boyler at Southern Belle after my lesson. Cookie was like, are you sure? I thought you’d be doing 4th of July stuff? Haha, on the 4th of July there’s no where I’d rather be than hanging out with my British friends. Is that bad?

I also got an invitation to a party that Liliana is throwing on Friday. Can’t miss that!