Friday, December 28, 2012

Our Chinese Christmas

We spent our first Christmas away from the U.S. this year.  Even with all our past travels, we have always been somewhere in the states in all the years past.  We certainly wondered with Christmas as expats in China would be like...

After returning to Shanghai in early December, the Christmas decorations began to appear.  We really didn't know what to expect, and perhaps we should not have been so surprised by the level of "festiveness".  While Christmas is not traditionally celebrated by most people here from a religious point-of-view (Wikipedia says about 4-5% of the population is Christian), the commercial side of things has certainly been embraced.

Everywhere we went, the store employees donned Santa hats atop their usual uniforms.  Christmas decorations filled the aisles of stores, trees popped up throughout town and a lot of businesses sported decorated windows.

Our apartment building had not one, but two, Christmas trees in the lobby--including this one which we were invited to "make up".
When I returned from my trip home, my unexpected Christmas gift was a festively decorated apartment.  After an attempt at "Holiday House" which turned out to be more "Christmas junk store", Ikea saved the day with some classy decorations to make our apartment sparkle.

The Shanghainese people seemed to get in to the spirit in their own ways.  Our friendly apartment doorman (who mainly sits in the lobby smoking, but is also responsible for fetching the water jugs for residents' water machines--and he does keep a "discard battery" box at his desk, so I guess the duties are really quite diverse), flashed a big smile and wished us a "Merry Christmas!" (I'm being generous with the pronunciation, but let's be truthful it far exceeded my Chinese pronunciation) when he came to bring our new water on Christmas eve.  It was a nice change of pace from our usual exchange of "Ni hao" and gesturing.  We got greeted quite frequently with "Merry Christmas" all over town.  At the office, apparently there was a day of giving small gifts amongst all the Chinese colleagues and we saw several company parties out celebrating throughout the season.

I also got a lot of smiles when I wore my Santa hat out and about and we got in to a nice chat with a newly transplanted expat from Australia who was heading to meet friends for a holiday lunch.  Of course, I get an even better reaction when I wear my panda hat.  I never saw so much enthusiasm as the spa receptionist's welcome when I was wearing my panda hat and gloves on our trip to get massages.  No one thinks it is unusual since cutsie animal wear is all the rage, but they do seem to puzzle over a foreigner in it.  I think it also made quite an impression at home in the states, but people had to struggle between curiosity and those pesky western mores telling them not to stare.  (By the way, even though we spent Christmas in China--as you can see, we got in to the holiday spirit back home first and celebrated early with the family.  Now you see where I get it from!  They encouraged me to buy the matching Panda gloves at Claire's.  Here we are in all our finery at the Williamsburg Grand Illumination.)
Back to Christmas in China...we began scoping out all the holiday options.  Our choices seemed endless, especially if we wanted to eat and drink until we popped.  Every restaurant seemed to be offering holiday dinners and festivities.  The major hotels all have large pre-set dinners and drinks, often including entertainment and the ubiquitous "lucky draw" and prizes.

Side bar:  To give you an idea about the cross-cultural popularity of chances to win (and I won't say the cultural phenomena because it seems to be pretty universal if Powerball, El Gordo, etc. are any indication that people universally love a random game of chance) the official receipts/invoices here contain a scratch off chance to win.  Why?  Apparently, it was an effort to encourage people to actually report income and sales, instead of the more common practice a number of years ago of skirting taxes at all times--what better way to encourage people to demand official receipts?  Give them a chance to win something!  P.S., you ask for the "fapaio" to get this official receipt (with the ever-present red stamp).

We started off the holiday season by joining in Santa Con 2012.  What a great way to get in the spirit!

For holiday eating, we scoured the magazines and online postings and finally decided to try El Willy, one of Shanghai's most well-known Spanish restaurants, for Christmas eve dinner.  We love El Willy's "younger brother", Elefante, and have enjoyed many good meals there.  Our six-course Spanish meal with to-die-for views of the Bund made for a great Christmas eve.  We had also discovered one of the best holiday deals in town--a 98 RMB (about $13) all-you-can-drink "happy hour" running throughout the holidays at The House of Roosevelt's rooftop deck.  The setting cannot be beat and they have glassed in the deck to make it nice and toasty for winter.  With the price, you can enjoy a cocktail or two with a view that is worth the price of admission.  On Christmas eve, they had a supposed "Christmas film" night, which consisted of a screen in the corner showing some random cop flick.  Not exactly the Christmas movie we expected, but it was more fun to watch the neon lights of Pudong and the varied crowd celebrating.

We started out Christmas Day Skyping with family back home--Christmas eve their time.  Unfortunately, bad weather changed their plans so we only got to Skype with half of one group and caught the other group rushing off to beat the icy road conditions.  When our ayi arrived to clean (the benefits of this not being a holiday here--cleaning on Christmas day!), we went out to enjoy some (cold) sunshine and visited the European Christmas market at Xintiandi.  It was enjoyable to walk around the park and check out some of the items for sale, but I don't know that this market really lives up to the standard.  There was plenty of random stuff to buy, but the Merry-go-Round was only for show and the entertainment consisted of taking your picture with a Garfield or Gangnam Style cut-out (which I had to do, of course, because nothing says Christmas like Gangnam Style).

For Christmas dinner, we had decided to order from our favorite online organic grocery store, Fields.  They were offering various holiday meals and we got a dinner suitable for 4-6 and invited our new neighbors to spend the evening together.  Fields usually delivers within about a 4 hour time block, but were nice enough to get more specific for us so we could have the meal warm and not have to deal with reheating in our limited kitchen.  As we sat chatting with our neighbors, the doorbell rang and our feast arrived.  We had a whole chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, purple cabbage, squash and pumpkin pie.  Every bit of it was delicious, and we ate heartily with plenty left over.  We enjoyed the company of our new neighbors and getting to know each other better, as we all adjust to living in our "home away from home" adopted Shanghai.

We received a nice Christmas bonus when our realtor came over Christmas morning to help us figure out the TV that we have never been able to work.  We can now watch our movies on the big screen, instead of the tiny little laptop!  And, with newly purchased speakers, we can hear the movies better and could play our thousands of Christmas carols while we enjoyed dinner.  We finished off our Christmas with a favorite holiday movie, Love Actually.  Don't worry--we also watched that great American classic, Christmas Vacation, the next day.

Now...on to the bigger holidays here!  Chinese New Year will be something to behold, and from what we hear 12/31 is not too shabby either.  We have a "front row" view from Hyatt on the Bund to watch the fireworks and stay out of the cold.

Wishing everyone everywhere a peaceful and joyful 2013!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shanghai Santa Con 2012

What could be more fun than making merry with a bunch of makeshift "Santas" throughout the city--spreading wonder, joy and amazement while having a general great time?  We thought it sounded like a pretty good time when we heard about it online and decided it was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  After spending a heavy morning reading the tragic news of the Newtown school shootings, Santa Con delivered some much needed joy and reinforcement of the good in the world.

Santa Con is a gathering of people dressed as Santa Claus, which apparently began in Copenhagen in 1974 and has spread throughout the world.  It is essentially a "Santa convention" that moves throughout the city, having a good time and spreading goodwill.  It is kind of a mix between a pub crawl, a parade and a city tour.  SantaCon now takes place in 275 locations in 37 countries.  We were surprised to learn this was Shanghai's first SantaCon.  SantaCon Shanghai was put together with help from Shanghai Pub Crawl, BEAN (a volunteer organization) and sponsors like Daily Secret Shanghai.  BEAN, which does great volunteer and charity works in Shanghai and brings together young professionals for events and networking as well, benefited from donations collected along the route.  Donations went to pay for diapers and supplies for orphans, and they also sold flasks to help fund operating costs.  Check out BEAN online for ways to contribute (there are BEAN organizations in many cities throughout the world too).

After receiving the loose schedule online (the location and route is kept somewhat secret up until the day or so before the event), we arrived in the Former French Concession to find a group of Santas loitering on the corner near a Lawson's, fueling up on Santa Con juice (beer and wine coolers for some, water for others).

Commemorative spandex Santa suits were for sale, complete with full face cover.  Not so great for drinking beer, but no one let that stop them!
Other Santas gathered at a nearby bar, The Camel, playing pool and enjoying some Santa juice and food for the long journey ahead.
The group quickly became the curiosity of the neighborhood, and the first of many photos were taken.  After experiencing the curious onlookers (and resulting traffic jam) at the Halloween party we attended in Shanghai, we had anticipated and looked forward to being a source of wonder to the locals.  I'm sure SantaCon attracts attention anywhere, but the pure curiosity and joy of the people in China at such sights makes it especially fun.

Eventually, the group gathered and got a little introduction about the festivities, took a few photos and began our march.

Our group made its way over to Yongkang Lu, a great little street of cafes and bars.  It was a drizzly, cold day but overall not a bad one for a SantaCon--no downpours or extreme cold, and we had Santa hats and beards (and spandex suits or hot pink tuxes, depending on your interpretation of Santa style) to keep us warm.
The Santa march begins

Gathering on the street and bars at Yongkang Lu

The locals' curiosity built and we began attracting onlookers.  Bryan and I delighted a little boy with a camera by posing for his first photo and then giving him one of the lollipops we brought along to give out on the route.  I especially enjoyed watching the little old ladies grasping arms and giggling walking down the street.  I imagined the phone calls going out from the apartments over the street, "You have to come see these goofy Laowais (foreigners) dressed up as Santa.  Crazy!  Come take pictures!". 

A little boy, who I nicknamed Waldo, became the local star as he came along in his Santa hat, Christmas sweater and eyeball glasses and joined in the crowd.  His family enjoyed watching him have fun and take part in many photo opps.

We had mostly traditional renditions of Santa, along with a few "girl" Santas in dresses, an elf, and one guy in a skimpy cheerleader-like belly baring outfit (brr!).  While hanging out on Yongkang Lu, a biker covered in stickers joined us.  I don't really know what it was all about, but he was big on giving hugs (maybe to keep warm) and seemed to be in the spirit, if not in the proper costume.

We enjoyed a spot at the Handle Bar watching the action in the streets, and then grabbed a couple of slider sandwiches at Sliders to fuel up for the rest of the journey.  Of course we had to snap the obligatory "wherever you go" shot of the ubiquitous Yankees hat (may be a little hard to see in this photo)...
Next, the group walked to the Metro and gathered on the platform to catch the train together because of course Santas must stick together on the same sleigh.  We sung various carols as we rode to our next destination.
Santas on the train
We arrived at People's Square metro and had some politically incorrect photo opps with the statues.
We proceeded to East Nanjing pedestrian road--one of my least favorite (touristy, crowded, constant hawkers) places in Shanghai, but which is a lot more fun at night with a large group of Santas! We stopped for a great photo opp by the tree (sponsored, of course, by the Galaxy Note II).
We even had our minute of fame, gathering on a small stage and dancing and singing along to some tunes.
Our adoring fans (and a few of the Santas--and cows, from the group, documenting the moment)
There were various photo opp stops along the way, as we continued to be the objects of fascination and we delighted in spreading joy by posing with many, many people who were thrilled to have their photo taken with one or more of us.  We gave joy through photos, candy handouts and simply by existing.  It really was a refreshing way to spend the evening after such a sad start to the day.  As a few beggars approached, we had no change to give but handed them each one of our lollipops.  The reaction was amusing, as of course it was not what they were hoping for, but yet they smiled and were thankful.  Bryan gave a lollipop to a little grandmother who was walking with her family and you would have thought he handed her a winning lottery ticket.  She smiled widely and thanked him and all of the family joined in the thanks and joy.  This occurred over and over with children as well, though a couple children and parents were a bit shy/unsure about the whole thing.

We made our way up to The Bund.  Normally, this would have been the best photo opp, but the Shanghai smog was at its finest.  However, we took some group photos and then spent a lot of time giving out joy by posing with many Chinese people for them to snap pictures with us.  I wonder how many of these photos are traveling around the internet on Weibo or being messaged to friends ("Look at me with these goofy Laowais who were parading around as Santas.  I don't know if this is some kind of Laowai traditon?").  Bryan was asked by one group who spoke a bit of English if we were all friends.  "No, just strangers who got together and dressed as Santa for the night." and in reply, "Oh, so this was on the internet?"  They got it!
Our group rounded out the night at the South Bund/Cool Docks area, at Bubba's Texas BBQ (nothing says Christmas like BBQ and beer).  We jumped in taxis and cozied up inside with some food and drinks.  Many of the SantaCon participants continued the party with a Christmas Pub Crawl and loaded into a bus from Rico Rico.  We said goodbye at this point as we're not quite as young as the rest of the group (not that we couldn't have done it, we just have enough life experience to know Santas need rest!).

There may still be the opportunity to participate in a SantaCon this year in your area and I'd highly recommend it, especially if your Christmas spirit is lagging and your faith in humanity has been shaken.  If not, dress in something cheery and go spread some joy anyway! 

Happy Holidays to everyone and let's all wish (and work towards) for peace and kindness in 2013!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Ever Present ______ of China

1.  Little Red Stamp (or official "chop")

The little red stamp marks all papers as legitimate and is highly prized.  Show someone your official paperwork with the chop and you get happy, admiring responses.  Paperwork and bureaucracy reigns supreme and there are many careers built on protecting and managing the official company, agency, etc. stamp.  The significance is such that the stamp forger was a lifesaver in one story I read from the Cultural Revolution (it's one thing to forge papers to save a loved one, but without that "chop" skillfully crafted, it would be a failure).  I most enjoy listening to the loud echo of the "chop" reverberating through the speaker from behind the glass as it is proudly slammed down on every paper at the bank.

2.  Bikes
Bikes-good for a nap too!
Most vehicular traffic is of the two-wheeled variety.  While cars have increased exponentially in the last several years in China, bikes and scooters still rule.  Cities like Shanghai limit car traffic (I cannot begin to imagine the noise, congestion and air quality if they didn't.) so you mainly see taxis, buses and every form of two-wheeled (or sometimes three-wheeled carts, etc.) transport.  Electric bikes are quite popular, whizzing by you without lights at night--beware!  Bicycles, motorcycles and scooters whiz by with babies in seats on the back, or more often simply "sitting"/hugging the lap of the parent.  A bike cart can carry furniture, an entire city block's laundry or 100 coolers.  Bikes, and even the scooters, are very reasonably priced and I have thought about getting one but I think I'm daring enough sticking to walking amongst them for now (sometimes I even put headphones on--and have yet to get hit!).
Bicycle carrying a load of about 100 Styrofoam coolers

3.  Commerce

The economic reform of the last many years here has taken hold with a pent-up vengeance.  Ads blanket the city, from subway stops and constantly revolving elevator ads to actual LED built in to the sides of skyscrapers and a trip to our local EMart is an assault on the senses, with products everywhere and numerous employees pitching the latest special from a headset/mic.  A trip to the "fake market" or any area with street stalls is an exercise in resistance--don't look too closely or point at anything unless you really want to start the bargaining process.  Just about everything that exists is for sale here, depending on what you want to pay.  I have read some articles recently commenting on the "Chinese thriftiness" that remains, but retailers are pinning hopes on the younger generation taking on more Western spending habits and being drawn in to high prestige items.  I find that a shame, but I guess it is good for all the high end stores around here, which are most often completely empty.  I prefer the thriftiness and the addictive thrill of bargaining (I thought I would hate it, but must admit there is a certain feeling of "winning" that makes shopping much more exciting--of course, I'm probably not the one who is winning.).

There is just a constant "industriousness" (busy-ness?) here, the pulse of so many people in commerce.  There are an overwhelming number of people working everywhere (thus the resistance needed--don't imagine you are going to look at something in a store for long without someone at your side to "help" you, a funny exercise when you don't speak the same language and yet, they've often managed to sell me something!).  On a trip to a local Watson's (like a CVS or Walgreens but without the pharmacy), there were at least 7 sales women working in a tiny store, stationed at their particular areas.  Uh oh, lingered a little too long at the lotion display--time for a sales pitch and demo...

4.  Noise

Ok--this is one of those instances where my post should perhaps substitute Shanghai for China.  I am sure there are peaceful rural villages with little noise, but that seems as foreign to me as China might to you if you're sitting on the other side of the world.  There are brief moments of quiet.  Generally this is a pretty "early" city, by which I mean that at night things shut down fairly early, dinner is eaten by 8 etc.  Of course, there are nightclubs and people out late, but the most peaceful times are at night.  There is even a brief period, from about 12-4 where there are only intermittent horns blowing (I still hear one or two if I don't have ear plugs firmly embedded).

I read an article with mouth hanging open that said the police were cracking down on noise, by doing things like fining the elderly people who dance and sing at the subway stops and parks.  WHAAAT???  There's a good idea--stop the healthy behavior (and something that always makes me smile) and let the horns keep blaring.  But, good luck doing anything about those horns--that would cause a revolution for sure.

I have found a couple really odd quiet spots--one Metro stop which for some reason is often empty and the high end malls/stores.  This is not a good thing, in Chinese thinking, where renao (essentially translating to "hot and noisy") is sought out.  The concept does not exactly translate literally, but the idea of something being bustling (and thus often hot and noisy--and chaotic to the Western view) equates to exciting and desired.  (See above re: commerce, where this concept definitely applies as well.  Do not go to your local Ikea or EMart on a Saturday or holiday if you have a headache.  Learn to enjoy the renao or figure out ways to avoid it, but you'll be missing out on the quintessential Chinese experiences.  Just think Black Friday all the time and you get the idea.)

5. Laundry

These pictures only begin to show the constant presence of laundry in our daily lives:


6.  Cute

This is a dangerous one for me, as every day is an act of willpower not to buy the next adorable tchotke.  Everywhere you look you'll find some adorable panda, pig, bunny, Hello Kitty... something (slippers, wallets, p.j.'s, hats)--see Exhibit1 of my lack of resistance (actually it was a gift!).

I also could not resist the cartoon pig coffee mug, which makes me smile every morning, and the bunny pajamas (which, in China, double as shopping wear).  Yes, adorable people of all ages (but mainly the older generation and young adult/teenage girls) wear their p.j.'s out and about for all sorts of activities, and these are no yoga pants or sweatsuits but full-on old school or fluffy pajamas.  So far my favorites have been the fully quilted versions and the man in plaid pink silk.  Even the dogs get in on the action, with their little outfits and shoes to match.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mediterranean Food in Shanghai

One of the great things about a city with the size and sophistication of Shanghai is the variety of options--for food, nightlife, shopping, etc.  Being transplant Americans whose hearts reside squarely in the Mediterranean, we immediately got excited when we saw the number of Spanish (and Italian, Greek or more general Mediterranean combos) restaurants here.


The newer brother to the famous El Willy, this restaurant resides in the old El Willy space left behind when it moved up in life to the new Bund location.  We loved its tranquil setting in the Former French Concession with a lovely garden.  On our first trip we had a variety of tapas.  The 5J Iberico jamon did not disappoint, an expensive treat even in Spain but here you really need to love it to pay these prices (and someone nicknamed Ham Tooth in our family does!).  We had delicious crab croquettes and I chowed down on a great crab salad also.  We visited another time to just sit at the bar and munch on the ham and cheese plates.  A little trip down memory lane!

We had to make plans to return for paella when we discovered Elefante is open for lunch.  We had thought about going to El Willy, but they are only open on Saturdays for their set brunch.  The garden at Elefante is really the perfect place for a paella Sunday anyway!  (Of course, we didn't make reservations so we sat at the window looking out at the garden--close enough for now.)  We are admittedly paella snobs.  How could we not be?  We spent almost a year in the Valencia province and put a good deal of research time in to paella.  We spent most Sundays taking in a long, leisurely paella lunch at all the best places in paella's birthplace.  We scoff at the versions we find most places outside of Spain--and inside of Spain for that matter (sometimes even in Valencia)! 

So, what was the verdict on Elefante's paella?  Yum!  (That's a valid description, right?)  The seafood paella had all the right elements and that perfect taste.  It could have used a bit more soccarat (the "crunchies") but people often mistake that for burnt or overcooked when they don't know good paella, so we don't blame the chef for avoiding it.  It did leave the delicious oil residue on the plate and two very pleased, full bellies.  I started with a worthy companion...a burrata cheese salad (Elefante is the more varied Mediterranean restaurant versus the more strictly Spanish El Willy).  Cheese really is the most heavenly food, is it not?

As you can tell, we will be revisiting Elefante on a regular basis!

Mercato at Three on the Bund

Three on the Bund, a building at that address, contains a variety of restaurants and other spaces--everything from an art area to an Armani store and several restaurants and bars.  Mercato is the newest concept, a Mediterranean restaurant/lounge centered around a pizza oven.  The concept is shared plates of fresh food, with a big focus on the pizza oven and seafood roasted in the same oven.
The uber cool dining room (note the waiter who stopped midtracks when he saw my (what I thought was subtle--no flash with my phone) picture taking to make sure he didn't get in the way--it is that kind of service.
There were two walls of wine coolers!  I resisted taking pictures of the beautiful bathrooms...
I wanted to move in to the space--they have managed to create a space that competes with the views.  It is cozy and yet refined--the kind of apartment I'd like to have but would never be cool enough (heck, I probably wasn't cool enough to be here).  There is a bar and lounge area when you first enter, followed by the pizza bar with seating all around it and more typical restaurant seating, with many tables enjoying the amazing Bund views of the Pudong skyline.
The pizza oven
We were fortunate to get a seat at the pizza bar with no reservation.  It was fun to watch the perfectionism of the pizza makers--I have never seen such concentration on stretching the dough.  They had such an efficient operation with each person managing their tasks and no one coming close to getting burned by one of the hot pizzas on the long pole.  The service was superb--one of those places where you have to be careful about drinking your wine down too much as they're always there to refill it when your glass starts to get low.
A really tasty Ribera crianza
We started with an Italian salad with fennel and figs--super fresh and tasty.  From the roasted category, we went for the mussels.  Even though you can get a lot of mussels prepared with the typical garlic, aromatics, olive oil and chopped tomatoes, they all manage to be a little different.  These were stellar.  The roasting brings the flavors together just right and there was just a small kick too--making for a sauce you just had to "sop".  Our next dish was lobster ravioli--again quite tasty, and somewhat unique.  They seemed to have a bit of an Asian twist, with no sauce and a wrapper that had a bit of a wonton feel.  They were covered with fresh herbs and a bit of lemon, which kept them nice and light.  It was a bit of a departure from what we were expecting, but there was not a crumb left.  To wrap it all up, the dessert list was too tempting to resist.  We tried the hazelnut/coffee concoction.  It was listed as a hazlenut panna cotta with a coffee gelee and hazelnut chocolate crumbles.  That pretty much describes it, but doesn't really do it justice.  The flavors came together perfectly when you placed a little bit of the crumble with the rest and it was a relatively light but delicious ending to the meal.

We went upstairs to check out the views at the HOW (House Organic Wine) Bar and New Horizons.  HOW was a cozy little wine bar, with a small outside area/view, but New Horizons is the place to go for the view.  The front bar was unfortunately closed for a private party, but we'll definitely return for a bite or cocktail some time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Daily Life in Shanghai

The skyline view from our balcony

Shanghai is a wild and wonderful city in which to live.  There is so much to say about China in general and Shanghai specifically.  So, I thought it might be easiest to start with a few daily observations--the "givens" of any day in Shanghai, which might help formulate an impression--something I couldn't even conjure up before I arrived.

The traffic: I could not have really pictured the city at all before arriving.  I was thinking New York on a massive scale and pictured bumper-to-bumper cars packed within skyscrapers and people bustling about on the streets.  But, car traffic is limited in Shanghai, so it is not the sheer number of cars that make up the "traffic" of the city.  It is the mad mix of bikes, pedestrians, bikes and carts with all sorts of loads on the back, electric bikes, scooters...all going in different directions with seemingly few traffic rules.

If you live by European or even American pedestrian standards, you won't be around very long.  You learn to become adept at the fine sport of walking--it is not a leisurely activity.  But, it keeps your senses sharp...especially when an electric bike with no lights whizzes by you at night, or you're strolling along the sidewalk when a loud honk sounds in your ear from a scooter about to overtake you.  But, if this guy can do it, I can too:

Hard to see but he was the tiniest, slowest pedestrian who crossed right in front of a large bus and then went diagonally across on of the largest intersections, casually strolling with his market purchases.
And, while the car traffic seems much less than in many other big cities in the world, you couldn't tell it from the noise.  The horn is a must for every occasion, or no occasion at all.  
The zebra stripes?  Meaning (if any): pedestrians, watch out!
I love watching how people have adapted and prepared for all of the variables getting around via open air vehicles.  Many motorcyclists have special padded hand/arm protectors and all sorts of baskets and carts have been fitted to bikes.  Delivery persons ride bike carts carrying everything from large loads of laundry (read: the sheets and towels of an entire neighborhood) to building supplies.  Women and men hold toddlers on their laps on scooters (I saw a Dad yesterday with a toddler in front of him holding on to his baby brother-wow!).  When it rains, bikers break out their rain suits or large ponchos designed to fit entirely over them and the handlebars.
The variety: I only have to step outside my apartment complex to immediately be surrounded by the commerce of a massive city managing the lives of some 20 million people.  In the streets surrounding home, we have a massive grocery/all purpose store that even provides its own private buses to bring people from around the city.  The side streets are filled with delicious (and not so-have you ever smelled stinky tofu?) smells of street food and noodle shops.  There are convenience stores everywhere, along with minuscule shops specializing in everything from mops to extension cords to towels.  Most of these also function as social gathering spots for meal times and Mahjong games and I love strolling past at dinner time to see the families sitting on small tables outside having their rice or noodles.

Our neighborhood is part of the ancient city that once was all of Shanghai--small alleys full of tiny shops and old homes.  Private living is very public--so the lanes are filled with laundry in every space, people using the common sinks, meals enjoyed on sidewalks and all manner of daily life.  While the style of living is changing, it remains ever-present in our neighborhood and many others.  Our neighbor recently had a visitor who commented on her surprise at seeing the old homes and low-rise communities in the midst of the skyscrapers.  Here you find modern and sleek aside tiny and ancient.  We can take one metro stop or short walk and visit shops I cannot afford.  Gorgeous high end stores line the large shopping street around the corner from the tiny maze of lane houses.  The city is a study in contrast.  It is certainly thought-provoking as a newbie (a much more daily, in-your-face reminder of this gap, which exists everywhere but is often segregated, nicely air brushed over or simply not so extreme in close proximity).

Just up the street from our home:  the Lamborghini store, next to Rolls Royce.
I honestly had no idea what to expect of China and was woefully ignorant.  I still consider myself woefully ignorant.  And, I have only been in what I know of this vast country is nothing.  But, I am slowly taking it in and trying to learn as much as possible...and enjoy the positives.  As with any big city, but more so here, it can be an assault on the senses that wears you down at times.  Things are crowded, air quality can be very poor and the noise is constant.  I can see the need for a week on a beach in Bali.  But, for now, we are enjoying the urban lifestyle and excitement.  In addition to what I described above which I enjoy being part of every day, here are a few of my favorite pleasant surprises of Shanghai:

  1. The "international-ness" which means you can get products from anywhere, albeit for a price, and can meet people from all corners of the world.  There is a long (shady) history of foreigners in Shanghai and it remains a magnet for expats--so you can always get your fix of native English speakers or junk food from back home.  I did expect this somewhat, but after living in Europe, it amazes me that I can find so many more things so much more easily here.  We didn't miss much in Spain from home, but I'll never forget my surprise when I saw Jif peanut butter at the local market here (we had to go to the "American store" and pay through the nose if we got a peanut butter craving in Spain).  And, there is much better Spanish, French and Italian cuisine thus far here than we can find in the U.S.  Of course, we are in Shanghai and my point of reference is living in much smaller cities in the U.S.
  2. Delivery!  Really--everything is available to be delivered to you here, for nothing or next to nothing.  We can get: organic food/groceries, restaurant meals from hundreds of places, beverages and ice, large water bottles for the water machine (in 2 minutes, directly from our apartment management office), dry cleaning, bagels and homemade cream cheese (delicious, New York-worthy), cookies, cupcakes....too much to list...
  3. The Chinese food.  Ok-this might be stupid to list but then again I did have someone ask me "Is the Chinese food better there?"  I feel like I've been cheated my whole life by what has been passing for Chinese food at home.  Again, I say this not having lived in New York or San Francisco, where I know legitimate options exist (and I know there is plenty of bad food here too).  But, this has been a wonderful surprise for someone who never listed this high on my favorite cuisines.  I am now a proud dumpling addict and seek out noodles as my new favorite comfort food.  I'm just getting started trying all the different regional cuisines and dishes.  Expect many more posts and pictures on this topic!
For others who have been expats or traveled long-term, you can probably relate to one truism which can be a positive or negative, depending on the day.  Daily life becomes an adventure and the simple tasks become accomplishments.  This is very "in your face" in China, where our cultures are so far apart and we have absolutely no language skills (yet)-meaning things can feel either more discouraging or more fulfilling, again depending on the day (and attitude).  When we open our bank account successfully, complet our residency "health check", or get (what we think is) a bargain, we practically "high five" each other!  (Which reminds me, I may have to add bargaining to the list above--expected to hate it and have found out just how addicting it can be!)

I've gotten a lot of questions about life and customs here and will be glad to answer what I can (especially as I learn more).  I have also read some wonderful books about both Shanghai and China, in a small attempt to gain some knowledge and understanding, and I'm glad to recommend some to anyone who is interested.  I heard a lot about China on the news before coming, but never really had a clue...and still don't, but I'm enjoying learning.