Sunday, January 27, 2013

What to Know About Service in China

It always helps to understand some of the cultural norms and nuances when it comes to service, navigating restaurants, stores and the like.  So, while we're still learning (and miss a lot of subtleties with no language skills), here are some basics that might help if you're visiting Shanghai:

1.  Flag down help when you want to order or need something.  You will typically be seated (just gesture with the appropriate number if your language skills are lacking)and provided a menu, then left alone.  You will need to call your server--or a server (just raise your hand and look up) to order.  Similarly, do so if you need something or want the check (the universal sign for check works fine).

2.  Napkins are scarce.  It is always handy to carry small packets of tissues in China.  They are useful for times when toilet paper is missing and for use in restaurants when you get no napkin or one tiny square to deal with a messy meal.  Fortunately, it seems like eating meals with chopsticks tends to be a less messy experience (though I guess the opposite could be true if you're at a loss with chopsticks--oh yes, and practice your chopstick use).

3.  Many menus here have English translations (albeit quite humorous at times) or pictures, so you can get by pretty well at even more local establishments.  Point to what you want and indicate the number (i.e. point to the word/picture--and if it is in English, make sure the server can see the Chinese words, and hold up fingers indicating how many of that dish you want).  If it is a very small place with no English/picture menu, you might get by with pointing to what someone else is having or practicing a phrase such as asking for their best or most popular dish.

4.  You will often be given your bill/asked to pay shortly after ordering.  This isn't typical at western or very upscale restaurants, but it is pretty standard many places.  It can seem odd the first time and catches you off guard, but it's convenient when you're done and you can just get up and leave.  Some places will also place a little marker on your table when paid and others have a cashier where you pay instead of paying your server.  Just go with the flow...

5.  Don't tip.  This is always a guilt-ridden challenge for Americans, the mega tippers of the world.  In so many parts of the world, things work completely differently and the wage and tipping system is vastly different from ours.  We got used to this in Spain (maybe too much so-it's a tough adjustment coming back and being expected to give 20% for anything adequate), where small change is enough for good service in most cases.  In China, tipping is not the norm and has actually traditionally been considered somewhat insulting as it perhaps implied that the person did not make enough money.  As thing modernize and globalize (and we spread our big-tipping ways), there is more exposure to tipping and it would not likely be seen as insulting by most...but it is rarely expected. 

In fancier restaurants, they will typically add a service charge, about 10-15%.  We have been to a few places with this charge and the service was extraordinary--the kind of place where your glass will not be empty for a second and if your napkin falls to the floor, you'll have a fresh one before you notice it.  In other words, the type of service you'd expect to pay well over 20% for in the U.S. This may not always be the case, but it is often what you find.

6.  When it comes to services such as the bank or mobile provider, most businesses have a number system versus a line.  There is usually a machine at the entryway (almost always "manned" by someone to make sure you get your number correctly--another example of what sometimes feels like "how many people does it take to...?").  You get your number and grab a seat (most banks and other services have rows of seats) and wait for the number to be called/displayed on the LED screen above the station where you will be helped.  A lot of business is still done in person here (you'll soon learn why there are so many bank branches) so there is often a fairly long wait.

Most of these larger businesses in Shanghai have English-speaking employees who can help you.  Sometimes it is wise to point this out to the person manning the number machine, as they may need to route you to a particular person.  For example, at our local China mobile store, we typically get sent to the special desk in the corner, where the most efficient young man seems to help all the problematic situations (or customers).  This can be a nice benefit when there's a big crowd.

7.  Observe how things are done in different situations.  This is not country-specific advice but something we have picked up from shopping and dealing with other services in various countries.  I never would have thought that living in Europe would prepare me so well for China, but you learn how many little things can differ and how to adjust (and throw your expectations out the window).  Supermarkets can be a minefield of mistakes.  In Spain, for example, you lock up your rolling cart (if you have one) in the little area at the front of the store, put a deposit in for a cart (or get a free basket) and then collect your cart again when you are ready to pack up in line (I rolled mine around the store for at least a month before figuring this out).  While we were there, the grocery stores started charging for the plastic bags, which is becoming common everywhere.  Many places, you have to weigh your fruits and vegetables in the produce section, which you rarely do any more in the U.S.  There are also norms about touching fruit and vegetables (don't do it in Spain unless wearing plastic gloves or use the bag). 

If you look around for a bit, you will catch on to how things are being done.  And, usually you'll be told if you're not doing something right that really can just make for an awkward and confusing experience.  I'm sure I'll have plenty more of those, but it always feels like an accomplishment when you navigate services that you wouldn't think twice about at home.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shanghai: The Laoximen Neighborhood and Jackie's Beernest

We picked our apartment in Shanghai based on several factors, plus a dash of just feeling at home there.  The process was quite different than some of our past experiences living overseas, where we could do much of the legwork online (and managed, mostly successfully, to do everything site unseen).  In China, we needed a realtor, particularly because of our lack of language skills, but it is also more typical here and as newbie expats, we would have been woefully unprepared to even begin.  We knew a little bit about locations and got some great advice from someone we met online, who was very kind in sharing her expertise and advice.

But, we had to be here to begin getting an idea of what we wanted--and touring helped us really narrow things down.  We had our choice (but also, two backups) by the second day of looking.  We love our apartment for many reasons (where else would we live on the 17th floor looking out--when it's clear--to this view?) but the location is a big one. 
We don't live in an area highly populated by expats, though there are quite a few in our complex.  Our neighborhood lies in the heart (of what is left) of the old city and we are surrounded by lane houses, wet markets and tiny shops (for now).  We mostly get puzzled looks from other expats when we explain where we live, though everyone knows nearby Xintiandi which is one metro stop away.
View straight down from our balcony of old lane houses
Our neighboring street/shops
The busy street just outside our complex, always bustling
Our neighboring streets are filled with activity all day, with street vendors, bikes and people going about their business.  Most of the sidewalks are filled up with small stools where people eat their noodles from the local vendors, merchandise spilling out from the stores, groups of men playing cards and lots of laundry thrown in for good measure.  Several nearby streets are packed with fruit and vegetable shops or stands and there is a large wet market right around the corner.
On the street corner
Wet market, meat for sale
When we looked at our apartment, the proximity to a big grocery/all-purpose market was a huge plus and we still love having E-Mart so close (literally almost part of our complex so we say "I'll run downstairs to E-Mart").  E-Mart has a large grocery store and everything else from housewares to clothing and electronics and small appliances.  It is a crazed assault on the senses--especially if you hit it at the right time when you and thousands of your neighbors (and the people that come via special E-Mart buses) are all clamoring for the latest specials (which someone in a costume and mic will be pitching).  But, as we get to know our neighborhood further, we appreciate the little vendors (and their bargains) as well.
We still travel to hit the "imported goods" grocery stores that cater to expats and we get organic products delivered, but we try to balance that out with a local bargain more and more often.

When we first decided on our apartment, we "googled" to see what was around.  The answer being not a whole lot that shows up on google maps (surprisingly, the "mop lady", "plug guy" and street food carts don't have google listings!).  We have a great central location with easy access to many really fun neighborhoods and things to do, but the direct neighborhood is not exactly known for happening night spots (unless you count foot massage parlors and hairdressers).  However, right from the start we saw "Jackie's Beernest" and learned that it's a popular little beer joint, with an international following.  We arrived during national holiday and Jackie was closed for a bit--and then somehow time got away from us as we were busy exploring the whole city.  We passed by it almost every day and finally made plans to go with our neighbors.  The resounding thought was why didn't we do it before?

Jackie's Beernest is a tiny little storefront amongst the local shops.  Once you step inside, you'll find nicely paneled walls covered with some beer paraphernalia, a big table with several bench seats and a couple small bistro tables, one wall of refrigerated beers and another wall of beer, wine and scotch (and some assorted medicinal spirits complete with petrified--or pickled?--snake and lizard).  It feels like an extension of your living room, with a cozy, friendly atmosphere. 
Jackie's wall of beers and scotch

Belgian beer--yum!
You are welcomed by Jackie and invited to check out the selection and pick your beer.  The selection is primarily Belgian, or Belgian style.  Jackie has really picked some of the tastiest beers and can help you out with the options.  Once you select your beer, he'll get you the special glass for your beer and it's time to sit, chat, relax and enjoy.  Jackie will offer you some peanuts to munch on and also has a fridge full of ham and cheese for some extra nourishment.  The evening we were there, he also shared some little rice/corn cakes from one of the nearby street vendors. (Cakes may not be the right word--they're little tubes, which the vendor pumps out of this mobile machine.  I had almost bought some the day before and it was nice to taste them.  They are surprisingly good--don't think typical rice cake, though they do have a bit of that Styrofoam texture.)

This place is a true neighborhood treasure and our only disappointment of the night was hearing that Jackie has plans to move away.  I guess the spot is a bit removed from the heavier expat neighborhoods and other bars and restaurants which might garner him more of a crowd, but from a selfish perspective we really hope he reconsiders.  This is a great neighborhood and we'll invite everyone over!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Things to Do in Shanghai: Shopping (or Browsing)

Some lament Shanghai as not being a very cultural city.  While I hope to refute that with future posts about some of the great cultural activities to do here, I'm possibly going to reinforce it by focusing first on shopping.  The reality is, shopping is a big part of both life and tourism here and more abundant than art museums, opera or major historical attractions.  And, even if you aren't a big shopper (my souvenirs tend to be photos), you'd be missing out if you did not at least indulge in some browsing in Shanghai.

So, where to go for the Shanghai shopping experience?

There are many international stores, high end merchandisers, and fancy shops dotted throughout the city.  You can find many on Huahai Lu and can also browse tiny shops and cafes throughout the Former French Concession.  There are malls everywhere, including many metro stations (during winter, especially, I like hopping off the metro at People's Square and getting lost amongst the two malls that run underground there, where you can get your nails done, get a haircut and buy just about anything).  In many of the high end malls, you'll find some of the most peaceful spots in all of Shanghai as bargain hunters know better than to be lured by luxe.  The real bargains and fun browsing can be found at:

The fake markets
I personally love the shops at the Science and Technology metro stop (ahhh...the convenience of shopping without ever leaving the metro).  I'm not really caught up in brand names...and you have to decide what your ethics are on that whole thing.  However, this little den of tiny shops does have a lot of treasures for bargain hunters...and when you need gifts or practical items, you can spend an afternoon here and walk away with a lot for a little.  I also like that there are some different areas here, such as several rows of tailors/fabric shops and a pearl/jewelry area.  I got a beautiful coat made for a very reasonable price (after bargaining) and was extremely pleased with the quality.  This is a great place for windbreakers, winter coats, clothing and various small items...from belts to iphone cases to gifts.  We purchased four winter coats (including two hefty down coats), each priced between 300-400 RMB ($45-65).  Depending on your negotiation skills and how set you are on a particular item or brand, prices will run the gamut.

Great for: jackets, coats, belts and bags.  Also, try the tailor section for handmade items--from shirts and suits to coats and Chinese dresses.

Han City is the large fake market area on the Puxi side of town, conveniently located on Nanjing Rd.  Though I have not been to this one, it should be similarly jam-packed with fakes of all types.

Word of warning/bargaining tips: This is not shopping for the faint of heart--and browsing requires caution.  If you don't seriously want to consider buying something, don't get caught looking too closely.  Show any interest and you will be hounded.  You have to have a strong will (and sometimes actual strength, as vendors will literally chase you down, grab your arms, etc.).  I have occasionally looked at something and decided it was not the type I wanted, but the vendors think that is all part of the bargaining experience so they are determined that if they negotiate you will eventually buy it anyway.

On the other hand, keep this in mind when bargaining.  The opening price will be significantly more than you should pay.  I find it best to know how much I really want something and have a price in my mind (a bargain price--remember, these are fake goods and it's all cash, no returns or help if a zipper breaks or something--the whole point here is to get something for a very good price).  From the original price offered, you may want to counter with as low as 10% of that, maybe with a willingness to go up to 30%.  But, I find it all depends on what it is and my feelings toward wanting the item (and the ridiculousness of the vendor's starting point).  For example, we bought some funny souvenirs at the holidays--things that we did not need to get and were more novelty than anything else--for those we wouldn't go much above the 10% of what they asked (and got it--in all but one case, in which we went to the neighboring vendor and got it for the price we wanted).
A sampling of the wares: handmade coat from a local tailor
The fabric markets
The South Bund fabric market is the most well known, housing hundreds of tailors who can make you anything from a custom suit to shirts, dresses, coats and household items.  Quality varies widely, so if you know someone who can give you a recommendation, that is most helpful.  We got a recommendation from a friend who had business shirts made in the South Bund market and was very pleased--and the price is great!  I also had good luck with the coat I had made, which was simply luck of the draw, though I did look at what she had on display (and bargained hard enough that I would not have been devastated by a bad outcome).  Now, I have seen her quality and will be returning.  (P.S.  You'll make lots of "special friends", getting "special prices" with reminders to come back and get more items soon--the only reason you're getting such a deal is because "now we're friends" and you'll return or "not many customers now, so best price".)

There is also a smaller fabric market called the Shi Liu Pu Cloth Market and as mentioned, many tailors also in the Science and Technology "mall".  The tailors are especially good at copying an item you have or even modifying something (making a dress shorter, taking an item in, etc.).  You can also see what their specialty item is--best to stick with what they know.  Tailors may need a couple days to a week to complete an item, so if your time is short and you want custom items, make the fabric market a first stop.  There really are treasures to be had for great prices--if you shop wisely, bargain well and ask for corrections if something is not right.  Generally, you agree to a price and put down a deposit (such as half) and pay the remainder upon pickup/approval.  Many tailors have some basic English and you can generally manage to communicate through a purchase even if your Chinese is non-existent.

Great for: men's shirts, suits, copies of favorite items, coats.  Also, if you sew or do projects, you can find some great buttons, trims and fabrics.  Interestingly, in the South Bund area, there are also numerous fabrics and tailors on back streets.  My guess is this is where you'd get the real bargains, but I'm not sure about the logistics of the dealings.  I just like walking down the streets looking at large piles of bunting, all types of fabrics in tiny storefronts and tables, alongside live chickens running around, people having their lunches, neighborhood markets, etc.

Dong Tai Lu Antiques Market

This is a Shanghai must-do browsing experience--and one of my favorites as it is right around the corner from home and fun to wander through any time.  If you're a true antique aficionado, the items may or may not be legit.  You'll find everything from large Buddha statues, art deco items, old phones and leather suitcases to jewelry, t-shirts and trinkets.

Small booths line the streets and there are additional shops and warehouse areas behind the booths (I don't know about the use of the word "market"'s more "antique streets").  This is a fun place to add some quirky decoration to your home, such as old rotary dial telephones, propaganda items and assorted "tchotkes".  But, as mentioned, beware when it comes to looking at/for high end legit antiques.  There probably are some real treasures, but I'd be leery about shelling out big bucks.

Here is the listing on Smart Shanghai for how to get to Dong Tai Lu.

Across the street, you can find the Flower and Bird Market.  I don't know if this one has a name, but it is on the east side of Xizang Nan Lu (the main street from which you enter the antiques area above).  Many days, you'll see big crowds out buying things from vendors on the streets in front of it.
Browsing the streets outside the flower and bird market.  Vendors and storefronts sell every type of accessory for your bird you could imagine, along with other little treasures (many of which I have still not figured out).
You enter in to the little lanes of the market to find all sorts of living creatures.  Birds, of course, and flowers/plants--but also a lot of insects, frogs, and every type of pet accessory as well.  It's another must-do browsing experience (unless birds and insect noises will give you nightmares).  There is apparently also a Hongqiao Bird and Flower Market which also contains various housewares.
Peeking in to the lanes of the bird and flower market on Xizang Nan Lu
As with anywhere I go, I also enjoy checking out supermarkets and food markets (including little fruit stands and local shops).  In China, check out the wet markets, which sell all manner of foods.  They will typically have fish, poultry, meat, fruits and veggies.

It is a world apart from your sanitized western grocery store experience and well worth a look, even if you aren't up to buying.  Wet markets can be found in most neighborhoods throughout Shanghai and as far as browsing goes, hitting the streets here for a good, long walk is the best way to browse, shop and "absorb".

One of my favorite "browsing" experiences is just hitting the streets of my neighborhood to watch the commerce and daily activity, duck in a few little shops and check out the street vendors.  On different days, we have vendors selling gloves, hats, apples, kiwis, hot foods (my favorite are the roasting sweet potatoes!)--and even a seamstress with her sewing machine set up on the sidewalk.

Oh--and one final note--Ikea.  Yes, the ubiquitous furniture and housewares spot, and a handy resource for expats as an easy way to stock up your apartment--but with a Chinese twist.  The twist being the people, who love hanging out there.  On a Saturday or holiday (we arrived during National Holiday week), the store will be jam-packed with families enjoying a lounge on the couches, children playing and lying in the beds and general wall-to-wall people.  Ikea is exactly as you know it (with the usual restaurant, which is also packed), but it has now become an extended living room for thousands of locals.  If you're in a hurry to get some practical shopping done, pick a weekday.  If you want to get the true local experience, go on a Saturday or holiday and hang with the masses.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012: What a year!

If you would have told me on December 31st 2011, that we would be living and working in China a year later...  I would have told you that you were crazy!  Nonetheless, we rang in 2013 in Shanghai after moving here in October.

After spending a few months in Spain in 2011, we were determined to get back and for a longer period.  We worked hard to make all the necessary arrangements and our 2012 adventures started somewhere over the Atlantic.  We landed in London on New Year's Day 2012 and enjoyed a long layover at the Yo-tel Gatwick before heading to our final destination - Valencia, Spain.

Ah Valencia, she welcomed us with her warm sunshine and charming culture.  Christmas is traditionally celebrated through January 6th in Spain, so we were in time to witness the decorations, last-minute shopping and celebrations leading up to 3 Kings Day.

Christmas tree in Plaza Ayuntamiento - Valencia
We settled into our new apartment in the Barrio del Carmen and quickly got back into the swing of Spain... remembering almost instantaneously why we fell in love with this country, people and culture.   We had been to Valencia several times in 2011, but always short trips.  This time we had 6 months (minus some travel) to explore all Valencia has to offer.  See the numerous past Spain posts for more.

We were both going to be working this time - US hours - so this immediately felt like a move and not a vacation... although we did have round-trip tickets.  It was a slight adjustment getting used to working different hours and a different routine, not to mention finding reliable internet in the old city.  But we got adjusted fairly quickly and this was home.

In February, we took a short trip... back to Italy again, Rome this time and met our good friends Curtis and Teresa from Florida there.  It was a fantastic trip full of food, drink and history.  If you missed the blog post on Rome, you can find it here.  As well, see our many pictures from Rome here.

Official town Falla of Dénia
We returned to Valencia to find the city getting ready for the annual Fallas festival.  We had planned from the outset to spend the month around Fallas in Dénia.  Fallas in Valencia is a little too wild and crazy, especially trying to work, so it was planned for us head south for a month.  We enjoyed Fallas in Dénia last year, and were extremely excited to be returning again.  We stayed at our same apartment as we did in 2011 and were very happy to reconnect with all the Dénia locals at our favorite places in town.

As much you can plan travel down to the smallest detail, there are always unexpected snags.  Some small, others not so much.  Upon returning to Valencia from Rome and preparing to make the trip to Dénia, I learned that I would be losing my job.  This was most unexpected and unfortunate.  Adding to it that we are away from the US, made it more so.  However, if there is one thing traveling has taught me, its "go with the flow".  No problem is too great and there is always a solution - most often, with a silver lining - awaiting you at the other end.

One of the best things about traveling and being away from "home" is that everything is fresh and new.  Possibilities seem endless and things that you would never usually consider doing, somehow seem perfect and necessary.  With the right attitude, anything can be a good thing.

Although offered a couple, I decided to not try to find another job with my company and go ahead and leave.  I enrolled in a TEFLA  (Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults) class in Valencia.  I interviewed and was accepted into the May class.  I took the time in Dénia to enjoy my surroundings, Fallas and brush-up on my English...  its been a long time since I studied English.  Moreover, the learning I was doing was Spanish...  not English.
San Sebastián, Spain
We returned to Valencia in mid-April, but had planned a road trip of Rioja and the Basque country of Spain earlier in the year.  Job or no job...  we were not cancelling the trip.  Plus, I love driving aroud Spain.  We spent a week touring the north of Spain, enjoying scenery very different than other areas of the country, and some of the best food and drink we´ve ever had.  Highlights of our journey can be found here, but by far the most memorable part of this trip was the day at Basque Gastronomic Society, eating, cooking and learning the real secret behind making Spanish rice.

May was now upon us and it was time to hit the books.  I was prepared as I was going to be for my TEFLA class.  Having no idea what to expect, no idea how I´d do... only that I was sure I wouldn't like it, I jumped in with both feet.  My only 2 expectations were that 1) I'd be the oldest person in the class and 2) that I'd be the only American.  Both were wrong.  In fact everything I expected was wrong.  I didn't like the class, I loved it.  It was incredibly rewarding and enlightening, also very intensive and required some very long hours.  You see, the job I was doing benefited no one...  our stockholders, maybe.  Sure, I was helping the advancement of technology, but is that always a good thing?  Here I was truly enriching someone's life by helping them gain a skill that they could use to get a (better) job, travel or just become a more well-rounded person.  I was making an ever so small difference in the world...  it felt good.  Every day I walked from our apartment in the Carmen, across the bridge over the Turia to the metro.  I enjoyed the short train ride with the other commuters and got to class.  Class taught me less about English as a language and more about how to teach it... which I truly enjoy.  It's certainly not curing cancer or solving world hunger, but rewarding all the same.  I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up...  funny that it only took 40 years.

Also in May we had a nice visit from Shannon's parents.  I missed out on a lot of the visit due to my class, but we did go down to Dénia for a day and enjoyed a fantastic paella lunch at Agua del Mar...  one of our favorites.  It was nice to be able show them Valencia and Dénia and have them understand what we enjoy so much about this part of the world and travel in general.  It was around this time that my company (the one that let me go just a month prior) reached out to see my interest in a job in China.  I entertained the idea, but teaching English in Spain was now the goal...

June was spent in Valencia and Dénia, watching Spain dominate Euro2012 and looking for some jobs teaching English.  Although I had lots of offers, it was a lack of a Spanish work permit that prevented my getting a job.  It is truly a catch-22 in Spain.  You need a contract to get a work permit, but you need a work permit to get contract.  Frustrated but determined to get back, we left Spain in early July after receiving some bad family health news and rushed home to be there.  Luckily everything turned out to be just fine in the end and all are happy and healthy.

Realizing I couldn't legally teach English in Spain as I wanted, and also not wanting to be in US (where I had a couple offers), I accepted the job to go work in Shanghai.  The job is good for travel as I literally cover the entire world and so far, it has been a good decision. 

We returned to Florida in late July and I boarded the plane to China on August 1st.  It takes a full month to get all of your visas and permits in China.  So, I was in Shanghai for August.  I found an apartment, got acclimated, etc.  Shannon was back home (except for a short visit) making preparations to sell our house and all of our stuff.  We had the house rented while we were gone in Spain and came home to realize none of our "things" really mattered any more.  Sure there are sentimental items that we keep and treasure, but our TV, sofa, pots/pans...  all replaceable and not needed.  It is true what they say about the stuff you own, eventually owning you.

I returned to Florida in September and we spent the month getting ready for the move to Shanghai.  We "moved" to Valencia in 2012, but when you start your journey with a return ticket in your hand...  its not really a move.  When you sell your house, your car, everything you own and buy a one-way ticket...  that is a move.  We timed everything as well as we could.  We had an offer on the house after 3 days on the market.  Wow!  We had an estate sale...  full liquidation, everything must go!  And it did.  It is quite liberating to let go of everything, nothing holding you back and free to roam. 

We've been in Shanghai now for 3 full months now and I must say I love it.  We don't speak Chinese, we don't need to - but it sure would help sometimes.  We have a nice place in the center of town, close to the metro and places we like to go.  I'm traveling for my job, not too much so far...  and we are learning how to live amongst the Chinese, in their culture.  You can read recent posts for more there.    

The goal of teaching English in Spain is not abandoned, just delayed.  The Spanish economy isn't looking any better than it did 6 months ago and realistically, this probably isn't the time to be there.  There are tons of English jobs in Asia and my eyes are always open for the right opportunity...  and it would be a great experience to teach here. 

So goodbye to 2012, what a year...  it's 2013 and for now, we are content and happy to be here.  Every day is a new adventure and that is refreshing.  It's not without the occasional snag, but travel never is and the snags are what it is all about...  really.