Sunday, July 29, 2007

There are moments I am confronted with the reality that I really live here. These are the moments when I succumb to the same situations that every other person in this city faces. As an expat, it can be easy to avoid many of these realities, but some are impossible to completely escape. I have air conditioning, electricity, a shuttle service with my apartment, a dryer, a dishwasher, a refrigerator full of food- many creature comforts that my Chinese counterparts do not have. While I do have all of these things, I find I am still bound by the laws of physics, and therefore, largely affected by travel and the sheer volume of people in this city.

When Phil and I first arrived here, there were several things we marveled at. One was the amount of people on the subway at rush hour. While the number of people was astounding, more amazing, was how they got onto the subway. Rushing to get on, people push and shove, contort their bodies, and get far closer to strangers than they would otherwise find acceptable. I found it unusual that people rushed to arriving trains when another one would follow within 2 minutes. After all I thought, “What is another 2 minutes in the larger scheme of things?” I would soon learn.

I have been journaling since our first trip to China. It is interesting to look back on previous entries and read about the different things I found interesting, amazing, and outright strange. The subway situation has definitely been a focus of several of my writings. In one entry I wrote: “I rushed to my first subway today- I still refuse to body slam a large group of people to get on- so I wait.” I remember that moment clearly. I remember thinking I would never rush to the subway unless I absolutely had to catch the train. Two months after living here though, I found myself, like many other residents of this city, rushing to catch the train, desperate to reclaim any amount of the time Shanghai seems to steal away from you.

If you read my previous entry on T.I.C moments, you may recall my comment on “rush hour on the subway- when more people cram onto the subway then you thought physically possible- and throw a few more in there for good measure”. When I wrote those journal entries, I swore I would never cram onto a subway- ever. I still maintain there are good reasons for this. One- I am claustrophobic, two- I don’t enjoy having my head nestled in some stranger’s armpit, three- if a person is going to get bird flu, I happen to think this is a perfect environment for transmission, and four- if the subway ever broke down…..I hate to think of what would happen.

All of this said, I had to get to work the other day, and I found myself being that person. For the first time, I was the one who crammed onto the train at the very last second. I was the one who defied spatial reality and pressed into a crowd of people while the doors closed in almost clipping my nose. There I was, with no space to breathe, arms pinned down at my side, and my entire body and face smashed up against the window. If I could have moved my arms to grab my phone and take a picture, I would have. Instead, I laughed, smashed up against a door you should not lean on, let alone press all of your weight against, held my breath, and ignored the bodies pressing up against me in an all too familiar way.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Surviving and Thriving as a "Typical Housewife"

There is something brilliant and honest in the conversation between a person who speaks a language natively and a person who does not. If you don't have a fluent grasp on a language, you are forced to reach for simple terms and basic concepts, resulting in at times, a seemingly harsh assessment or opinion.

My first real encounter with this was in conversation with a real estate agent visiting our home. As we were standing around making small talk- "where are you from?", "do you like Shanghai?", and the usual surface get to know you banter, the dreaded "what do you do?" question was asked. It is dreaded for a number of reasons, some unique to Shanghai, others my own personal feelings, and others, just concepts lost in translation. So I answered the question. As if pleading my case, I tried to explain that while I was not currently employed, I was looking to pursue my passions and start writing, take classes, learn Chinese, and realize some long standing goals. The whole time I was talking, the real estate agent nodded along as if he knew exactly was I was talking about. Then, in one sweeping generalization, he said, "oh- so you are a typical housewife". Knowing there was no point in trying to explain to him that I was not what he accused me of, I nodded my head in defeat and said yes.

Now before all the "housewives" out there get irritated with me, let me explain some things that are unique to the culture and the foreign community here in Shanghai. This "typical housewife" label does not apply to those of you outside this community. It is however, a new and perplexing identity I have been trying to grapple with since I got here. I'd always known that we in the US are defined by our roles and our professions. Just how much wasn't apparent until I moved here. I had no idea, however, the extent to which they do the same here in Shanghai. As I am learning, this is a society very focused on hierarchy and position. So for 10 years I was defined as a business owner and a massage therapist. For the first time in 16 years, I had no employment, and therefore, no professional identity. I found myself, not only in a completely foreign land with nothing comfortable or known to relate to or identify with, but I no longer had a profession. As I struggled through my own emotions over that, I was being lumped into a group known as "taitai's".

Taitai literally means wife in Chinese. However, when an expat refers to herself or someone else as a "taitai", there is an entire lifestyle and connotation attached to that. The expat "taitai" is a woman who often comes here begrudgingly, sticks to her own kind, remains as closed to the culture as she can, shops, goes out for lunches, shops some more, then heads off to the spa. Within the foreign community here, we know there are differing degrees of truth to this, applying at times to our own lives, but to the Chinese, there are no varying degrees. You are either a working spouse or you are a "taitai."

In my quest to find my niche and my identity here in Shanghai, I find myself fighting against this stereotype less and less. When someone asks me what I do in Shanghai, I can tell them about my job and hide behind that as an identifying factor. More and more though, I find myself mentioning my place of employment as a side note and talking more about my interests and future hopes. There are many reasons such a concept does not translate well in China, but I will save that topic for a later time. For now I will be as I am, a "typical housewife", in a not so typical way.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

T.I.C Moments

I've decided it is time to blog on T.I.C moments. For those of you who do not recall what this stands for, T.I.C. moments are the times we here in the expat community lovingly refer to as, "This Is China". The moments I will share in the following list are not meant to paint the Chinese with a broad and unfavorable brush, these are just the occasional realities we from the Western world are faced with. These are the moments that jerk us back into the reality that we are in a very different place....

The following list may be a little gross, so don't say I didn't warn you. Utilizing discretion, I have left some of the more disgusting things out.

-Phil and I waiting for an elevator and some young woman comes out of nowhere, gets on the elevator and starts to push the door close button. We literally had to sandwich our bodies between the closing doors.

-Seeing someone farmer blow onto the street.

-General spitting (seeing the evidence of such an act in an elevator with marble floors is always strange.)

-Cutting in front of you in line. (Get those elbows out and learn how to use your cart if you don't know the language.)

-People staring at you- clearly talking about you.

-Strangers touching your hair just because they are curious.

-People pulling the food out of your grocery cart just to see what the foreigner is buying.

-Something I will call "Nasal Infirmities".

-Babies with splits in the butts of their pants- and there is no diaper....after some thinking, we wondered what kids did when they had to go to the bathroom, b/c clearly they wouldn't go to the bathroom just anywhere, right? WRONG!

-Which brings me to the next one on the list- children being held over garbage cans or the street to go "potty". I'd like to say it is only numero uno, but I'd be lying.

-Rush hour on the subway: Squeezing an unfathomable amount of people onto the subway and body slamming a few more into the mix for good measure. One time I saw a subway worker give someone's butt a little push so the door would close.

-Being asked to pose with perfect strangers so you can have your picture taken as the "token foreigner".

-Going into a market that clearly sells fake goods and seeing signs posted that warn people against buying and selling fakes, because it is "illegal".

-Squatty potties.

-No toilet paper- or soap.

-Someone smoking right under a non- smoking sign.

-There are times that if you need to find a toilet, you just follow the smell.

-Any vehicular situation you put yourself into will remind you that traffic laws are not only a good thing, but so is a society that follows them.

-Seeing someone on a bike with a woman riding sideways on the back, holding an infant, a couple of grocery bags and talking on a mobile phone.

Moments like these remind me that I am a stranger in a strange land. They also help me to remember that I do not have the world figured out, and that my way (although I often tend to think it is the right way), is not the only way. I think it is in these moments, when our beliefs and ideas collide with such a different thought process, that we have the opportunity to learn and grow. We can also, and often times do, close off further- never learning or sharing in another culture. Sadly I see many expats taking this road. At first I thought it was an easier road, but when I weigh the outcome and see the gain versus the loss, I conclude that it is the harder road. I see these people battling to stand still, constantly fighting the rush of water that is the other culture, and only growing tired and weary. Many of you who know me, know that I am strong in my beliefs. I am not saying there are not things worth fighting for or taking a stand against. I am saying there is a lot to learn from embracing and learning about another culture, where they have come from, and why they approach life the way that they do, So that is my lesson, the thing I am learning on a daily basis. I can embrace and be stretched as a person, or I can clench my fists and refuse to accept the reality around me. For now, I choose to embrace. After all, This Is China........

Friday, July 13, 2007

Mission Accomplished

It is a grey and dreary day here in Shanghai. Our friends have been gone for over a week now, but managed to leave a connection in the form of a head cold. Sorry Will, that's my theory- little bugs from the plane. Actually, a lot of people here in Shanghai have colds. It seems like such a strange time of year to have a cold. There has been no real fluctuation in outside temperature, just the usual Shanghai summer heat and humidity.

In the absence of health and parked on the couch, I have managed to finish the last of our pictures from our visit with Will and Jen. I hope you enjoy some of the pictures we have selected to share.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Check out some of our pictures

Well, I have successfully edited and posted some of our many pictures from our vacation with our friends Will and Jen. Check out the photo album link to the right and check out the Shanghai Wanderings album. It's just a start- there will be plenty more to follow. -Jen

Sunday, July 1, 2007

We're Back

Well, I am back to the blog. Our two week vacation has come to an end. I just dropped our friends Will and Jen off at the maglev station bound for the airport, and then onto the U.S. I have to say, Phil and I are sad to see them go. Seeing them was great, but having the time off to travel with them and hang out was just what we needed.

As we suspected, the two weeks they were here flew by. A few days after they arrived in Shanghai, barely over jet lag, we headed off to Beijing via overnight sleeper train. Once in Beijing, we went on a whirlwind tour of some of the major sites in the city. We have a ton of pictures, and thanks to Will, we will have them posted shortly along with stories of our travels.

Once back in Shanghai, we took a day off to rest, and then proceeded to explore the city for the rest of the week. It was nice being a "tourist" in the city we live in. We found some cool new places, but also revisited some places we had forgotten about. I am quite sure that you could do something different in this city every day for a year- there is just so much to do here.

As soon as I get organized and get all the pictures together, I will be posting pictures and stories of our recent travels.

Stay tuned- Phil and Jen