Last day in Shanghai

Before leaving for our flight heading down to Chengdu tonight, one of the last things that we did in Shanghai was go to the rooftop bar/restaurant at the Bvlgari hotel, which I actually learned about because I follow Fuchsia Dunlop on Instagram. She had visited Shanghai earlier this year and marveled at the view of the city from this bar. It was definitely a unique view overlooking the city, with of course, the Oriental Pearl tower and the Huangpu River, one that I hadn’t previously seen before, so I was intent on visiting when we came. We ordered drinks and sat at the bar during the fully booked afternoon tea hour. And as Chris noted, we were literally the only two people in the entire restaurant/bar who were actually having alcoholic drinks. Everyone else was having afternoon tea, tea sandwiches, and sweets.

The view was spectacular from the roof of this hotel, with both indoor and outdoor areas. It was late afternoon, and just a little cloudy, but still clear enough to fully see the entire skyline, as well as the Huangpu wrap around us. From this view, you can see a mix of apartment buildings as well as skyscrapers: cosmopolitan Shanghai — a little mix of everything. I spent a while staring out at this view and had a hard time thinking about anyone who could possibly look at this city and think it was not an attractive one, especially given the river running through it. It’s still special to me since it’s the first international city I’ve visited, and this view will be emblazoned in my mind for quite some time after we leave; I’m pretty sure of it.

Hangzhou cabbies

The last time I was in China, I lamented not being able to visit Hangzhou. Everyone, from my local teachers to tutors to other local students I would befriend on campus, insisted that Hangzhou was one of the most beautiful places in China to come to. It is known for being a popular holiday and honeymoon spot, and because then, it was only about four hours by bus, it wasn’t too far from Shanghai to get away to for a long weekend. Hangzhou is famous for its large and stunning West Lake, Longjing (“dragon well”) green tea, and for having a good balance of both urban life and gorgeous nature flanking it.

Well, fast forward a few years, and a high-speed train system has been built that can take you from Shanghai to Hangzhou comfortably in just under 50 minutes. We took advantage of this during our trip and did a day trip to Hangzhou today. While the city was beautiful, with lots of nature, hiking, and yes, a stunning West Lake, what I took away from the day had mostly to do with our transportation.

Chris is usually a very easy-going traveler. “Keep it moving” is one of his favorite phrases to say during our trips. He doesn’t love it when I insist on taking five different food shots of the same dish, nor does he enjoy it when I linger and take about 10 different landscape shots of the exact same angle of a scene. But when it comes to little mishaps and things that can go wrong, he’s usually very relaxed… until today. His Didi app (similar to the Uber app here, but made for China) decided to randomly flag his account for “malicious” behavior, and so we were banned from using the app to call cars to pick us up. A sea of cuss words followed, plus very obvious frustration on his face. I figured, it couldn’t be that hard to hail a cab here… I mean, everyone else uses them, right? And my Chinese is decent enough, so as long as I know the Chinese name of where we’re going, I think we should be okay, more or less.

Yeah, more or less.

The first guy I hailed who accepted us charged us about 10 yuan, or $1.50USD, for a trip outside of the hiking area to the national tea museum… or what was supposed to be. He was friendly and chatty, eager to make conversation with his American-born Chinese passenger and her brown husband… and then decided to drop us off at a tea shop that does free tastings about ten minutes-walk away from where he should have dropped us off. The more I listened to the people around me, the more I realized that cabbies were just set up this way in the area. They weren’t going to take you to the tea museum because they were getting kickbacks from these tea shops to take you there to taste and buy tea instead.

The tea museum ended up being a total dud when we did walk to and find it, though. The area where they usually do tastings was closed. Half the exhibits looked like they were in progress of being installed. And the remaining ones didn’t really mean much to me or to actual tea, but were more about art work that captured how beautiful tea leaves are supposed to look. Okay… pass.

Then, we hailed our second cab. Perhaps it was a mistake, but I accepted a ride from a cabbie who already had a passenger and his toddler child with him. He asked where I was going, I told him, and he seemed to indicate it was in the same direction, so I figured, why not just jump in? The meter was already going, and I could tell when the passenger got out of the car that this was bad. The passenger told the driver, “This isn’t where I wanted to be dropped off,” and in rushed and impatient and rough Chinese, the cabbie responds back that it’s a short walk and straight ahead, so don’t make a big fuss and just get out of the car. And, when the passenger and his son did get out of the car, the cabbie did not reset the meter…. I wanted to tell him to, but I didn’t know the word for “meter” and didn’t want him to stop the car. He tried to get us to get out at the same time, but Chris insisted we were far, far away from where we were supposed to go. So I went back and forth with the driver, insisted this wasn’t the right spot, and he finally drove us to where we wanted him to get us… but then he ended by trying to make us pay 25 yuan, which would have been the fare for our segment of the trip, plus whatever trip he had going with the previous passenger. I immediately refused.

And this is when the real fun began. We started raising our voices at each other. I yelled at him and told him I wasn’t going to pay double what the other passenger paid because he already had someone in the car when I got in. He yelled and said a ride is a ride, pay up. I told him he was trying to rip me off and I wouldn’t tolerate it. He yelled back and said I had to pay him 25 yuan. Chris yelled in English at a far higher volume than either of us and kept repeating “No! No! No!” The cabbie didn’t even know basic English and kept freaking out, as was obvious from his eyes every time he looked at Chris while Chris was yelling, asking me in Chinese repeatedly, “What is he saying? Translate it!” I ignored him and never responded. I told him I’d pay him 15 yuan. He yelled that I was crazy, and frankly, the only reason he even took me was because he thought I was a real Chinese person and not a foreign tourist. He gestured to Chris — “foreign.” Racist slime, but hey, what did I expect?

In the end, I had little leverage because I didn’t have any small enough bills, so I had to have him break my 100-yuan note. He handed me back 80, which in the end, meant that he made me pay what was halfway between what I wanted and what he wanted. I still got ripped off and did not like it, but there was little for me to do. I called him a cheap skate and got out of the car while slamming the door.

Well, I guess all those Taiwanese soap operas I watched to procrastinate on my economics homework in college paid off. I had a real fight in Mandarin with a cabbie. And I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have had the same vocabulary to leverage had I just used what I learned in my Chinese classes.

Hangzhou was fun and beautiful. But I think I will always look back and remember the cab experiences there.

Suzhou noodle heaven

In 2006 when I spent a month in Shanghai, we did two day trips over the weekend to famous cities that were within driving distance of the city: Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, both in neighboring Jiangsu province, and both famous water towns that are well known within China. Suzhou is oftentimes nicknamed “the Venice of the East” or the “Venice of China” because of its many canals that make up the city. That, plus it is famous in Chinese history and culture for being one of the most scenic and idyllic towns. 

There’s this saying in Chinese that goes, “Shang you tian tang, xia you Su Hang – 上有天堂, 下有苏杭.” That roughly translates to, “In heaven, there is paradise, while on earth, we have Suzhou and Hangzhou.” In other words, Suzhou and Hangzhou are the beautiful places we have to enjoy on this earth; to the Chinese, these two towns are like paradise on earth. During my day trip here in 2006, we visited a number of famous, gorgeous gardens in Suzhou, and this time around, Chris and I also did. But for me this trip, the highlight was certainly the two noodle dishes we enjoyed at two different restaurants on the same block in Suzhou. 

The first place we went to was well known for its san xia mian, or “three shrimp noodles.” “Three shrimp” does not reference three different types of shrimp, but rather three different parts of the same shrimp that are separated and then put back together for your consumption while eating this dish. These local shrimps, which are seasonal for a very short period during the spring to early summer, are teeny tiny, just a bit smaller than my thumb nail, and are manually cleaned with an instrument that looks just like a little toothbrush, deshelled, scrubbed of its little shrimp eggs, and then degutted. As the final step, the shrimp bodies, eggs, and guts are all put back together and cooked, then served on a small serving plate for you. Alongside it is a bowl of dry, toothy wheat noodles that are perfectly straight and al dente, slightly salted with a few spoonfuls of broth to keep the noodles moist. Then, there is an accompanying bowl of plain chicken broth for you to enjoy, plus a plate of simply seasoned bok choy and a side plate of finely shredded ginger. 

The shrimp tasted like the ocean – briny, salty like the sea, with a good bite indicating that they were cooked perfectly. To me, the noodles were the biggest highlight – each strand of noodle was long and firm, and the flavor was just pure wheat with a hint of salt. Each bite required a good, long chew. This was so satisfying and worth the cost. At this point in our trip, this bowl cost the equivalent of about $15USD, which was quite expensive for China. When I looked at the cost breakdown, the real cost was in the shrimp; the bowl of noodles barely cost a dollar. 

Chris and I shared this bowl, finished, and went a few store fronts down to the second noodle spot on my list that is well known for noodle soup, with the broth being a “gao tang,” or “high soup,” meaning it is a superior stock made with the finest ingredients available. Unlike stocks made in the West, this soup was made from all fresh ingredients, meat, bones, vegetables, even rice wine, and simmered for over 10 hours. If the stock is no good, the dish would be no good. 

This dish lived up to his reputation. The soup was infinitely layered, extremely rich, with so many different flavor elements. You could tell right away that it was made from rich pork bones, but there were also flavor notes of seafood, perhaps dried shrimp and scallop, and even a bit of rice wine, onions, and other fragrant herbs. We ordered the soup with a topping of one piece of “big pork,” which mean that a massive slice of hours-long-simmered pork laid on top of the noodle soup bowl. We took a bite into this and realized right away what a treat it was: it was so tender, not even needing any chew. It was intensely rich, fatty, and delicious. The noodles were quite similar to the noodles of the first restaurant, but given they were soaking in the soup, were not as toothy as that first bowl. But clearly here, the soup was the main star, and the pork slice, as Chris noted, was extremely rich, “maybe too rich,” he admitted. It wouldn’t look like much from its photo, but this is one of the best bowls of noodle soup I’ve probably ever enjoyed. It is deceptively simple looking, but fails to be judged merely based on its humble appearance. 

While most people come to Suzhou for its immaculate gardens and historical architecture, I hope they do not overlook the delicate and refined cuisine that this city has to offer. It doesn’t look like much at first, but don’t judge its dishes by its cover. 

Shanghai – then and now

I don’t know what has changed more in the last 13 years — Shanghai or me, or maybe even both. While a lot certainly felt familiar walking through the streets of the Paris of the East, a lot also felt quite different. The streets are far cleaner with less litter. Fewer Chinese men are hocking up mucus and spitting it carelessly onto the street. I recall often seeing men peeing in the street here and there; it was pretty much a daily occurrence. This time, not only did I not smell the scent of urine anywhere, but I still haven’t witnessed public peeing. The air quality seems better. Overall, it felt fine to breathe in air, and I didn’t end my day by blowing my nose to reveal a black colored tissue.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was on their mobile phones… doing everything from speaking to dictate text messages, watching movies and videos, to just reading the news. This is a very different world than it was 13 years ago. That, and WeChat is literally everywhere; even random fruit vendors accept WeChat payments here! They are more enabled from a mobile standpoint than we are in the U.S.!

The traffic has become… what Chris called, “almost boring.” In other words, it was not anxiety-inducing to figure out how to walk across the street, even when the light was green for pedestrians. We didn’t see anything that was much different in terms of driving than we’d see in New York or San Francisco. People were generally abiding by the usual driving rules we’d expect in the West.

I still remember being terrified of crossing the road back in 2006. Yes, even though it was my first time out of the country, something told me inside that this was not good. Then, ti didn’t matter if the light was red; cars would still go and finagle their way out. I remember having a conversation with a friend I’d made on the plane ride over to Shanghai about the traffic towards the end of my stay:

“The traffic in Shanghai is crazy!” I exclaimed to him. “The drivers are so reckless. It’s like they don’t know how to drive.”

“No, drivers do know how to drive,” my friend countered. “Have you ever witnessed an accident in Shanghai in your entire month here?”

No, I hadn’t.

“So then… drivers do know how to drive,” he chuckled.

That didn’t really convince me, but that conversation would never even happen today because the traffic flow has changed completely. Not to mention I was shocked when we got into the Didi cars (their version of Uber), and almost all the drivers asked (in Chinese) to make sure that we fastened our seat belts. Seat belts?! Back in 2006, that was a total joke. Even cab drivers wouldn’t wear seat belts!

Shanghai has changed. But I suppose I have changed, too. I’m no longer a travel virgin, having visited to this day 44 U.S. states, 6 Australian states, 6 Canadian provinces, and 29 countries. Back in 2006, China was my very first country I’d visited. I had no idea what to expect and did little research outside of my Lonely Planet book, but now before going anywhere, I usually do my research and have an idea of what to expect. Shanghai and me – we’re both quite different now than we were before.

Back in Shanghai after 13 years

During our flights over from New York to Tokyo and finally to Shanghai arriving tonight, I thought about the last time I was in Shanghai about 13 years ago. It was my very first time leaving the U.S. The only reason I even went was because I applied for and was granted a scholarship to study in the month-long Wellesley-in-Shanghai language-immersion program at East China Normal University. The scholarship covered my full tuition and housing at a four-star hotel on the East China Normal campus, plus side day trips to Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, many activities and banquet meals, airport transfers, and about half of my round-trip airfare. I remember feeling anxiety over whether the scholarship would come through because at that time, my parents said they wouldn’t pay for me to study abroad there: why would they pay for that if they are already paying my extremely expensive tuition, room, and board at Wellesley? They’d only let me go if the scholarship was granted. So I learned probably about a month and a half in advance of the trip departure date that I received it, so I had to expedite my passport processing and quickly book my airfare.

I remember feeling pretty resentful at the time of my parents. I knew they had the ability to pay for it, but they didn’t see what benefits there would be in studying in another country. If anything, they thought the idea seemed pretty fluffy, like an excuse to have fun being masked as “study.” I get that completely; most of the time when I see study-abroad photos of friends and former classmates, they are usually party photos that showcase people doing all the things they are unable to do legally in their own respective country. However, my gripe at the time was that my parents didn’t understand that true language immersion meant actually immersing yourself in the motherland of the language you were trying to gain fluency in. You will never gain fluency in a second language within the walls of a classroom; you absolutely need to speak the language in the real world, and there’s no better way to do it than to do it in that actual land.

Even though I scrambled after my scholarship was approved to get my flights, passport, and travel visa in order, I think in the end, I felt better that I was doing this study-abroad program with a scholarship. It meant I actually earned this opportunity on my own, that I was “paying” for myself to do this and didn’t have to rely on my parents. I still believe it is a privilege to travel; not everyone has the time or money to do it, but when you are presented with an opportunity to do it, you should grasp it firmly and go. That experience forever changed my perception of the world, as hyperbolic as that may sound. At the time, I’d always thought myself more mature than others my age, but that trip really made me realize how little I knew about the world outside not just the U.S., but my own teeny tiny bubble. I really knew nothing. I was unworldly and not traveled at all.

I remember the evening I arrived, and the first morning I woke up, jet lagged and not even aware I was jet lagged. I rose at around 4:30am, eager to step out of the campus and actually see the city. My roommate then was still fast asleep in her bed. I had small talk with street food vendors, some of whom I repeatedly saw and gave business to over the course of my four weeks there. Without realizing it, I purchased and ate my very first sheng jian bao (basically like xiao long bao / soup dumplings, but thick-skinned dumplings, filled with meat, steamed and then fried on the bottom, and spilling out with soup when you bite into them), and also started my Shanghai morning habit of having hot, sweet freshly made soy milk each day, drinking it out of a plastic cup wrapped with another clear plastic bag. Everyone seemed to eat everything out of a clear plastic bag here on these streets. Just that experience in itself excited me then.

Those are just the simple memories of the beginning. So as I recalled all of this upon our arrival, I wondered what this city would be like to me 13 years later. I’m older, a bit more experienced, with slightly stronger language skills under my belt now. I’ve traveled more and seen more around the world. What would be the same and different about my first international destination? What would my perception be like? Would it still be as fun and exciting to me as it was in 2006? Lots of anticipation bounced inside my head as we arrived at our hotel this evening and would start the beginning of our 11-day China trip.

Airline ticketing error

We got to the airport and checked in for our flight to Shanghai, connecting in Tokyo, this morning. But as Chris was looking at our boarding passes, he noticed that while both of our frequent flier numbers were noted on the passes, his status was mentioned and mine was not. So he told me to ensure that everything was correct by speaking to the gate agent. I went to the gate, which was being managed by contractors (well, they weren’t Japanese), and the gate agent said that it was a mistake on the American Airlines side, and that AA would need to correct this.

Well, that made no sense because this booking was done directly via Japan Airlines on their website, so how could this be a mistake on the part of American? I proceeded to call the American Airlines executive platinum desk to tell me what the JAL gate agent told me. The AA agent on the phone checked my ticket number and found out that my name was actually written incorrectly on the ticket (it noted my middle name as my first name and my first name as my middle name…), which was probably why my status was not showing up. This would also mean that my account would not get the frequent flier mile credit unless this was credited. AA couldn’t do anything to fix this and said that JAL would have to resolve this, but the only way they could do this is to reissue my ticket, which would likely cost money… if not the cost of a full ticket. Worst case scenario, I would just have to call AA after the trip and give them all the legs I flew to retroactively credit my account.

I argued back and forth with the JAL gate agent, then her supposed boss, and it was not a good experience. They never even once apologized for not being able to help me and continued to either blame me (well, Chris is the one who did the booking) and AA. I was so shocked to personally witness such rudeness and finger pointing on JAL’s part at AA for something they had nothing to do with. Chris quickly pointed out that they were not actually JAL employees but contractors, and that we’d instead get this resolved when we got to the JAL lounge in Tokyo.

And… that’s exactly what happened. When we arrived at the lounge, I explained the problem to JAL workers at the front desk, and they told me it *may* cost 5,000 yen, but they’d see what they could do to help. An hour later after multiple phone calls and online checks and balances, they not only fixed my name on my boarding pass and had the correct status noted on it, but they waived any and all charges and apologized for the inconvenience. The JAL front desk worker who was helping me had the biggest smile on her face when she found me to inform me and hand me my passport and new boarding pass. I almost wanted to jump up and hug and even tip her, but I knew that neither action would be considered appropriate or wanted.

This is one of the many, many reasons I love Japan Airlines and especially Japan: everyone is always so overly polite and helpful and will truly go above and beyond to ensure you, as a customer, are satisfied. So many cultures could learn from and benefit from their customer service and hospitality.

“Exotic” and “oriental” in speech

Since it’s our annual team week this week and I will not be there, a lot of my colleagues have been asking me where I am going and what I’ll be doing instead. I never intentionally planned for personal travel during this time, but from my perspective, it seemed like poor planning on our team leadership’s part by never polling anyone to ask what their summer plans were. It is what it is.

While many have responded saying that they think my trip will be really exciting, filled with delicious food, historical sights, and a walk through, in Shanghai, of memory lane, I got one response that I wasn’t completely prepared for.

“WOW! That sounds amazingly exotic! I hope you have an amazing time!” one colleague exclaimed.

“Exotic”? I had to give myself some time to take this in to understand why I was not a huge fan of that word choice, and why this response kind of made me uncomfortable. In its plainest definition and form, “exotic” means “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.” So, for example, we oftentimes will call a bird “exotic” if it is not of the native land in which we reside. A secondary definition of “exotic” is: “attractive or striking because of colorful or out of the ordinary.”

The above definitions don’t seem offensive, right? And I know from knowing and working with this colleague that she in no way would ever mean to be offensive or rude at all. But it still made me feel a little annoyed. And it reminded me of why I hate the term “oriental” when describing East Asia and why it’s always bothered me. It rarely is spoken or heard, this term, but very occasionally, I do see it in writing, and I do hear people use the term “oriental” when referring to food or even groups of people, and those people are usually older since the term is quite dated. The cheeky response back to someone who would ever attempt to call me oriental is, “Well, I’m not a carpet.” And the meaning behind a comeback like that is… I’m not an object. Calling me “oriental” is basically objectifying me and my culture, and no one wants to be objectified. But to flush that thought out more thoroughly, Erika Lee, the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of The Making of Asian America: A History,” explained this: “In the U.S., the term “oriental” has been used to reinforce the idea that Asians were/are forever foreign and could never become American. These ideas helped to justify immigration exclusion (hello, Chinese Exclusion Act), racial discrimination and violence, political disfranchisement, and segregation.” Lee also claimed that the continued use of the term “perpetuates inequality, disrespect, discrimination and stereotypes towards Asian Americans.”

So that is really what I hear when I hear someone call my mother or father country “exotic.” It’s being categorized as “other,” “foreign,” “distant,” removed from the everyday that is here in the United States. It is not like us here in the land of the free. And that truly is not the case because the U.S. is a country of immigrants from around the globe. I wish more people would readily acknowledge that and acknowledge that all our differences is what truly make up this country.

Family dysfunction at the lunch table

Today, Chris and I met with my aunt, my cousin, his wife and their child for lunch. It was one of those predictable lunches where we’re not really having flowing, natural conversation, and it’s more fragmented with random questions and answers, the occasional interruption by the young child, and food or saliva flying in different directions. My cousin’s son, who will be turning 7 in about four months, is definitely maturing a bit, but he seems so much more infantile than I ever remember being at his age. When I was his age, I remember eating with regular sized forks, knives, and chopsticks, cleaning off my own plate, and never having any assistance with any food, with the exception of shellfish like lobster and crab. At that age, I was expected to eat chicken on the bone and get all the meat off them, too.

I looked at my cousin’s child, and I felt so sad observing him. I guess I feel sad in a lot of ways every time I see him because I remember being there when he was born, within the first year or two of his life seeing him regularly, and also noticing all the dysfunction around him. I can’t really spend as much time with him as I’d like because his parents are insane and helicopter-overing him. I used to always have these fun visions of taking him out on my own at around this age, bringing him out to the playground, treating him to ice cream. All those seemingly enjoyable images will never become a reality. This was never what I envisioned, but that’s the thing with family estrangement and dysfunction: you are rarely, if ever, always in control of how your relationships with your family go. If someone decides to be selfish, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to deal with it. Or, if someone randomly chooses to no longer respond to your texts, phone calls, and e-mails, there’s nothing you can really do to get them to care about you, is there? People do not think about this deeply when they judge others for not being close to family, particularly family who are nearby. Perhaps that’s just indicative of how shallow our society is. We want to imagine everyone has a happy functional family, and when we do not fit that expectation, we get blamed. But, to each their own stupidity.

Lavender syrup

After having so much delicious coffee in Colombia, and then traveling in Michigan and having notable coffee drinks such as my cafe miel and lavender latte, I decided I would make my own special coffee drinks by creating my own lavender syrup at home. Sugar syrups are super easy to make — all you really need is some water and sugar dissolved over high heat, and it keeps for weeks, if not months. And then if you want to flavor it with a herb like lavender, rosemary, etc., you just have to add a tablespoon or two during the simmering process.

Today, I made about half a cup of lavender syrup to add to our coffee drinks, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out in our Sunday morning lattes.

Relatives in town

So my aunt is in town for the next week or so, and she asked to meet Chris and me for a meal. I called my mom today after work and told her that we would be seeing her for lunch, likely on Sunday. I could tell she was not happy.

“Well, it’s up to you,” she said warily, clearly uncomfortable and not wanting to me to see her. “You can decide for yourself if you want to see her. Who else is going to come?”

That’s my mom’s passive aggressive way of saying she doesn’t want me to go, and that she thinks lots of other people are going to join.

I told her my cousin (my aunt’s son), his wife, and their young son would likely join. She seemed even more annoyed.

“Well, I’m just going to tell you one thing, and then you can do what you want,” she said. (that’s how I know this is going to be annoying… for me). “Things are not the same with those people (THOSE PEOPLE? You mean my aunt and cousins?!). Things have changed. There are going to be more people from their side coming, so you and Chris shouldn’t pay. Just let them pay. But make sure to bring something like flowers or cookies for your aunt.”

My aunt and cousins are “other” now to my mom. She gets angry with them all the time when she barely sees them. She gets mad at my aunt for reasons that no one can understand, but my aunt can read my mom like a book. She always knows when my mom is angry with her, even if it’s baseless. But on the flip side, she gets excited when my aunt comes back from her travels so she can see her again. It’s a really twisted, screwed up dynamic.

I went home and told Chris about this conversation today. Now, he insists that we pay the bill. That’s my Chris for you.

But, on the other hand… It’s just so stupid that this always has to be a topic of conversation. And it’s always because of my mom.