Monthly Archives: January 2010

Things to get used to

#1. I peeled a mandarin orange to eat this morning. The pith appeared a lacklustre white and the flesh beneath the membrane a pale orange (and full of seeds!), so I prepared myself for an unpleasant (sour, bland) orange-eating experience. But guess what? It was incredibly sweet. And a little fizzy. Like orange Capri Sun*. And you know how sometimes when you’re eating fruit that’s unusually sweet, you say with giddy delight something like “man, tastes like someone pumped sugar in this”? That’s what went through my mind. And the next thing that went through my mind was that I’m in China, and that that seemingly ridiculous idea could very well be reality. And who gets the last laugh? Not me.

#2. I really should know better than to eat chocolate when I’m sick. I gave in yesterday morning and it made my throat feel like a pool of gluey chewy gooey goo from Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks.

#3. Sichuan pepper (花椒). These things are seriously the bane of my existence and my fear of them makes me feel embarrassingly un-Chinese. Somehow I’d managed to be shielded from this little but lethal spice throughout my childhood, when ginger had been my worst enemy**, so I was in for a nasty surprise my first meal out alone in Shanghai back in September. I ordered a seemingly innocuous 麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu, a spicy tofu dish), but what I got, apparently, was 麻辣豆腐 (mala doufu, mala meaning hot & numbing), because the first bite numbed the hell out of my mouth. The tangy, tingly, and highly uncomfortable feeling was exactly how I imagine mistaking citrus-scented floor cleaner for mouthwash would feel (after spitting it back out). Following up with an entire bowl of white rice did nothing to ease the discomfort—or the feeling of betrayal.

But yeah. Turns out that the Chinese love throwing Sichuan peppercorns into all sorts of dishes, so the kind of experience described above has happened several times since, and most recently last night, when we decided to order in from the Xinjiang place downstairs. One of the dishes we got was 大盘鸡 (dapanji, or “big plate chicken”), which we’d had twice before at different Xinjiang restaurants and thought we liked. Well, turns out that our previous experiences were not-so-authentic, because dapanji, according to a sample of google results, is typically loaded with sichuan peppers, as this one was. So much of dinner (and today’s lunch) was spent picking out these little pods, because the dish is actually more than palatable as long as you don’t bite into one—and don’t mind feeling like you’ve just picked out a schoolyard of dead bugs.

Anyway. The race is on. Who will win Frances’ favour first, sichuan pepper or ginger?

*Capri Sun has a video game out? Huh?
**We’re still not friends.

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MOVED–for good.

Fed up once and for all with wordpress being blocked, I’ve mustered up the moolah and bought a home. Barring any virtual housing crises, I’ll be there at least through 2010. Update your bookmarks (not that you probably have this bookmarked; I just like to say it) to Last one there’s a rotten egg!

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And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you

I’m taking advantage of the fact that it’s still January to partake in some of that corny reflection business that people are inclined to do at the start of a year. But instead of mumble-jumbling about 2009, a recent incident (in which I offhandedly said to Sean re some HTML nonsense, “I haven’t done this in ten years” and realised with horrified amusement that ten years ago I was actually doing things) has inspired me to dig a little farther back.

In short:

At the start of 2000, I was in Canada writing a lot of poetry, working on my first website (RIP Geocities), and hating pretty much the entire world except my family and a handful of friends from school.

At the start of 2010, I am in China not writing any poetry, working on the first website I’ve ever paid for, and hating select things about this world but loving my family and many more friends now scattered all over the globe.

What does this mean? Not much, except maybe that I’ve become 1) less inspired; 2) richer (well, relatively); 3) more discerning; and 4) a more frequent flyer.

Neither to prove nor to negate the above assertions, I’ve also reached into the dusty depths of my electronic file cabinet, where my grubby hands happened to be scrummaging yesterday in (a failed) search of an apt name for this site, and pulled out something I wrote in 1999 at the too-young-to-know-anything-but-thought-i-knew-everything age of fourteen. It’s a poem titled “And it was the Year 2010”, about a sturdy, reputable oak chair that one day, without warning, is replaced by a new metallic black one. I’ll spare you the bulk of the below-par poem, but if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share the final stanza. Stanza. Is that what they’re called?

And it was the year 2010
That Earth collapsed
Amidst social and political upheaval
And it* itself did too.
And only the faithful oak chair
Survived, and still remains.

*the new chair

It’s funny to think that ten years ago—just ten years ago!—I perceived 2010 as a faraway date, a time when sci-fi, crazy things like the Earth collapsing could happen. (Granted, I think I was reading a bunch of science fiction at the time and was a little obsessed with, you know, the end of the world, battle between good and evil, that kind of thing.) But then again, things–buildings, ideals, economies–are collapsing all the time. Something else just gets built in their place. 2010 has barely begun; I suppose I shouldn’t be so quick to underestimate the things that could happen in a year.

This just goes to show that I still have no accurate or reliable sense of the progression of time. I may sit here every day and think about how far off my mid-thirties are (not that I really do…), but then ten years will fly by and while Armaggedon might remain a fiction, so might my dreams and aspirations. On the other hand, I’m also sitting here (on a metal-framed black chair, actually) thinking that a year, a month, a day is not enough time to do the things I need/want to do—and by the way, what were the things I wanted to do again? I suppose I could start with actually figuring out what those dreams and aspirations are.

Thanks for indulging me in this rather pointless exercise in self-reflection. I’m down with a cold, and being sick does have a way of making one slightly more prone than usual toward existential thoughts.

P.S. I am much more self-conscious these days than I used to be back when I had all my creative work online for any and all to see, so at first I was a little iffy about quoting my own writing in relative public (what presumption!). But whatever. My recent life has been partially defined by nostalgia for my writing days—loosely defined as my mid-teenage years—and a search for clues as to how to get even a part of it back, and maybe part of the answer lies in overcoming my fear of sharing (thanks, Lez, for writing very eloquently on those sentiments). It might sound horribly self-indulgent to you, and it probably is, but let’s face it, we all have certain personal struggles that sound a little wacky when put into words and shared.

P.P.S. If you didn’t already catch it, the title of the post comes from Pink Floyd’s “Time”. Listen to it. It might never leave you.

P.P.P.S. I’ve finally realized why I don’t blog as much as I’d like. It takes me freaking AGES to write one of these things! Definitely something I need to work on this year.


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I have a domain name!! No more logging onto a VPN and having it time out in the middle of a post! Hurrah, hurrah, Pennsylvania.

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Order amid chaos

The B'twin Elops.

I got a bike at the beginning of January. That’s it up there, chillin on its first day home, brand new shiny racecar-red and complete with a basket that, due to the delightful oversight of a cashier, came for free. I hadn’t seriously considered getting a bike before the new year, having witnessed the incomprehensible mess is that Shanghai traffic, but the decision came about rather suddenly from a combination of several events: 1) me experiencing my first payday since March 2009; 2) Sean offering to subsidize half the cost of a bike; and 3) me staring at my thighs and deciding that something must be done about them, pronto.

Oh, and I guess 4) discovering this beauty at Decathlon (a French-owned sports “megastore”), carrying a sign that read “ready to ride”. How could one resist?

Since a lot of people here bike (although cars and motorbikes really dominate now), this purchase should have brought me one step closer to fitting into Chinese society. However, because my bike is neither squeaky nor rusted, and because I’m part of the 0.001% of cyclists who wear a helmet, my foreignness is made all the more apparent while I am cycling.

But that is of little consequence. I realized soon after buying the bike that this meant I’d have to overcome my fear of the streets, which are heart-stopping and prayer/profanity-inducing enough when traversing a sidewalk on my own two feet. How would I, an inexperienced city cyclist, survive on an actual road on wheels that don’t balance when stationary and can’t reverse at will (e.g. to avoid getting hit by a bus)? While I’ve heard that the Chinese street isn’t even that bad compared with somewhere like Ho Chi Minh city, it is still a seemingly lawless realm where taxis will make u-turns on a highway or suddenly go into reverse on a big road (while assuring you there’s no traffic behind), cars will make both left and right turns on a red light, and motorbikes spout forth from all angles like rabid beasts regardless of right of way or direction of traffic. If you get hit as a pedestrian, you could be cursed at for not checking for traffic coming from a direction that traffic shouldn’t be coming from.

While Sean is convinced that biking is actually less scary than walking around, my first three rides with him suggested otherwise. Sharing a space with honking motorcyclists is one thing, brushing shoulders with cement mixers and trucks with rocks tumbling out (no joke) is another. At various points during these rides, I found myself dropping the f-bomb every few meters– but at least I had Sean with me to make judgments of when it was okay to cross and how far out to veer into the car lane, and I knew that if I followed him and said a prayer at the intersection, I would probably end up in one piece on the other side.

Today marked my first ride out by myself: an hour-long round-trip to & from my student’s house, and a shorter trip out to Sean’s school to meet him on his Sunday afternoon break. I began a little nervous, but it turned out to be fun, liberating. I know I’m making this more dramatic than it needs to be, and you might be thinking “what’s the big deal?”, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that that was exactly what I realized. It’s not such a terrifying thing, once you get used to it.

As a pedestrian, you’re at the bottom of the food chain: you’re slow, small, a little scared. The guys on wheels won’t think twice about passing you, intercepting you, coming within centimeters of your soft, harmless body. Going about on foot, all I can think about is how insane these things on wheels are and that the sole reason for their existence must surely be to maim and kill. But on a bike, you’re a little higher up: faster, larger, more visible. Sure, you’re still likely prey for the bigger beasts, but if you’re travelling as one within a pack (and there are almost always other cyclists around), you’re probably safe. On a bike, it becomes clearer that there exists some order amid the chaos, an almost miraculous interaction between the hundreds of self-centered, manic vehicles coming together at any given intersection. It an unspoken system albeit not bound by law or common courtesy.

And this system cannot but exist, because the reality is that the design of many of Shanghai’s streets is such that it is simply impossible, unwise, or inefficient to follow such laws as:

  • if you’re a (motor)cyclist, not veering off the bike lane into a car lane–because the bike lane is non-existent or occupied by a parked car;
  • if you’re a motorist, not driving in a lane designed for opposing traffic–because motorbikes and bikes are taking up the only car lane going in your direction;
  • if you’re a pedestrian, not crossing the road on a red light–because at some intersections, a green or red light offers the same probability of being hit by a moving vehicle.
  • It all seems to work–except, I guess, when it doesn’t. But, knock on wood, I’ve seen fewer traffic accidents than I would expect to see in a place like this…

    All this is to say, I am very happy that I got a bike. While I can’t see myself doing long, adventurous bike trips anytime soon, I do see myself little by little, street by street, taking advantage and control of this new way to see and experience the city. It looks nice, rides smooth, it’s good for the environment and good for my thighs. What more can one ask for, really?

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    Surviving winter

    One of the factors that influenced my choice of Shanghai over Beijing was the latter’s supposedly unbearable, frigid winters. Well, it was only after I arrived, and the temperatures began to drop, did I learn how indoor heating is distributed in China. Basically, houses south of the Yangtze River are not built with central heating, while those north of the River are. It’s not because “southern” provinces all have the luxury of a subtropical Hong Kong-style winter (in fact, those living one mile north and more mile south of the river likely experience identical weather year round), but rather that, as one of my teachers put it, if everyone in China had central heating at home, there would be no energy left for the rest of the world. So from an environmental perspective, this arrangement sorta makes sense…

    But from a practical, on-the-ground perspective, this arrangement really sucks. It means that we southerners have to stay bundled up indoors and rely on portable heaters and air-conditioning units that double as warm air dispensers:

    Why does heat have to rise?

    We have three of these in the apartment: one in each bedroom and one in the living room. On a single-digit-degree day, a setting of 24C on the remote makes the room just bearable. Unfortunately, there are also times when turning on the heater is not an option, whether due to neighbour complaints about dripping water or the electrical outlet losing power. Also, our kitchen and dining areas, which face north, are not equipped with a heating unit. Having endured one month without heat in a poorly insulated house in Philly last winter due to a crazy (Chinese) landlady, I should be used to sleeping in my overcoats, but I’m not. In fact, I’m more or less morbidly afraid of the cold.

    Thankfully, I’ve found a few household additions that have greatly improved my quality of life during these heatless times.

    I was this close to getting a pair of indoor rip-off UGGs, but settled for these instead.

    Fleece housecoat. Wear over 3 layers for optimal effect.

    I’ve also started wearing ridiculously high-waisted long-johns under my pajama pants, but we’ll skip the photo for that one.

    And for the bathroom, probably most my worthwhile investment ever, at 4.9rmb (~0.7usd):

    It makes a world of difference, trust me.

    Lastly, a must-have for the outdoors, the face mask. I’d often wished for something like this the last few winters in the States, but never spotted them anywhere. More than a(n albeit crappy) protective shield against SARS and the flu, these things are great in the windy cold and, thankfully, are in fashion over here.

    Best worn sans glasses.

    When all is said and done, though, it’s really my hands that suffer most in a cold apartment. If anyone could tell me where to get a pair of these without forking outrageous (or any) dough for shipping, I would be eternally grateful.


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    Hold me to my word

    In my twenty-something years of life so far, the new year has rarely actually signaled new beginnings, but this year seems to be different. Life has picked up pace; I’m getting busy; things are a’changing. I’m not sure where to start, so maybe I’ll begin with a list of things I’ll be posting about–more to force myself to eventually get around to them than anything, really. Also, it looks like WordPress has been reblocked, so this will take some time… (excuses.)

    1. My new tutoring job(s), Chinese kids, Chinese parents.

    2. Biking in Shanghai.

    3. Winter must-haves.

    4. Culinary/gastronomic adventures.

    5. Being published (soon).

    6. Thoughts on the past semester at East China Normal University.

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    2010 – Lookin up

    Pudong skyscrapers

    Apologies for the absence and for an insubstantial first post of the year. A real update soon, I promise. Life has been happening.

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