Category Archives: SH living

Weather conditions for today

Not relevant at all, but I had to share. I’ve become accustomed to “haze” in the weather forecast, but today was the first time I’d ever seen this:

Ugh, this stuff is supposed to happen in Beijing, not Shanghai…!

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Ben Franklin said, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

Good ol’ Penn never misses a chance to remind me how un-philanthropic I’ve been:

(The 5 bucks in 2008 got each “donor” a senior year t-shirt.)

Since I moved to China a year ago, my alma mater has been my most ardent pennpal, even if the correspondence has been strictly one-sided. I appreciate the alumni magazines, whose stories occasionally make me swell with pride and nostalgia, but it irks me to receive “Have YOU made a gift to Penn this year?” mail every two months. This recent letter in particular, by insinuating my utter stinginess and lack of school spirit, and pointing out my failure to donate during FY07 (while I was still in school, hello), left quite a bitter aftertaste.

I realize that universities rely, in varying degrees, on gifts to survive and to support incoming classes. And generally, the larger its endowment, the more a school will be recognized for producing successful (read: high-earning) graduates. So our “gift” matters. I get that. That’s why The Penn Fund is encouraging us to “Stay engaged with Penn by realizing the impact that Young Penn Alumni have through the tradition of annual giving to The Penn Fund.”

However, this advice is not only equivocal (“realize” as in acknowledge or make real?) but also likely to backfire: hounding recent graduates for our hard-earned money, especially in the current economic environment, risks making us want to disengage instead. Especially when we are then attacked, in bold, with the fact that Penn alumni who graduated less than five years ago typically raise over $160,000 per year ($160 per person, on average).

Is everyone else in my class “giving”? I doubt it. Yeah, my class had a boatload going on to $60,000+ jobs the summer after graduation, but the majority, I (would like to) believe, are still floundering in a world of entry-level salaries and graduate school, not to mention undergrad debt. I was very fortunate not to have had to take out loans, but I can only imagine that if I still had years to pay back for my own undergraduate education (because my school asked so much and gave so little financially), it would make me feel truly wronged to be demanded money to pay for someone else’s.

Don’t take it the wrong way. I love Penn. It was the best four years of my life so far, and I am sincerely grateful to have been allowed the experience.

But I don’t see my school pride in connection with financial gifts, just as I don’t view my having gone to Penn in connection with my current financial situation. And maybe this is a bad attitude to have, but I feel I will be ready to give only when the impact—more specifically, the monetary returns—of a Penn education is personally made clear to me (or, in their words, when I “realize” that impact). For now, I will concentrate on giving back to my parents, who believed enough in me to cough up all that dough in the first place.

Do you give to your school? Why or why not? Am I selfish and hypocritical for not doing it? Also, any thoughts on the quote (which was found at the top of the letter)? Seems like these days, investments in skill offer better returns, no?

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What wit's end looks like right now

Exhausted. Defeated.
Spying with burnt-out eyes
Two monstrous feet that belong in another world
A tummy, a tongue to be tucked away
A face red with rage, with blisters and sweat
from walking this way and that to find a way, only to find that
I’ve gone astray in this obstacle course of
Remote-control smiles on whose lips are etched:
Welcome to Wit’s End. F*** you.

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Winter is officially over

First cockroach of the year spotted in kitchen yesterday. Fortunately (for me), it was already dead.

Time to go poison shopping :\

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Aren't they a little too young…?

Spotted outside the primary school next to my apartment compound: a condom vending machine. Click on image to enlarge (teehee).

They’ve got em around town, but why next to a primary school? You know all those curious 8-year-olds are gonna be asking their grandpas what that funny-looking box is.

(…and yes, that’s Haibao playing badminton.)

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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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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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