Sunday, August 17, 2014

Riding the lift with a crabby toddler...

No, really. Look:

I look forward to the weekly changing of the print ads in our elevators. Honestly, they give me such great comic relief as I take the long ride up and down to my flat. Sometimes I'm grateful for the language barrier, because it's always fun to guess exactly what the ad agency was hoping to accomplish (or advertise for that matter!).

Upon seeing this one, Nat remarked that Chinese kids are made of tougher stuff than other kids, who usually start out the toddler years eating something more gentle, like Cheerios or cubed cheese, rather than jumping into live crabs...

Welcome to Autumn and Hairy Crab season!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Lucy Rocket Rocks.

I think having a dog while living abroad, specifically while living in Shanghai, is the best. Especially if it's a little dog. Especially if it's Lucy Rocket. 

When we lived in Tokyo, we did so with a tiny newborn blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby Nathan. If you wanna stop traffic, meet people, or vastly improve your language skills, I recommend the foreign baby in Asia route. I rarely got more than a few dozen feet without being mobbed by excited locals exclaiming happy sounds, trying to interact with Nat, who incidentally ate it all up. (Side note: at 13, nearly 14, he is way less enthusiastic about strangers interacting with him than when he was 13 months). 

No one could resist Nat's big baby blues!
And yes, I used to have blonde hair.
If I was struggling with a bag and the baby, someone always ran to my rescue, generally preferring to snuggle the baby while I carried the bag. (Another side note: the things you do abroad are very different than the things you do in your country of origin... I would never hand off my baby to a stranger in America, but in Japan I did it all the time. Maybe because he stood out so much and caused a stir wherever he went. It's not like anyone could get very far with him, especially not in the suburb of Tokyo where we lived). 

Someone willing to hold and entertain the baby while we ate?
Our answer was always yes!

Foreign friends here in Shanghai report similar experiences with their little ones, stopping people in their tracks and getting lots of attention. 

While I am forever grateful that we are firmly out of the baby/toddler years, I see the big difference in the experience you have with a baby vs without one. I've spoken to other friends who didn't have children when they lived in Tokyo, and they've said they found it to be a cold and sterile place, lacking authentic friendliness, and it was hard for them to make contact with the locals. I always feel so sad when I hear that, because my experience was so amazing. Michael and I made a deal: should he ever be offered a job in Japan again, he doesn't even have to ask me. We're going. 

So how does this all tie in to having a dog? I'm getting there...

In China, many people are afraid of dogs. And not just big scary looking dogs. Lucy Rocket-sized dogs, at a whopping 1.7 kgs. Which is less than 4 pounds. Lest you think I exaggerate, I will tell you that people have crossed over to the other side of the street or stepped out into traffic when we've been walking her down the sidewalk. On a leash. One time a lady came to our house and I opened the front door while holding Lucy. Lucy made no noise, but the lady screamed and ran back to the elevator in terror. I seriously thought there was a man behind me with a large butcher knife wearing a hockey mask about to stab  me or something. Nope, the lady was just petrified of our dog. She came in, and we locked Lucy in a bedroom, but the lady did not stop shaking and looking over her shoulder the whole time she was here. 

Lucy Rocket, ferocious beast. She will claw her way into your heart. Fiercely. As you can see.
And then there are people (generally the upwardly mobile, status symbol-seekers) who love dogs here. Crazy love. As in outfitting them in tutus, decking them in bows regardless of gender, and putting little shoes on their pups. The poodle is very popular here. 85% of the dogs you see around town are poodles. Not the big Standard Poodle, but the Miniature or Toy size, like Lucy. Poodles are a good breed for the city, they make excellent apartment dwellers, and they don't shed, so they are easy to clean up after. They are also smart and easy to train, so I'm not surprised that they are so popular in Shanghai. With the people who actually like dogs, that is. 

But here is the awesome thing about having a dog, especially a poodle, and especially our completely non-aggressive Lu... In a city where people shove and push and ignore everyone in their path, bringing Lucy with us around town ensures that someone (probably several someones) will react to her. They'll either get out of her way (and thus, our way), or they'll pause to bend over and click at her with a giggle. We get a chance to interact with the locals in a way we wouldn't without her. Without her I just get stared at like the zebras at the zoo. It's nice to have a cute dog to take the focus off me. 

And second, we live in the most urban, downtown part of Shanghai. If you ever see a photo of the famous skyline of Shanghai, our building is in there. There are very "local" parts of the neighborhood, with wet markets and street vendors serving the non-foreigners, but there are also very touristy parts, especially along the waterfront of the Huangpu River. Touristy areas mean an endless number of hawkers, selling their wares. From laser pointers to kites to photos printed on the spot. You can't go a dozen feet without being accosted by them. They target the foreigners, who are easy marks as tourists. And they are incredibly pushy. Like, they almost ruin your evening stroll pushy. Sometimes it's hard to take. 

But you know what's easy to take? Lucy. We put her on her leash (always, it's not really common here, but I'm not willing to lose our tiny dog in a crowd or in the street), and take her with us for our evening walk along the river. And suddenly we're not tourists. Because tourists don't bring their dogs with them to China on vacations. Suddenly our tiny 1.7 kg dog is like an electronic force field, repelling the lady trying to get Michael to buy a flower for me, or the boys to buy a bouncy ball on a stick. It's amazing! Like the ultimate magic trick. 

There are challenges to having a pet abroad, of course. Like finding someone to care for her if we want to go on holiday, taking her downstairs for an early morning walk, and the added expense of regular veterinary care which costs more than human care here. But I could not imagine our experience of living here without the constant presence of this furry friend. Life with Lucy rocks. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Playing the cows home

Though I'm a city girl through and through, I have lived in the country. For two years in middle school I lived about an hour north of Los Angeles in the High Desert on two and a half acres. And then for the four years of high school I lived on a huge spread of land on California's Central Coast in a town that had a population of 123 the day we moved in. Or 127 if you counted my family. Moments after graduating high school I moved by myself back down to Los Angeles where I was born and raised up through the end of 6th grade, and where I fit in far better among my fellow city slickers.

But one thing I did when I lived in the middle of nowhere was to roll down my windows and shout or sing cheerful greetings to the livestock lined up against fences along the country roads. I always felt like they could use a little lift in their otherwise surely monotonous lives. And frankly, I myself was in need of something to lift my own spirits. For my troubles I was often rewarded with a chorus of lowing cattle. Whether they were thanking me or telling me shut up is a mystery. But I did it anyway.

It's good to know I'm not the only person thinking along those lines. Check out this farmer with mad skills on the trombone, greeting the morning (and his cows) with song:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Lost in Translation. Again.

Our conveniently located wet market where I would get all my fruit and veg for cheap closed down at the end of last year, leaving me trying out all sorts of other options for produce. Sadly, the stores that I can walk to within about a 6-10 block radius tend to be some of the most expensive for produce, stocking imported organic goods from America or Australia. Which, for some people, is fine. But for us it's out of reach for use on a regular basis.

We've been doing a lot of potlucks and hosting lots of dinners at our house this summer, and it's been challenging to find economical options to feed a crowd. This Monday night we hosted our usual group, and I decided on doing a baked potato bar. Pretty simple, just bake up a bunch of potatoes (scrub, poke 6-7 times with a fork, rub with olive oil and coat with sea salt before baking on the oven rack for an hour at 180 Celsius) and then provide an array of toppings.

I searched online for a grocery which sells russet, or at least large baking potatoes with a thicker skin, and found a site that seemed to fit the bill. They weren't russet potatoes, but Kerr's potatoes, which a quick google said were excellent for baking. So I pulled down the number button and clicked "20" because I figured 20 potatoes would feed a group of ten, and there wasn't a unit of measurement listed on the site. But late Sunday evening, several people in the group texted me to say they wanted to bring a friend, nearly doubling the expected size of our group. Always worried about having enough food, I realized that 20 potatoes wouldn't be enough, so I quick signed onto another online grocer who does same day delivery and ordered another 20 potatoes, at a higher price for the convenience.

Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. my doorbell rang and I met the delivery guy at the door with my cash for the first order. He had an enormous cardboard box which he slid into my doorway. He went his merry way, and I went to lift the box and nearly threw out my back! The box weighed a ton! Confused, I grabbed a pair of scissors to open the box, only to find the entire thing stuffed with potatoes.

I didn't order 20 potatoes.

I ordered 20 kilograms of potatoes.

If you're reading this in America, that is 44 pounds of spuds.

An hour later the doorbell went off again, alerting me to my second delivery of the day, the other order of more expensive potatoes I'd placed when I thought I didn't have enough. In the end, I had almost 200 potatoes. When my non-English-speaking ayi (housekeeper) arrived, I did a brief interpretive dance to try and tell her what had happened, and she basically laughed her head off at me. At the end of the day she left thanking me though, because I sent her home with one full 10kg  bag as seen above. 

The potato bar was a success. And very economical indeed because I didn't balk at the total cost of 44 pounds of potatoes! I'm sure next time I'll save even more money when I order a more appropriate amount. And we were good hosts too, as each of our guests got a parting gift of a small sack of potatoes to go. Despite the generosity, we still have about 40 potatoes.

Right now we feel a little bit like Bubba in Forrest Gump when he was describing all the many ways you can eat shrimp. 

Only we're replacing the word shrimp with potato

At least it wasn't an expensive mistake, like the $100 turkey incident...

Monday, August 4, 2014

Dreams of Tibet

I have wanted to visit Lhasa, Tibet for as long as I can remember. Knowing how close we are here in Shanghai, and that you can take a train across the permafrost to get there makes me crazy with anticipation and longing. But knowing we have a son with congenital heart disease whose cardiologist has not signed off on Ben making the trek to such a high elevation means we've not yet gone. Regardless, I'm drawn to it.

Last week on the Time Out Shanghai website I saw a contest for tickets to an art exhibition of photos of Tibet. With nothing to lose, I put my name in the hat and won! Michael and I headed across the river to LOHAUS, a six-story building built in the 1930's. It's a creative space for events and coworking. Why write that novel in a coffee shop when you can do it in an historic building next to other creatives working on their own artistic endeavors?

On Saturday LOHAUS was hosting photographer Yunyao Shen, a 25 year old man from Shanghai with quite a story. It begins, as many stories do, with a girl. She wowed him on first sight, and suggested he get a digital camera to take photos of her. He thought things were going well, but she then asked if he had a house, which he did not. Sadly, she left him for a man who did have a house. His heart crushed, Shen approached the girl's father, who suggested he go to Tibet and practice his photography there (to get him out of the picture perhaps?). He did, and fell in love. Not with another girl, but with the place. He took lots of photos and gained popularity, eventually taking pics of Tibet for National Geographic.

I love his story, for it was through following his heart (trying to get the girl's attention and affection) he found his dream, his passion. Even more amazing, Shen has a heart issue, and recently had a heart surgery which was deemed a failure as it didn't fix the issue. I got a chance to speak to him about it, telling him how my son's cardiologist won't let him go to Tibet. He said he carries his medication with him at all times, and had a scary moment on a recent trip there when his small group camped out overnight and was being chased by wolves (or possibly a leopard, his English was good, but some things got a little lost in translation). Everyone had to run to get to a safe place, and he said he thought for certain he was going to die because his heart was beating so fiercely and painfully. Yikes! He agreed it is not good for him to go there, but he cannot stay away.

We were VIP's, treated to the first session of the day where Shen spoke about his work. In the photo above where he's speaking, you can see the photo he took of the ex-girlfriend who started him on this journey. She is wearing a Tibetan robe, standing in a grass field, her back to the camera.

The exhibit was on all the floors of the LOHAUS building, with a different theme on each floor. On one floor we got to sample some Tibetan snacks. Everything was dried and preserved. I had a drink of some milk tea instead of the Chilean wine they offered and I really regretted it. I'm not a huge fan of tea or of dairy products, so who knows why I decided to take a big swig of a combo of both? Ugh.

Another floor was set up to evoke the feeling of the Tibetan sky, with prayer flags going up to the ceiling, and some of Shen's photos of the night sky on the walls.

On another floor, there were postcards of all of the photographs in the exhibit. Everyone got to take one and write their own dream on it, along with our mailing address. The next time Shen is in Tibet, he will post them to us. I chose the photo of the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama prior to 1959, and Michael chose the photo of the ex-girlfriend. I won't share with you my dream, and I haven't asked Michael what his was. It kind of felt like making a wish on a birthday candle.

Writing dreams on postcards.
Where we left our dreams, to be mailed back to us from Tibet.

On the sixth floor we got to sit for Shen to take our photos, as well as talk to him a little bit. We got to check out his camera as well. The photos he took of the guests will go into a future project. The details were hazy. In the photo below, you can see him down on the ground. The man on the couch had also been to Tibet, and he too has a heart condition. He said his doctor let him go because he could control the condition through medicine taken throughout the day. Sadly, Benjamin has congenital heart disease, a defect of the heart rather than a condition which can be treated with medication. His heart, at sea level, is already working much harder than my heart or yours, so it would put him at serious risk to take him to a place where it would be forced to work even harder. Maybe I can convince the grandparents to come stay here in Shanghai with Ben so Michael and I can go to Tibet? Please?

Yeah, I totally took my photo with the photographer. I feel so short.

The LOHAUS building has a tiny rooftop overlooking the city atop the sixth floor. I loved this view, down into a courtyard showing the nearby roof with bricks and metal to hold down the waterproofing. Over in Pudong on my side of the river everything tends to be much more slick and sleek and new. There's only so much you can do with buildings built in the 1930's when they start aging and leaking without simply tearing them down. 

We make the trek back downstairs to the ground floor. This photo was taken looking straight up to the rooftop skylight.

It was a gorgeous exhibition in an amazing creative space. I feel so fortunate to have won tickets to experience it. As we left, our VIP status earned us some swag, and we got a couple of books, including one of Yunyao Shen's photographs featured in the exhibition, and some goodies from Fujifilm, a sponsor.

And we were all given a bracelet from Tibet, the multi-colored braid highest on my arm (look how well it goes with what I was already wearing!). This especially excited me, as my love for bracelets is documented here, and it's so nice to have some tangible thing from a place I dream of visiting.

After a day of discussing dreams, I am ever hopeful that this is one of my dreams that will indeed come true.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Shanghai Pretty

We live right across the river from this building, the Bund Centre Building. I'm frequently in the neighborhood around it, and have been inside it just once, for a special birthday dinner for my friend Leslie.

Except for its height, it fits in so well with the architecture of the other buildings on the Bund. I was certain it was built close to the turn of the century, like the rest of the Bund buildings, completed in the early end of the 1900's. Today I looked it up, and saw that it was indeed built close to the turn of the century-- just the wrong century! It's actually as new as most of the buildings here on my side of the river! It was completed in 2002, after five years of construction. It houses mostly commercial offices, but it also has some space devoted to the Westin hotel, with rates starting around $170 USD. 

It's one of my favorite buildings in Shanghai, and today as I passed by it I couldn't help to enjoy the view of Shanghai's best summer feature: those elusive blue skies! 

As the sun was setting this evening, I caught a photo of it from my side of the river.

There's been some heavy tropical storms and typhoon warnings in this part of the world, bringing glorious cool winds and huge fluffy clouds to Shanghai. I always say summer is my favorite season. That's easy to say in the perpetual perfection of Southern California. But when the weather is like it currently is in Shanghai, it makes me wish summer lasted forever. Or at least wishing for every day to be just like today, too gorgeous to hold me indoors. Instead I'm laying in bed, waiting for the forecast heavy rain to start and sing me a lullaby to sleep. Tomorrow will be an indoor day for certain.

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