100 Days of China

It’s official: I have now lived and studied in Shanghai for 100 days. It’s amazing how fast the time has flown by. 50 days ago, I posted 18 little lessons that astonished me and made me giggle. So, today it’s time for 18 more!

18 (Additional) Things I’ve Learned in China so Far:
1. There comes a point when eating rice/noodles/any type of Chinese food with a knife and fork becomes sacrilegious. It tastes better with chopsticks.
2. Don’t be surprised when you see an elderly man walking his empty wheelchair around the neighborhood.
3. It’s normal for children under the age of 3 to pull down their pants (or have their parents do it for them) to eh.. release their bodily fluids in the outdoors. Even on the bicycle path. In broad daylight.
4. Disregard all pre-conceptions of the conservative Chinese couple. Young couples here all seem to be equally in love, with matching t-shirts, guys carrying their girlfriend’s bright pink handbags, and constant hugging wherever they go.
5. It’s considered strange for a girl not to be married by the age of 30.
6. That cough that you thought would go away with time? No, it’s not because you have a permanent cold; it’s because of the pollution. It won’t leave you until you leave Shanghai.
7. Glasses without lenses are in high-fashion.
8. Despite the government’s attempt to ban wearing pajamas in public in time for the World Expo in 2010, this comfortable attire can still be spotted in local neighborhoods. They’re lined with fur and other warming material. I’m very tempted to buy one for myself.
9. Houses with single-glass and look-a-like-marble floors get really really cold.
10. Smile at those you try to bargain with. They’re usually quite friendly. And nothing beats the satisfaction you feel after getting the price down to a third of their original demand.
11. Foreigners love pepernoten.
12. Shanghai has so much to offer. Bargain with the vendors at Yuyuan Gardens, drink a cocktail at Tianzifang, and stroll around Xintiandi. Visit the museums and walk on the Bund. There are millions of little streets explore and lost artworks to photograph.
13. Everyone wears their jackets inside.
14. Buses come first. Then cars. Then motorbikes and other electric scooters. Then bikes. Then people. Try not to get run over.
15. If you curiously glance and smile at the ladies playing Mahjong in your street, they’ll ask you to join so they can teach you.
16. The modern Shanghainese is expert at walking to the metro while reading a book/watching a show on their phone.
17. It’s best not to look in the kitchen of the local restaurant down the street where you go when you’re too lazy to cook (i.e. 3 times a week). If you haven’t been ill because of the food yet, don’t worry yourself about how it’s prepared.
18. Shanghai is gorgeous.

Shanghai Through the Eyes of my Mother

Before I’d even moved to Shanghai, my parents promised they’d come visit me. They were curious, they said, as to how much China had changed in the 10 years since we lived here. To be honest, I wasn’t sure they’d come. It’s not that they usually don’t do what they promise (because they do, I mean, they’re my parents, it’s all in line with ‘setting an example’ in ‘don’t make a promise you can’t keep’ or whatever other principles parents adhere to) but Shanghai is slightly eh.. far away. Looking back on it now, I don’t know why I ever doubted their intention. Their plane touched down last Thursday. For a week, we roamed the streets of the city they once knew so well. We went sight-seeing at Yuyuan Gardens, rummaged through the Chinese goods on the antique street (Dongtai lu), and strolled along the Bund. We ate yummy Peking Duck, sweet and sour fish, and Sichuan hotpot. I showed them my apartment and took them to the local ‘restaurants’ where I eat dinner. I showed them Fudan. I showed them where I buy my vegetables. And my mom took pictures. A lot of them. 223, to be exact. A little bit too much to show on this blog, so I picked my favorites and posted them below!

What do you think? Shanghai through the eyes of my mother is pretty beautiful huh.

Panoramic Shots

I have a bag. Well, it’s more of a suitcase than a bag. A bright pink Longchamps, in the biggest size I could get my hands on. It was originally meant to be used on airplanes (yes KLM, I have find a way around your 10kg hand-luggage limitation) or on weekend trips. But its smaller version, color purple, broke due to my girly tendency to pack half of my possessions when I go to class. Instead of wondering whether the destruction of my handy waterproof companion perhaps means I should carry less stuff with me to prevent my shoulder from falling off like the straps of my Longchamps did, I find myself stuffing more into my pink suitcase. Because it’s getting colder, of course. I mean, I now need an umbrella. And an extra sweater. And, of course, socks! What if my shoes get wet? If you’ve ever walked around with wet feet all day, you know what I’m talking about.

But anyways, not the point of my story. This bag. It makes finding objects a bit of an effort. So I’ve started carrying my prized possession, my camera, around with me in my jacket pocket. Result? More photos. Better yet, I’ve fallen discovered an option on my camera I could now not live without: it’s ability to take panoramic shots. I’m in love. Shanghai is so beautiful.

Luckily (or maybe not so for my photo-count), my parents are arriving in Shanghai tonight for a week of strolling through the city we once knew so well. And guess what’s packed in their suitcase? Color blue.

Snow White (without her 7 dwarfs)

Shanghai rush hour. My conviction that I absolutely cannot study without flashcards brought me on a ‘compulsory’ trip to the stationary district. As I dreamily stepped out of the metro and on the escalator, picturing the cute little items I was bound to purchase in my new favorite shop, I felt a tug on my sleeve. I turn around. “Hello!” said a normal looking Asian man with a huge grin on his face. Thinking this was perhaps the only English word he knew, I replied with a shy “nihao” and glanced back towards the top of the rolling steps.

Before I could return to my day-dreaming, however, he took a hold of my hand and shook it. “I am Korean!” Now confident, I look up and declare that I’m Dutch, one of the few phrases I’ve learned how to perfect in Chinese. His grin expanded. “You look like my teacher!” He didn’t let go of my hand. “You’re so white, you look like Snow White!” It took me a second to remember that while us Europeans associate paleness with sickness and thus spend thousands on sunbeds and fake-tan (yes, I’m largely talking about what I witnessed at an English university) or better yet, sun-filled holidays in which you ‘forget’ to put on sunscreen and thus accidentally burn and hope your red-lobster look will turn into a golden-goddess color (let’s face it: we’ve all been there) being pasty is desirable in China. Accepting complements here is a big no-no, and thus I stuttered in-between forced giggles that I was definitely not a Disney-princess look-alike.

If I thought he would let go of my hand once we reached the top of the escalator, I was mistaken. I slowly withdrew mine from his sweaty palm under the pretext of getting out my metro card. The man chatted happily on in broken English about being a dancer, and that I look like a dancer and should be his new teacher. By now convinced that this encounter is perhaps getting a little bit strange, and catching a faint whiff of alcohol, I hurried through the growing crowd of people pushing to swipe their card and leave. Grinning-Korean-man followed me through the exit-portal. I stood in front of the exit-map, having temporarily forgotten which of the 4 tunnels to take to my safe-haven, my beloved stationary shop. He asked if he could take a photo of me, Snow White. Mumbling a faint ‘no’, I gave a small nervous smile to my new ‘student’ to say goodbye. He grabs my hand and leans in. Stupefied, I stood stock-still as he planted 3 kisses on my cheeks. And no, not normal pecks, but 3 big, wet smacks.

I’ve never been good in uncomfortable situations. My brain needed a minute to process what had just happened. Kissing strangers does not happen in China. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t even happen in my famously open-minded home-country. Unsure that what I had just experienced had actually really happened, me and my stunned face walked away in a confused daze.

It’s safe to say that what I thought would be a pleasant day browsing shelves of notebooks and flashcards turned into the strangest thing that has happened to me since moving to Shanghai. But hey, it’s not everyday that you get called the “fairest of them all”!

Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Museum

Last week I decided it was time for some proper sight-seeing, and so, as recommended by my flatmates, I headed over to the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Museum. This small museum is located in an unassuming apartment complex, but its 3-rooms are filled with thousands of propaganda posters from 1940-1990. Ordered by date of publication, the posters form a timelined-look of how China’s rulers wanted the public to view their actions. The portrayal of Mao’s policies and the personality cult built around him are particularly interesting. Little descriptions (written in both French and English) provide a brief overview of the time period and China’s domestic affairs and its international relations at the time.

My favorite posters were those that focus on China’s foreign affairs. The earlier posters, for example, frequently portray the United States and Britain as an evil outsiders that attempt to destroy China’s ideals and invade their nation. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, is depicted very favorably.

(please note that these pictures are not my own, but come from the Shanghai Propaganda Museum website). 

While propaganda paintings like the ones featured in the museum seem to be a little out of fashion, China is far from being propaganda-free. I don’t know what national broadcasts are like seeing as our little student flat doesn’t have a TV (well, no fully functioning TV..), but I notice it the most on the subway. Each station and every metro has small TV’s spread along it. As well as displaying where the line goes and how long it will take for the next metro to come, the TV’s blurt out little news bulletin and clips from concerts around the country. Recently, in what I can only assume is preparation for the leadership transition, clip dominated by red-images showing people waving Chinese flags have appeared on the screens, accompanied by the sound of trumpets and other ‘upbeat’ Chinese music.

While it cannot exactly be classified as ‘propaganda’, the current political activity in Beijing has caused an even larger regulation of the internet. My classmates complain that their VPN’s (external proxies through which we can access facebook and all the other websites blocked by the Great Firewall of China) have mysteriously stopped working. Google has become incredibly slow. The New York Times is completely blocked. It’s interesting to contrast the propaganda posters displayed in the museum to the methods used by the government today to promote their policies and restrict access to opposing viewpoints.

Talking about the political transition and the changes occurring in China remind me of an article written by Damien Ma for Foreign Affairs. I realize that I didn’t post an ‘Article of the Week’ last week, so consider this one it! The article looks at whether people in China are better off today than they were 10 years ago when Hu Jintao became president. 非常有意思! Better understood as: very interesting ;)

Rain, Postcards, and Midterms

Over the past week, Shanghai has transformed from a warm, humid, sunny paradise to a rainy, cold, grey icebox. Okay, so ‘icebox’ might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the change the weather has undergone is astonishing. I think it must have picked up on the fact that all Chinese language students in universities across Shanghai had to sit their midterms this week. Including me, of course. So, in preparation, I took the week off work and holed myself up in the cutest café ever, right by Fudan. I set out to ‘review’ all 320 characters taught to me over the past 2 months.

Luckily, our listening and speaking teacher had been kind enough to tell us the 5 topics we would randomly choose from for our speaking exam. So, I prepared little 3-minute speeches for each. Turns out that I actually learned quite a lot!

The topics to choose from? 1) Talk about Shanghai, 2) Talk about a day or your weekend, 3) Talk about your family or best friend, 4) Talk about a shopping experience, and 5) Talk about your experience in a Chinese restaurant. Below are two of my prepared answers:

I blindly picked the dreaded fifth topic. After waiting for 3 hours until it was my turn to talk (sometimes having a last name that starts with ‘v’ is really quite annoying), I stuttered on for 3 minutes about what Chinese dishes I like and how concocted some story about how my flatmate and I ate at a small restaurant close to our apartment. And about how I didn’t like the super cheap Fudan-canteen food. Man was I glad when it was over.

My other three exams, however, went relatively well (inshallah). My mind didn’t blank when I saw the mumbo-jumbo of Chinese characters, and I seemed to have remembered some basic grammar too. What makes the grammar so difficult is that the sentence structure here is usually the complete opposite to the English format. For example, while we say ‘We bought a lot of clothes at the store’, they say ‘We at the store bought a lot clothes’. ‘I have class tomorrow’ becomes ‘I tomorrow have class’. And when mentioning when your parents are coming to visit (yay!) you say ’11 month, 22 days, my parents planning on to Shanghai traveling’. Dates, however, are relatively easy to figure out. There are no separate words for the weekdays, for example, Xīngqī (星期) means week, and so xīngqīyī (yī meaning 1, 星期一) becomes Monday, xīngqīèr (èr meaning 2,星期二) becomes Tuesday, and so on. The months work similarly: my parents are coming in November, so that becomes shíyīyuè (十一月)or ’11 month’ (shíyī = 11, yuè = month). I never thought learning another language would be this complicated.

As a little break in between my studies, I browsed the hundreds of postcards my new favorite café sells. I’m still convinced nothing beats a handwritten letter (yes, I’m an old-fashioned 21-year old).

Now that my midterms are over, I will officially be moving up to Level B as of next week! A look through my book shows me I’ll be learning things like “I am going to the airport to see a friend off”, and “I’m full”. I think the latter is especially useful in a country where food is ridiculously cheap and amazingly delicious. I’ve been taking photos of some of the dishes we’ve been eating, so you can be sure a post about the food in Shanghai will follow shortly!


A couple of weeks ago, I met up with a teacher who taught me for two years while I was at Shanghai American School. She took me out for dinner in Tianzifang, a little area with streets of cafes and bars, restaurants and tiny boutiques. We had a delicious dinner at Tai Thai, and then set out to explore the area. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos on that little trip. So, when two friends wanted to go explore the neighborhood, I made sure my camera was fully-charged and in my pocket. We ate Japanese crab balls (I’m sorry to say that I forgot the proper name for these eh.. delicacies) while roaming around the fairy-lighted streets. We spotted very strange and interesting items in several of the shops. Perfume that smells like a city, for example. For a mere 598RMB you have a little bottle which contains the scent of New York, Milan, Paris or Seoul. Or porcelain bunnies that turn out to be mirrors. The area is a little bit expat-y (although not overwhelmingly so), and the boutiques a little bit expensive, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with the neighborhood and taking some great photos!

Halloween + Article of the Week

My colleague at work (did I fail to mention I had an internship? More to follow about that!) asked me on the 31st if Halloween was ‘an important festival’ in my country. Somewhat astonished, I replied that it was not like Christmas and tried to explain that it was not actually a proper holiday. I’m not sure how effectively I communicated this fact, however, as I left the office with a ‘Happy Halloween and festivities’ wish. To be honest, it made me giggle and very curious as to what the Chinese think of our weird costumes and trick-or-treating tradition.

As it turns out, the clubs that dominate Shanghai nightlife have learned to put on events on this ‘special Western day’. Being out on the 31st made me feel like I was back at Loughborough, surrounded by students who use any excuse to dress-up. What did I go as? Batgirl. My flatmate was Catwoman. We even managed to find someone dressed up as the Joker! But the most interesting thing I heard about the evening? Over the weekend there was an ‘STD party‘. Yes, I know what that sounds like. No, it wasn’t an event to promote safe-sex. STD is an entertainment organization that (apparently) throws some great parties all over mainland China. It doesn’t get any weirder than that.

Article of the Week

Now, as it’s the end of the week, I’ve got a couple of articles to share. This time, they’re about Xi Jinping, the man expected to be China’s next president in its once-in-a-decade change of power. The BBC has a whole page featuring articles about ‘China’s New Leaders‘, which includes profiles on those who are going to be leading the country and articles with topics ranging from how to rise as a political figure to how the Chinese ‘view a multicultural world’.

The most interesting article I’ve read about the political change-over, however, was sent to me by my very smart friend Sini, who found an article in the Economist about the challenges Xi Jinping has to face over the next decade. Titled The Man Who Must Change China, the author not only describes the economic difficulties facing the nation, but also describes the rise of public awareness and dissent. The Economist describes several political changes that Xi Jinping should attempt to introduce, including the privatization of farmland, freedom of press, and allow its financial markets to respond to economic signals. Whether this will happen is very questionable, but the article is definitely worth a read for all of those interested in the men (and the few women) that will be ruling one of the most important and influential countries of the 21st century.

Shanghai at Night – KTV

Picasso stared at me from the wall. Well, not Picasso, but his paintings. Fake ones. Probably mass-produced in a factory and sold to places like this. Bruno Mars was blasting out the speakers, singing about running away, which was a little tempting. After an absolutely delicious meal at Spanish restaurant Casa 700 for a friend’s birthday (seafood tapas, yumm), the decision was made to go to Chinese KTV. Karaoke. “Only for a little bit”. After a 5 minute walk, we found a building. Not difficult, seeing as there’s a KTV club at every street corner in Shanghai. My only previous experience with karaoke was going to the pub with Rag when my friend Sophie (who also blogs, check it out!) wanted to sing. Or singing loudly in the living room when getting ready to go out, before being told to stop ruining the song (my singing voice is notoriously horrible). It’s safe to say that Chinese KTV couldn’t be more different.

Downstairs at a huge counter, we paid up front for an hour of karaoke. We got led to their version of a gift shop, where they sell Halloween masks, funny glasses, and of course: alcohol. After the purchases were made, it was time. We walked down a corridor lined with doors from which snippets of badly sung songs escaped whenever one was opened. We opened ours. A disco ball was reflecting light onto a large (and very comfortable) couch that took up the far side of the room, facing a massive flat-screen TV, with speakers already blasting out music hanging from the wall. It was spacious yet cozy.

KTV is much more high-tech than I imagined. There are literally thousands of songs to choose from in the database, including over 600 English songs. Two little panels on the wall allow you to skip songs, control noise levels, and shut someones microphone off (very handy), along with other options I, of course, didn’t understand. We sang and danced for an hour and a half until our pre-paid time was up. I used to shudder at the thought of doing karaoke, but now I can’t wait to go back again!

Article(s) of the Week

My primary interest as an International Relations undergraduate was the Middle East. In my final year, I chose modules that I thought would be most related to the area (sadly, my university didn’t have any courses specifically focused on the region), and wrote my dissertation on Iran-US relations. Only logical, seeing as my high-school years were spent in Bahrain and my parents still live there. Moving to Shanghai, however, has spiked my curiosity about what’s said and written about the Far East. Admittedly, my reading was restricted to a bare minimum while I was settling in. Luckily, the apartment hunt is over, I’ve got no visa problems (yet), and I’m getting used to my schedule at Fudan. So. Time to read.

My goal is to share one or two of the most interesting articles I’ve read per week. A little bit of a change from my usual posts about the everyday lifestyle of a foreign student in Shanghai! Maybe more important, however, as it gives an insight on China that I wouldn’t be able to provide.

I thought I’d start by sharing an article my friend Max (who, I’m very excited to say, is coming to visit me in December!) sent me the other day. Written for the BBC on 19 Oct. ’12, economist Martin Jacques describes China’s present and past behavior in much the same way as Henry Kissinger does in his book ‘On China’. I haven’t managed to finish Kissinger’s book yet, so I’ll probably post about that in a later ‘Article of the Week’ (well.. ‘Book of the Week’ then), but so far, both authors agree that the way China interacts with its neighbors and foreign powers contrasts to how the West has managed its international affairs.

The purpose of this examination? To determine what kind of superpower China could evolve into, a topic that’s being discussed by politicians the world over.
Read the article at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19995218

In an article written 5 days before, Jacques outlines the importance of learning Mandarin by stating that “It is estimated that it takes at least twice as long to learn as a European language. The language is a metaphor for China. Understanding the unfamiliar requires a different mentality: rather than superiority, hubris and presumption, which have I think been the dominant Western attitudes towards China, we’ll need respect, humility and modesty”. I couldn’t agree more. Chinese culture and practices are vastly different from any other culture I’ve experienced. It’s growing importance in the global arena means we can’t expect them to adapt to our standards anymore. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So when in China


Know any good articles about China or the general region? Please let me know :)