Sunday, April 09, 2006

A prequel

As promised, here are some of the notes I've taken over the last week in Shanghai. I point you all again to the accompanying Flickr pages.

Our first trip here, for apartment-hunting and the like, was largely uneventful. We filled out paperwork, got bank accounts and cell phones, and underwent a bewildering series of medical exams: blood samples, ultrasounds, X-rays, EKGs, ear-nose-throat and vision checks, blood pressure, and height and weight measurements. We toured about a dozen apartments before settling on the 29th floor of the Century Metropolis, a building as endearing for its ample green spaces and thrilling views as its comic book superhero name. I only regret we were forced to pass up my first choice apartment, furnished from floor to ceiling in IKEA products, all of which still bore their original price tags and labels, creating the effect of simply moving into an IKEA showroom.

April 2, 2006

Flying with the dogs proved to be an absolute fiasco, of course. I was lured into overconfidence because I’ve flown with the cats before and everything went very smoothly. The dog transport started out just as smooth – both dogs were calm and quiet in their carriers, ready to go, with all their identifying information clearly labeled on each case, etc. The United desk clerk had to cause trouble, though. She insisted that Cromwell’s case was not large enough for him to travel humanely. Gesturing at the totally adequate kennel, she claimed that the dog “barely fit” and was unable to stand up or turn around, the figure of merit for kennel size. This is patently false. Dev gamely instructed Cromwell to stand, turn, walk from end to end of the kennel, etc. She wouldn’t budge. She called over her superior, who said the kennel was perfectly fine, but then called over several peers who agreed that it was inadequate. They offered to sell us another kennel at an outrageous price -- a kennel, mind you, of exactly the same size as the one we were currently using.

It got worse. Then they decided the dogs needed shredded newspaper in their kennels. I tried to explain that shredded paper would only make a huge soggy mess, but they insisted, so I went and bought a USA Today to line their cages (joke = obvious). Not good enough – now Shackleton’s carrier wouldn’t pass muster because it had too few airholes (no need to mention it was thoroughly well-ventilated). They brought out two men with a drill to bore additional holes in the cage. Dev had to show the men how to work the drill. Then Cromwell’s case needed two additional metal screws . . . by this time, the dogs were terrified by all the people milling around, pulling them in and out of their cages, drilling holes, etc. and were sending great ringing barks all around the echoing terminal.

An hour later, we were racing to catch our flight while our miserable dogs sat shivering in their sopping filthy newspaper amid piles of plastic shavings left over from the kennel remodel.

Happily, the flight was very smooth. The dogs were met by a man from the quarantine office and a woman from the pet relocation agency. We filled out a bunch of forms, etc. and they took a picture of me and Cromwell together, and then Dev and Shackleton (for paperwork purposes, though it felt very “Sears portrait”). Unlike the people at United in SF, the Shanghai customs officials seemed both calm and competent, though Shackleton did attract a crowd of fifteen or twenty well-meaning gawkers.

We took a taxi to our apartment, where we were met by the real estate agent, the landlord, and the relocation agent, to sign papers and engage in another round of payments and paperwork (not our last). And, finally, Dev discovered “street meat”-- a street stand that sells spicy lamb skewers for 25 cents each.

April 3, 2006

After another round of paperwork and banking (confusion compounded by Dev having misplaced his checkbook), we made our foray to Chinese IKEA for dishes, bedding, and other essentials (we slept last night on purloined airline blankets). Somewhat disappointingly, Chinese IKEA is much the same as American IKEA and the few differences are fairly non-hilarious. On the plus side, we now have towels, just like city folk.

April 5, 2006

Yesterday we ran more errands, and today we did yet more paperwork - Dev went to the bank to deal with money transferring, and then we had to go register at the U.S. consulate and get a certain notarized document. We arrived at a large walled-off compound, ringed on all sides by Chinese soldiers, and heavily cordoned off. We walked up, showed our passports, etc. but the guards wouldn’t let us through. While we were standing there, two Americans – of a type best described as “back-slapping politicians” – came up behind us and asked what we were doing there. We explained we need to register and have a form notarized, etc. and they explained that there was another consulate office for that, across town. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, but somehow the whole thing seemed a bit strange. Anyway, we took yet another taxi across town and arrived at the other U.S. consulate, this one conveniently located in a shopping mall.

April 6, 2006

Now that the bulk of our errands and paperwork is behind us, we devoted today to tourism and exploration. Specifically, we walked around the Old Town part of Shanghai and into the Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse. The teahouse is, like most of what’s left of “Old Shanghai,” mainly reconstructed for tourism. But it is still lovely and the meal very relaxing, even if it costs many times what you would expect to pay at a less venerable site. We arrived in the afternoon, when many of the vendors were beginning to pack up for the night, but we will return one morning soon to see the Bird, Fish, and Insect Market, hints of which we glimpsed in tubs of live fish set out on the sidewalk and the caged birds suspended from balconies.

April 7, 2006

Today we took our first day trip out of the city, to Suzhou, an hour’s train ride west of Shanghai. Suzhou is the silk producing capital of China, and along with Hangzhou, considered to be China’s most lovely city. (My tour guide quotes the Chinese line, “In heaven there is paradise; on earth, Hangzhou and Suzhou.”) The train ride was one of the highlights of the trip, I’m sorry I don’t have any photos of the spreading rice paddies and fish ponds.

My guide book built up Suzhou (the “Venice of the East,” for its canals) so much that I was initially a little disappointed to find what is in many ways an ordinary small city. The canals were industrial-looking in many places, the city dull and muggy, and the train station swarming with aggressive peddlers looking to sell tourists fake Prada bags. (Suzhou is apparently the number one domestic tourist destination for mainland Chinese, another fact borrowed from my book.)

We joined legions of Chinese tourists – and a healthy contingent of Western ones – at the Garden of the Master of the Nets. The garden was indeed extremely lovely – and the interiors more so – but very “touristy,” and the Silk Museum was less informative than I might have hoped. We did some window-shopping for silk, but I was perhaps naively expecting better bargains than what was on offer – though the farther from the main roads, the cheaper and cheaper the silk became.

Any initial dejection I felt, however, was completely eradicated at the Buddhist North Temple. The temple was being renovated and so there were virtually no tourists there, only adherents come to pray and leave offerings. The air was redolent with incense and alive with what sounded like hundreds of tiny birds, tinkling generated by the bells attached to the points on the rooftops. I didn’t want to enter and disrupt worship, but I caught a glimpse of the shrines inside. The atmosphere was very calm and serious, and totally different than the furious materialism of Shanghai.

Further food-related disappointment – in a small Suzhou dumpling house, I happily ordered “mushroom” dumplings instead of the “pork” dumplings also on offer, only to have them arrive filled with grayish, grainy pork and a fragment of accompanying mushroom. I’m living mainly on noodles, Japanese curries, and my carefully hoarded supply of Carrefour cheese. It was also here that Dev first dared the Chinese hot dog. The very phrase sounds like a folk idiom for “disgusting.” I can imagine a country singer now, twanging “she’s nastier than a Chinese hot dog.”

In the evening, we lingered at a night market, a series of stalls and shops along one of the main canals. We intended to go to the night market for silk (I wanted to bring back some for my mom) but we accidentally went to the locals’ night market instead, which was a nice break from tourist activities, even if we didn’t really need the hardware, produce, and household goods on offer. Dev picked up some video games of dubious origin and bought me a very nice ring.

April 8, 2006

As a reward for my valiant attempts to enjoy the local cuisine, Dev took me out for a dinner that was not Chinese food. But instead, the wonderful food of France. I ate more tonight than I’ve eaten since arriving (and I’ve been dropping weight at a remarkable rate). We ordered wine, bread, pâté, escargot in garlic butter sauce, potato leek soup, entrecôte au Roquefort, rôti de porc à la bière, crème caramel, and sorbet. Of course, we could have easily purchased ten Chinese meals for the same price, but it is only the occasional extravagance, after all.

The restaurant’s owner is a French expat and the restaurant was full of French, as well as a smattering of Americans, Germans, and a man in a kilt. It was the most white people I’ve seen in any one place in all Shanghai – so that’s where they’re all hiding out.

April 9, 2006

Today I met my first American expat since arriving, Melissa Goldman’s college friend, Kristen Dennessen. She lives fairly close by and teaches English at the International School. We got coffee at the Starbucks that sits astride this ridiculous glass sphere and sat out on the balcony, overlooking the manic Sunday shopping crowds who gathered on every inch of sidewalk , undeterred by intermittent rain, to watch demonstrations of various up-and-coming digital products.

In the evening, Dev and I slogged through the now-decisive rain to make our way to a nearby Thai restaurant – which, to our utter surprise, featured a team of singing waiters. Usually I am beyond mortified at the very idea of going to a restaurant where waiters sing, but the team’s energy and enthusiasm was infectious. They worked their way through “Jingle Bells,” a romantic ballad, and a rollicking Bob Marley medley, smiling as though all the world was theirs.

Altogether a very nice day, though I was very sick later in the evening, I think the result of being less than diligent about my water usage. I’ve learned my lesson now and will keep an eye out for freshly-rinsed fruit, etc.

April 10, 2006

The dogs are home! After exchanging dozens of phone calls and emails with a multitude of puzzled intercessors (including two women named Amy Fang), our dogs were released from quarantine at noon today and delivered to our front door at exactly 2:51pm (that is, almost three hours late). There was additional confusion regarding, for instance, whether we were meeting upstairs or down, whether we were in building 11 or 12, and so on … but here we are. DOGS!

I’m thinking of starting up an informal club for expat dog owners here who want to take walks together, exchange information on where to find dog supplies, etc.

And soon Dev will be home from his first day at Intel. Hopefully, as the published shuttle schedule is in Chinese. All the more reason to start my lessons right away – I’m going to sign up tomorrow.

I have been keeping track of amusing signs, but in this I must use some restraint, as to write down every misuse of English would soon grow tiresome. Therefore, allow me to keep it to a few of the very best:

  • A sign for a sightseeing tour of the Huang Pu river: "Fish beauty" with an arrow pointing off into the distance, towards the river.

  • One of a series of public service announcements: “"Don't make new friends credulously."

  • And, from a taxi: "Psychos and drunkards are not permitted in taxi without a guardian."