Some highlights of our whirlwind tour of Greater China.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Forbidden City

More Forbidden City

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scaled Model of Beijing at Urban Planning Museum

Scaled Model of Beijing at Urban Planning Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CCTV Tower in Beijing

CCTV Tower in Beijing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Wall Again

The Great Wall Again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beihai Park in the middle of Beijing

Beihai Park in the middle of Beijing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Starbucks on Shamian Island in GZ

The Starbucks on Shamian Island in GZ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong Island skyline from the Star Ferry

Hong Kong Island skyline from the Star Ferry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wanchai Street Scene from the tram

Wanchai Street Scene from the tram

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grand Lisboa of Macao

The Grand Lisboa of Macau

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Macau

Old Macau

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Cultural Skirmishes

March 28, 2009

Today is my eight-month anniversary in GZ and I’m thinking about the cultural differences between America and China.

Cultural relativism of some form is inevitable when you are living in another country.  The idea that people’s beliefs and actions need to be viewed through the lens of that country’s culture is valid, but only to a point.  I am also a believer that some things transcend national cultures and are just part of being human, regardless of whether you are Chinese, American, or from any other country.

Some of my blog posts have scratched the surface of cultural differences, whether it’s the difference between being out as a gay man in America versus China or the way that my students ask me very pointed questions or make comments unlike how they would treat their Chinese professors.  Sometimes the cultural differences come up in the most unexpected ways.  I was walking by Tiyu Xilu this afternoon when I saw a father bending over holding his son as his son was watering the base of a tree next to the sidewalk.  This public urination took place in broad daylight with crowds of people doing their Saturday shopping.

Being in China for eight months, it’s hard not to think about cultural differences and what to do when encountering them.  This post could easily devolve into one where all I do is list the differences I’ve encountered and leave it at that, but I would rather just put it out there that sometimes I wrestle with where cultural relativism ends and the universal human condition begins.  I’m learning about how to deal with indirect requests for help and passive aggressive approaches to what should be constructive feedback.  Most importantly, I have been fortunate enough to be given a window looking onto Chinese culture.  Living on the mainland is different than being in Hong Kong or in Taiwan and it’s valuable experience to meet all sorts of people and learn how to approach and work with them.  Like any experience we go through, we meet all different types of people and this year in China has expanded my ability to work with different types of people.  In the process, I am learning more about China and how to navigate a country that is sometimes very different than my own.

All of these experiences do not mean that I understand cultural relativism any better or that I do not get frustrated when I am told to be overly apologetic or appreciative in emails or meetings when I have nothing to be apologetic or particularly appreciative about.  What these experiences mean is that I am being challenged and learning, which might be the main theme of this year in China.

The Holidays in GZ

December 27, 2008

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

Thursday marked the end of my first semester here at SYSU.  In each of my last classes, I said goodbye to my students and thanked them for a great semester.  These were definitely the most relaxed classes of the semester because the final assignments had been handed in and there was no pressure to perform on the students’ parts.  With this more relaxed atmosphere, my students also decided to ask all of the personal questions that they had been dying to ask all semester:

“Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Oooh, your friend (who happens to be a girl) is coming to visit, is she going to become your girlfriend?”
“What are you going to do when you’re down teaching in China?”
“Why don’t pick one or two of the students in class to be your girlfriend?”
“When are you going to get married?”
“Is Celia (the other fellow I teach with) your girlfriend?”
“Do you like Chinese girls?”

My GZ Class

My GZ Class

It was open season for my students and most of the questions were answered honestly, but without revealing anything about my personal preferences.  It was nice to see my students let their guard down and all of my classes wanted end of the semester class pictures, as well as individual pictures with their English teacher.  I felt like I was surrounded by paparazzi with all the camera phones going off around me.

It was also Christmas on Thursday, which I discovered is treated as a second Valentine’s Day here in China.  Couples go out on dates, presents are exchanged, and not an ounce of religion or family comes into the day.  It makes sense since Chinese New Year (春节) is next month and that is the major family holiday in China, celebrating the coming of spring.  Of course there are Christmas decorations all over and I am sure they will be up for the next month unlike in the US where the decorations are gone as soon as the holiday is over, perhaps save for the tree at Rockerfeller Center.

Myself and the three other fellows had a Chrismukkah dinner Thursday night  Hanna and I brought the latkes and noodle kugel, while Alexa and Celia brought ratatouille and meatballs cooked in a lentil, carrot, and onion stew.  We then went to a Christmas Party thrown by some of the guys from Princeton in Asia who are here working in GZ.  Like many gatherings with a large number of Chinese people, upon walking in to the party we had to introduce ourselves in Chinese with twenty pairs of eyes on us as we did so.  All the while I was wondering why we couldn’t just walk into the party and naturally mingle.  Mind you, we also showed up nearly two hours late, so the party was well under way by the time we got there.

With the end of the semester comes grading, so let the grading begin.

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Happy Holidays from GZ

Happy Holidays from GZ

Shanghai’ed, Part II

September 29, 2008

 
Xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung
Xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung

So this post was begun at the Starbucks (a recurring theme in my posts, but they have clean bathrooms, decent coffee, and free wireless) in Xintiandi (新天地), which means the frontier, but now I am back home in Guangzhou. Xintiandi is in between the French Concession and Yu Yuan. It’s a pedestrian-only area filled with all sorts of overpriced Western and Chinese restaurants, bars, and shops. However, it’s pretty neat architecturally because this used to be an area filled with traditional shikoumen (石库门) or stone gate houses built off of narrow alleys, which have now been meticulously restored so we can drink our iced coffees and down our Guinness pints. My friend, Carol and I met in Xintiandi to have dumplings at Din Tai Fung (鼎泰丰), the renowned Taiwanese dumpling chain. The dumplings were not as good as at the original location in Taibei, but they were pretty damn good. We had the xiaolongbao (小笼包), soup dumplings filled, which are a Shanghainese specialty, as well as numerous other types of dumplings. Carol and I ate until we were stuffed. Then we tried to get to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall before 5pm to see the scaled down model of Shanghai in 2020. We arrived at 4:30pm and the museum was already closed to new visitors, which makes no sense since it’s our money we would have been spending to run around the museum for a half an hour before closing, but such is China. After being rebuffed at the museum, I packed my bags and wended my way to the airport on another four kuai express bus and here I am back in GZ. It actually felt good to get off the plane and have that thought that “I’m home” as I made my way back into the city. GZ is not

Carol and I in the Xintiandi Starbucks

Carol and I in the Xintiandi Starbucks

Shanghai, but that is part of its charm. I had a great weekend in Shanghai on many levels, but it was really good because I was forced to use my Mandarin and realized I could actually converse with random people. Even if the conversations were basic, I understood and more importantly, was understood without using any English. It’s totally all about confidence, something I teach my students and something I need to remember when I try to speak Chinese.

 
The Shikoumen of Xintiandi

The Shikoumen of Xintiandi

With that said, I cannot get over how un-GZ Shanghai feels. Not only is it the tons of expats all over the city, but the general feeling of being in a city that has a mission to improve itself. The energy is undeniable, but so are the tons of foreign chains that have infiltrated many parts of the city. Stores from Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Europe, and elsewhere can be found in many major shopping malls and even down random side streets. In college, I once wrote a seminar paper about the rivalry between Hong Kong and Shanghai. I wrote the paper about a year after Hong Kong was handed back by the British to the Chinese and in it I concluded that the Chinese government would promote the development of Shanghai over Hong Kong at any and all costs because Hong Kong would never be a Chinese city. But when I was writing, I pointed out that Shanghai is also not a Chinese city in the truest sense. Much of the city’s modern history was dominated by the foreign colonial powers from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, each of which carved out their respective geographical spheres of influence in the city. When the Communists took over in 1949, they spent their first years in power systematically trying to eradicate all foreign influences in the city, including clamping down on the city’s famous decadence. At the time, the Communists knew Shanghai was different and thus needed to be made like the rest of China. It was not until the early 1980s that Shanghai began to plan its re-emergence as a world-class city. This time period also coincided with the rise of former Shanghai party bosses to the top levels of government in Beijing including Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji. As soon as the city was allowed to begin expressing its true self, growth and development took off and today Shanghai is a city that is very

More Xintiandi

More Xintiandi

obviously a product of the many foreign influences that colored its history. I mean, come on, one of the trendiest and nicest parts of the city is still called the French Concession. But this mini-history lesson is important because both Hong Kong and Shanghai are not true Chinese cities due to their long histories of dancing with foreign countries and cultures. It may also explain why these two cities seem so cosmopolitan. I have heard many people who have lived here or visited use the phrase “not a Chinese city” when describing Shanghai. Now that Shanghai is re-claiming its spot as one of the world’s pre-eminent cities, this history is an interesting addendum to the story of China’s rise. Two of the country’s urban models have histories intricately woven together with those of outside powers, which poses an interesting question for the central government as to what extent to acknowledge these influences that are not Chinese. No amount of historical whitewashing can change the historical facts.

Now that the history lesson is over and my weekend is Shanghai is winding down, I’m just thinking about what a great time I had here. Last night, we went out with some friends of Santiago’s friend that I had met the night before for Singaporean food and to watch the Formula One race being held on the streets of Singapore. I had high hopes for the restaurant because the two girls who chose it were Singaporean. It did not disappoint.  Orchard CRC Restaurant and Pub

Suggestive Pub Art
Suggestive Pub Art

 was authentic and spicy. We had different types of noodles, pineapple fried rice, fried carrot cake, and stir-fried greens. Then we retreated to the pub on the 3rd floor, which was so old-school with a pool table, suggestive art,[insert picture of suggestive art] and funky lighting. We hung out for a few hours playing pool, looking of sick and silly expressions on urbandictionary.com, and talking about all sorts of things from the upcoming US Presidential election to living in Shanghai. It was a really chill night and just a lot of fun, definitely makes me want to come back to Shanghai in the coming months.

Now that I am back in GZ, it’s going to be nice and quiet for few days before I head off to Hong Kong on Thursday because the other fellows are off on their own trips for the week during the National Holiday.

As close as we could get to the Urban Planning Exhibition

As close as we could get to the Urban Planning Exhibition