Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One in a billion...

Tonight marks the beginning of the Mid-Autumn Festival (Golden Week) and the eve of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Everything's decked out - buildings are lit up even more than usual, lanterns are hung from every tree, and even the metro has decorative flags hung in every station. With all of the excitement, though, apparently, comes all of the people! Imagine a national holiday in a country of 1.3 billion people, all traveling in or out of the cities. We'd been warned about the crowds, but it didn't sink in until we were riding the metro home from dinner with a group of friends tonight. The stop before we needed to get out, crowds kept pushing open the doors and squeezing in, even when it seemed impossible to fit another body in the train. Then, at the stop where we needed to get out to transfer, we pushed (and were pushed) forward, but only two of the five of us made it through the throngs. The remaining three of us waved at them as the doors closed in front of us and resigned ourselves to getting out at the next stop and cabbing back. Whew! What a way to kick off our vacation week - could be an interesting one!

(I can't take credit for the picture - it's a photo I found online, but is of people waiting at a stop on the line we got stuck on. Gives you an idea...)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moon Cakes

Moon cakes are pastries traditionally eaten (and given as gifts) during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which dates back to the Song Dynasty (420 a.d.) and is a festival for lunar worship and moon watching. What this has meant so far, for us, is that we've gotten a lot of these dense little treats as gifts from students. They are a heavy pastry, stuffed with one of a variety of fillings, including lotus seed paste, nuts, coconuts, red bean paste, sesame, or taro paste. Korea has a similar tradition, but with sweet, chewy rice treats. Here are a few pictures: one of a moon cake (they all have an intricate pattern which includes the Chinese characters for "longevity" or "harmony" along with the name of the bakery and the type of filling); one of a box of Korean rice cakes; and one of Jeff enjoying sweet, chewy rice balls with an unidentifiable, but tasty, filling.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taco Sunday

To make up for the national Golden Week Mid-Autumn Festival holiday (a week off, starting on Thursday), the Chinese government requires everyone to work on the Sunday before and the Saturday after the holiday week. So, our Sunday felt more like a Monday today. But, we made up for it by heading into the city after work to scout out Mexican food (or, at least, the closest you can get to to it here) and to explore the area around Huai Hai Lu (one of many busy shopping streets.) Here's a picture of Jeff, basking in burrito bliss and some lanterns decorating the street. With the holiday coming up, there are decorations being hung up everywhere! (Especially as this year is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.)

Meanwhile, our thoughts are with my dad and family as he celebrates his retirement today. Wish we could be in two places at once!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Road construction

To say that there is a lot of construction in Shanghai is a gross understatement. We've yet to visit an area of the city where something isn't being torn down, built up, or generally ripped apart. Today, we took a shuttle about 40 minutes out of downtown to visit some friends who teach at the American school here. Along the way, we drove through some of the most dramatic road work I've ever seen (and that includes the Marquette Interchange!) Beyond the bumpy road and elevated highways stretching out into mid-air, what made it so striking was the way that workers maneuvered around the whole thing on scaffolding. This is a shot looking out of the shuttle window. Doesn't do the scene justice, but gives at least a small idea. (This aside, though, our friends' school and apartment complex were incredible. We even took a dip in a sandy-bottom pool and relaxed in one of several hot-tubs!)

A touch of home

Those of you in Wisconsin should appreciate this - even in China, Kohler seems to be the bathroom fixture supplier of choice. Whenever we go to a relatively nice place, its everywhere. And, we saw this store while walking through town last weekend.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stormy Monday

Though the weekend was absolutely gorgeous, we've otherwise had a string of rainy days over the past week, with today being no exception. We ventured out for dinner tonight, but are otherwise holed up doing grading, class prep, and, likely, watching a couple episodes of "How I Met Your Mother." (Our latest guilty pleasure, thanks to the local DVD shop.)

This is a view from our window - you can see the raindrops reflecting the flash, along with one of the student dorms, the wet track, and the highway and apartment buildings that line the south edge of our campus.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Parks, Museums, and Swag, Oh My!

We had a full day yesterday, starting by exploring People's Square, a large park and gathering area that was originally built by the British as a racetrack in 1862 and has since held prominent roles in the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the 40's and during the Cultural Revolution. Today, it is a popular gathering place and is surrounded by several museums and other attractions, including the Shanghai Grand Theatre. From the Square, we headed into the Shanghai Museum, which houses Chinese calligraphy, paintings, sculptures, pottery,and much more dating back to as old as the 15th century BC. Pretty amazing.
After getting a healthy dose of culture, we visited the annual Expat Expo, a huge convention of promotional booths for anything you might ever want. With over 20,000 Americans living in Shanghai alone, not to mention the huge number of Europeans, Australians, etc., there are many businesses catering to Western tastes (food, medicine, travel, schools, etc.) Though we're not all that interested in getting entrenched in that world here, we were happy to take advantage of free lattes, wine tasting, and oodles of swag. We left with a yoga mat, a poster, maps, coupons for free beers, and a 200rmb gift certificate for a local spa (enough for a good foot massage, at least), among other things.  

We topped off the day by buying the movie, "Away We Go" from a street vendor on the way home for about 80 cents. What a day! Pictures here:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Home Sweet Home

We've been working on cozying up our place a little bit, mostly by getting some color on our walls, and thought we'd share. We've hung pashminas, wrapping paper, and (my personal favorite), a ribbon with cards we've been sent hanging from it. It really makes it feel a bit more like a "home."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Baozi: Breakfast of Champions

On weekends, this has become one of our favorite ways to start the day. Baozi (steamed buns) can be bought from our local street vendors, with a variety of fillings. This one is stuffed with veggies and tofu. Mmm...

Monday, September 14, 2009

October break, here we come!

After much deliberation about possible destinations, we finally booked tickets for our October holiday tonight. We get a week off (for China's national "Golden Week") are are going to be splitting our time between Guilin and Yangshou, with their mystical scenery, and Xi'an, with its army of terracotta warriers, pagodas, and original city walls. Exciting!

Fabric Market

Yesterday, we checked out Shanghai's fabric market - multiple floors of every kind of fabric and tailoring skill you can imagine. Though we both think we'll get a few things made while we're here, we mostly just looked this first time. It was overwhelming just trying to take it all in!
We did buy three pashminas, though, which we're using to hang on our walls to warm the apartment up a little. And, we both bought a little trinket from the jewelry vendors outside. This album: has a picture of Jeff talking with the Tibetan woman who custom-made a bracelet large enough to fit over his hand.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jade Buddha Temple

Yesterday, we ventured to the Jade Buddha Temple, one of Shanghai's only active Buddhist monasteries.  The temple is famous for two large Buddha figures carved out of solid pieces of jade and transported to Shanghai from Burma. (No photographs are allowed of either, so you won't see them here.) Beyond those, highlights of our visit included witnessing a brief service and a lot of chanting by the monks who live there, being treated to a tea ceremony, and stopping in the on-site vegetarian restaurant. There, we ordered eggplant with vegetarian meat and spicy bean curd with mushrooms and peas. Yum. Definitely a contrast from the football festivities of the night before!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Football and beer

Lest you be concerned about us (er, Jeff) being cut off from some of our (his) favorite things while living here, we spent last night with some friends at the Park Tavern, where they had a good selection of Irish beers on tap and were airing a re-play of Thursday night's NFL opener. Jeff, though having had accidentally seen the final score ahead of time, was still very much in blissful suspense during most of the game.
This picture was taken inside, at the bar, but we spent most of the evening outside on the patio, where they were projecting the game onto a huge screen.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Three weeks, mail, and a teddy-bear bouquet

We've been here for three weeks today, though in some ways, it feels like much longer. We're both into the grove at work, and feel like we know our way around (at least our part of the city) reasonably well. To help it feel more like home, I'm excited to report that the postal system does indeed work here. We got our first pieces of mail on my birthday (perfect!) and have gotten more since. It seems to take about two weeks in this direction.
On a different note, today was Teacher's Day in China and one of Jeff's students celebrated by giving him a large teddy-bear bouquet (literally, a bouquet made of teddy bears.) Apartment decorations - check!

Monday, September 7, 2009


Yesterday, we ventured out of Shanghai for the first time, to the ancient town of Qibao. (Admittedly, not that far outside of Shanghai, as it's still on the Metro line.) Qibao was built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127.) Today, it is most famous for its large temple (where we enjoyed the sound of chanting monks); its canals, bridges, and gondolas; its small, winding streets filled with shops and food vendors; and, its crickets. The legend is that some of the best fighting crickets were en route to the Emperor when the cart carrying them crashed in Qibao, releasing the crickets who have been breeding there ever since. The crickets are used mostly for fighting (think boxing on a much smaller scale.) Though we weren't able to see any fights, we did visit the cricket museum to check out some "specimens." Here are some pictures:
(We promise, we are working very hard during the week. I swear.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Noodle shop dinner

On nights when we don't feel like cooking or traveling to (and paying for) a fancy-ish dinner, we head to one of several local noodle shops. They are everywhere, with several just a few minutes out our door. They're almost always small - just a few tables - with no frills, but with great, inexpensive (about a dollar or less for soup and an entree), and filling food.
Tonight, we tried this one on our way home. We ordered by pointing at what we wanted on the picture menu hanging on the wall and then the chef created the noodles from a ball of dough in a matter of seconds. Like almost all of the shops we've visited, there was a little kid hanging out - likely the child of one of the owners/workers. Tonight, we shared a plate of noodles with tomatoes and scrambled eggs - a common dish in Shanghai. Yum!

French Concession

Yesterday, we met up with a friend from college and her husband, both of whom who have been teaching at an international school in Shanghai for the past year. They had recommended a Yunnan Province-style restaurant called "Lost Heaven," which turned out to be incredible. (One of the most notable things was their signature cocktail, which had chili peppers, lime, and coconut in it. Wow!)

The restaurant is located in the French Concession, a four square-mile area of the city that was the colonial French settlement in the 18 and 1900's. Today, it is one of the more beautiful areas of the city, with wide, tree-lined streets, restaurants, bars, shops, parks, and a large arts district. We explored Fuxing Park, where locals were spending the afternoon dancing, playing games, and drinking tea; the Taikang Lu arts district, a maze of little alleyways filled with cafes and art galleries; and, some of the shopping on Huaihai Zhong Lu, which has almost every store you can imagine.
After dinner, we popped into the "Sooth Wind Massage" parlor, where we got 1-hour massages for about $9.00 each. As it turned out, though, the traditional Chinese massage was a little more painful than it was soothing. They found knots that neither one of us knew we had! Worth it for the experience, though.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Teachers' Day Banquet

Every year, to celebrate Teachers' Day (a Chinese holiday in September), our school puts on a banquet for all of its teachers. This year, there were 440 teachers attending, so the hall needed to be huge. (This picture doesn't quite do it justice - the foreign teachers were seated on the floor, in the back, so it's difficult to see the main seating area.) We were bussed out of the city to a large convention hall, where we had a multi-course meal. (I've attached a picture of the last bits of food - fruit signifies the end of a meal here.) Beyond food, we were also "treated" to several toasts and speeches and karaoke-like performances by all of the new Chinese teachers. Traditionally, all of the teachers are given a "prize" before leaving, too. In the past this has included pillow shams, cooking oil, and blankets. This year, we got bath products - shampoo, conditioner, body wash, etc. Maybe it was a hint?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One Thai-reffic birthday dinner!

Tonight, for Carrie's birthday, I took her and a bunch of our friends to the best Thai restaurant in Shanghai.  We took a cab into the French Concession and arrived at our destination safe and sound.  I had called the restaurant earlier and had them text me back their address in Chinese so I could tell the cab driver where to go. The restaurant was down a dark, yet "romantic" alley.  We ordered family-style dishes and were treated to some of the best food I have ever tasted.  Thai people know how to cook!  The evening was nice and relaxing with plenty of toasts and bad birthday singing for Carrie.  This weekend I plan to make up for my lack of gift giving by taking Carrie to Dragonfly…a "premium" massage parlor, and treat her to the works package.
P.S.  There was a parrot at the restaurant that said "Ni hao" and "good morning."  It just added a special memory to the whole evening.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

All you can eat (and drink) Indian food!

To celebrate two fellow teachers' birthdays (yes, the day before mine), we went to a little restaurant tonight in the French Concession that offered an all-you-can-eat-and-drink Indian buffet for about $13 a person. Dangerous.
Here's a picture of the restaurant's dancer, who performed a couple of times while we were there. One of those times involved Jeff on the stage with him. You can imagine. Needless to say, an excellent time was had by all!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

First day - check!

We survived the first day of school unscathed. It was good to finally meet our students and get a sense for what our classes will be like. Though some of my students seemed hesitant to participate, most of my 9th grade students lit up when talking about Harry Potter and the Twilight series (they were asked what they had read over the summer.) And, after asking them why English might be useful to learn, one student suggested, "so that we can talk to Ms. Henning-Smith."

Jeff reports that his students seemed suitably intimidated by him. Especially the 6th grader who'd run into him and fallen over before class.