Saturday, August 30, 2008

mooncakes: NOT "out of this world'

I had to use some sort of space pun in the title of this post, and "out of this world" was the only thing my jet-lagged brain could think of.

On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (usually September) of the Chinese calendar there is a festival known as the Mid-Autumn festival or Moon festival. I actually don't know too much about it, but I hear lanterns are somehow involved as well as the consumption of a Chinese pastry known as a mooncake.

Pastry you say? Cake you say? I'm totally in! I had to try one of these things, because 1. it's so Chinese and 2. there's a giant display of about 100 different mooncake varieties in the Carrefour (French version of Walmart here in Shanghai) where I shop.

Verdict: nasty. I lived in France for 9 months and became a total fatty from over consumption of pastries and bread, so I'm somewhat of an expert when it comes to the deliciousness of baked goods. If you can bake it, I've probably eaten it. More than once. I've sworn to never go down that road again (fat does not equal fabulous, in case you were confused), so it's probably a good thing that I absolutely hated the little mooncake thing.

I'm surprised that anything with the word "cake" in it could actually taste bad, but the Chinese pulled it off! They're also pretty pricey, the cheapest one was about 8RMB. I could buy a whole bowl of noodles at a sit down restaurant for that price. I took one bite and tossed it in the trash.

But I did try it, and that has to count for something.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

it's raining cats and dogs

Or acid from all the air pollution, same difference.

The weather here has been completely crazy. The first day it was super sunny with blue skies (which I had heard were the Chinese equivalent of seeing a unicorn) and then the last few days have been very gray.

Not gray because it's going to rain or anything, just gray because the air is so filled with smog and other pollutants. Minus today, because today it actually IS raining. I'm sort of afraid to go outside in it. The photograph above is from my balcony.

The water here is very dirty, and I'm sure rain water is no different. All tap water has a sort of yellowish tint to it, and it smells very metallic. A mixture of iron or nickel or something, I'm not exactly sure. It's very strange though, because you can smell it in the tea in restaurants and stuff.

Keep in mind, I'm in Shanghai. The largest port city in the world. As far as the environment, sewage, and sanitation, it is important to remember that despite it's ever-growing position of power on a global scale, China is still a developing country. We experienced our industrial revolution 150 years ago, they're experiencing it now. So I'm not exactly shocked by the overall dirtiness here, just, well, unprepared? I'm not sure how else to describe it.

it should be called "LeFakesac"

I experienced my first ever, real life, Chinese bargaining showdown today at a market in Pudong.

There are tons of markets all over Shanghai where they sell pretty much anything you could imagine ever even thinking about wanting such as a personalized parasol, a tapestry of a fat panda in the forest, or some Russian nesting dolls that look like Chinese people. I had a goal today, though, and that goal was some good old-fashioned knockoff handbags.

Honestly, I'm completely against knockoffs in the States. It's not so much a snob thing, because it doesn't really matter to me if I can tell someone is wearing a fake Gucci or not (and trust me, purse people can tell). There's just something about me knowing that the handbag I'm wearing isn't genuine that I don't like. So if I can't afford it, I just don't buy it. It's that simple.

I didn't bring any of my nice purses here, mainly because I didn't want them to get filthy from the extremely polluted air or by using them on a day to day basis and setting them down on dirty streets at restaurants or Metro seats. I brought one black leather bag because I figure, even if the leather gets affected by the pollution, it won't show it like a fabric bag or something.

The only problem is, the black leather bag has a magnetic closure which is cute and fun, but not very safe or practical for a city of 20 million people who all crowd onto the Metro with me at 6 PM.

I wanted needed something that was big, had a large enough strap to throw over my shoulder, and had a zip all the way along the top. I also didn't want to spend an arm and a leg on it, because what's the point? I'd rather have something I wouldn't be broken up about getting ruined, since it probably will be ruined after 10 months here.

When scoping out the market, the purse that seemed to best suit all my purchase qualifications was a LeSportsac. Of course, they have about 300 different fabric options to choose from, and at least 100 different stalls selling the same kind of stuff, so just finding a place with the fabric/style I wanted took a while.

And remember, these vendors are trying to maintain the guise that these are "best quality! Very authentic! Real! Straight from manufacturer!" So it's not like they have a huge sign saying "fake bags, super cheap!" They're trying to pawn them off as the real thing, baby. Obviously, most people know better, but some of the higher end fakes were still very pricey (like Chloe or D&G).

Currently, it's about 1USD to every 7RMB, so if you're paying 21RMB for something, that's only 3 bucks in the states. HOWEVER, I am making way below poverty level in the states (salaries in China are no where close to salaries in the US because it's so much cheaper to live here), so you can't really have the "Well it's only ___ in the US" mindset when shopping. Vendors are asking you for RMB and they expect you to be thinking in terms of RMB, not dollars.

I wanted two LeSportsac bags. One large one with a poppy pattern (I LOVE poppies!) and a small one with an art deco-ish bird pattern. Initially, the woman quoted me over 400RMB for the two. We checked out purse vendors near-by, and it seemed like this was pretty much the "going rate" for these purses.

But, Chinese vendors expect you to bargain with them. In fact, they would be slightly offended if you didn't. I say slightly because I'm sure there immense happiness over making a ton more money on a item they would have sold at a 1/4 of the asking price tends to outweigh any feelings of offense. Still, it's a customary thing to do and the vendors are expecting you to do it.

My advice: totally low-ball them. Whatever they say, respond with an offer of about 20% of that price. They'll act offended and dismayed that a person would even think of offering such a low price, but they'll continue to bargain with you until you both reach a price you have agreed on. Generally, you should stay in the 25%-35% range from the initial asking price, definitely never over 50%. And if one vendor is acting extremely non-willing to work with you, just remember, this is China, there's tons of fake stuff to sell, and tons of Chinese people who will be willing to do it.

They say 400RMB? Shoot back with "Hm, I'll only go for 50RMB" This will bring on a lot of huffing and puffing by the vendor, who will sometimes even grab you and say "LADY YOU CRAZY!!!! THIS IS BEST QUALITY!! 5 ZIPPERS!" Then she'll get out her calculator and type some numbers on it and hand it over to you with 320 on the screen, insisting "THIS BEST PRICE! I GIVE TO YOU!". Then you'll be like "Oh, I dunno....I don't even need zippers....I mean what are zippers, anyway?...." and sort of walk out of the stall, where she'll grab you and shout "WHAT BEST PRICE FOR YOU, TELL ME!!!" and you'll say 50 again, and she will shout and call you lady and say "THIS IS JOKE! THAT IS JOKE PRICE!"

This back and forth will continue for several minutes, she'll come down lower in her price, probably like 120RMB or so, and then you'll say something like "No, I'm only willing to spend 60RMB." and then she'll say 85, and you'll say 70, and then she huff and buffs and calls you lady some more until you start to walk out then she runs after you and says "OK OK! JUST FOR YOU!!! JUST FOR YOU I GIVE YOU THIS DEAL!! GEEZ LADY!" And then you'll walk away with two totally cute, albeit totally fake, LeSportsac purses for 70RMB, and everyone (i.e. me) is happy.

XOXO & potstickers,

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

ni hao from china!

I made it to Shanghai safe and sound, despite my initial mishaps at the airport. My flight from Vancouver to China didn't seem as long as it really was (nearly 13 hours), probably because I was asleep most of the time. I managed to watch two movies, which was pretty awesome and they had a huge selection to choose from. Foreign carriers are so much better than any American airline out there, if you ask me. Everyone got their own touch screen video monitor and there were about 25 movies, 30 or so different TV shows, a bunch of video games, and an endless selection of music to choose from. Go Air Canada!

The food was very strange, sort of a mixture of Chinese and American food, but they had these cute mini-soy sauces that were in plastic fish containers. I don't know why anyone would want soy sauce for mashed potatoes, but when in Rome, I guess. We got two meals and then right before we landed everyone got a Cup O' Noodles which made me laugh. It seems a little dangerous to serve soup right before landing, doesn't it?

I'm still jet-lagged and have been waking up at 5AM every morning. I wouldn't mind if that side effect of jet-lagginess continued because I've been getting a ton of stuff done in the mornings when everyone else is sleeping.

Overall, China is nothing like what I was expecting. People tell you all these things about a country before you go, and then when you actually get there it seems like everything is different than what you've heard. There are pretty much NO white people here, which is totally fine by me because I want (and need) to make Chinese friends, but I was told there was a huge ex-pat population in Shanghai, specifically in the area of town where I am living (Pudong).

Me and some friends took the metro last night and we were the only white people in a sea of Asians. I tend to stand out because of my hair, which is a good and bad thing. Good because people always come up to me and want to talk, bad because people always come up to me and want to talk. It's a double-edged sword. Maybe in a few days when I'm not so tired all the time I'll feel more comfortable experimenting with my Chinese, but at this point I don't even remember any of the 2 months of instruction I had and have been surviving off of "ni hao" and "xie xie" and a lot of pointing to things.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

plenty of misadventures already

My flight left San Francisco at 6 o'clock this morning which meant I needed to be there at 4 AM which meant I needed to leave my house by 2:30. Well, I personally hate SFO because when compared to other huge international airports, the layout is a total mess. Of course we got semi-lost just trying to find the departure area since there was no "Air Canada" in the international area. And this was before we even got out of the car.

We ended up finding where we thought we were supposed to be, but after 45 minutes of waiting and the clock ticking closer to 5 AM, I called Air Canada customer service and asked what time the check-in area at SFO is supposed to open. Long, boring story short, we were in the wrong area, and had to go to some area of the airport I had no idea even existed and of course the lines were HUGE and my flight was scheduled to leave in under an hour. Keep in mind they close check-in 45 minutes prior to take off.

We start off in one line but then we're told we can't be there so they send us to another line. That line was gigantic so I went and pleaded with some lady who sent us to another line. And this whole time me, Mom, and Dad are lugging my two 50 pound bags around and my carry-on across the airport.

At last, some wonderful little man in a knit sweater checks me in and I think I'm in the clear as I skip off to security...then the security guy tells me my carry-on is too big and I need to empty some of the bulk. Um, that's nice, but at this point it's 5:30, I have NO WHERE to empty "the bulk" AND I still have to go through security. Mom ran off and got this huge plastic bag that they wrap around some strangely shaped luggage (my hiking back pack, for example) and I dump all my school books into it and show Mr. Security High-and-Mighty that my carry-on is smaller and lug the suitcase, my purse, and a giant plastic bag through security.

I made it to the gate right before it closed (think Home Alone frantic running through the airport shenanigans), then proceeded to sleep the entire 2 hour trip to Vancouver. I have an hour and a half before I board my plane to Shanghai. Is it possible to back out at this point?