Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Beijing vs. Shanghai

Having now spent a semester in Bejing, and 57 hours in Shanghai, I feel qualified—and, indeed, obliged—to weigh in on the Beijing vs. Shanghai debate. Who wins? Let me tell you, it’s Shanghai, and it’s no contest. Allow me to lay out my reasons in the structure of an obnoxious list I’ll call the “8 W’s.”

• Weather: I certainly have a lot of respect for the hardy folk of Beijing. The winters are as dry and as cold as, say, Al Gore, the summers are hot and sweaty, and the spring brings blinding sandstorms that carry the Gobi desert closer every year. The fall, which is absolutely gorgeous, is three days long. Sure, Shanghai is pretty hot in the summer, but heck, we’re tropical creatures anyway, aren’t we?

• Width: These few days in Shanghai I cris-crossed the city on foot, finding the next neat-looking place on the map, and walking there. Yesterday, I began at the Moganshan art district, and after a morning there, moseyed my way to the other side of my map, arriving after a few hours at the Duolun Museum of Modern Art. In between, I passed through as much excitement and street life as I’ve seen in three months in Beijing. It is a big city, definitely, but it manages to feel quite small, broken up into dozens of smaller communities within the city.

This morning, back in Beijing, I thought I might walk from Tiananmen Square to Beida. After 35 minutes, I was still walking alongside the Forbidden city, and up to that point it had just been me, the wall, and the occasional policeman. No matter where you are in Beijing, it’s an hour’s drive to wherever you’re going. It was one of the more frustrating things about being there, and the idea of a smaller, walkable city, is an attractive one. Shanghai’s population is just as big, but they pack ‘em in better. It’s more of a New York, while Beijing exhibits more of a Los Angeles sprawl. Eulgh.

• Wuran: Wuran is Chinese for pollution. Shanghai’s air is dirty, and Beijing’s is way, way worse. Enough said.

• Water: History tells us it’s a bad idea to let Republican senators (Washington DC), eagles holding snakes (Mexico City) or anything other than common sense decide where we build our cities. Beijing is a case in point. There’s no river there, no sea, no ocean… it’s just there, in the middle of what was once presumably an endless sea of rice fields. Bad idea. It’s hard to exactly define, but Shanghai’s dissection by the Huangpu river and Suzhou Creek break it up in a way that makes it more manageable, more natural, and, really, more pretty. Plus, the proximity to the ocean allows the aforementioned reasonable weather.

• Women: Any Chinese can tell you that Shanghai girls are among the prettiest in China, and after three days, I can confirm this report beyond any reasonable doubt. Next stop: Chungdu—I’ve heard Sichuan girls are the most beautiful of all.

• Waiguoren: Again, with the Chinese—Waiguoren is Chinese for “foreigners,” but I don’t mean that in any bigoted or otherwise pathetic way. Shanghai has seen a lot of European influence in the past couple hundred years, and it has resulted in a fantastic array of architecture in the city, The city’s former French Concession is a gem, and the old Jewish ghetto is totally wacky and out of place—in a good way. Beijing is mostly filled with the ugly, blocky sorts of buildings one often finds in capital cities, especially communist capital cities. I do enjoy Beijing’s ancient influence, but Shanghai has some of that, too, in moderation. One of my favorite things about New York is the variety provided by such a vast array of different kinds of people, and Shanghai benefits from the same. At the same time, though, the waiguoren presence in Shanghai is not oppressive. Really, as long as one is not in any of about three places, the number of white faces will be next to nil.

• Wow: Shanghai’s wow factor is off the charts. The glitz and excess that come with sudden wealth are in full evidence there: take, for instance, the large LED displays one finds at some intersections, announcing the current sound level, in decibels. Or take the skyline, or the Times Square-like glamour of Nanjing Road, or the sweeping grandness of the Bund, Shanghai’s riverside park. It’s all over the top, in an impressive sort of way. There is definitely a lot of wow in Beijing’s Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and many of the sites that are really old. Really, though, they’re good for about one visit each, and after that, one begins to realize that they stay mostly the same—the same they have been for the past god-knows-how-long. Even the trees at Jingshan Park are the same trees that were planted 12 centuries ago. Christ.

• Wictuals: Although this may never have happened, if someone of Polish descent were to say the word “victuals,” this is how it might sound. An old Andover gal by the name of Michelle Miao treated me to a first-rate lunch on Sunday. Presently a resident of Shanghai, Michelle knows what’s up with the local cuisine, and now I do, too. It’s pretty darn good. Beyond the fine dining to be had, Shanghai is maybe most famous for its xiaochi—snacks—such as savory fried pancake things, and the succulent baozi—steamed buns— which will leave pork juice dripping from your hands. It’s better than it sounds, really. Beijing’s roast duck is amazingly good, but on the whole, northern food just lacks a bit in flavor.

Shanghai is, camera thieves aside, a great place, as you have no doubt inferred by now. There aren’t many cities I bother comparing to New York, but this one deserves the comparison. One other cultural observation I couldn’t squeeze in above is the omnipresence of pajamas on the city streets. One never sees this up north, or, really, anywhere else, but for whatever reason, Shanghai women love to go out in their jammies. It’s mostly women aged 40-60, and they mostly have very comfy-looking quilted pj’s. Not a bad way to live, I suppose.

Also, if you have never seen a rat run through a crowd of 200 Chinese schoolgirls, that is an experience I recommend you actively seek out.

Tomorrow at 1:55 PM I board a plane bound for Toronto, Canada, and arrive on the same day exactly 5 minutes later. The miracles of modern air travel! You can expect one more post here, a reflection on the semester and a consideration of the future of this website. But if that sounds dreadfully boring to you, well, then, zaijian!

Sunday, December 17, 2006


The semester has ended, many sad farewells were said yesterday afternoon, and now I'm in Shanghai. Just here for a couple days, staying with my old friend Sunny from last summer, and checking this place out. Expect a more substantial update on this after it's been digested.

Good news for people who hate my photographs! My camera was stolen today. Looked away for a moment in People's Square, the geographical (though no longer ideological) center of Shanghai, and poof, it was gone. So I feel like death now, and shan't write any longer. Instead, I give you something written a week ago that never made it up here. I feel it needs to be said:

In recent months, I have said some regrettable things about the sport of Table Tennis, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings that may have arisen as a result of those comments.

The controversy began a few weeks back, when I showed up for my first game with the Beijing University baseball team. I think my consternation, upon finding cars parked all over our field, was understandable. My aggravation was elevated when I discovered that the baseball game, an American pastime, had been trumped and bumped by a Ping Pong tournament in a nearby building. Evidently, the spectatorship for said tournament had gotten completely unmanageable, and they had to send people to park on the Baseball field.

It was at this time I made a few comments that I now recognize as both reprehensible and spurious. Most notably, I suggested that China get a “real” national sport, and may have referred to ping pong players as “a bunch of paddlewhackers.” Although reprimanded at the time, it wasn’t until a recent evening that I realized the magnitude of my mistake.

I sat in a local restaurant, eating a late dinner alone, and noticed a crowd of people gathered around a television in the corner. I went to take a closer look, and found they were eagerly watching the semifinals of the women’s team table tennis event at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. The Chinese women were in tight competition with the Koreans, another of the world’s best teams. With no other occupation while I finished my fried noodles, I stayed to watch.

If you don’t know it already, let me be the first to tell you: that sport is seriously intense. I watched as Guo Yue, who was described to me as “really famous” in China, took on Moon Hyun Jung, presumably a hero to Korean girls. There was screaming, grunting, and jumping for joy as the contestants dashed around, taking full-body swings at a little white dot. The ball whipped back and forth, almost too fast to follow with the human eye. The women displayed jaguar-like reflexes, and a sniper’s precision as drops of sweat flew from their brows. The crowd went wild, waving Chinese flags, when Guo Yue prevailed, and even wilder when China clinched a spot in the final with teammate Guo Yan’s defeat of Kwak Bang Bang (not kidding).

I hereby retract my previous comments, and hope I can be forgiven for my mistakes.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Points of Disapperance

Yesterday morning, I woke up and blew my nose. To nobody's surprise, it came out black. Fortunately, it cleared up a bit in the afternoon, and today it even improved to a "pretty good" day after a few "oh my god" days. Still, if there is one thing I won't miss from this city, it's the air. Whoo.

Pictured here is an attempt to show you just how thick the air is with soot and ash.

Today, while walking through the middle of Beida campus, I passed a van, trunk open, with people crowded around. I assumed correctly that this was some shady operation, as is the norm when doing business out of vans. Upon getting a closer look, I discovered that some scam artist was selling not handbags, or watches, or even puppies, but bootlegged textbooks to students on a budget. Only in China.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Oh yeah, I have a blog

A scant four days of classes remain for me here at Beijing University, before I skip out along with my fellow CIEE students. Everyone else is condemned to an extra 3 weeks of classes, plus two weeks of exams… it comes with living in a country that doesn’t believe in Jesus. I’m making preparations for a short trip to Shanghai early next week, after which I’ll be back up to Beijing to catch my flight out on the 21st. Heavens, how time flies.

Speaking of ends and conclusions, my final column appears in today’s issue of the Tufts Daily. The friendly editors kindly squeezed in a poetic verse at the end of the article, which, though absurd, makes for a grand farewell. Enjoy.

The highlight of this past weekend was an event held by the Beida Hip-Hop club, of which several of my classmates are members. They rented out a dance club downtown, and held a party/dance competition, which was both excellent entertainment and terrific fun. Some students from neighbor Qinghua (China’s #2 University!) showed up, and danced everyone’s pants off, to say nothing of their own.

On a note entirely unrelated to China, I have concocted a brief activity for you, my readership. In commemoration of the United Nations inducting a new Secretary-General this Thursday, I offer you this quiz:

Below are 18 names; 9 of them are the 9 Secretary-Generals of the United Nations, past and present. The other 9 are characters from Star Wars. You have to pick out the Secretary-Generals— no cheating!

Kofi Annan
Kleb Zellock
Calo Nord
Ban Ki-moon
Gizor Dellso
Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Yarna D'ai Gargan
Joh Yowza
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
Dag Hammarskjold
Kitik Keed'kak
Trygve Halvdan Lie
U Thant
Plo Koon
Kurt Waldheim
Clegg Holdfast
Momaw Nadon
Gladwyn Jebb

Administer the quiz yourself, or send me your guesses. In test runs thus far, nobody has scored 100%, and I have given it to several people whose intellects I used to genuinely respect. The first person to get them all right wins a wallet-sized picture of me.

To help you digest this absurdity, I have included some Chinese characters, photographed.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Nobody panic! If you’ve already wept your way through today’s column in the Tufts Daily, my intimations therein that it would be my last are fictitious. I was informed this morning that, by virtue of Tufts’ strange but perennial decision to hold a single day of classes on the Monday of reading period, I have one last column coming next Monday. I’ll be taking requests.

I’d like to share with you all a perfectly brilliant incidence of Chinglish that has really turned my world upside-down since I first saw it. In the men’s room at a nearby teahouse, there are a pair of what appear to be advertisements, one over each urinal. The first, which is otherwise blank except for a tiny picture of a giant squid, reads thusly:

The thief begin to criticize his prentice. “We spend the whole night to open all the strongbox, but every one is empty. Until we open the last strongbox, and you say they are stolen from the strongbox factory!

The second features a poor drawing of a car’s interior, and the caption: Your car is not a strongbox.

If anybody knows what a strongbox is and where I can buy one, please let me know— I’m in the market.

EDIT: According to Noah Webster, 'strongbox' is a perfectly legitimate synonym for 'safe' or 'cash box.' Not that that clarifies the meaning of the advertisements in the least.

While you ponder, pictured below is Beida's famous pagoda tower.
How very Chinese.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Weather Report

After a few dreary weeks of suffocating grey in Beijing, the wind picked up yesterday, and blew all that filth away. Not least among the boons that came with the sun were a few photographs that aren’t total crap. I went for a jaunt around Beida campus yesterday, accompanied by a few of my fellow CIEE students. So if you like pictures of people, commence scrolling.

Ben, left, and Ian pretend not to be cold.

My mother, who asks me every six months if I have an adequate winter coat, will be glad to know that I recently invested in a terrifically Chinese jacket, complete with “fur” lining, senseless English on the left breast, and zippers that don’t work. It’s warm, though, and was a bargain at just ¥100 RMB ($12).

Its purchase was necessary to combat the Beijing winter, with temperatures falling through the floor. It’s getting to the point that the highs are around freezing, and the lows are five or ten degrees below zero (centigrade, naturally). Ice is appearing, but no snow— aside from the light dusting I mentioned a while back, it has precipitated three times since I’ve been here, all in the form of a brief, light drizzle. It’s almost enough to make me long for soggy Boston.

Vickie thinks it's hilarious that her kite just crashed.

Speaking of which, departure is coming up fast, faster than expected, and I’ve got just two weeks of class left here. I can’t help but feel a bit like I’m copping out by leaving when I am, after just a semester here. I am really only just becoming comfortable in this place; only just figuring out what I like, who I like, where I like to go, and where to stay the devil away from.

A semester is not a long time, and I’m feeling the pressure to do and redo everything in these last weeks. Beyond all that, goodness knows my Chinese is nowhere near any “conversational” level, and could certainly do with another five months of attention.

Ben looks hard while Jay looks Korean

On the flip side, if I were planning to stay for the year, I might be filled with dread right now and anxious for some international incident to require my immediate repatriation. In any case, I am going home, and I’m confident it’s the right decision. I think I’ll probably be back again before too long.

You can tell this photo of Ian is artsy because it's out of focus.

Looking forward to my week of unbridled freedom after classes end and before I fly home, I’m considering a trip to Shanghai, to revel in the opulence and humidity. Chengdu is another candidate, but that’s kind of a hike from here.

Julie is Vietnamese, but she lives in Oregon. She laughs because that's funny.

This post is getting long, and I haven’t really said anything interesting yet, so I’ll close with a story. I went out last night with some friends for a dinner of Korean Barbecue. It was delicious, as always, made especially so by a grand gesture from some guy on the other side of the restaurant.

Apparently, this guy was in a really good mood last night, and as is the Korean tradition when one is in a really good mood (this according to my Korean friend, Jay, pictured above), he bought every table in the restaurant a dish and a bottle of Soujiu, Korea’s famously potent liquor. As a show of thanks, we sang him happy birthday, though I’m not sure it was his birthday.

The four CIEE men of Writing Chinese, level 6, have accurately been compared to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. From left, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Donatello and Leonardo.