Archive for October, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Shanghai is a very friendly city. I was barely out of the car from the airport when people started coming up to me trying to help me with my shopping dilemmas: “Watch? Watch? You want to buy watch? Laser? You want green laser?”

Later, after Tom arrived, we went out for a beer and found that the waitresses were incredibly friendly. They sat down with us and let us practice our Mandarin with them. Of course, we soon realized that they were prostitutes, but they were friendly nonetheless. When we told them we had to leave, they were surprised but not upset with us for the opportunity cost they incurred.

Seriously, though, what I will remember most about Shanghai is the kindness and friendliness of the people I’ve met. The staff at Mandarin House is a pleasure to work with. More significantly, my schoolmates have been a joy to study and live with.

As noted in previous posts, most of my fellow students are young. Some are very young – there are a couple of kids here who are 18 or 19 years old, taking language lessons during a “gap year” before university. There are some older folk in the school, though, some taking classes while working for firms in Shanghai. Finally, there’s Tom and me and a couple of other experienced cats. In spite of the age differences, though, folk have little difficulty talking to each other and establishing friendships.

Note, too, that my schoolmates are a very international crowd. I’ve met people from Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, India, Holland, Sweden, the UK and Lichtenstein. Yes, Lichtenstein; Constantine (one of my flatmates) is the first Lichtensteiner I’ve ever met. (N.B. I had to look up “Lichtensteiner”).

In spite of the cultural differences, in fact, I suspect because of the cultural differences, people are nice and friendly towards each other.

I remember very similar circumstances when I lived in Barcelona. On Sundays, several families would gather for English mass at the local church. I don’t think any of us were particularly religious — we simply enjoyed getting together with other expats. These outings helped form many good friendships.

The expats in Barcelona and the schoolmates in Shanghai have something in common. Each group had a shared challenge. In Barcelona, the expats all had to deal with housing, schooling, transportation issues, utility companies and many other frustrations associated with living in a new country. In Shanghai, my classmates and I have to figure out how to eat, travel, shop and take care of the many mundane aspects of life made tremendously more difficult by the challenge of a language that is still mostly incomprehensible to us.

Beyond this shared purpose, both groups share something else in common (among themselves and with each other). The groups are both comprised of Travelers. I capitalize this word for emphasis. Travelers are a distinct group. A friend of mine (someone I met in Spain, naturally) once noted that “Travelers like Travelers.” My friend explained that there are two types of people in the world: Travelers and non-Travelers. The former embrace the challenges and wonder of travel whereas the latter do not.I’ve shared this simple statement with friends here and back home and Travelers quickly get it.

Travelers are, by nature, people curious about the world. They are open to different ways of thinking and different ways of living. Travelers, by necessity, are adaptable to strange situations and tolerant of other (different) people.

While I have enjoyed learning Mandarin this last week-and-a-half, my greatest joy this trip has been to find myself surrounded by friendly fellow Travelers willing to share their lives with me and interested in finding out about my own.

As to kindness, I need only quote Vincent, another flatmate (28 years old): “When I’m talking to you guys, it doesn’t feel like I’m talking to old people.”

Bless his heart.

Tom, Ying, Me, Vincent and Till

Tom, Ying, Me, Vincent and Till

Shanghai Vibes

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

I’ve been in Shanghai for a week now and am having trouble writing this post. This is not because I don’t have anything to say but, quite the opposite, I have to figure out where to start!

The Mandarin lessons are overwhelming. The teachers are good, the teaching method is effective and I’m learning a lot, but there is an incredible amount of information to be absorbed quickly. Every night, I go home, add 30-40 words or phrases to my flashcard application and spend an hour studying them to prepare for the next class.  I think that in the two weeks that I’m here, I’ll have covered as much material as those that take a year of the language in community college. Mind you, I’m in class for 20+ hours a week so it’s not that surprising.

Of course, I still don’t know all that much. I can introduce myself and tell people about my brothers, sisters and children, but I can’t order a meal without pointing.

In my previous post, I included a picture of the modern Shanghai skyline. The picture featured the new financial sector of Shanghai built around 25 years ago.  In contrast, here’s another picture:

Huxingting Teahouse

Huxingting Teahouse

The teahouse (also known as the “Clinton House” because of a past visit), is a key landmark in Old Town.This part of Shanghai dates back about 500 years and is filled with hundreds of food and craft shops. Given the proximity of Old Town to other high-rent districts, it is not surprising that old buildings are constantly being torn down and replaced by modern ones, chipping away at the old quarter.

Incidentally, there is a Starbucks across the way from the teahouse and a McDonalds around the corner.

Last night, we went on a Huangpu river cruise. The boat sails through the “Bund” – an area full of late 19th and early 20th century French and English architecture.  These are remnants of colonial times after the opium war of 1842.

Here’s another shot of the modern skyline, taken from the boat:

Shanghai Skyline at Night

Shanghai Skyline at Night

What you can’t see is that all the buildings are sparkling with light shows. The TV tower’s upper orb pulses with a variety of light effects. The building to its left is, effectively, a large monitor where a variety of video clips are shown.

Shanghai is an exciting place with a long history. There is construction going on everywhere. Crews work through the night, sometimes, especially if they’re building something related to next year’s Expo (in May, I think). The streets are full of business people and shoppers as well as cars, scooters and bicycles. The people are well dressed and everyone has a phone or white iPod buds stuck to their ears. There is a sense that people are happy and excited to be here.

Many of the folk at the school are people learning Mandarin because they need it or expect to need it for professional reasons. I’ve met several people who are working in Shanghai for European firms.  If either of my children were interested in going into business, I’d recommend they do the same.

I’m a huge fan of An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon. This book traces the economic history of the United States and points out, repeatedly, how huge fortunes were made by exploiting key transformative events (westward expansion, locomotives, automobiles, etc.). There is no doubt that the Chinese turn towards capitalism is such an event. Many expect the Chinese economy eclipse that of the US within the next 10-20 years.

It is possible that a collapse of the US currency or some other financial catastrophe will forestall the expected. Certainly, the Chinese still need to deal with environmental, workplace and other issues. Their reliance, too, on exports is ultimately a source of weakness. They have no choice but to lend us money as, without their loans, we might not ultimately be able to pay for their imports. With such a large and increasingly prosperous population, however, it would not surprise me to eventually see China with a negative balance of trade.

If I was in my 20’s, single, and just getting started in the business world, I’d spend a year at the Mandarin House (my language school) and I’d try to find a way to capitalize on the opportunities here. Yes, you can make money trying to find the right niche in the US or in Europe, but right now, China is the right place and the right time.


Sunday, October 18th, 2009
Jetson-esque Shanghai skyline

Jetson-esque Shanghai skyline

Cathay Pacific is a great airline – especially in business class. It cost me a boatload of miles, but it was worth it to be able to stretch out in a fully reclining seat and get a few hours of effective sleep. I’ve never been able to sleep in coach – I can’t sleep face up so my slumber occurs in 10 second bursts while drooping my head down. Eventually I start to fall over and wake with a start. In addition to a lay-flat seat, I also got to shower in the Hong Kong Cathay Pacific lounge before the last leg to Shanghai. What luxury! 7pm and I’m still awake and hopefully good for another hour or two.

I was picked up at the airport along with “Till” – a nice German guy who’s going to be here for six months studying and working for a multinational. 30 minutes later, we were in downtown Shanghai at the Mandarin House language school. We received a packet of introductory material, a textbook and some local information.

The apartment where I’m staying is a 5 minute walk from the school. I have, as expected, a private room in a shared apartment. My room is perhaps 8′ x 10′ and contains a very small bed, a desk and an armoire. Pretty sparing, but really all I need. The apartment has a small kitchen, a dining area, a washing machine and most importantly – wifi.

As I expected, I am the oldest guy here, for at least another hour, until Tom arrives. Till is, perhaps, 24 or 25. Vincent, a Dutch dude who’s been here for a few weeks and speaks survival-level Mandarin is probably about the same age. Karen, a gal from Sweden, is perhaps 22.

From Vincent’s description, there’s often a fair bit of partying going on in the apartments. I can’t imagine I’ll be part of that, but may have to learn to tolerate nearby carousing while I try to go to sleep at 10m.

I spent a few hours walking around town with Vincent and Till today. We walked towards to river where I took the picture posted above. This is going to be the site of the Expo at Shanghai. There’s a lot of very futuristic-looking architecture in the area and new, wacky, buildings being erected.

We had lunch in a local dive. Although it had an English menu, few of the dish descriptions were recognizable. The ones that weren’t did not seem very appetizing (“Bad Fish Fillets”). Regardless, the “Sizzling Beef”, “Crispy Prawns” and “Kung Pao Chicken”, paired with a couple of very large Tsingtao beers, were tasty enough and a bargain at about $12 for the three of us.

Later, we took a walk around the shopping district, fended off dozens of street vendors (esp. those selling watches) and went to the Raffles mall. Except for the scarcity of Occidental faces, walking through Raffles is like walking through any upscale mall anywhere in the world. Similar stores and similar young couples mulling about.

Dinner at the Raffles food court proved to be a great improvement over lunch. Till and I shared a chicken hot pot (kind of like your own little wok with a sterno to keep it warm). This was about $5.

Tomorrow, we start school at 9.We have class from 9-12:30 and then we have a “private” (Tom and I with an instructor) lesson on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 2:30-3:20.  Sprinkled throughout are various cultural outings.

My goal for my 50th birthday celebrations was to partake in new adventures. So far, Shanghai is fitting the bill perfectly.