How the Shanghainese Spend Their Traditional Holidays: Downloading

Here’s a phenomenon that I’ve yet to see generate much comment: during Chinese holiday weekends (like this weekend, in which they are supposed to be celebrating the mid-Autumn Festival), the internet grinds to a near standstill in Shanghai. I suppose there are several explanations for this occasionally observed (by me and this other guy I know) phenomenon, but I’m going to go with the simplest one: the Shanghainese like to spend their traditional holidays playing graphics intensive games and downloading really large files (to hell with eating mooncakes). This is made more difficult by the simple, unfortunate fact that Shanghai has the slowest internet in China.

[Below, Packaged Mooncakes with New Laptop, by Pieter Claesz]

I suppose it’s the case that people in other countries, too, like to celebrate the holidays by cruising the internet. But, at least where I’m from (Minnesota, USA), the demands on networks actually decrease during holidays, and increase during the work week. Why that isn’t the case in Shanghai is a topic for those much more familiar with these matters than me. For now, I’d just like to mention that – since it’s a holiday weekend – I’m desperate to download some very large files, and very frustrated that it’s just not going to happen.

Happy Mooncake Festival, peeps, and sorry to have been out of sight for so long.

Dreaming in Chinese

Over the years there have been some very fine books written about the experience of moving to China as a young foreigner, and the struggles encountered in trying to learn the language and culture. But I’ve long thought that an equally interesting experience – moving to China as an adult, post-30 foreigner, and struggling with the language and culture with some life experience under the proverbial belt – has been overlooked. And that’s a missed opportunity, I think: every year, it seems, there are more and more adults having that experience. It can be a humbling experience, as well an exhilarating one, and that’s why I’m so enthusiastic about Deborah FallowsDreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, recently published in its American edition.

This modest, lovely book documents Fallows’ adventures in learning Chinese (culture and language) while she and her husband, Jim, lived in Shanghai and Beijing for three years (disclosure: we became friends during that period). What I like about the book, really like about it, is the unusual narrative structure: each chapter is named for a Chinese word or phrase that serves as a touch-point for Fallows to recount episodes during her stay in China, and connect them to her study of Chinese. As she writes in the introduction:

Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China’s art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.

After finishing the American edition, I sent along a few questions to the author, which she graciously answers, below (fyi: my friends at danwei did a Q&A with her on the occasion of the UK edition, here).

Scrap: Upon finishing the book, I reacted in a way that was different than how I usually react to China books. I thought “Now here’s a book I can give to my Chinese friends who think that foreigners don’t understand China.” I’m guessing that wasn’t the target audience. So: the acknowledgments indicate that you received some encouragement to write this book, and move it from “book idea” to book. I wonder if you could give some sense of what the “book idea” was, and how you arrived at the unusual structure of the book as it now exists. Was there an audience in mind? Continue reading

Wait a second – the US Census doesn’t count Americans abroad?

How I missed this, I don’t know, but here’s the deal: if you’re an American living abroad, and you weren’t physically in the United States on April 1, then you will not be counted in the 2010 US census (in fact, you would’ve only been counted in the 1960 and 1970 censuses). Exceptions are made for federal employees and military personnel who can be assigned to states. Why this injustice? It’s hard (just you try and find all the Americans in Shanghai), and expensive (as in, US$1450 per counted American), as this 2004 GAO report outlines. It’s a surprisingly good read, actually, especially the bit about the “overseas marketing firm” hired to spread the word among Americans in France, Kuwait, and Mexico that a census was taking place. The experience with said firm should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever asked someone else to leave fliers for them in expat-oriented establishments:

However, at 21 sites we visited, we found various discrepancies between what the public relations firm indicated had occurred, and what actually took place. For example, while the firm’s tracking system indicated that questionnaires would be available at a restaurant and an English-language bookstore in Guadalajara, none were present.

Likewise, in Paris, we went to several locations where the tracking system indicated that census information would be available. None was. In fact, at some of these sites, not only was there no information about the census, but there was no indication that the organization we were looking for resided at the address we had from the database.

That’s a good one.

Anyway, I’d be more sympathetic to the plight of the Census Bureau if it weren’t for the fact that every American abroad I’ve met in the last ten years is connected to this thing called the Internet which, so far as I can tell, ensures two-way communications between them and government agencies that handle things like, I dunno, taxes and voting. I’m sure it comes with its own problems, but for the love of god and country, it surely gives a more accurate picture (at cheaper than US$1450/head) than whistling down the street, pretending that the only Americans abroad are those on the federal payroll! [update: or a dependent of someone on the federal payroll]

In the meantime, funny to think that – for the next ten years – I am an “uncounted and unenumerated” American. Thought: does that do anything to help me with the two unpaid Minneapolis parking tickets I acquired in February?

[UPDATE: A quick clarification posted in response to Zach‘s good comment and question, below. I’m not asking to be counted as an ‘American abroad,’ per se. Instead, like federal employees and military personnel who fill out the forms when abroad, I’m asking to be counted as a resident of my home state. In my case, Minnesota. It makes sense: after all, I’m a Minnesota voter, tax payer, and driver’s license holder. Why, then, shouldn’t the state have the opportunity to count me as its own in a census that determines, eventually, the boundaries of my legislative district, among other matters? At the same time, I do think there’s value in having demographic data on Americans living abroad.]

How is Expo 2010 changing Shanghai? One blogger’s perspective.

Just got off the phone with a reporter interested to know how the Expo (ie, World’s Fair) is changing Shanghai. No offense to this particular hack, but I’ve been having that conversation a whole lot recently, and it usually goes something like this: “Lots of new infrastructure, great new subways, but please stop demolishing all of the old neighborhoods that were among the best reasons to visit Shanghai in the first place.” In other words, so far at least (and despite the keening and hollering from long-term expats across Shanghai) it hasn’t really had much of an impact on (my) day-to-day life (my professional life, that’s another matter).

[UPDATE: A reader emails to remind me of last year’s posts about the Expo-related face-lift that my apartment building received.  How quickly I forget!]

My friends in Shanghai’s visual arts community have a distinctly different perspective (more on that soon), and those in the city’s burgeoning indie rock scene, well, they have some legitimate complaints. But I’ll leave those to them, and make this about me. So, from the perspective of someone who spends most of his time indoors, hunched over a keyboard, and overlooking (for now) the demolitions, here – typed over breakfast – are the most noticeable changes that Expo has brought to my Shanghai:

  1. My favorite pirate DVD store is now a sporting goods retailer. To access the DVDs, I’m required to slip between a rack of warm-up jackets and then through a hidden door. The hidden door is opened only when a look-out nods – presumably to assure all involved that the coast is clear.
  2. Related: not seeing many new DVD releases in town. Last batch came in just before Oscar time. Tired of watching A Serious Man.
  3. A small uptick in the number of Caucasian foreigners in Shanghai. However, they all appear to be employed by Expo pavilions. Otherwise, no more foreigners than usual in these parts.
  4. Suddenly, the Shanghainese are waiting for the walk signal at crosswalks. This is incredible.
  5. Related: they are giving dirty looks – and berating – foreigners who don’t do the same [this, after years of training me in the fine art of zen jaywalking, ie, “just go, they’ll stop.”]
  6. Noticeably fewer scrap peddlers on the streets, presumably chased off by Shanghai officials concerned that small-scale recyclers will hurt the city’s image with foreigners. You know what else hurts Shanghai’s image? Trash on the streets. [Shanghai authorities, mark my words: this decision will haunt you].
  7. Related: noticeably more consumer-generated recyclables on the streets [Shanghai authorities: just you wait]
  8. Yesterday I was asked to show my passport before I could enter the subway [given, this could’ve been related to the Moscow subway bombing – but still]. Upon further reflection, I’m okay with this so long as the various stations start stamping exit-entry info into said passports [but please, no visas].
  9. Related: the 14-year-olds the city hired to staff the baggage x-ray machines installed at the city’s subway stations are now awake for their shifts, and supervised by 18-year-olds. Previously, they’d spent most of their time asleep or – if they were ambitious – texting their friends.
  10. Due to restrictions on blade sales during the Expo, I have been forced to put off adding to my fencing rapier and fruit knife collections until November.
  11. My landlord, when negotiating my new lease, used the Expo as an argument for raising my rent. In response, I told her that if she ever decides to rent in Minneapolis during the annual month-long Holidazzle, the price is double.

And I’ll leave it at that. Comment thread open.

[UPDATED: Based upon a couple of emails, let me be clear: the new subway lines are terrific. Thank you, Shanghai. More, please.]

“Want some chocolate, handsome?”

On October 28 the Shanghai Daily ran what now stands as my favorite headline in the history of journalism:

doped-chocolate sex heists

The headline isn’t the best part, though. That honor is reserved for the story itself, which goes something like this: last year, the five individuals in the above photo began working as prostitutes in Shanghai. One day, one prostitute noticed that another was taking prescription sedatives for a sleeping disorder. A plot soon emerged: “let’s make some chocolate, lace it with those sedatives, and feed it to clients with the intention of robbing them after they collapse.” A winning concept, for sure (!), that succeeded on at least two occasions, and would have succeeded on a third had someone not been caught using a victim’s credit card at a cosmetics shop. Continue reading

The colors are never so bright as when you lower your standards.

This afternoon, around 4:00 PM, I left a friend’s thirteenth floor apartment and paused to wait for the elevator. While I did, I gazed out the window and noticed a stunning, multicolored striped building in the near distance. Though incomplete, I think it’s an absolute stunner, and I took out a camera and snapped a couple of photos – including the one below:


Now, if you don’t live in Shanghai (or China, for that matter), you might take a look at this photo and wonder just what in the hell I was thinking. After all, the colors are drab, dulled – quite obviously – by the thick smog that hung over the city this afternoon. And, I must concede, when I pulled up the image on my laptop later in the afternoon, I thought the same thing. But that’s not what I thought as I stood at the window, staring at the building, nor, earlier, as I sat on a balcony on the opposite side of the elevator lobby, enjoying a different view of the city. Indeed, like most people in Shanghai over the last week, I’ve been praising the unseasonably good weather and clear skies that we’ve been enjoying. It’s been a treat – or so I thought.

And that has me thinking. Continue reading

Novel Hazards Associated With Chinese Stairwells (and living here)

By popular demand (you know who you are), promoted from twitpic to the blog:


[Clarification, also by popular demand: the sign hangs in a stairwell]

For the record, this fulfills Shanghai Scrap’s official allotment of exactly ONE Chinglish-related post per Blog Year. An allotment established because, really, nobody at Shanghai Scrap HQ has any business looking askance at the foreign language skills of others.

In other health and safety news: a hearty, hearty recommendation for James Fallows on the (still unclear) health effects of being an expatriate in China. This is a subject near and dear to my heart: a few years ago, during a routine physical on a visit home to the United States, I asked for a blood test to check the lead levels in my bloodstream. The attending physician was skeptical, until I told him that I live in China. Then he did it, and a few days later called back to tell me that – he’ll be damned, but – I had elevated levels of lead in my blood. Maybe it was the air; maybe the paint on my apartment walls; or maybe the water used to clean the food that I eat. Whatever it was, he assured me that I’d probably be fine so long as I wasn’t planning to get pregnant or revert to being 12, again (note to self …). Since then, I’ve heard of other expats – some capable of becoming pregnant – who’ve had the same test, and the same results. And most of us are still here, and so far at least, we’re okay (which is sort of the Fallows point).

For the record, I think it’s worth recalling that most of the Chinese who have been, and are, our friends and neighbors are still here, too – breathing and eating many of the same things as we are. But, unlike us, most of them don’t have the option to leave. So, as much fun as it is to wonder whether or not China is killing the foreigners, pondering the long-term effects of China on the Chinese, is probably a better use of everybody’s time (also a point that Fallows makes).

And on that note, I declare it Friday.