Shanghai Expat: December 2009

Getting Settled
In December, we got more comfortable in our apartment as Di Yin acquired handy household items.

We got two pretty white furry sheep-fur on sheep-skin mats that we used as seat cushions. Sitting on a chair with one of these was much warmer than sitting on an uncovered chair. Also, I simply liked the luxurious, sensuous feeling of sticking my fingers in the fur and feeling its softness. However, I still feel a bit unsettled when I look at the outline of the sheep-skin and can see where the sheep's legs attached to its body. It does remind one that an animal died to give us these seat pads.

I couldn't imagine a sheep having thicker, fluffier, or softer fur than those examples... -- that is, until Di Yin returned one day with an even larger, thicker, brown fur sheep-skin mat. The fur was so thick it could swallow your hand. We used it to warm the foot of our bed then, later, as a cover/cushion on the couch.

The largest single improvement to our happiness in the apartment, however, was a mattress. Our bed, as you may recall, didn't have one. Rather than ordering a Chinese mattress (which is typically hard), we ordered a "mattress topper" which was six inches thick and made of latex foam. It's nice. You wouldn't believe our smiles when we lay on it for the first time.

The additional, big, warm blankets Di Yin acquired at various times also made the bed more comfortable. (For a while we were trying to keep warm on a queen-size bed under blankets meant for a double-size bed, which didn't quite work.)

The second largest improvement was the rearranging we did after Di Yin's mom left, in particular stealing the couch from her former room and moving it into the office cum entertainment room (complete with large iMac screen). The couch, more comfortable than it appeared, was a good size both for lying down and for sitting at with a laptop. Later in the process, we moved the desk into the bedroom so it could get lots of light during the day--the office only had a small window and didn't receive much light anyway--but left the iMac behind so the (now ex-)office was truly purely an entertainment room. Now we have an entertainment room with a nice couch and a bedroom/office. Working in the bedroom (now with a desk) during the daytime (especially in the morning!) is great! It positively glows, and the light heats it a bit too.

Di Yin also made herself happy by buying many other households goods: three tablecloths, extra sheets (handy when one set is hung up to dry (we have no drier)), another set of extra sheets (okay...), an extra quilt, new natural-light light bulbs, eight (!) new pillowcases, etc.

I started taking more pictures this month, including many that show scenes from my daily life in Shanghai, and others from various dinner outings (when I remembered my camera) as well as my company's holiday party. The dinner outings ones accompany parts of the narrative in the "food outings" sections below.

Now is also an appropriate time to link to Di Yin's pictures from our stay in Shanghai. After all, my pictures this month cover pictures from our neighborhood and our everyday life in Shanghai. This album of her pictures from Shanghai generally has the same theme (even though not all of her pictures were taken this month). My pictures (for a change) provide more extensive documentation of the Shanghai experience than hers.

I got to celebrate Hannukah! One of my co-workers, an American expat who, though not Jewish, grew up celebrating Hannukah, organized a Hannukah-themed TGIF. We tried to teach our Chinese co-workers a bit about Hannukah. We gave a little background, lit a menorah (I did it), and said prayers in English (me) and Hebrew (an Israeli who's a friend of a co-worker). We ordered latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts, a tradition neither of us American jews had seen before). (Yes, I'm amazed there's a place in Shanghai that caters this stuff.) We even had gelt and dreidels. My co-worker who planned everything--I was sick--wrote up the rules for dreidel in two forms, first regular English and then, realizing who the audience would likely be, in computer code (python-y pseudo-code). The latter went over very well. :) At one point, we had four tables of dreidel games going at once.

This is more than I've usually done for Hannukah in the states in recent years.

Digression: around Christmas, co-workers often asked me what I was doing to celebrate. (By the way, neither Christmas Eve nor Christmas Day are holidays in China.) I gradually learned they didn't want a long explanation about being Jewish and celebrating Hannukah a few weeks before; rather, they simply wanted to wish someone a merry Christmas and find out what westerners do on the holiday, whether spend it with friends or family, and go out or stay in or travel.

Holiday Party
My company's Shanghai's holiday party was on the Monday (!) before Christmas. A Vegas-themed party, most men wore suits and women wore risque dresses. There was gambling--men crowded around blackjack, roulette, etc. tables--and even a cabaret show. For money, we used paper printed with faces of the company's founders, the CEO, and the Shanghai office director. Each represented a different denomination. The food was good and also varied: a nice mix of Chinese (e.g., dumplings) and Western (e.g., pasta, pizza, ceviche) and desserts (e.g. blueberry custard tart, truffles, lots of melons). But perhaps the best feature--that is, besides meeting some expats in the office (people who speak English, yay!) and getting along well with them--was the setting. Held on the 65th floor of a fancy hotel (Le Royal Meridien) by People's Square, the views in all directions of Shanghai's skyline were stunning. I took a ton of pictures. I'm amazed I somehow missed seeing during my trip in June the expansive bright beauty of Shanghai's skyline at night. I was also planning to take some pictures inside of the party but forgot. (Di Yin says it was perhaps good I forgot, as some of the clothing was lascivious, maybe even a tad bit raunchy.)

Fun Stories / Oddities
One weekend morning, walking by the school at the end of our block, I was overcome with music, and not just any music. Every little kid had his or her own accordion! Heh. Accordions in China. Each was doing his or her own thing with it.

Everyone in Shanghai wears slippers in their house and keeps extra pairs around for guests. During the summer, I thought this was simply to prevent the ever-present dust and dirt from making its way into one's home. (If you take your shoes off before entering someone's house, you're less able to track dirt in.) This winter, however, I realized another feature of the slippers: warmth. Even though they're mostly open-topped (and so don't retain heat), I found myself wearing slippers at home more often than the flip-flops I brought: the flip-flops have a thinner sole; the slippers kept my feet farther from the floor and therefore warmer.

One weekend morning I ventured out (as usual) to our local fry-bread stand for breakfast. On our block, there's a large vacant lot undergoing construction. Judging from the size of the pit and foundation, they're building something tall. Anyway, as I passed it, I noticed a cement truck doing its thing. Then, at the end of the block, I found a line of more than half a dozen additional cement trucks, idling, waiting their turn to go down the one lane street to drops their loads. As I walked by I tried not to breathe because the smell of exhaust was so strong. While I thought this was an absurd sight, I was even more surprised to walk by in the afternoon and see another cement truck waiting, and see three more lined up when I passed yet again in the evening.

You'll notice I decided to write down addresses of restaurants when the name doesn't mean anything in Chinese (i.e., couldn't be semantically translated into English) and there is no authoritative way to romanize/transliterate it. (Sure, I could do my best to convert it to pinyin and figure out proper spacing, but I don't think my romanization would be useful if no one else writes the restaurant name in roman characters.)

Random Observations
Amusements: the woman with the megaphone who drives down the alleys and the roads around 8pm reminding everyone to shut off the gas in their kitchen.

Yes, many people smoke. Nearly everywhere (except subways).

Most buses and elevator cars and some subway cars have televisions. Usually these play advertisements.

Food & Sightseeing Outings
The rest of this post is devoted to food outings, some of which also involve sightseeing or other entertaining stories.

Food Stories: Goji Berry Shoots
One evening that Di Yin's mom made dinner--she always makes too much / too many dishes, but who can complain when they're all good--, she made a vegetable dish from goji berry shoots. Neat! They're very thin leafy green stalks, much like kang kung or slightly-stiffer-than-usual pea sprouts, and are ever so slightly bitter in flavor, in the same manner as bitter greens (though not as assertive).

Food Stories: Ruby's Cake
In November, Di Yin and I spotted a bakery, Ruby's (sp?), on Urumqi Road with a crowd inside and tons of identical white cakes in the windows. We looked it up online and discovered the place is crazy popular. One day this month we managed to get some pieces before they sold out, which, despite the amount they bake, happens well before they close at 8pm. The cake was good, with not-dry white cake-flour cake and a light whipped-cream-like frosting: a much airier cake than most.

Food Outing: Bo Do One Hong Kong
One day for lunch I returned to Bo Do One and tried the fried pork and cucumber dish that looked so good last time. In fact, it tasted every bit as good as it looked: delicious! Thin, succulent slices of pork tossed with cucumber (and a couple of other peppers) and flavored with XO sauce, which I'm never sure what it is but it sure worked well here. I should return to eat it again.

Food Outing: Jing'an Temple (Banana Leaf Curry House)
For dinner the following day, we trekked to the Jing'an Temple area for dinner, planning to eat in the food court in the neighboring fancy Japanese mall. The food court is filled with a disproportionate number of ramen joints, an udon joint, a Japanese curry house, a very Chinese-style Thai restaurant, an American restaurant, and assorted others. We ended up getting some take-out sushi which was surprisingly fresh from the attached supermarket and eating it along with dinner in a Singaporean-style restaurant: Banana Leaf Curry House. Good sauteed kang kong (a green vegetable like pea shoots), decent, potent char kway teow (powerfully spiced fried noodles), and a refreshing watermelon juice. The latter was good enough that I decided to order another juice, but the pineapple juice I got was so syrupy and sweet that I couldn't take more than a sip.

Food Outing: How Way
As I've mentioned before, Di Yin's mom spent the last month in China, much of it in Shanghai staying in the other bedroom in our apartment. In return for the many good dinners she'd cooked us at home and just as a natural show of affection, we took her to dinner on her penultimate evening in town. For this event, we elected to return to How Way Restaurant. It was a good choice -- probably the best (non-dumpling) dinner we've had outside the apartment since coming to Shanghai. I've put details on the meal elsewhere.

Food Outing: Jing'an Temple (ramen shop)
After Hannukah TGIF (see above), I met Di Yin for dinner at the Japanese mall by Jing'an Temple. It was more decorated than last time, with more Christmas trees and flashing lights in addition to the tall one we saw last time. Again, I wish I had my camera but I keep forgetting to carry it with me. :( (Note: I'm happy to report I brought my camera with me on one of my visits to the area a few weeks later (actually on Christmas Day).)

For dinner we selected one of the Japanese noodles shops in the mall's basement. It serves many varieties of ramen, each modeled after the style of ramen made in a particular city in Japan. How cool! Di Yin seemed pleased with her bowl. I had a very good dish of thick udon noodles tossed with kimchi and sliced pork and onions and served sizzling in oil on a cast iron skillet. Delicious, especially the bits I got to last that ended up crispy from being stuck to the hot metal for so long.

Outing: West Nanjing Road (sights, plus Pho 26, Krispy Kreme)
The following Sunday evening, we took a taxi to West Nanjing Road and in particular its eponymous subway station. There, we walked part of the Wujian Road pedestrian street. It's a ritzy, snazzy, pretty street, filled with foreign eateries and high-end shops. Neon lights that change color are embedded in the sidewalk. Again, I wish I brought my camera. For dinner, Di Yin had selected Pho 26, supposedly one of the best pho places in the city. Indeed, it was good. Her pho had a rich, meaty, tasty broth, along with meat, noodles, bean sprouts, Thai basil, green onions, lemongrass, and more. It was definitely one of the best phos I've had. The broth was so flavorful (from beef fat I think) that it reminded me more of ramen than most past phos. My dish, in contrast, was merely okay: a bulky mass of vermicelli noodles drizzled with a sweet vinegar-based sauce and tossed with peanuts, roasted garlic, basil, shredded carrots, slivered cucumbers, and more, and topped with slices of a grilled pork chop, appealingly sweetened. The restaurant's space was stylish and comfortable, definitely a high-class restaurant. (Don't think cheap pho joints as in the states.)

Pho 26 apparently was established in 1926. Maybe that's why they know what they're doing in terms of pho. I only wish all those numbered pho joints in the states had so much history / know so much.

Along the street is a major British department store, Marks & Spencer. We walked around it for a while, looking at clothes and foodstuffs but mostly enjoying the Western atmosphere (quiet, no salespeople hassling, items nicely arranged, clear labels, lots of English, etc.). After M&S, we stopped by the Krispy Kreme that was to open in a few days. The first Krispy Kreme in Shanghai, in a pre-opening promotion, they were giving away boxes of donuts in exchange for names and phone numbers. I took a box. :)

The taxi home drove along Nanjing Road, said to be Shanghai's main shopping street. Having not walked down this road this trip (if ever), it's remarkable, reminding me as we passed mall after mall and brightly lit storefront after brightly lit storefront how Shanghai is a truly modern city in places.

Food Outing: Xintiandi (Pizza Marzano)
One Tuesday, I had dinner with B, my only friend in Shanghai (besides Di Yin and the people I know at work). We ate at Pizza Marzano in an expensive, renovated area (Xintiandi) where wealthy people like to eat and shop. I got a fairly good thin-crust (Neapolitan) pizza (marzano pizza: sausage and red onions) of the quality that an Italian restaurant in San Francisco might produce. I was pleased to discover I can get decent Western food in Shanghai (at Western prices: US$14 for a personal-sized pizza). I also had nice garlic cheese bread, and a beer.

It was nice seeing my friend, both to connect to a familiar face and because, as a long-time Shanghai resident, he can give me eating tips for more good restaurants of a type I wouldn't expect to find.

Outing: Xujiahui (sights, Pankoo Korean, ice cream)
One Friday, to celebrate our good health, we ventured out to dinner. We selected an instance of a chain of Korean restaurants, Pankoo, that allegedly serve the best Korean in Shanghai. The location we selected is in a mall (Grand Gateway Plaza / Ganghui Guangchang) in Xujiahui, Shanghai's most expansive shopping district, a twenty or twenty-five minute walk from our apartment. The large and modern mall has two floors devoted to restaurants, and these are good ones, not like typical American mall food courts. The food at Pankoo was decent; details are in the pictures.

After dinner we strolled through the mall, then stopped for dessert first at Cold Stone Creamery (very stretchy ice cream) (we had banana) then at Haagen-Dazs (definitely better quality) (I had cookies and cream). Interestingly, throughout Shanghai, Cold Stones and Haagen-Dazs always seem to be co-located at high-end malls.

Haagen-Dazs did the most remarkable thing when we bought a pint of ice cream to bring home. (Di Yin really likes the green tea flavor.) (Incidentally, ice cream is expensive in Shanghai; the pint was about US$12.) Well, when we bought the pint, the staff-person asked us how far away we lived and used that to decide how much ice to put in the bag with the ice cream to keep it cold on the way home.

Fifteen minutes later, I found the whole question of quantity of ice ironic. As we walked home in 0 degrees C weather (I put it that way because it sounds colder than saying freezing), I wasn't worried in the least about the ice cream melting; I was more worried about keeping feeling in my fingers.

Food Outing: Yanagiya
Another evening, we went to a Japanese restaurant near our local subway station. It was casual, had good food, and also had great service. The details are in the pictures. We felt comfortable there and liked it enough that we might meet there when I'm on my way home from work.

Food Outing: Japanese BBQ
On Christmas Eve, Di Yin and I met a friend of mine, B, and his girlfriend, K, for dinner at a Japanese barbecue joint. (The name doesn't translate; the address is 2007 West Nanjing Road.) Dinner was great fun: for a reasonable price we had all-we-can-eat meat, which we grilled ourselves over charcoal, sashimi, drinks (yes, alcohol), and more. We ate a lot of meat (various cuts of short ribs, ox tongue), broiled eel (they cooked this for us), assorted sashimi plate (arctic clam, tuna, octopus, sweet shrimp, ...), multiple plates of salmon sashimi, two plates of raw beef and egg sashimi, and many plates of very good salad. There were also a bunch of dipping sauces for the meat; we ignored them all except for the sweet ginger one for some of the meats and the soy sauce for some of the sashimi. We also had unlimited sake and, in my case, lots of very good plum wine. It was a fun evening, drinking and trading stories about Shanghai, food, and how we all met.

After dinner, Di Yin and I walked home because, at 50 degrees, it was an unusually warm evening. We had a pleasant thirty minute stroll.

Food Outing: Another Japanese BBQ, plus Charmant
On the evening of Christmas Day, Di Yin and I met up for dinner with two ex-Harvard grad students, D and S, (both in a similar field as Di Yin, now faculty members elsewhere) who happened to be in Shanghai for two weeks doing research. We ate at a restaurant (in our own private room!) (at 768 Julu) that again called itself Japanese-style barbecue, though this time turned out to also have a mix a substantial Korean influence, as exemplified by the kimchi and the rice-and-vegetable dish we had at the end of the meal. D and S are interesting people, and our dinner lasted nearly three hours without it feeling that long. For details, see the pictures.

After dinner, we took a taxi to Charmant. Though a restaurant, we were there for its extensive dessert menu, and, though the menu was lengthy, we didn't look at it much, instead simply ordering the specialty: chua bing, a Taiwanese shaved ice dessert topped with red bean, azuki beans, pineapple, grass jelly, and some kind of berry, and drizzled with condensed milk. It was good. The restaurant's located close to home (I pass a block and a half away from it on the way to the subway everyday); I may have to return for real food. (The restaurant has an extensive menu that looks good and emphasizes the quality of its ingredients and the lack of MSG.)

Food Outing: Lost Heaven Yunnanese
The following evening, the 26th, our last evening in Shanghai before our trip to Singapore, we ventured out again for dinner. We went to a Yunnanese restaurant, Lost Heaven, that I've wanted to go since doing my restaurant research for my first trip to Shanghai. Funnily (and unintentionally), it happens to be surprisingly close to our apartment. We liked the restaurant. It clearly targets westerners: it has a non-smoking section; everything on the menu is translated; even the hip music has lyrics in English. We also liked the food, and got too into the sauces/garnishes and ate too much of them, even to the point of eating them straight. This was a mistake, as they had a goodly amount of oil and we felt a little ill afterward. More details are in the pictures.

Incidentally, though the restaurant is only about three blocks from our apartment, as we walked there, I spotted a small park I'd never passed before. Too bad it's too cold to enjoy sitting in a park.

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