Shanghai Expat: November 2009 (first month)

I spent a lot of time from mid-November onwards living and working in Shanghai. This post is a summary of my impressions as of the end of November, and stories about what happened that month.

Getting around / surviving in Shanghai wasn't as difficult as I imagined it would be from my previous trip, perhaps because I spent a large fraction of the time I wasn't at home somewhere else (i.e., work) where I didn't have to work as hard to get food or talk to people. (Most of my co-workers could speak English passably well.) That said, there certainly were hardships--some of which I didn't expect a priori--that I'll describe in detail in this post.

After I'd packed up, moved out of my apartment, and obtained my visa, getting to Shanghai was a breeze. I stayed at my friend Oj's high-end high-rise place in San Francisco the night before my flight. I was one of the last people on and first person off my airport shuttle (convenient!). The plane, a direct United flight, was mostly empty; I had a row of two to myself. I loved spreading out, like it was my own personal office. But, not all was great, though. There was no on-demand television, just a limited number of channels of movies on repeat. The meals were decent but too small, the desserts had partially hydrogenated crap in them, and the mid-flight snack was a bowl of instant soup.

Di Yin met me at the airport so I could avoid the misadventures I had the last time I flew to Shanghai. I landed 30 minutes early and customs was faster than I'd predicted, so I was pretty frustrated that Di Yin arrived 50 minutes later than the time we'd planned--the time I expected to be out of customs. Nevertheless, I appreciated her picking me up, and happily traded standing around to re-experiencing the wild goose chase that occurred on my last visit.

It was 39 degrees out when I awoke the next morning, which was unseasonably cold for this time of year. The apartment was likewise cold, having the same poor insulation as (I'm told) the vast majority of apartments in the city. It turns out people in Shanghai are used to / resigned to the cold. Indeed, I gradually realized the lack of heating and the temperature serves the same role as a conversational backbone here as does traffic or the rain in some other cities.

Most Shanghainese keep their apartments heated to the lower 60s and simply wear multiple layers indoors. I guess this is a habit I'll have to learn.

I began learning it the following weekend while visiting one of Di Yin's family's friends' houses and ended up wearing my jacket for half the time. Thankfully, some Shanghainese guests did too. Others were fine and still others accepted offers of sweaters from the hosts.

Our apartment, I realized, may be colder than most. It was made by converting two one-bedrooms into a two bedroom by walling in the connecting previously-external hallway, making it into a kitchen in the process. I imagine this conversion process yields rooms with even worse insulation than typical Shanghai building standards.

Work, incidentally, is a comfortable temperature.

The apartment, besides having a poor layout (many small rooms, which I'm told is a common design in Shanghai) and poor insulation, had another issue: the sliding door to the bathroom sticks, and one day I got stuck in the bathroom! I put a lot of muscle into opening the door to no avail (though I didn't put my full weight into it for fear of breaking the door). Eventually we called the landlord--a friend of Di Yin's family--who came and opened it. A few days later he returned to fix it. The fix helped a little, but over the next months we learned how to slide the oft-sticking door gently. We also got in the habit of leaving it slightly open (open enough to stick a hand between the door and the frame) to make it easier to shove when it gets stuck.

More about the apartment: I liked the apartment's powerful gas stove (which I imagine is typical for China), but disliked the bed -- it was merely a set of planks. (Yes, it lacked a mattress!) We piled three thick blankets on top of it to make it softer, but it certainly remained a obvious plank with soft items piled on. I'm amazed the landlords--the people who lived here before us--liked it that way (actually, without the blankets on top). Overall, the apartment as a whole wasn't entirely horrid (though I may look for a new place), and the location was pretty decent.

Returning to the subject of weather, the week following my arrival, however, was much warmer, with days as comfortable as the best of those I experienced in New York in October (with the exception of thicker air in Shanghai).

In general Shanghai seemed less polluted than during my previous visit, though I think this observation is partially because we're living in what I observed from my last visit to be the least polluted part of town. (I love that my neighborhood--the former French Concession--has trees lining most roads, unlike mostly everywhere else in Shanghai.) In fact, the pollution sensor readings posted on the web say that the pollution is substantially worse during the winter than the summer. Nevertheless, the colder it was, the less polluted it felt (even if the real pollution levels were actually higher). I guess I found the pollution levels easier to accommodate this trip because of my neighborhood and because it simply wasn't as hot.

As for work, my company's office is centrally located downtown by People's Square. Located on the 16th floor, it has good (though hazy) views of the city, including looking down on the Shanghai Museum. A small office (130 people), it occupies only the one floor, and the office provides only lunch, no other meals. The food, which is always Chinese, is fine / acceptable.

Soon after arriving, I meet two other friendly expatriates at the office. They gave me good advice and I'm sad that they both returned to the states within two weeks of my arrival, having completed their one-/two-year stints in this office.

Outings for Food (and sights along the way) (in chronological order)
Most days I either ate breakfast at home (bread) or on the way to work (steamed buns filled with vegetables or meat), lunch at work, and dinner at home. As for the days we went out to eat or explore, here are some reports.

I took only a few pictures in November, but here they are.

One evening Di Yin and I grabbed dinner at a top-notch sheng jian bao shop (fried, somewhat bready soupy dumplings that I'm a big fan of but also rather particular about) on Yunnan Middle Road, a mere 1.5 blocks from work.

After dinner, we walked by People's Square park. I really liked the way the green-tinted lights lit up the trees -- it made it look otherworldly, like a fairyland.

The night was clear. We walked the most of the circumference of People's Square, enjoying the crispness and vividness of the skyscraper's lights and their electronic ads. We took the bus home, thus approaching our apartment from a different direction and letting me see another part of our neighborhood.

My first Saturday, we had a grand lunch at a showroom-like apartment of Di Yin's family's friends: high ceilings, huge TV, marble floors in the bathrooms, walk-in closets, custom-made couches, etc. The lunch was pretty expansive too, featuring more than ten dishes (mostly home-made), including small crabs with some hair on their largest pair of claws (so called ”hairy crabs”).

The following day we had a respectable brunch at one of the many wonton places on Urumqi Road, one of the main shopping streets near our apartment.

Later that day, we explored the dense shopping area near Jing'an Temple. The area is like central Manhattan. We’d end up visiting it often over the following months. Comparatively, the place we're staying is like the upper west side (a lower density of people and shops, though similarly wealthy). In contrast, the area we stayed in the summer was more like Queens.

Near Jing’an Temple, in a stall on the shopping alley near the Fresh Mart (a high-end, fairly comprehensive supermarket), I bought a variety of small Chinese sweets to use as post-dinner desserts the following weeks.

One evening we returned to the Hunanese restaurant Di Shui Dong that we tried and liked during the summer. We attempted to order the delicious eels we had last time, but this time we ended with a whole eel braised in oil and laid out in a spiral, head and neck still attached. The eel was perhaps 18 inches long, divided into inch-wide segments all connected by a knobby series of bones. It was decent but not as good as the previous version. Next time we'll order the right one, and also reserve ahead of time to get the less-smoking room. We also had quite good eggplant topped with ground pork.

After dinner, while attempting to find a bus stop, we ended up walking down a large segment of Changle Road -- it seemed packed with high-end fashion boutiques, a street much like one would find in tribeca in NYC. We actually ended up walking most of the way to People's Square and spotted nice skyscrapers and the elevated highway, all lit impressively at night. The view looked more modern, indeed more futuristic, than views in, say, San Francisco.

One day, working from home in the afternoon, I ate lunch at one of the restaurants on Urumqi Road: Bo Do One - Hong-Kong Style Chinese Cuisine. There was a good chicken soup and a claypot dish. The claypot included rice and was topped with both bok choy and with pork pounded with preserved vegetables that were cooked into a stewy mass that, while connected, was easily separable by chopsticks. It was decent, and I liked the look of the menu enough to want to return, especially for a dish I saw delivered to another table. Di Yin asked what it was: quick-fried pork with cucumbers in XO sauce.

On Thanksgiving, incidentally, we had fowl (takeout goose and duck) and a variety of non-thanksgiving-y things. I did happen to notice (without looking) that a local fancy American (actually American South) restaurant had a thanksgiving spread, but at $65 USD per head it was too rich for my blood.

My second Saturday in town, we explored the area near our apartment in the opposite direction from Jing'an Temple. We found a large conflux of restaurants near the intersection of Yuqing Road and Guangyuan Road and tried one of them for lunch. We had a typical Shanghainese meal: xiao long bao, pure, warm river shrimp (the essence of shrimp), and sauteed pea sprouts. As it turned out, the restaurant's menu ranges widely, and many people online seem to like the fried whole spicy fish.

A block away, we looked through a supermarket, GMS, where I acquired organic beans, pesticide-free produce, and other ingredients I needed to make dinner that night. I also got some chewy rice cakes I'd never seen before and a zong zi, both for eventual use later. The first floor of the supermarket seemed to be filled mostly with nearly identical sweet shops. I wonder how that works. Are they all affiliated with the supermarket or simply renting? Incidentally, on the way home, we stopped by a green/wet market (lots of individual produce, seafood, and meat vendors under one roof) for Di Yin to grab the last few items I and she needed.

Sunday evening, we walked the thirty (or was it forty-five) minutes to the neon Jing'an Temple area for dinner at How Way Restaurant, a place that gets rave reviews on the Chinese equivalent of yelp. It was fairly good, comparable to other Shanghai restaurants we've selected. Perhaps the restaurant's most remarkable feature was its lack of smoke (good ventilation maybe). Of all the food outings I described, this is the only one I took pictures of (linked below). Details on the meal are in the picture captions.

Other Stories
At the end of November, I noticed workers cutting the leaves and small branches off the trees lining the street in our neighborhood. Di Yin tells me she heard that these trees aren't native to Shanghai and such trimming helps them survive the winter.

One evening we ventured out to buy a heater. Though the big box store we targeted had been relocated, the trip wasn't entirely without value -- we spotted a plaza (on Longwu Road) packed with sculptures. It was perhaps one of the most unusual or surreal sights I've found in Shanghai. I think it was the front grounds of a sculpture warehouse shop. Regardless, it would make a good site for a Game clue.

I noticed the most common two-wheeled vehicles on the street are electric bicycles and mopeds. (Contrast this with diesel motorbikes in India.) Rider-powered bikes and motorcycles are less common.

Chinese people can be very direct. (Note: although I say this, this is from second-hand stories. It's not something I recall experiencing directly.) For instance, when shopping for clothes, Di Yin was once told (in Chinese) that her shoulders were freakishly wide. Also, another friend (who is also very thin), when trying on a jacket that made her look fat (her description), said deprecatingly (something like) "Oh, maybe I may have putting on a little weight" to which the person helping her replied "Yes, you have." As a third example, at our local grocery store, Di Yin frequently gets told which items are good today and which items are not. (e.g., "the green beans and the broad beans are good today, but the long beans are not.") Neither I nor she ever gets such tips at grocery stores in the U.S.

As expected, some cultural differences can be frustrating such as the people who push ahead of you line or the tea that you get charged for that sometimes gets delivered unprompted at meals. However, the most egregious examples are often so preposterous they're funny:

One day after dinner we couldn't find the bus stop for the bus that would take us home nor did we want to make the trek to the subway. Instead, we took a taxi. The taxi driver dropped us off two blocks from our apartment with the remark, you're close; you can walk the rest of the way. Until this actually occurred, I couldn't imagine it happening anywhere in the world.

Another day we went to the local police station to register our presence as foreigners in the apartment we were renting. There, Di Yin and the clerk had the following conversation:

Do you have copies of your passports?
I was told that on Mondays through Thursdays that we don't need copies of our passports.
But it's noon.
[Actually, it was 1pm.]
[Also, the clerk may have said, "But it's lunchtime," rather than "But it's noon," but the sentiment is the same and exchange no more or less funny either way.]
I guess the clerk’s not supposed to use the photocopier during lunchtime or on Fridays? (She made an exception in our case.)