Monday, August 30, 2010

Market Places

I found my new happy place, and it's just up the street. The year 3 group leader told me about the flower market off Jinhui Lu (just up the street) last week, and after a couple of failed attempts I finally made it tonight. It's at the side of one of the canals, down a picturesque little walk that is deceptive if you don't know what you're looking for. Fortunately, I DID know what I was looking for.

For more than a week now I've been mourning the fact that if Shanghai has the equivalent of Seoul's Express Bus Terminal, I haven't heard about it. Well, now I don't miss it nearly as much. The flower market is pretty big, and has lots of everything...plants, of both the potted and cut variety, ceramics, pillows, handicrafts, and animals - for pets, not to eat. I was looking forward to the animals, because I wanted to get some goldfish (actually, I didn't get them tonight because I bought a huge bowl to put them in after buying a pot of jasmine, and there was just no more room in my bike basket...hell, there wasn't enough room for the two things I'd already bought), but at least a few of the stalls had other animals. One of them even had THE quintessential Asian pet...crickets! Yes, you heard me right, crickets...some of them in woven grass cages, others in the more fancy cricket cages. And they were chirping for all they were worth! And these were big fat crickets, not the little guys we are used to seeing in America. Kinda crazy.

So what is the point of all this shopping? I have, for the first time in my life, a window seat. It's posh. I want to dress it up. I bought some candles when we went to Ikea last Sunday, and am going to go back for some pillows. How cool will it be to have a cozy nook to cuddle up in and watch the snow when winter hits?

The other market I've been missing from Seoul is, of course, Dongdaemun's fabric market. Not for the fabric (however great) but for the beads and findings on the fifth floor. Well, I don't think Hongqiao Pearl City will ever replace Dongdaemun in my heart (not least because I haven't been there with Azhaar and Jill), but it DID have some pretty cool beads, a string of which I snatched up to go on the new belly dance cossie I'm working on. I need to do a more thorough investigation of it one of these days, but at least I'm starting to figure out where I can get the things I'm going to use. Starting to feel a little more competent in Shanghai. And - I've got to admit it's still strange, because I've never been much of one for lots of different groups of friends, but rather than a few very close ones - but I've got all these friends from all these different schools, and I've gotta say, I'm really grateful for them.

One more day til school officially starts. I'm SO not ready.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Better City, Better Life

This is the motto for the 2010 World Expo here in Shanghai, and while I haven't been to the expo (yet), I've got to say that I already agree. The last few days have been orientation for the school and the PYP, not the most exciting stuff but necessary. You can't expect to be paid for living a fab life in a foreign country without doing some work. But - as our new principal pointed out - work hard, play hard...and I don't think that's going to be hard here.

Don't get me wrong. Hongqiao is not the most exciting place in the world to live, but on the other hand, it's not without its charms...and I'm not talking about the Korean sauna a block away from my school. We've got the zoo, for one, and a charming little town called Qibao not too far away. But more to the point, it is IN Shanghai. We can go out on the weekend and the taxi's only going to cost four bucks either way. I took the subway clear across town to church on Sunday, and it was less than a dollar. It's a proper city. I love it.

And if Hongqiao isn't in the thick of it, so what? Last night (a week after landing) I decided to go to Carrefour and buy my bike. I've been thinking about getting one since arriving and finally caved after seeing two of my new colleagues pedal off from school on theirs yesterday. It cost me just a little more than a hundred dollars - it's black, an Athena, made by Giant. Yes, for those of you who know my love for Greek mythology, the name was one of the reasons I chose the bike I did...I was actually planning to buy the red Giant next to it until I realized that it was called Athena. Now, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, which may prove ironic since riding a bike in China can be a bit dicey, but I guess we'll see. I've never been one to wear a helmet and if I start now I'll get laughed off the road by the Chinese.

Okay, so back to the experience of buying my bike...when I got this impulse (shortly after receiving my reimbursement for my plane ticket, strangely enough) to drop a thousand kuai on an ongoing near-death experience (joking!), it was not, actually raining. By the time the taxi got to the Carrefour in Gubei, big fat drops of rain were falling. Hard. I sat down at Macca's and tried to wait it out with Jason Bourne (courtesy of my friend, the GlamWhore) while snarfing down fries and a coke (I've learned my lesson when it comes to the chicken sandwiches). It seemed to get lighter, finally, so I went up and picked out my bike and a bunch of accessories...helmets I may not do, but I'm not totally stupid: I got a basket, a light, and two locks, because I figured if I was the kind who steals bikes I'd go for the posh one with the gear shift and everything....which the very helpful sales clerk who spoke some English installed for me while I went upstairs to exchange my receipt for a fa piao invoice. Then, after I'd stalled as long as possible, I left Carrefour and rode out. Into a downpour. As it turns out, it is a LOT faster to cycle between Gubei and Hongqiao, but those raindrops are a lot more annoying when you're hitting them at 20 mph. And although you'd think once you were thoroughly drenched (after about 5 minutes, the way it was coming down) that it wouldn't matter if you got WETTER, trust me when I say that you still feel it. Not that it bothered me...I was having the time of my life. But I preferred it tonight when I didn't have to peel off my clothes and find a place for them to start dripping dry when I got back to the hotel. And it was my ride tonight when I came across the expo signs that proudly proclaimed, "Better City, Better Life." Hell, yeah, it is.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The comfort of Korea, the excitement of Shanghai

It is the end of day four in Shanghai. I like it, but it's bloody hot...I was rolling my eyes at Socrates for moaning about the heat, because, c'mon, we've lived in the Emirates. Then I walked outside yesterday.

Oh. My. Heck.

I will not deny the fact that in the past I may have criticized military and government expats for the fact that they basically live an American lifestyle in a foreign country, so they don't really get to experience the culture in quite the same way. Well, I've become one of those people, except because I'm abnormal, I'm living a Korean lifestyle and not an American one like I ought to be. Since getting off the plane on Tuesday I've eaten Korean food three times, been to the jjimjjilbang, and then, there's the little matter of my apartment hunt.

For the first time in my expat life, I have to find my own apartment, which is a pain in the ass when you're jetlagged and don't speak the language. The school gives me a RMB 3000/mo stipend to pay for this, which is not in any way, shape, or form, feasible. A nearby school gives them the choice of school housing, and if they decline, gives them RMB 6000/mo. So this has been the first hassle of my adventures in China, especially because I've been a little wishy-washy about what I want. One bedroom? Two? How much extra will I go over the stipend? Where do I want it? As we say in Korea (when we want to start a fight...): AISHSHIP'PAL!!!

Well, one thing I DID know that I wanted, although I'd been told was not to be had, was ondol. If you've never had the pleasure of Korean-style radiant floor heat, you're missing out. Nothing compares to waking up on a cold morning and stepping onto a nice, warm floor. Nothing compares to coming home chilled to the bone and sitting your buns down on a toasty floor. And since there were SO many Korean businesses around, I made a leap of logic and hoped against hope that there must be SOME apartments nearby with ondol (the Korean style of heating in which hot water is pumped through the floors). When I asked the realtor, it turns out I was right. But here's the catch: they're expensive. Still, I couldn't help asking to see one, even though it broke my heart when I did. Because the apartment she showed me was lovely - 2 balconies, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms...way more space than I needed, but a lovely place with a view straight into the heart of SUIS. I wanted it. I couldn't afford it. There were other thoughts running through my head, but basically I couldn't afford it, and I really thought I'd rather live on Hongmei Road, where there's a little more action.

So I saw a few more places...cheaper ones relatively close to the school...and went home to clean up before going out to meet Roisin. She and I both worked for GDA in our previous lives, but not at the same time, and I was excited to finally meet this enigma that both friends and favorite students were both so fond of. I am glad to say I was not disappointed....she's good craic and really knowledgeable and helpful, and it was fun to relive old times. She also made me rethink this whole apartment thing. She was amazed that I'd found an apartment with ondol and urged me to find a way to afford it, because those nice warm floors would be SO worth it.

And there was one.

I just didn't want to use it, because it involved me getting a roommate. Roommates can be wonderful things. I LOVED living with Sara, and there are a few people that I can say it was a pleasure sharing space with. There were also quite a few that made my life hell. But the moral of the story is I just didn't want to, for reasons that, upon reflection in the taxi coming home, didn't hold water. Also upon reflection, I would get to live a lot more comfortably, and would probably be in a better mental state. Plus there is a really sweet British girl who has been desperately trying to find someone to share an apartment with, and this apartment gave me the chance to do a good turn for her while getting something I wanted. I didn't even need to go home and pray about it (although I kind of wanted to, just to stall the inevitable)...I knew this was the right thing to do. So I texted Gemma in the cab coming home and asked her if she was still looking for a roommate. And thus it looks like I'm going to be living next to the school sharing a fabulous apartment with a nice person next year.

Life could be worse.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Defying Gravity: Reprise

It's been almost a year since I began this blog, and I found myself, in the last week, right back where it began, madly shopping, trying to get everything packed and cleaned before heading out. It was a strange month home...I worked, and worked out. I ate very little junk food until right at the end (which didn't really help me lose any weight, but whatever) and made it 30 days without pop. I went to the Duncan family reunion, hiked up Deer Leap Trail, went to the Henry Doorly Zoo for the first time in Ages...

...Three thoughts from that here:
1. The cave exhibit in their "Kingdoms of the Night" makes me want to go spelunking.
2. The swamp part of it makes me want to go down to Bon Temps and do Bad Things to you.
3. I've finally figured out how to explain my lifestyle. If you've ever wondered what it's like, buying a ticket and landing in a strange land, relying on your wits and the kindness of strangers to get by, basically think about being in a zoo...then take away all the cages and - in the case of the HDZ - the air conditioning, in other words, the safety and the comfort, and it's kind of like that.

Anyways, I made it through my version of exile (pretty posh exile, surrounded by family and free housing, I admit), and made it to Shanghai. I'm writing this in the hotel room my school has kindly provided me with for the next two weeks (in which time I can hopefully find an apartment), after being out to dinner with Socrates and Shermeen. It's been a long day, and I didn't nap, but I will probably wake up at 3 again, anyways. Jet lag's like that, even for a professional bonne vivante of my caliber. I hate to be hasty, and tell you that life is swell, because honestly, I've been in the country for less than 36 hours, but here's the deal - I'm working in a school wedged into a bunch of Korean businesses in a city with fantastic public transportation and - for once - I actually KNOW people (plural, even!!!) here, so, really, life could be much, MUCH worse. And that's not my typical brand of cheerful pessimism, my friends: what you are experiencing is the rare Great One careful optimism. Crazy, I know.