Thursday, July 19, 2007


What a difference a day makes.

In my case, a lot of days, but the concept is the same. When I found out, about this time last year, that I would be going to China, I was full of excitement, nervous anticipation, a little fear and a lot of gratitude. After years of feeling like my life was not going the way I had envisioned (good job, steadily decreasing debt, apartment, car, committed relationship, 401(k), substantial savings and all that), the letter from the Chinese government was a breath of fresh air. I felt like finally, something was actually working out. And so I was elated. I had been saying I was going to go to China for over a decade, and more recently when I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, I had begun to say with increasing frequency that I was "just going to pick up and move to China." Well, issues of escapism aside, that is basically what I did. As a result of the timing, I had about 5 weeks to get everything together and get on a plane. I picked up and moved to China.

I scoured the internet for scarce resources. Took history books and academic texts out from the library. Lacking in funds, I went to Barnes & Noble and Borders and read every China travel guide I could find. I was often disappointed by what I discovered, as most resources online and in travel guides were clearly geared towards a) backpackers or b)upper-class whites (race was evident by the consistent references to "pale" or "white" skin and "blond" or "light" hair). Despite my best efforts, I left for Shanghai with a list of tourists sites and little preparation.

Upon my arrival, I discovered that although I do not traditionally suffer from "culture-shock", as I am not only the product of many cultures but also fairly well-traveled, decently educated and do not expect the rest of the world to be like "home", adjusting to life in China was not going to be easy. Non-white Americans are apparently a rarity, and I often felt out of place. Although the African community at TongJi readily embraced me, I never ceased to be "the American". I was not as easily embraced by the American community, although this most likely has more to do with American individualism than anything else. Many of my blog entries speak to the difficulties I encountered, and so I do not need to repeat them ad nauseam. There were many things I had to adjust to, and living a dorm room, being surrounded by 17-20 year olds, constantly being stared and pointed at, and feeling isolated definitely did not help. However, there were many wonderful things that kept me going. I made a few good friends, I was one of the best students in my class, and despite the rough patches, I actually enjoyed Shanghai.

And, as you all know, I have decided to extend my stay here. I have learned many things during the past ten months, and I want to reap in joy that which I have sown in tears. My life in Shanghai is going well, and I will have here some of those things which have been so elusive for the past few years (except the 401(k) and the car). I have a grasp of the language, a growing community, and I genuinely like this city. Living in China, I think, will also have long-term advantages, enhancing and enriching my post-Shanghai life. My being here also gives many of you the excuse, if you need one, to visit China - and maybe stop by Japan, Korea, and Thailand.

I know that life, anywhere, is not without its difficulties, but now I can anticipate and eliminate or lessen the common difficulties of life here.
China's pollution is a problem, maybe I'll get one of the those air filters my grandmother has in her house. I have stockpiled hot chocolate and Great Grains, and I know a few people that will mail me "comforts of home" if I find myself in need. In order to alleviate one of the most annoying things I have encountered here, I am going to get a few message Tee's printed - "美国人" (American), "BROWN", "咖啡色" (literally, the color of coffee) and "Naturally Curly". Maybe I should get one that says "黑美国人" (Black American).

This brown-skinned multi-ethnic American woman with her naturally curly hair, basic Chinese skills, and student loans to pay off is signing up for another year in the land of dragons and tigers. So, get your vacation time and your bank accounts ready, 'cause I'm getting my apartment with guests in mind!

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Pace of Change

As I walk around this city, I am often struck by the contrasts that I see. Old and new. Rich and poor. Classic European and traditional Chinese. Cutting-edge technology and centuries old tradition. Sometimes these things appear to work out a harmonious dance, and other times it is all elbows and knees jutting out at weird angles. Perhaps the most striking to me, right now, is the contrast in housing. Many of the old housing is being torn down, even as people are living there, to make way for high-rise apartment buildings, malls, offices, and occasionally "updated" versions of the "traditional housing". In the future there will be more photos, in order to add visual context to many of the things that I write about. But for now, I just want to share what I saw today. No captions, hopefully the images speak for themselves.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Friday, July 13, 2007

And the search continues....

As you might know, I have been on a search to find an apartment before I leave (soon reach, almost there). As such, I have seen quite a few apartments that do not appeal to me. I have a pretty good idea of what I want, and I have expressed that to my real estate agents. Two bedrooms (three is okay if the price is right), two "rooms" (in China, one living room, one dining room, is two rooms) and two bathrooms. So, in an ad my ideal apt looks like this 2/2/2 新的,有电梯,4500元。

For those of that don't understand, my ideal apartment is new (as in they have recently redone the apartment, not the building is new), has an elevator (because I want to be on a higher floor) and costs that amount or less per month. There are also a few other specifications. A nice, clean, larger kitchen is important. The kitchens here are often tiny, and so when I say larger, I mean with enough counter space to chop vegetables, season meat, you know...cook. Something bigger than my bathroom. Most of the kitchens have sliding doors between the kitchen and the dining room, so with the doors open one doesn't feel claustrophobic. And of course, I want a nice building, which is also usually on the advertisement.

There is an apartment complex within walking distance of my job, where about half of the teachers live. It fills all of my specifications. The apartments are generally spacious, it has about 15 floors, and I like the location. Oh, and the other thing I like is that the apartments are north-south, with the comparatively large balconies facing south. I love would like a larger balcony, because then I can use it to do more than dry my clothes, and facing south helps with the drying of clothes aspect, but also makes it a nice place to sit, and helps a lot in the winter (sliding glass doors, sun exposure).

So, with all of that said, my agent was having a hard time finding an apartment that I liked. We looked at a few, but nothing that worked for me. One bathroom, too small, too expensive, kitchen needs to be redone, etc. Finally, yesterday she told me that she found an apartment in the above mentioned complex. I was a little excited, because I thought that unless the actual apartment was just horrible, my search was over.

Unfortunately, my agent was having a hard time getting the landlord to tell her a time when we could come and see the apartment. I was out, and didn't want to go home, because it would have been a waste of time if I was going to look at the apartment. So, I ended up standing in the metro station because it was pouring outside, calling the agent trying to pin down a time. Finally, my agent told me that I wouldn't be able to look at the apartment. Oh no! Why, you ask. Well, the landlord doesn't want to rent to black people. S/he prefers a Chinese or Taiwanese, maybe other Asian, but she definitely does not want tenants with dark skin. That is a quote.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Apartment Hunting

In the days between the end of finals and the beginning of my official vacation (read: when I actually get on an airplane), I am taking some time to get things sorted out for my return. One of the most important things on my agenda is finding an apartment.

At my job, there is a person that is supposed to help us find apartments. I was warned that he is lazy, and the warnings pale in comparison to what has actually occurred thus far. In short, it took him over two weeks to even begin "looking" (read: call his contacts and ask if they have anything). And this was after I called him on a regular basis. The school year is over, and so 75% of his job is on vacation until the next school year. I am working on a limited time line, and so I had to start looking myself.

Armed with my basic Chinese skills, and a friend who speaks a little more Chinese, we walked around the neighborhood and looked for real estate offices. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I did not have any addresses, we were just walking until we saw one. It worked out well, as Real Estate offices are everywhere in Shanghai, and we found a few. The second one we found was the most promising, mostly because we were hot and tired, and the told us to come in and sit down, and offered us cold water.

It is a typical rinky-dink office, with two employees. They didn't have much to offer, but they called the other offices in the area and told them they were helping their "foreigner friends" find an apartment. Not true, but once they don't expect me to pay two real estate agents, I don't particularly care. Now, I know that once they (the other agents, the landlords) hear "foreigner" the price goes up, but my agents could as well say it up front because once they (the landlords) see me the price will go up anyway. Sometimes, they did ask the price before they told the other agents it was for their foreign friends, and so the price didn't change - the offerings did. This is not problematic, because I want a "nice" apartment, the ones that foreigners and well-to-do Chinese live in, and now that I understand the culture a bit more, I am not as easily bothered. So, after a lot of phone calls, three glasses of water, over two hours, and my willingness to sit diminished, they found places we could look at right away.

We went outside, and the boss (she told us to call her Manager Wang) proceeded to hail a taxi. Right now, I am working on a TIGHT budget, and that budget does not include taxi rides. They are cheap, but the bus and train are cheaper, and my legs function just fine. So, I told her we could walk if it wasn't far. After some discussion, she told us that there was a bike we could ride at the office. And so my friend (who is male) rode the bike, I sat on the back, and Manager Wang gets on the back of a motorcycle with a guy that was in and out of the office while we were there. Motorcycle, bicycle. Motorcycle, bicycle. Right. I felt so bad for my friend, as riding a bike with an extra 130-150 lbs on the back is no easy feat. And the place was not far, but it definitely was not close, there was some rugged terrain, a few hills (I got off and walked up the hills), and it was still blisteringly hot. In case you're wondering, sitting on the back of a bike is not as easy as one might think. You can't shift or move and it isn't comfortable - not even with my natural cushioning. I was joking that I was going to have welts and impressions from the bike frame across by butt.

After looking at the apartment, we asked where the metro station was. Much to Manager Wang's dismay, we told her that we were not going to ride the bike back to her office, being as we could walk to the station. She tried to convince us to ride back to the office, but we were adamant. In the end, she decided that we could ride to the station, so that she could show us the way. We rode - well, I balanced, my friend rode - to the metro station, and then gave a very unhappy Manager Wang back her bike. Every time we looked at apartments after that she met us at the train station in a taxi, which she paid for - I guess she didn't enjoy her ride back home. As for my future residence, the hunt is still on.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


I am "officially" on vacation. Exams are over. Work is on vacation (I am a teacher). And me, I am chillin' out maxin' relaxin all coolin'...
Well, actually, I am buying airline tickets, trying to get my passport back from Immigration or the third-party agency my job uses to get visas, apartment hunting and packing, and sorting out one years worth of my life. In addition, I am sleeping more than I should be, not working out nearly as often as I need to and eating less than I want to. Summer has arrived in Shanghai, and I am finally able to enjoy it. Except, well, I'm not actually enjoying it. I'm busy, and ready to travel - ready for my true vacation to begin, as this is more like a preparation stage.