Monday, April 23, 2007

New rich

Today I was walking along the street and I heard drums behind me. A large group of people were marching along the sidewalk, banging large drums. They wore vests with flower patterns, red sashes around their waists, and they twirled red and green flags. There were thirty or forty of them. I thought it must be some Chinese festival I hadn't heard of. Or, I thought, it might be a wedding. I knew that Chinese weddings were loud and colorful; beyond that, I didn't know much about them. Most of the people in the parade were young: were they the bride and groom's friends?

The parade came closer to me, and I stopped to watch it. Ahead of it, three or four people were handing out flyers. I took one. On it were pictures of wine bottles and a big building. It was an advertisement for a restaurant.

In the US, gimmicks are easy to spot, but in China, they often become spectacles. Partly this is due to the abundance of cheap labor: if you want a parade of forty people marching down a busy sidewalk waving flags, you can make one yourself. But it’s also due to the business mentality that has taken hold of China's urban areas--the frenzy to become part of the new rich.

Signs of this frenzy are everywhere. There's a building going up nearby, and judging from the signs outside, it will be called B&W. At first I assumed the initials were two people's surnames--Bing & Wang, or Bu & Wu, or something like that. Then I saw the caption: B&W stood for Boss & Winner. I suppose the implication is that if you live or work in that building, you'll not only be a boss, but you'll be a winner, too.

On the cover of my notebook, which I bought for about 20 cents and which consists of about 50 pages held together by a cheap plastic spiral, it says: "Gambol notebooks, made with future technology, for tomorrow's most outstanding achievers." I'm certainly glad I bought one!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lanzhou lamian

For lunch the other day I went to a local lamian restaurant. Lamian literally means "pulled noodles," and it involves yanking and stretching and pounding great slabs of dough and then boiling them into long, long noodles. They're typically eaten in a bowl of broth with meat, green onions, or other small vegetables. The food originates from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, in the northwest, and is associated with a large ethnic group in the area, the Hui, who tend to be Muslim. Even if you don't know the characters for Lanzhou lamian, you can usually tell a lamian restaurant. They tend to be hole-in-the-wall places. The women who work there wear scarves and the men wear little round white caps. The spicy sauce found in lamian restaurants is the best spicy sauce I have ever tasted.

I struck up a conversation with the workers. They wanted to know if their kind of restaurant could do well in the US. "How much would that sell for in America?" a waitress asked me, pointing at my bowl. She was 21 years old and wore a beautiful scarf with pictures of flowers on it. I looked at the bowl of noodles. It had cost me 4 RMB, about 50 cents.

"This would probably cost between 30 and 40 RMB in a big city," I said. They smiled at each other in mild amazement.

"How much would it cost to rent a place to have the restaurant each month?" the waitress asked.

"I really don't know," I said.

She thought for a moment. "What do lamian restaurants look like in America?"

I said that most Americans haven't heard of Lanzhou or lamian, but there are many Chinese noodle restaurants in America. "Most people just call them Chinese noodles," I said.

"Do they look like this?" she asked, gesturing at her own restaurant.

I didn't really how to respond: I didn't want to say that they tended to be cleaner and more comfortable, so I just said, "they resemble McDonald's."

One of the waiters put a VCD into the TV hanging above our heads. What looked like a club scene started to play.

"That's in Lhasa," he said, dancing along to the techno music. "In Tibet."

"Have you been there?" I asked.

"Yes." Tibet is relatively close to Gansu province.

"Why did you come to Shanghai?" I asked. "Why did you leave Lanzhou?"

The waitress smiled. "Money," she said, shrugging. "We needed money."

A friend of mine who works in Shanghai once said, "Shanghai is a good place for making money. I don't think it's really a great place to live."

Many migrant workers have this attitude. An American journalist recently commented that in Shenzhen, China's recent boomtown in Guangdong, everyone is so focused on making money that there is no time for friendships, or relaxation, or love; hence in Shenzhen there are many "lonely heart hotlines," where people who need someone to talk to can call. Shenzhen is a city of migrant workers. The average age is about 29, and everyone there automatically speaks Mandarin to each other, China's common language, even though the city is in the heart of Guangdong, where people speak Cantonese. Shanghai is a much older city, with an entrenched Shanghainese population, but for migrants it can still be a lonely place. For all the talk in China about a unified, homogeneous Chinese culture, a migrant worker in a city like Shanghai can still feel very much like a foreigner.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Things to miss

Five things I miss from North America

1. Movies in theaters. In China, there's a quota of how many foreign movies theaters can show each year. Because the quota is so low -- around 10 or 15 -- distributors tend to opt for sure-hit blockbusters that are often very boring. I would love to watch more Chinese movies, but my Chinese isn't good enough to really understand them without subtitles, which of course they don't have.

2. American Chinese food. I love Chinese food, and I love American Chinese food, and those two things are not the same. Oh, how I miss expertly made General Tso's Chicken, crispy on the outside with tender chicken on the inside! Can't find that here.

3. Orderly lines. Here's a thought: when we're waiting at the bus station, and the bus pulls up, let's not all push and shove to try to get on first. And when someone hails a taxi, how about we don't dart in front of that person and jump in the cab? The Beijing government, by the way, has been putting up signs urging people to queue and not to spit, in preparation of the big influx of foreigners during the 2008 Olympics. In Beijing, the 11th day of each month is "Queuing Day," on which people are especially urged to queue. Apparently, that number was chosen because it resembles two people standing side by side.

4. Cottage cheese. Perhaps influenced by my mother, who had the same frustration while living in Turkey, cottage cheese is one of my most-missed Western foods. It's difficult to find any real cheese in supermarkets, but cottage cheese has, so far, been nonexistent.

5. Non-smoking areas. That includes bathrooms and markets. Enough said.

Five things I'm sure I'll miss from China

1.Cheap DVDs. The abundance of cheap DVDs easily belies the paucity of movies in theaters. That said, if you're looking for something specific and rare, you might be out of luck. But thumbing through hundreds of DVDs, each for less than $1, is one of my favorite shopping pastimes.

2. Being treated like a celebrity just for knowing a little bit of Chinese. What can I say, I hunger for the spotlight.

[2.5. Being treated like a celebrity just for being a foreigner. Not true so much in Shanghai, but very true in other places.]

3. Cheap beer. Get a big bottle of Qingdao beer for 50 cents; can't be beat.

4. Mahjong players. Outside my apartment window, elderly Shanghainese people congregate on nice days to play mahjong. It looks fun and complicated.

5. Parks. In Chinese parks, there's a sense of community that comes with a wonderful lack of self-consciousness. In the mornings old people do taiji or other exercises, and in the afternoon or evening there are numerous kinds of activities -- dance classes, aerobics classes, card games or chess games or mahjong or other kinds of games with huge audiences, fencing, people practicing martial arts, women holding up signs and trying to find a husband or wife for their children, etc.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


The definition of an expatriate is, "One who has taken up residence in a foreign country." But then what are immigrants? Being in Shanghai, it seems strange to think of, say, a poor Mexican who has settled down in the US an expatriate. A more accurate definition of an expatriate might therefore be, "One who has taken up residence in a foreign country, but not permanently." But then what are sojourners? Can Chinese laborers who worked in France, America, or South Africa, but who were not welcome to settle down in those places, be called expatriates? Perhaps a more realistic definition would be, "One who has temporarily taken up residence in a foreign country in which the average per capita income is less than the average per capita income of the person's home country." That certainly more closely matches the status of expats in Shanghai. After all, the Web site, which lists corporate job fairs, expat gatherings at expensive bars, and where to find good hamburgers, is certainly not aimed at Shanghai's non-Western foreigners, such as Filipino women who come here to work as maids.

The word "expatriate" originally meant "one who was banished or exiled"; its modern usage emerged in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the nation-state system. It is interesting that it has now attained upper-class overtones of wealth. The strange labels under which foreigners must live -- "immigrant," "sojourner," "refugee," "expat" -- signify difference from the citizenry of the nation-state. But there is, of course, not just one kind of foreigner. Like citizens, foreigners are also classed, if not legally, then practically.

That's in the real world. The denizens of the bureaucratic realm are quite happy to give expats the greatest hassle possible under the law.

The Chinese government insists on keeping tabs on all foreigners living or traveling in China. Wherever you're staying, whether it's a hotel, a hostel, or a friend's apartment, you must register at the local police station. If you're at a hotel, the hotel will do it for you, but if not, you have to trudge over to the local police station and show them your passport and your visa. You can get away with not registering, but if you want to extend your visa (as I had to do this morning), you need a special registration paper from the police station that proves you registered. And, if you happened to put off registering because you didn't think it was a big deal, you have to pay a fine of 300 RMB ($38), as well as wait for an hour or so while various police officers chat, smoke, discuss an excel document they happen to be working on, ask for photocopies of things you didn't bring, ask to see the lease of the apartment you're staying in, ask for the contact information of your host, ask for the contact information of the landlord of your host (I later learned that the police called the landlord to make sure she knew that a foreigner was staying in her apartment), fill out numerous forms, make you sign numerous forms, and, finally, inquire as to whether you have any statements you wish to make. (I did, of course, but I thought it would be wiser if I didn't voice them.) In addition to paying the 300 RMB fine, you must also write down the serial numbers of each of the three 100 RMB notes on (another) special form. This was a new one to me. I suppose they want to make absolutely one hundred percent sure the bills are not counterfeit, as well as provide a safeguard against corruption. At any rate, if by any chance you want a receipt for your 300 RMB fine, you have to trudge back to the police station after about a week, by which time the bank will have checked out your three 100 RMB bills, and ask for it. To ensure that you can get the receipt, they give you another receipt. I suppose you'd call it a receipt for a receipt. That seems logical.