Monday, January 28, 2008

Shanghai sweets


That's what I have to say to those who claim Shanghainese like sweets (and I mean it to sting). While it is true that one can find things with more sugar in them than in other parts of China, Shanghai "sweetbread" is a bland mess, candy is decidedly unsweet, and the "cake" here is like cake in much the same way that cardboard is like cake. "Cheesecake" is usually frothy nonsense, and don't get me started on ice cream bars. If I want beans I'll eat beans; if I want ice cream, I won't eat beans.

That's why, when you do find real western goodies, they are inevitably aimed at expats, and thus on the pricy side. Still, on special occasions it is important to indulge.

I was therefore pleased to discover a delicious cake on sale at a bakery chain called "French Croissant" near my apartment. It is more or less a big strawberry shortcake, with yummy brownie and plenty of strawberries. The brownie was moist and choclatey, and the strawberries fresh and sweet. Now I know how Howard Carter must have felt when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The ice cream dilemma is not just limited to beans. The local supermarket does have two flavors of passable ice cream (vanilla and chocolate), but for true delectability, one must venture into the scary realm of Hagen-Dazs. Ice cream is supposed to be a sloppy treat obtained from an ambling ice cream truck, or while strolling on a summer evening. In Hagen-Dazs, it is a luxury. A single scoop costs a small fortune, and waiters, clearly trained to be polite to the foreigners, are alarmingly attentive.

Food, I think, is one of the biggest cultural obstacles. That is to say, it's easy to eat lots of things, even if just once. But when you're hungry, the first thing you think of are the things you grew up with. I now prefer to drink warm water over cold, I take showers at night, and I don't think twice about using chopsticks. But when the first thought to enter my mind when my sweet tooth is acting up is a nice, fat, luscious red bean popsickle, I'll know a small Indiana town can never be called home again.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Window views

Sorry for the mammoth gap between posts! Below are some notes about what happens outside my apartment window. Also, check out this post I did for my friend Andrea's site, which is also about Shanghai neighborhoods: Inside Shanghai's city blocks

Every now and then on a Saturday or Sunday morning I’ll be in my room and suddenly I’m under attack: loud bangs come from outside, the sound of bombs falling and guns shooting. I rush to my window and see someone in a suit sprinting across the street as a loud bang and flash of light explode behind him; car alarms start blaring and little explosions pop in the air at eye level or above, among the electric wires and clothes hanging out to dry. Another man in a suit films the whole process, a big grin on his face, as a nice black car slowly makes its way towards the carnage. When it arrives the groom jumps out and opens the bride’s door; sometimes he carries her inside one of the apartment buildings as everyone smiles. Afterwards the remnants of the fireworks lay scattered on the ground: black, charred cement and little red pieces of burnt paper.

I’ve never been to a Chinese wedding but they look like a lot of fun. The fireworks were originally meant to scare away evil spirits that might be lurking around the couple’s doorway; other traditions include drinking copious amounts of alcohol and eating heaps of food. There isn’t much of a formal ceremony in a Chinese wedding. It’s mainly just one big party. An expensive one, though: I read recently that the average Chinese urban wedding costs the family around RMB 100,000, quite a lot considering the urban salary for someone in his or her lower twenties is around RMB 3,000 a month.

Another common site outside my window at night is a big bonfire, with a few people huddled around it throwing in clothes at a steady rate. It gives off a tremendous stench. I’ve seen this site a few times, but can’t figure out what it’s for. I’ve asked Chinese people but they not sure either; I suspect it’s mainly a Shanghainese custom, and I also suspect the clothes belong to people who have died.

Another Shanghainese custom that people from other provinces find peculiar is that people will often trot around outside, especially on the weekends or holidays, in their pajamas. This looks especially frigid in the winter, but they are very warm pajamas, I suppose.

People selling a range of things pop up outside my window at various times as well. Every couple weeks there will a man who fixes umbrellas, and a man who sharpens knives. Other common sites are nurses taking people’s blood pressure, and once I saw lawyers offering free legal advice. My favorite is the man who pops corn. Every Saturday he shows up outside our apartment with a machine that will pop anything you want (corn, rice, beans). It’s easy to know when he’s arrived. When he opens his machine with a big lever after it’s finished popping, the pressure inside lets off a huge bang; beforehand he always shouts to warn people to cover their ears. When people hear the bang they come out of their apartments and gather around him as they wait for their turn, chatting and sharing cigarettes.