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Dreaming in Chinese August 5, 2011

Posted by Kate Bohlmann in Travel Log.
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This past year my mom gave me a charming little book named “Dreaming in Chinese”. The book follows the adventures of an American author and her husband as they lived and traveled around Shanghai and attempted to learn Chinese. Throughout the book, the author reflects on funny little experiences she had in learning Chinese and making mistakes, and how through learning the nuances of the language, she was able to learn small nuances of the culture of China as well. Now that I’m home in the United States, I’ve been able to reflect on what I’ve learned from my experiences in China. This is what I’ve learned about the culture:

Touring Shanghai Jiaotong University's second campus

Squatting toilets- they’re everywhere unless you go to expensive westernized businesses. And they’re actually not that bad or that difficult to use- once you get down the Asian squat. They’re even more sanitary than western toilets in a way, although they can stink up a bathroom a lot.

The Asian squat- it can be difficult for westerners, but it’s the key to be able to use squatting toilets. Asians plant their feet slightly wider than shoulder width, and then sit down on their feet, keeping their heels completely flat on the ground. It’s more stable and comfortable than how westerners squat since their heels are planted instead of raising their heels like westerners. In fact, Asians tend to squat like this everywhere to sit down or rest a little because it’s so comfortable for them.

Being goofy in front of the Shanghai Jiaotong sign 🙂

They have a unique pace to their life in Shanghai. Shanghai is a huge business center for China, and as such has a very fast-paced business feel to it in places. But the Chinese balance the business pace to their lives much better than I have seen in the western world. Once the Chinese are done with their workday, they slow down and enjoy a cup of tea, go for a walk, or even do tai chi- sometimes while still in their business clothes. It’s essentially a part of their culture. They have so much history and depth to their culture, and part of that is respecting people slowing down their lives and taking care of their health. It’s really interesting to observe.

Along with busy workdays, and resting and relaxing after work, there is a very active night-life in Shanghai as well. Between restaurants, clubs, and karaoke there’s always something to do at night in Shanghai. I had some of the most fun in China in the evenings going to sing karaoke with my friends. It’s inexpensive and also extremely entertaining.

Outside the 4th tallest building in the world

Unfortunately, China is pretty dirty. You can’t help but notice all of the grime as you’re walking down the street. And if you have to walk outside when it’s raining and you’re wearing long pants, you’ll probably want to cuff the bottoms to keep the rain from kicking up grime onto your pants. Also, the air in China is highly polluted. One of the things I missed the most while I was abroad was a full breath of clean, fresh air on a sunny day.

Occasionally the polluted air and dirty streets do make walking around China slightly smelly. But if you are walking down the street and it suddenly starts smelling really badly- like manure- it’s not actually manure, or even the dirt in the street. That smell is actually food. Stinky tofu to be exact. And Chinese people love it. Rest assured, it doesn’t taste like it smells- in fact I tried it myself and I have to admit it wasn’t bad.

Group picture on the stage at my favorite group dinner

All of these were just a few of the things that I noticed about China while I was there. It’s a beautiful country with a rich history and culture, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time there. I got to experience the daily life of people in China, eat tons of new foods (yum!), and my Chinese abilities increased dramatically. If you were wondering from the title of this post if I was really dreaming in Chinese, I can say that yes, sometimes I was. All in all it was an amazing experience, I can’t wait until the day that I’m able to go back.


Haggling July 19, 2011

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Of course, as part of our trip to China, we’ve gone shopping a lot. And I must say, shopping is an interesting experience in Asia, and one I’ve grown to love. You see, most places you go in China aside from big stores and malls, you get to haggle down the price of things you want to buy. Haggling is a huge part of the culture here in China- I’ve learned you can even ask for a discount in the big recognizable stores. And it never hurts to ask- worst case they say they can’t give you a discount, but they still really want to sell whatever it is to you.

In the time we’ve been here, we’ve gone to both the fabric market and Qipulu several times, both of which are places where you haggle over everything. The fabric market is three stories of little shops of tailors and seamstresses who can make just about anything clothing-wise. This first picture is of one of my classmates and I just outside of the fabric market. Several of my classmates went in to various shops and had business suits made for them. These suits are of a really good quality, too. In these shops you’re able to choose the fabric you want the suit made out of, the design and cut you want the suit to be, and then they measure you and make a suit specifically tailored for you. You can even talk to them about the various ways you want the suit to fit and how you want the finished product to look.

A classmate and I outside of the fabric market

While we were there, I didn’t order a suit myself, but I did order a qipao to be made for me. In case you don’t know much about Chinese culture, a qipao is the traditional Chinese style of dress. Mine is knee length, in a bright red fabric that the shopkeeper told me was unique to his shop and couldn’t be found anywhere else (and we do believe him on that- these shops are incredibly competitive so he would have to be able to back that up). My qipao is also trimmed in a double layer of black ribbon. And just like the other products you can buy at the fabric market, it is tailored specifically for me and fits perfectly. I love the finished product. We recently went to see the Peking Opera (traditional Chinese opera) and I got to wear my qipao there. I’ve included a picture of me and two of my friends in the theater when I was wearing my qipao.

I also love going to Qipulu here. Qipulu is made up of around 3 to 5 big buildings (I’m not sure exactly how many there are because we’ve still only explored a few of them). These buildings are several stories each, and are filled with these tiny little shops selling everything from shoes, to clothing, to purses, to sunglasses, and many, many other things. I’ve included a picture of one of the stores in Qipulu- I thought it was really cool because to save space in the shoe shops they typically each have a ladder and a little hole in the ceiling- and up through that hole is where they store all of the extra sizes of the various shoes since they can only display so much out on the floor.

The shopkeepers standing near the hole in their ceiling where they store extra shoes

The best part is haggling. Haggling can be extremely satisfying when a shopkeeper quotes a certain price at the beginning and then after successful haggling you get them to cut the price by more than half. There is a lot of strategy to haggling, however. At first you tell them the price they’re quoting is way too expensive. After that they will generally ask you to name the price that you want. This is probably one of the most important parts- since once you ask for a certain price you won’t be able to get away with asking for a lower price. A good rule of thumb is to try cutting the price in half or a little more than half at first. But always, if you think asking for a certain price is good, go lower. Once you cut the price a shopkeeper will tell you they can’t sell that low. And gradually you come up bit by bit as they lower the price they’re offering. Sometimes though if they aren’t bargaining much, the best thing you could possibly do is to walk away. Most times they’ll run after you yelling okay because they want to make a sale. And eventually you’ll know that you’ve gotten to a good price when they gruffly agree to it and hand you the item. Generally that means you’ve gotten to the point where they’re not making as much profit but are desperate to make a sale.

Sometimes they want to make a sale so badly that they practically give you an item. One time as we were looking at clothes I was looking around but obviously not buying anything. My friends bought a lot of clothing, though. Eventually as they were bargaining with the shopkeeper, she looked over to me and pulled out a dress I had looked at and told me she would give it to me for less than half the price- which was less than 10 US dollars. Of course I took it- she was practically giving it to me at that point. And that’s part of the fun of haggling- at the end of the day you may not have gotten one of the things you really wanted because you had to walk away, but you look and see that you did get some really cool things at a steal of a price because you successfully haggled.

Wearing my new qipao to the Peking Opera

Food! 很好吃! July 7, 2011

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Group dinner the first week

Alright, I’m not going to lie. I love food. And I love to eat. Give me any sort of delicious food and I will be one happy camper. And here in china I’ve been able to experience some pretty delicious food.

Group dinner the first week

First of all, food is dirt-cheap here. I’m talking my breakfast is around 50 cents and my lunch is usually around a dollar (in US dollars). And it’s like that most places we go. I don’t think I’ve paid more than 10 dollars for a meal here in all of the places we’ve gone to eat on our own. And it’s generally pretty delicious food too- or as we would say in chinese- 很好吃- or very good to eat. I’m loving the food here, and I think that will be the thing I miss the most once I’m back in the States.

Me inside Sichuan Folk

But even better than the meals we have on our own, are the meals we have as a big group. We generally have around one to two of these “group dinners” a week, and they’ve been a ton of fun and we’ve tried some really great food. These first two pictures are from a group dinner our first week of the LBAT.

The cool stairway in Sichuan Folk

My favorite group dinner, however, was when we went to a restaurant named Sichuan Folk. We got to try some Sichuan-style food, which, in case you don’t know anything about the various regions of China, is famous for being incredibly spicy. And in case you don’t know much about me, I love spicy food. But this was a whole new level of spicy for me, and while I really enjoyed most all of it, I do have to admit one dish was the spiciest dish I’ve ever eaten. At one point it had me wondering for a few minutes whether I had accidentally crossed my personal line into the level of dangerously spicy. But after drinking a lot of tea and eating less spicy food, it subsided into a general burn in my mouth with a few parts of my mouth being numb.

The pretty table

Aside from that, the dinner was really fun, and I loved all of the food we tried. And I learned my lesson not to eat the peppers and their little black seeds that come with some of the spicy beef. 😉 The restaurant we went to looked really cool inside, and so we all had a bunch of fun looking around and taking pictures at dinner. Here are a few of mine.

Our group on the stage

卡拉OK June 22, 2011

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In Asia, karaoke is really a part of the culture. If you want to go out and have fun, you go sing karaoke. In China, there are a bunch of karaoke places around where you go and book a private room for you and your friends for a few hours. Here, we went to KTV. It’s relatively cheap, and incredibly fun.

Outside the karaoke rooms, my friend Sapphire is looking ready for some serious singing

Inside you can sit down on the comfortable leather couches that line the room, and start browsing through the enormous list of songs- which includes both songs in Chinese and English. Usually, we start off picking a few songs and a few different people will get up and sing them and take turns. Eventually though, we’ll end up picking some songs that have us all up and dancing through the room, and singing along at the top of our lungs to the songs. (Luckily the karaoke rooms are sound-proofed, otherwise I’m sure we might’ve had some noise complaints from other karaoke patrons 😉 )

Inside the karaoke room, excited to start!

I personally love karaoke, or in Chinese 卡拉OK (kalaOK). It’s always entertaining, and you get to experience some pretty funny moments with your friends, like how I caught my friend Cristina making a cute, funny face while singing in this picture. It really never gets old, and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to have a fun night.

My friend Cristina making a funny face while singing 😉

Bao Steel June 12, 2011

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Thinnning the steel
Cool picture of the steam rising

As part of the LBAT, our group gets to make a few visits to businesses in Shanghai. We recently visited bao steel; I would be making an understatement if I said that it was any less than incredibly interesting. When our bus arrived at Bao Steel they told us a little about the history of the company, including the fact that they are the second biggest steel producer in the world! Then as soon as we stepped off the bus we were each handed a hard hat, and walked into their factory to watch the process of producing steel.

Hot steel
Cooling the steel

Their factory appeared to be several massive warehouses. Once inside we went up a couple of flights of stairs to observe the steel production from a catwalk lining the buildings. The man giving us a tour of bao steel had said that it should be a relatively nice day to tour the factory because it wasn’t too hot and their steel production could get to be extremely hot. However, as we walked into the warehouse it was like walking into a wall of heat. And this was cool for them!

The finished steel roll

We watched the part of steel production where they took a huge, red-hot block of steel and thinned it out to be paper-thin, then cooled the steel, and finally bent it into giant rolls of steel. Seeing the red-hot steel pass us and go through various machines, giving off tremendous blasts of smoke, was pretty cool, to say the least. At one point, a really long thinned-out sheet of steel passed by us and you could feel the heat radiating off of it on our skin several seconds later!

Overall, the tour was extremely interesting, and I think we all got some pretty cool pictures of the steel being produced, including this group picture of us outside of the factory.

Group picture

Arrival in Shanghai May 26, 2011

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To start off with- a word to the wise- don’t do what I did. 😉

My parents and I booked my flight to Shanghai for Friday, May 13th at 12:30 am. Unfortunately we each read my departure time as midnight Friday. If you’re seeing where this is heading, yep- you’re right, I missed my flight to Shanghai.

Waiting in the Atlanta airport in the middle of the night

I was driving home the evening before my flight and had a horrible thought- what if 12:30 am Friday meant that night and not the next night like we assumed? I ran inside and checked my itinerary, and sure enough, my flight was supposed to be half an hour from then. As soon as I saw that, I ran downstairs and woke up my mom. We spent the following hours discussing my situation with Korean Air and Expedia. We soon learned that we would have to go to the airport to work with Korean Air at their check-in desk. So I threw everything I was planning on bringing into my suitcase, took a quick shower, and we left for the airport- at 3:30 am.

Since it was the middle of the night we had to wait for the Korean Air desk to open up at 9:15 am.  After working with the Korean Air staff we decided I could try to fly standby to Shanghai. I got on a flight at 1 pm Saturday afternoon, and I arrived in Shanghai at 8 pm Sunday, May 15th. From there it was still sort of an adventure because my taxi driver didn’t speak English and he dropped me off at the front of Shanghai Jiaotong University’s campus. After walking all over campus with my luggage and asking several people in Chinese how to get to my dorm, I finally found it and went right to sleep.

Things are great now that I’m here- I’ve met some awesome people on the trip already, and our classes are really interesting. We even took a city tour and went up to the top of the 4th tallest building in the world, the Shanghai World Financial Center! My Chinese has already improved, too- I’m becoming pretty good at ordering my meals in Chinese. And I have to say I love the food here; I think I’ll really miss my morning baozi for breakfast once I’m back in the States. I’m so excited for everything I’m going to be experiencing here, and I can’t wait to see how much more my Chinese abilities expand. I’ll update on all of the great things we’re doing soon!

Finally arrived! On our city tour of Shanghai