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Saturday, July 25, 2015

It's the end of the post as I know it...and I feel fine


That's how I would describe the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum 上海科技馆, which my daughter and I visited today on a last sightseeing hurrah in Shànghăi 上海. The design of the building is striking, but for the most part the exhibits within are uninspiring. Lonely Planet's writers inexplicably describe them as "fascinating", but I'm assuming the authors of the Shanghai guidebook haven't visited too many museums elsewhere in the world. There were some interesting displays, such as the one on spiders (though it would've benefited from having actual arachnids to look at instead of mere mockups), while the 4D movie we watched (a Finding Nemo-inspired look at life under the sea in the Jurassic period) was entertaining. But the sheer number of people visiting today made getting around the vast interior a draining experience. Fortunately for Amber, she had been to the museum back in the 2nd grade while on a school field trip and had a much more productive visit then. But all things considered, this was a rather anticlimactic end to what has been a mostly enjoyable stay in China's biggest city; it certainly hasn't helped that our plan to go out for dinner this evening at a local Sichuan restaurant has literally been washed out by heavy rain. 

And so tomorrow two years and twenty-two days in Shanghai come to an end. In many respects, I'll be glad to move out and move on to new and (hopefully) better things. One thing I'm not going to miss is the pollution. While not as bad as in, say, Bĕijīng 北京 (though the two times when we went to China's capital the weather was almost perfect) or Chéngdū 成都, the air quality index can still get dangerously high at times, and long-term exposure is definitely something an expat should consider when deciding whether to relocate here (and pity the poor local who has to spend a lifetime in this kind of environment). The state of Chinese driving leaves a lot to be desired, though it isn't that much worse than in Taiwan, and so wasn't a major adjustment for my wife and I to make. And, of course, there's the censorship that comes with residing in a country governed under an authoritarian political system. The Chinese government's fear of its citizens communicating online with people in other parts of the world necessitates having to use a VPN in order to access sites like Facebook, YouTube and even this blog. Not content with just blocking "rumor-spreading" sites, the authorities are constantly attempting to block access by VPN's, making getting online to do routine tasks like checking up on social media a major headache at times. The heavy-handedness even spreads to more traditional media at times; during last year's Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong, any time a story on BBC or CNN related to China was about to be aired, the TV screen would go black, and the picture would only return once the offending report was over, and a different story was being reported. And while Shanghai presents a prosperous face, there are pockets of poverty even in an upscale area like ours, with its large expat population, evidence that not all Chinese have benefited from "socialism with Chinese characteristics". 

On the other hand there have been a lot of positives. I was told when I first arrived here that I would be spoiled by having Shanghai as my first post, and that's proven itself to be the case. All of my colleagues during the two years I've been here, both American and Chinese, have been wonderful to work with, and morale in the office has been remarkably high. And Shanghai itself has been a great city to live in, with its numerous restaurants and shops complemented by a remarkably low crime rate for an urban area of 23 million people. Not once have I felt threatened here, even in the above-mentioned economically depressed neighborhoods. I'll be the first to admit that we've enjoyed life on an expat package, living in a house larger than most Chinese could enjoy, and with my daughter having the opportunity to attend a good international school that I wouldn't have been able to afford on my paycheck alone. I certainly wouldn't want to try to support a wife and child in Shanghai on an English teacher's salary, like I did in Taiwan, but it's easy to see why Shanghai is so attractive to the many single Westerners who come here to study or work.

In some respects, my worst fears about Shanghai have been realized, namely that it has most of the things that used to annoy me about living in Taiwan, only on a much larger scale. But Shanghai is without a doubt far more cosmopolitan than any Taiwanese metropolis (including even Taipei 台北), and I had far fewer encounters of the "Look! It's a foreigner!"-kind that are still sadly all too common in Taiwan. Probably the biggest effect Shanghai's had on me is in my perception of the Chinese as a people. Living in Taiwan, it's all too easy as a resident expat Westerner to think of Chinese as mindless automatons, marching in lockstep as they answer their government's call to realize the dream of "reunification" of Taiwan with the mainland. The deservedly poor reputation of some Chinese tourists overseas also makes it easy to assume that everyone in China is an extremely rude boor, pushing, spitting and urinating in public. In reality, most Chinese (at least those in Shanghai) seem to care little about Taiwan, the Senkakus, the South China Sea, the "revival of Japanese militarism" or any other hot button issue, preferring instead to get on with the mundane tasks of trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. And while examples of bad behavior are easy to find, for the most part my interactions with people outside of work were of the same normal variety that you would find elsewhere in the world (including acts of kindness). In short, the Chinese are no different than anyone else, and that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Even the government isn't as malevolent as I imagined it to be. Yes, there's the censorship, and rule of law is still lacking (as my visits to incarcerated Americans would at times attest). But the local media is far more open to critical reporting on political and social issues than I'd assumed (the government no doubt has learned it can be helpful to let people vent and to deflect attention away from other critical areas). And while the central government presents itself as omnipotent, it struggles to maintain control at the local level, where provincial interests (including the benefits accruing from corruption) can be much more important than the dictates coming out of Beijing. Like any vast bureaucracy (including the one I work for), there are competing interests and turf battles that make it hard to believe, for example, that every action taken by China vis-a-vis Taiwan is part of a grand conspiracy to draw the two countries closer together for eventual annexation "reunification". When it comes to dealing with Chinese officialdom, quite often their proverbial left hands have little clue what the proverbial other hands are doing, and quite often don't care to find out. That isn't to say I've turned into an apologist; far from it, as the U.S. is going to need to work even more closely with Japan and its other allies in the region to contain China (yes, I said it - see disclaimer at the bottom of this blog). But just as with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (those were the days!), we can't look at China while wearing a black-or-white, good vs. evil pair of spectacles. It's a complicated relationship that's going to have to be managed very carefully, and on numerous levels, by many rational, clear-thinking people.

I, for one, have little interest in being part of that management process, for in the end, I'm happy to get out and don't intend on coming back (though for obvious reasons Taiwan is a different matter). Having lived in Taiwan for too long, topped off with these past two years in China, I've had enough of life in the Mandarin-speaking world, and I'm looking forward to new and different challenges elsewhere, such as in Eastern Europe. I'm going to miss Asia, but mostly that relates to my relationship with Japan. However, I've enjoyed the time spent in Shanghai, and I wish the best to all my Chinese 同事们, past and present, at the consulate, as well as to my American colleagues. I may never return to China, but that doesn't mean I hope never to see them again.

Thanks for the memories, Shanghai, and 再见.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

End of days

A typical weekend scene in a typical Chinese park

Our time here in Shànghăi 上海 is just about up. The movers have already collected most of our items, boxing them up and carting them away, and today was the car's turn to go. Tomorrow will be my last day in the office, and on Sunday we'll bid 再见 to the city we've called home for the past two years. I have to congratulate myself on time well-spent here: not only have I visited everywhere that I wanted to go in China (Forbidden City, Great Wall, terracotta warriors, Huangshan, the Li River cruise), there's very little in Shanghai itself left to see, meaning there will be no last-minute rush to cross items off of the local bucket list. That isn't to say we haven't done any last-minute sightseeing. Take last weekend, for example. On Saturday, while my daughter was off at swimming class, I took the subway to the Hóngkŏu Football Stadium stop 虹口足球场站 on Line 3 in order to do a bit of shopping. One of the few things I do regret while in Shanghai was not going to see a local soccer match, so to make up for that I was determined to buy a jersey of one of the local teams, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua F.C. 上海绿地申花足球俱乐部, as a personal memento. Unfortunately, the biggest size the shirts came in was only XL, which roughly corresponds to an L when hung on a Western-sized body frame and isn't a comfortable fit for someone of my build, but not wanting to go back to the U.S. empty-handed, I purchased one anyway. If it turns out not to fit very well, I can always add it to Amber's pajama collection, which has been supplemented by my used soccer jerseys in recent years:

Afterward, I went for a stroll around Lŭ Xùn Park 鲁讯公园, named for one of modern China's most revered literary figures. The Hongkou area is dotted with sights dedicated to the writer, including a memorial hall and his former residence. When my family and I visited in February of last year, most of the park was closed for renovations. This time, Lu Xun Park was open for business again, so I went in for a look. As with most urban parks in China, you can forget about a quiet communion with nature or an escape from the pressures of city life. Lu Xun Park was teeming with humanity, every square inch of paved surface and most of the grassy areas (at least the parts not fenced off) taken up by people "enjoying a break from the congestion, noise and pollution" of urban living. This Chinese version of park life was set to a cacophonous soundtrack of karaoke, musical instruments, blaring radios, lively debates and the generally louder tones of speech employed by most Chinese when conversing with each other. My delicate sensibilities often find it impossible in these environments to relax, but the locals seem to think it's invigorating, so I focused on enjoying the orderly chaos as I made my way around the small lake. Perhaps in keeping with the Lu Xun theme, one corner of the park had statues of several famous Western authors, including Dickens, Shakespeare, Hugo and Gorky, though only the last would probably have been permitted during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution:

Taking boats out onto the water was a popular activity:

The western part of the park is overlooked by the hulking structure of the soccer stadium:

Lu Xun's Tomb  was in one of few pockets of solitude inside the park. His body was moved to the its current location in 1956, and a quotation from none other than Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 himself is etched into the wall behind the tomb:

On the way home, I stopped off at Garden Books in the French Concession, where I bought a copy of Lu Xun's novella The True Story of Ah Q  阿Q正传. Though I read Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 as a college student, I've never had much interest in Chinese literature, classical or otherwise, but I am intrigued by Lu Xun - any writer whose works were suppressed by the Kuomintang 中國國民黨 for his or her leftist inclinations must be worth checking out:

On Sunday, the three of us went off on a day trip outside the city, partly because it was our last chance to do so, and partly because we needed to use up some of the gas in the tank before the car got shipped off to Europe. My wife chose as our destination the water town of Nánxún 南寻 in Zhèjiāng Province 浙江省. Shanghai has several such towns in its surrounding area - at 110 kilometers from our residence, it was the furthest away from our home that would still be possible to visit in a single day. What differentiates Nanxun from the others is that many of the silk merchants who made their fortunes there in the early years of the 20th century had their houses constructed in a mix of Chinese and Western styles:

Once past the perpetual traffic snarl on the roads near Hóngqiáo Airport 上海虹桥国际机场, it was smooth sailing on the relatively empty expressways, and we reached Nanxun just around lunchtime. After paying the entrance fee (which covered all admission charges to the various houses and museums contained within), we headed off in search of something to eat. The "local beer" was unsurprisingly weak (2.5%), making it the perfect alcoholic beverage for our designated driver (me):

Once our appetites had been sated, we set off exploring the town on foot while admiring the canal scenes:

The Little Lotus Villa 小连庄 was once the private garden of an official during the Qing dynasty:

In an example of getting something to take back with us before it's too light, the girls settled on some calligraphy brushes with our Chinese names engraved of them. In the cases of Amber and Pamela, those names are legal; in my case, a Mandarin moniker is more of a curio. I rarely used mine, preferring the locals to render my actual name with a Chinese accent. It sounds much better that way:

A family shrine:
Next door was the Jiāyè Library 嘉业堂藏书楼, which once housed 30,000 books and was one of the largest private libraries in this part of China:

Old folks sit a spell by one of the canals:

These water pipe-type whistles were a hit with the kiddies, including mine. The whining sound they produced got very old, very quickly:

A typical canal scene...:

...and a typical alley scene:

The building housing the silk museum was more interesting than the collection contained within:

The weather could've been much better, but the threatened rainfall never materialized, at least not while we were in Nanxun: 


Whichever member of the Liú clan responsible for the Liu Family Compound 刘氏梯号 clearly had a thing for things Western:

My daughter also seemed to like the property:

The best (and probably biggest) house in Nanxun was saved for last. The Zhāng Family Compound 张石铭旧宅 was another intriguing blend of East and West, with the Chinese-style rooms in the front of the compound, and the European wing in the rear:

A couple of the rooms housed a collection of money from around the world. Most fascinating were the bills from Zimbabwe, issued when the country was in the throes of one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in history. The purchasing power of a trillion dollar-bill was probably on the pathetic side:

Another room housed a record collection, with recordings from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the U.K. and the United States...: well as block rockin' beats from China:

On the walk back to the car at the end of the day, I was reminded by a sign of how my life will probably become a living hell for at least seven months beginning in September. First lesson: learn to love vodka. That liquid courage might come in useful during test time:

Three days to go...

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Until next time Formosa...

Three days isn't much time to get things done, especially when that time frame includes flying into and out of a country. Such was the case with my recent Fourth of July whirlwind visit to Fengyuan  豐原, Taichung 台中. With more time on my hands, I would've gone for a hike in Dakeng 大坑, just like in the old days; visited some new spots in Taichung (if any had appeared since the last time I was there, in the fall of 2013); or perhaps took in a baseball game, cheering on Taichung's newest team, the Brother Elephants 中信兄弟. Most of all, I would've tried to have gotten together with as many of my old friends and former students as time would've permitted. But time was a luxury I didn't have on this trip, as there were matters pertaining to my late father-in-law that needed to be seen to, and relatives to see and say farewell to. 

One person, though, I did make time for, and that would be my best friend going back to high school, the man who, for better or worse, was indirectly responsible for my settling down in Taiwan (by virtue of being there when I needed a place to go to during a very difficult period in my life), and who has outdone me by not only marrying a Taiwanese woman, but in having twice as many children as me. And so Sunday afternoon was set aside to spend with Steve. I left Amber (and Pamela) in the safe confines of the Bob Ross studio at the Pacific Department Store in Fengyuan, secure in the knowledge that she would enjoy adding happy little trees to her landscapes, and took the train from Fengyuan to Taichung Station 台中車站, where my friend was waiting:

To make the proverbial long story short, it was great catching up with an old friend. Unlike me, Steve has stuck it out in Taiwan, and his hard work and perseverance has paid off with the setting up of his own English school, Teacher John English. That he did so by following all the proper licensing procedures is a testament to his work ethic and character; many entrepreneurs, frustrated by the extent of Taiwanese red tape, simply give up and operate in a gray zone at best, or under the table, at worst:

The time spent with Steve that afternoon and evening wasn't enough, especially as I have no idea when I can next visit Taiwan:

I returned to Shanghai 上海 on Monday the sixth of July, while the girls would remain behind in Fengyuan for another week or so, using the time (and some of my insurance money!) to take a short trip to Penghu 澎湖, much to my consternation (it's on the list of places I still haven't been in Taiwan and would like to see). My relationship with Taiwan over the years has been a testy one, and rarely do I ever feel the sort of nostalgia and warm, fuzzy memories for the place that I do with regards to Japan. Nothing on this brief visit changed any of my perceptions (or prejudices, or resentments), but as long as I have family and friends living there, Taiwan is going to play a large part in the dysfunctional drama that has been my life in the post-Japan years. With the next nine months to be spent in the United States, followed by two years in Lithuania, it'll probably be a while before I drop in on Formosa again. But I will be back. Whether I want to or not, I shall return.

And maybe I'll finally get to visit Penghu on that occasion. Or drive the roads (inland and coastal) between Hualien 花蓮 and Taitung 台東. Or climb Yushan 玉山. Or...

Amber shows off her Bob Ross-inspired creation

A typical view on the outskirts of Fengyuan

Anywhere there's an elementary school in Taiwan, you'll find cram schools and private kindergartens on the surrounding streets
My farewell lunch at a local Japanese restaurant

Buying a milk tea from one of the few remaining Balance tea stands

An example of democracy in action, Taiwanese-style. In your face, China!

Saying goodbye to my daughter at the Taichung HSR Station

The high-speed train that would take me to the Taoyuan HSR Station, before eventually moving on to Taoyuan International Airport 臺灣桃園國際機場 桃園機場 and finally back to Shanghai