Tag: Shelley


16

Aug 2006

Travel by Train: China vs. the USA

My friend Shelley used to live in Dongying, Shandong Province. He is now traveling in the States. Here is an excerpt of an e-mail I recently got from him:

> I arrived in LA this morning after 3 nights on a train and couple hours stopover in Chicago. I learned a few things about the differences between US and Chinese train travel. I should first mention that this trip closely mirrors a trip I took just last year in China. It also involved 3 nights on a train with a short stopover after the first night. However, my US train took me entirely across the country, from Washington D.C. to L.A. My Chinese train took me from Kashgar (far northwest) to Xi’an, which would be more like Seattle to Chicago in the US. But I think this had more to do with the speed of the train. Anyway…

> From my half-dozen Amtrak trips between Sacramento and San Jose, I knew that 1) there would be very few people on the train, and 2) there are electrical outlets and tables by most seats. From the info I had gathered from Amtrak’s website, I knew 3) private cabins would cost a bit more than a flight (around $350) but would allow me to travel in great comfort.

> Yeah, well, I was wrong about all that stuff. I must have been looking at the seat prices because my seat from D.C. to L.A. cost me $299. Private cabins cost $1,000 and were booked up “until September” according to one conductor. The train was also overbooked, and I witnessed the familiar sight of people scrambling to get on the train before everyone else. See, I had a ticket for a seat, but not a specific one. Some people got put in the lounge car until seats cleared up in the coach cabins. And finally, you guessed it, no tables or electrical outlets. There were 3, only 3, outlets in the lounge car within an unused snack counter area. I managed to get up early enough one morning to stake a claim on one and charge up my cell phone and iPod. And believe me, I protected my outlet from other power-starved travelers like a lion over its kill fends off circling hyenas.

> Now, a seat on a Chinese train for 3 nights would be an amazing feat of stamina and bladder control. I’ve never done that. The longest I went for was a 26-hour stint which I emerged from as if I had just climbed Everest. A seat on a US train for 3 nights is about a hundred times more comfortable because it’s 1) a bucket seat and not a bench, 2) much better climate controlled, 3) bathrooms are clean and well-stocked with necessities, and 4) the lounge car provides another place to hang out with wall-to-ceiling windows and TVs showing movies in the evening.

> That said, however, I wouldn’t recommend the train to anyone who wasn’t ready to spend a boatload of cash to make it more comfortable. While the seats were spacious, they didn’t fully recline and I never found a comfortable sleeping position. I mostly passed out from exhaustion. Several times I pondered the pros and cons of sleeping in the aisle, but the cons always won out.

> Also, the train is not merely kept well air-conditioned, it’s kept refrigerated. I actually love to crank the AC up, but I was absolutely freezing during the first night. I noticed that everyone else on the train took out thick blankets and heavy sweaters. They had obviously done this before. I shivered all the way to Chicago. During that stopover I bought a hooded sweatshirt, which wasn’t easy to find but I knew my health depended on it. And folks, I’m really not exaggerating. It was amazingly cold. Amtrak might be experimenting with cryogenics. Well ok, now I’m exaggerating a little.

> The food available wasn’t all that bad but keep in mind that my standards for western food are very low. It was definitely overpriced microwaveable stuff. But they really had a great variety of it. Still, this is no advantage over a Chinese train. If I were on a Chinese train the food would come to me on snack carts roaming the cars every half hour or so.

> In conclusion, I would have to say that Chinese trains are better. Really. Because for the same price as my US train seat, I could have bought a super nice cabin (soft-sleeper) on a Chinese train and traveled in great comfort … with an electrical outlet!

> I kept wondering why so many people were on the train at all. “Um, excuse me, doesn’t anyone here realize we could’ve flown for cheaper?” Apparently not.

Thanks to Shelley for letting me publish this.


01

Mar 2005

Haggling in Taiwan

My friend Shelley was in Taiwan at the same time I was but had a very different experience. I’d like to share an excerpt from an e-mail he sent me:

One week was just not enough time in Taiwan and one email is just not enough to explain all I saw and did in that one week. But I’d like to leave off on an account of one experience at a Taipei night market that drove home a significant difference between Taiwan and Mainland China. I was looking for a new belt and came across a vendor with a good selection albeit of Taiwanese name brands. I asked the price of one and she answered “190” NT, about 47.5 RMB or US$6. I had bought my previous belt in China for 25 RMB so I said, “I’ll give you 100.” She snatched the belt out of my hands and said something in Taiwanese that didn’t sound so nice. I replied indignantly, “Ok, I’ll go somewhere else.” She responded again in Taiwanese and I only caught “ah-toka,” which is from the Japanese word for “big nose.” It’s the word Taiwanese use for “foreigner” whereas Mainlanders use “lao wai.”

As we walked away Anita looked at me with a wide-open mouth. “I can’t believe you just did that!” “What? That’s exactly how I would bargain in China. The first price is always at least double what it should be, we bargain, and if she won’t drop the price I start walking away until she yells out a much lower price. What did that lady say anyway?” “Well the first comment was ‘We don’t sell Mainland goods here.’” Hmm, I guess Made In China doesn’t count for much in Taiwan either. “And the second comment was just ‘This crazy foreigner doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’” “Well what should I have done?! This is night market, right? I’m supposed to bargain here, right?” Anita looked at me like I was some backwards yokel. “Ok, look, bargaining here means cutting 20 or 30 NT off a price like that. Cutting her price by half was incredibly insulting. And getting surly with them will never help. You have to chat with them like friends. And Shelley, if you walk away they will never ever beg you to come back. Come on, watch me.”

We went to another booth where a guy was selling name brand belts that even I recognized. For this reason his price start at over 600 NT, or 150 RMB, or about US$19. Then Anita started telling him about how I’m visiting from the Mainland, what I do there, what I’m doing in Taiwan, how much I like Taiwan, where we’ve gone and what we’ve done in Taiwan, and even how I had just screwed up with bargaining with the previous vendor. After about 5 minutes of this the three of us were chatting like old friends. Then he turned to me and said, “Ok, I know you can get things much cheaper in China, but the lowest price I can give you here is 400 NT.” Anita: “Wow, that’s a really good price! Thank you so much!” But for me that was still about 4 times what I could get a decent belt for in China. I prepared for our newfound friendship to be suddenly ruptured as I told him, “I’m sorry. I’d like to look around a bit more first. That price is still too high for me.” But he was as friendly as ever, “Ok, no problem. If you change your mind I’ll be here.” What? He didn’t yell at me, call me cheap or some other name? He didn’t curse me for wasting his time? He seemed to have actually enjoyed chatting with us. As we walked away Anita assured me that that was a huge price drop and overall an excellent price. I expressed my amazement at how different bargaining in Taiwan was from bargaining on the Mainland.

See also: Shelley’s Pictures of Taiwan


09

Jul 2004

Being a Foreigner in a Small Chinese Town

Being a foreigner in a smallish Chinese town is quite an experience. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you’re a spectacle. Everything is difficult for you. Nothing goes as expected. If you can speak any Chinese, your (near-constant) audience will be amazed and enthralled. Frequently being the center of attention of a group of non-English-speaking people can really spur one to improve one’s Chinese. A foreigner in a smallish Chinese town who can speak Chinese fairly well can quite quickly become a local celebrity, even getting newspaper writeups and TV spots. A big fish in a small pond, so to speak.

My friend and ex-co-worker Shelley is one such big fish. After living in Beijing for a year, then Shanghai for over a year, his Chinese skills are impressive. He decided to take those skills and head over to Shandong province to direct an English school in Dongying, a town which certainly qualifies as “smallish.”

Shelley recently put up a website. Reading the Dongying section, I couldn’t help but be especially amused by what he wrote about the bars there:

> Dongying has a bar street that looks …interesting. Pick your favorite place, teach them how to make your drinks the way you like them, then walk in like you own the place. They’ll remember you because you’re their foreign regular, and they’ll be sure to treat you right because you’re better than a neon sign for attracting more patrons. If we make a bar our group favorite, we can tell them what music to play… and kick people out we don’t like. Does that sound imperialistic to you? Then get out of my bar.

Hangzhou was nowhere near as small as Dongying is, but the phenomenon is nevertheless very familiar to me (and very absent in Shanghai). It looks like I’ll be heading to Dongying soon on business, so I’ll have an opportunity to visit Shelley and then check out that bar street myself and relive the imperalism a bit.

(Also take a look at the nice map Shelley made of all the places he’s visited in China. Although he has done some traveling, a lot of the places were visited working for Melody, where I now work. I don’t think I’m very far behind him in number of places visited, and my job is sure to send me to more soon…. I need to make my own map!)


30

Apr 2004

Shelley in Xishuang Banna

My friend and (previously) co-worker Shelley is currently making a long trip through the parts of China he hasn’t seen yet. I’ve posted about Shelley before, because I think he’s a really good guy with a lot of appreciation for Chinese culture as well as an impressive level of Chinese attained in only two years, and with no formal classes. Anyway, Shelley recently sent out an e-mail about his experiences and reactions to Xishuang Banna in Yunnan province. I’m posting an excerpt with his permission.

> I reached the village of Manpo (Bulang ethnicity) by early afternoon on Monday and had intended to push on. But while resting in a sort of community area I struck up a conversation with a man who could speak strained Mandarin. He was busily shaving his 4-year-old son’s head as he insisted I spend the night in his home. At first I politely declined since staying in Manpo would necessitate a second night in the region, but then I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be able to find lodging elsewhere by nightfall. So I followed this man, named Ai Zhai Xiang, up to his house. (The name of every man in the village begins with “Ai”, and every woman’s name begins with “Ni.” So I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Zhai from now on.)

> Before I go on I need to mention that Americans are very well-liked in the village because the recently built school (a cement-and-white-tile eyesore on the edge of the village) was built with 70,000 RMB from an American living in Kunming. Thanks to him and the (so far) polite travelers who have passed through, Americans have an outstanding reputation in the village of Manpo. The school, like all others in China, isn’t free though. It costs 5 RMB per student per day of instruction. It’s a large asking price for these villagers but there’s no cheaper way to get a Chinese teacher out to the village. I learned from another villager that their expenses usually only total 10 RMB per month because they make everything else they need. I never learned how much they make from selling their crops.

> My first impressions of Mr. Zhai and his life were pretty heart-wrenching. Mr. Zhai introduced himself as a farmer and told me a little about the work he does. He was shirtless the whole time I was there, displaying a few scars plus a significant oblong bump the size of a pill in the center of his chest. He explained that this is some sort of tablet with his name inscribed on it that his father inserted into his chest when he was very young. This is apparently not a village-wide custom, and in fact I never quite understood why he had this tablet other than it might have something to do with being raise to be a monk. (He said he “graduated” after a few years.) Mr. Zhai also sighed about how old he was, already having a 4-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter. I figured him to be around 30. He corrected me, “23.” Almost nonchalantly in conversation he mentioned that his children are actually his 2nd and 4th; the 1st and 3rd passed away. I also learned that the woman he introduced as his mother was actually his step-mother; his real mother passed away when he was 4. He prepared a dinner (his wife went to eat with friends) of spicy fish, scrambled eggs with a weed-like vegetable, and a coarse “red rice.” He explained it was rice from his own field, the kind that Han Chinese don’t like to eat. “They like to turn it into white rice, but I like it better this way.” We also drank this sort of clear whiskey, like Chinese baijiu, but much more foul tasting. Still we toasted with smiles. He then rolled out a mat for me to sleep on that night.

> The second wave of impressions hit me like this: Mr. Zhai said that a few nights ago 4 American women had stayed at his home for two nights. He was encouraging me to stay longer but I explained that I had to move on. He also said that he had seen me on the road earlier when he rode past on his motorcycle. First thought, “Oh that was you?” Second thought, “Oh you have a motorcycle?” Then his younger sister came in with her friends; she had just returned from “the big city” (Damenglong, not actually that big) with some new clothes and was showing them off. She and her friends could speak very clear and standard Mandarin; they study at the new school. I started to realize that Mr. Zhai, a simple farmer, was branching out into the hotel industry. I wondered if the details of his life were mentioned to invoke sympathy and a charitable donation. They may still very well be true, but he might not have otherwise mentioned them.

> These two opposing waves of impressions crashed together to leave me with the following conclusions: I’m glad that Mr. Zhai makes money from tourists. I’m even glad that in a year or two the road through Manpo and the region will likely bring loads of tourists who by that time will be greeted with gaudy hotels, souvenir kitsch, and staged ethnic dances. Sure, there’s a part of me that regrets this quiet rural village being turned into a tourist trap, but that part is the selfish traveler in me. Because life in Manpo and much of Xishuangbanna sucks, a lot. Besides the beautiful natural scenery, there wasn’t one thing there that made me want to stay longer than I had to. I didn’t find it quaint to visit poor villages, see smiling, filthy children, or meet brightly adorned, old women (who were probably only 30) bent under a load of vegetables. Because for me this was a vacation but for them it’s just life, every single day, until they die at around 50 or 60 years old. I’d rather see Manpo as a tourist hellhole instead of an impoverished one. Some might say that tourism will ruin the Bulang culture, and they’re probably right. But if adding a hospital to the village and teaching some basic hygiene (such as, after you cut up that raw chicken be sure to wash the knife before using it on those vegetables) ruins their culture then so be it. Others might say that I’m too set in my ways as a rich westerner to appreciate the simple tranquility of village life, and they would be right too. I couldn’t handle living in Manpo for the rest of my life, but it’s not because they lack a McDonalds. I really don’t know if I could work a field with only my hands and some basic tools, then live for the rest of the year off its yield. But I do know that I really don’t want to. So I was grateful for every swig of my bottled water, every photo taken with my digital camera, and especially for the seat on the bus that took me from Bulangshan (21 miles from Manpo) to the city of Jinghong. And by the way, I paid 10 RMB for the night and two meals at Mr. Zhai’s home.

Shelley will soon be moving to Shandong province where he will be the director (?) of a new English school there. He’s looking for teachers. Watch Sinosplice Jobs for more info soon.

Related: Sinosplice Yunnan pictures (including Xishuang Banna)


10

Mar 2004

Shanghai vs. Beijing

Shanghai and Beijing are the two most talked about cities in mainland China, and for good reason. Shanghai is the most populous city in China, a very modern economic powerhouse. Beijing is the capital, the political and cultural center of the nation. Beijing is the emperor’s seat in the north, Shanghai the giant of the south. Comparisons are inevitable.

Obviously, I now inhabit Shanghai, and I want it to fare well in an honest comparison of the two. I’ve been to Beijing twice, but not recently, and never for an extended visit. Today I discussed the matter with an American co-worker of mine. He seemed an ideal, objective observer because he lived in Beijing for a year, and now, after staying in Shanghai for a little over a year, is leaving China. He speaks good Chinese, and he’s a shrewd observer of his surroundings. Here’s the breakdown of his opinions:

Climate. Beijing is colder, but you don’t feel it too much because everyone bundles up like mad, and central heating is quite widespread. In Shanghai the buildings are built with the hot summers in mind, and there’s precious little insulation. That, combined with the people’s strong desire for “fresh air” in the middle of the winter makes Shanghai “the coldest place I’ve ever lived.”

People. Both Beijingers and the Shanghainese feel a sort of superiority toward outsiders. Nevertheless, Beijingers are widely regarded as very friendly, and any sense of superiority is exhibited only subtly. The Shanghainese are not widely regarded as friendly or as subtle in their snobbery.

Culture. Do I even have to say it? It’s all in Beijing.

Language. Beijingers speak Chinese with as much “rrrr” as possible, as if they only “speak with the throat.” Despite the superfluous R’s, Beijingers’ Chinese is quite close to the national standard. The Shanghainese, on the other hand, speak a dialect that could easily be classified as a separate (but related) language. This affects their Mandarin, making it less standard. The Shanghainese, like most places in the south, have much less “rrrr” in their speech, relying instead on other standard variants (e.g. nali instead of nar, meaning “where”).

Western Conveniences. Shanghai’s got Beijing beat hands down. Sure, Beijing has most of the products Shanghai does, but in Shanghai they’re much more readily available. Some things that you can buy in Shanghai’s convenience stores you might have to go to a specialty store for in Beijing. In addition, Shanghai has a lot more late-night and 24-hour stores.

Entertainment. Beijing’s Sanlitun is a bit better than Shanghai’s bar streets. Beijing also has a lot more cheap entertainment options. Going out on the town in Shanghai often will deplete your funds fast.

OK, I think you see the trend. Shanghai is taking a wicked beating in the comparison. I’ve heard other people say it too: “Beijing feels so home-y and special. Shanghai is a soulless concrete capitalist jungle.”

I consider myself a reasonable person. Why, then, when faced with such evidence, do I still feel that I will never even consider moving to Beijing? I want to know this for myself. I think the reasons are:

1. I’m from Florida. That’s the American south (with northern flavor). I like it. I don’t like New York or Boston accents.

When I studied in Japan, my school’s program just happened to be in Osaka — Japan’s southern giant. I like the southern Japanese dialect, and feel Tokyo’s to be boring.

When I came to China, I chose Hangzhou — partly with climate in mind, but largely because I had a Chinese friend from there. Hangzhou was my home for 3 1/2 years. It’s where I learned Mandarin Chinese.

2. I hate the “rrrr” of northern Mandarin. I can’t help it. It sounds really dumb to me. Sometimes I find it amusing (I like hearing actor Ge You talk), but I can’t really take it seriously.

I also feel that it sort of impoverishes the language. The “-r” suffix can go on the end of words ending in a vowel, -n, or -ng. When the “-r” suffix starts going everywhere, you don’t hear the original syllable ending, and it reduces linguistic diversity.

(That’s probably just a dumb rationalization for in irrational dislike of a particular accent, though.)

3. “Beijing” seems so cliche to me. “Oh, you want to learn Chinese? Then go to Beijing! The Mandarin is so standard there. Dashan studied there!”

No thanks. I think I’ll tough it out amongst the hoardes of asshole expats.

4. I like the linguistic diversity of the south. I like that the Shanghainese speak a whole separate language from their northern overlords. It’s badass. It might seem exclusionary or snobbish to you, but then you’re also probably too lazy to learn it.

Somehow, I don’t really think any of this is totally it, though. Everyone says that Beijing is better, but I’m not gonna buy it. I guess deep down, I’m just stubborn. I’m in Shanghai now.

Related Links:
Bokane.org, journal of an American Peking University student.
Kaiser Kuo, a writer in Beijing.
Ape Rifle’s Chinese city comparisons.