Sunday, February 27, 2011

Shanghai life's good

I’m finally back at a point where life in China feels really good again: the food tastes amazing, people are nice, and living in Shanghai feels fun and exciting.

When I got back here after our trip to Australia in the middle of January I really felt that I wanted to leave China, that I had had enough, and that I wanted to go somewhere new. But now I don’t feel that urge anymore. I know I won’t live here forever, but I am also not ready to give it all up yet. I think having highs and lows is natural, no matter where you live. Maybe it’s especially apparent when you live over here though.

I was having lunch with a western girl the other day. She is getting ready to move back to Europe in 4 months, and feels a bit torn about it. She told me that she felt ready to move back at this very moment, as she was now at a place where she really missed her hometown, but feared that she in 4 months time would change her mind again, and that when time was up, she wouldn’t want to go. I understand her 100%. Life here changes so fast, it really is a rollercoaster. A truly, madly, crazy rollercoaster, with many highs and lows. I’m not ready to get off quite yet.

So get ready for another great year in China. Love this place at the moment. Let's celebrate that with a little photo memory mix from the early days in China: 2006-2007: A hot mess of... a bit of everything!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Time management

Why are Chinese people often late for meetings and appointments? It doesn’t really make sense if you look at their education system? Having such strict educational methods in schools, I don’t think kids dare to come to class late (will they even be let in?). Is it instead so that since they are always in time when they are kids, they make up for that by being late as adults?!

For me (and many people that I know) it was the opposite way around. I was a pretty good kid, but a rebel teenager. I often came late to class. In high school, I had no what-so-ever time management when it came to catching the bus each morning to school (it was a 40 min bus ride, so I kind of had to be on time otherwise I would be very late for class). I’ve given my poor folks so much headache over the years, running down the stairs every the morning, yelling for dad that he needed to give me a ride to the bus (I lived about a 15 min bike ride from the bus stop too, so my non-existent time management skills were not really making matters easy for anyone), having him sometimes refusing, and sometimes giving in. One of my friends, Mia, was a tad bit worse. She always missed the bus. As a result, her dad had to take her in a car and ride behind the bus, and then hopefully manage to overtake it, speed for a bit, and drop her off before the bus hit the next bus stop. Mia and I also played in the same basketball team, and every time we had a game our coach used to tell her that it started 1 hour before it actually did. That was, she would miss the warm-up, but at least be in time for the first half.

Now, as a “grownup” (well at least I do try very hard to fit into that category) I am hardly never late for meetings or appointments. I often think that I will be, and therefore I often send an apologetic text message, just in case, but then I’m often the first one to arrive. I have become much better at time management, so even though I think that the 20 min I have given myself to get somewhere isn’t enough –it often is. And it feels kind of good. I don’t like being late for things.

But some of my Chinese friends… Geeez, it’s almost getting to the point where I am getting annoyed. Take the other day for instance. I was stressing like a maniac to run from the yoga club to a restaurant where I was meeting some friends (mixed nationalities) at 7.30pm (my yoga class finised around 6.50pm, and I needed a shower). I thought I was going to be a bit late, so I sms:ed one of the girls just in case. Still, I managed to be there at 7.25pm. I called my Chinese girlfriend to ask how many people were coming and how big of a table we needed. When she picked up she sounded rather surprised when I said I was already at the restaurant. I could hear from the non-existent background noise that she was still at home. Still, she didn’t say anything about being late or so. The other ones dropped in at 7.30…. and then we had to wait until 8pm for our Chinese friend to come. She barely noticed herself that she was late. How is it possible?!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Visitor inflation

Nothing beats having your friends in town!

It’s getting warm out there –which is lovely! This spring is going to be fast and furious –there are so many things planned for the upcoming month that I believe my next free weekend, when I can bum around and do nothing, will be in May. This is of course both good and bad. We have lived in China for more than 4,5 years now, and considering that time we haven’t had that many visitors, until now, all of a sudden, when everybody wants to come at the same time!

We just had friends here from London, and on Saturday a new couple from Finland is arriving. When they leave there’s another one, and then my parents, my boyfriend’s dad, and then we have a weekend in Moganshan… and then I believe it should be summer?!

We are turning into real visitors pros. My London friend actually asked us if we had considered opening a travel agency for couples travelling to Shanghai. We have made a little travel kit for each couple, which includes metro cards, sim card, mobile phone, guidebooks, stomach pills and our own maps (where we have marked out our fave spots). We also tailor make the weekends so that they will suit each couple: when we had a pregnant couple visiting, we went to the baby market. When my London friend (who’s getting married next year) was here we managed to squeeze in a visit to Suzhou’s wedding street where she made herself a dream dress for 900 rmb! Considering the fact that a cheap wedding dress in London costs around 10 000 rmb, I think my friend was quite happy with her bargain. Our next visiting couple are food junkies aka health freaks, so we will spend a lot of time on food streets/at restaurants and also take them to try yoga, wake them up early in the morning so that they can see people practicing tai qi, etc.

Anyway, one thing that we are having a little bit of a problem with, now when there are so many friends coming over at the same period of time, is to take them out to restaurants/new spots. We obviously want to take them to our fave places, but it’s not fun for ourselves to go to the same restaurant four weeks in a row.

So, I was wondering if you guys would like to share your best travel experiences of Shanghai. Have you lived here? Travelled here? What was your best experience? Where did you do your best shopping bargain? Where did you eat your best meal? All recommendations welcome! We have a massive list, but since I will be playing the role of a tour guide this spring, I wouldn’t mind seeing some new places too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When to be spontaneous and flexible -and when not

When not to be spontaneous and vague: Swedish weddings

Yesterday I met a Swedish girl who just got engaged, after her boyfriend proposed to her during the CNY. She was over the moon about everything: the romantic engagement (he proposed while they were scuba diving in Thailand and she almost drowned when she saw the ring, nodded “yes!” and forgot to breathe). They are planning to have the wedding this summer in Sweden and she told me that she was surprised by the lack of flexibility showed by her friends back home.

As they live in China, they obviously had to pick a date during their summer holiday, so let’s say mid July. All of their Chinese friends thought it was great and many of them are going to fly over just for the wedding. You would think that in Sweden, where 80-90% of the population is having a holiday around that time, it wouldn’t be any problems when it comes to attending a wedding, but think twice, because apparently it is:

-How can you pick a wedding date during the peak holiday season? A friend of her asked. I’ve already planned a trip to France at that time.

Oh, yes, the things you tend to forget while living over here. Swedes are masters when it comes to planning ahead. We plan our weeks and weekends well in advance, and each year in February, we fill the sheet for when we wish to have our summer holiday. Around June/July people decide if they want to celebrate Christmas at home that year, or take a trip to Thailand to get away from all the hysteria. Although I’ve gotten much better at being spontaneous and flexible since moving abroad, I still plan things like “when to call my family back home” at least one week in advance. It’s pretty simple: mom always knows what they are doing every weekend for at least the upcoming month, and can easily tell me if I should call home on Saturday or Sunday, and around what time.

In China, things change fast and people don’t really plan ahead. I think people over here are too scared of missing out on something better, and therefore it can sometimes be hard to get something written in the stones. I remember for instance when we arranged a house warming party. At leats 30 people RSVP:ed, saying they would come. But at the party night, it was freezing outside, rained heavily and felt like one of those nights where you’d just like to stay in and watch a DVD. All the invited foreigners still turned up for the party, while half of the Chinese part suddenly couldn’t make it because of various reasons.

I’m a planner by nature (I love making lists, planning holidays and organizing myself), but living abroad has made me a bit too keen on everything, and therefore my near and dear ones have learned not to take my planning too seriously. For each holiday season I have ambitious plans of going to Vienna, Italy and Spain, ON TOP of Finland and Sweden, and people just listen to me and nod, while they think: “Oh, here we go again.” I was the same when I planned to do my journalism degree abroad (something I had decided to do when I was about 10), I came home one day saying I was going to Singapore, the next I was going to New York, and when I finally decided on Australia, my mom didn't take me seriously until I asked her to come to the bank with me to pay the registration fee. "Oh, so you're really going?!" she asked. "Yeah, I TOLD YOU SO!" I said. Then she got a bit nervous.

Still, I like to keep things flexible and spontaneous, because those night outs that happen without being planned/random weekends spent in Inner Mongolia just because I needed a “quick getaway!” are normally the best ones.

Q&A session

Q: "What's the best thing about China?!" A: "Chinese food! And all the lovely Chinese people that I have met formed a friendship with over here!"

I've been quite bad at replying to comments/questions asked in the comment's field lately -sorry about that. I'm just trying to spend less time in front of the computer and more time at the gym/yoga club. Anyway, since I know some of you might have questions you want to be answered, here's an opportunity to ask me anything about life in China/bout learning Chinese/about moving here, and I'll try my best to reply. Note that I am not some kind of China expert in any way, so all my answers will have my personal twist.

Obviously I won't answer questions that I find offensive.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Funny assumption or just inappropriate?

In China, it's all about being a twosome!

Yesterday and male colleague and I decided to change our lives and join a gym. We didn’t make any appointment but simply showed up at a place that we’ve heard is good. A sales girl was soon by our sides, showing us around, throwing out funny little comments that we politely laughed about. Something that will never fail to astonish me is how Chinese people react when you tell them that you’ve been doing sports all of your life. For me it’s such a natural thing, and if I ever get kids I know I’ll encourage them to try all kinds of sports until they find something they like and want to do. Chinese kids are obviously busy with their heavy load of homework.

Anyway, once we had done the compulsory tour we sat down to discuss the membership fee.

-So, you want a yearly membership… bla bla bla, the grils started, drawing figures on a piece of paper (another thing that I don’t quite understand here: what is this obsession with writing down prices on paper or typing them into a calculator. Why can’t people just tell you the price to your face? Is it because they are scared that someone else will overhear it and that it will ruin a potential haggle-fest with that person?).

-And, what about your husband? The girl eventually said, turning to my workmate.

-Eh… we are not… No no! We are not married!

-Oh, sorry, your boyfriend?

-No, no no no no!!!! Eh, hehe! We are colleagues!

-Oh… I see. I just thought you two looked like such a match!

-Eh… right. Eh….

Biiiiig meaningful smile from the sales girl making us feel ....uncomfortable? Weird? Strange? Take your pick. I don’t even know this male colleague of mine very well, he kind of just started working with us. And I’m not sure if we are ready for such jokes yet.

In China, however, it is totally OK to throw these kinds of comments around. I don’t know how many times me and my boyfriend go somewhere and we are addressed as siblings, just because we are both tall and blonde (nevermind that we don’t have the same eye colour. Not important). I wonder if this would change if we were engaged? Do people here pay attention to engagement rings the same way people do in the west? Might be worth it putting a ring on then, just to avoid any kind of confusion: like me being seen as married to my colleague or being a somewhat messed up person who’s having a love affair with my brother.

Yikes... that actually sounds real awful! Can that be used as an argument for a speedy engagement?!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Summer lovin

I'm starting to feel a little bit better after a health week from hell. This wknd came right on time! And what to do on a wknd when you're supposed to take it easy, relax and when you don't have any visitors in town? Well, plan our summer holiday of course! Right now we are looking at tickets to go to London for a long wknd. We just had friends from London visiting us here in Shanghai and they did a good job promoting the city. I actually lived in London for 6 months after I graduated from high school. I shared a flat with 7 (!) other people close to Marble Arch tube station. Although I would never, ever do that today, it was probably one of the best things I could have done back then. I had so much fun and learned so much about myself (such as: never share a flat with people that you don't know!).

Except for London we also obviously have to go to Sweden and Finland. Ah summer... Still so far away, but nothing wrong with dreaming, right?!

I have a mad crush on Finland during the summers. It's simply so beautiful, I just love it. Looking at the pictures from 2009 when I did a summer vacancy in Finland and had the time to travel around for a bit makes me wanna go so much. I have a quite contradictive taste when it comes to what I like. In one way, I looooove big cities like London, Shanghai, Seoul and New York (technically, I haven't actually been in New York yet, but it's currently the number 1 destination on our list, and I know I will LOVE it). At the same time, I'm a nature geek who just loooooves small towns, hills, forests and lakes. I prefer all of that to a beach holiday, every single day. Where can you live and get both?!

Summer of 2009 in Finland was awesome. Spent some time in Hankasalmi, where my significant other's family has got the most amazing summer cottage. Three giant samoyed dogs don't make matters worse. I love dogs!

Also did a road trip to Savonlinna, which was like a summer dream. This photo is taken around 10pm!

Caught up with one of my best friends, Anna, in Helsinki

...and saw some old friends in Tampere!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bring on the new generation

Some week or so before I got sick I met with a fellow female expat: a middle-aged, immaculately dressed business queen, that had already climbed much higher than me on the career ladder.

As we sat there, drinking our coffees, I realized how little she in fact knew about China. She’d been here for quite some years, but not by her own choice, and that came through in our conversations. She didn’t say anything racial against Chinese people, but it was just the way she spoke of Chinese, as if they were a lower class of citizens. And when I gently tried to turn the conversation, or share some good stories of some of my great Chinese friends, she wouldn’t listen. In her world, having local friends was not even something she’d consider.

Fair enough. Her choice. Her loss. And she’s more successful than me. At least at this moment.

But when I left the café I couldn’t help but thinking that women, or people like her, are going to become a distinguished breed in China. Think in 20 or so years time: when all those youngsters that are now rushing to schools and universities to study Chinese language and Asian culture, have graduated, gained some work experience, maybe spent some years in China. Then this market is going to be tough for those who doesn’t wanna be here, doesn’t speak and language, and doesn’t care one iota when it comes to learning about the culture. I see so many western men and women on top positions in China right now, some with very little knowledge, or even interest in understanding how China really works (note: I'm not generalizing here. I said I've seen a lot of those kind of expats. On the contrary, I've also met some really cool CEO expats with an amazing China knowledge and experience, who speak fluent Chinese and who I really admire and look up to).

Not saying that I do. Oh no, allow me to be humble. But I’m not a CEO, neither am I running my own business, and I am definitely not walking around thinking that I’m better than everyone else. I seriously don’t understand what those kind of people are doing, living in China.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Not the most romantic Valentine's Day...

I’m back, after yet another unintentional blog break. This year is definitely not the year of good health of me: on Saturday night I got a stomach cramp and since then I’ve been bed bound. Valentine’s Day was spent crawling from the bed to the bathroom, vomiting and feeling as if my last moment had come.

Since I had a stomach ache for 3 days I decided to visit the hospital, just in case it would be the appendix (I know, I know, when the appendix is giving you problems you are probably so sick that you cannot even crawl, but still). The doctors took me very seriously (or is it just so that since most hospital over here are profit-driven they always wanna prescribe you loads of medicine/put you through surgery?) and ordered me to take a blood test etc. Now, at the sound of blood test I immediately started to feel queasy. I don’t know what it is, or why, but ever since I had a small operation when I was 12, I’ve been terrified of blood and needles (my mom and the doctors realized this some days before the operation when I was at the hospital to go through the procedure and the doctor was showing me a needle that was going to be put into my hand so that I could get drip via a tube. I hit the ground like a stone somewhere between “needle” and “drip.”).

Since I am perfectly aware of my fear (I basically faint every single time I have to give blood) I told the doctor AND the nurse about this, apologizing for being childish and all baby-like about it, but thinking that letting them know might make them more understanding. But, for some reason, people don’t take blood phobias seriously over here. I always tell, and still, they never listen. The nurse kept telling me to squeeze this and that (I cannot even check my own pulse without feeling nauseous) and when I told her I couldn’t she asked me to sit up and drink some water. Fortunately, the doctor came in as she asked me to sit, saw my white face and my body swaying, and ordered me to lie down again.

-You look like you were about to faint there for a while! He said with a laugh.

-Yes, just like I told you! I said, not laughing back.

Man, when are they going to listen? Do I have to fall down and hit my head in the stone ground so that they are going to let me lie down the next time for more than 30 seconds? I’m actually not sure.

Anyway, after my little faint scare I had to wait for my result for 40 minutes (!) feeling like I was about to throw up in a hospital smelling waiting room. Then I was told it wasn’t the appendix (phew!), but some other infection, got prescribed antibiotics and was sent home. Now let’s hope for a quick recovery so that I can start working out again. Feels like ages ago. Cannot believe that I once used to describe myself as sporty. I’m a far cry from being fit right now. Very sad.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Travelling during CNY -heaven!

I got a big surprise when I flew back to China on Feb 3, during the Chinese New Year, and realized that the plane was almost empty. When we were about to take off from Helsinki the captain came out to the cabin, and said: “OK people, welcome to your private jet that will take you to Shanghai!” with a big smile.

We were a total of 33 passengers on a huge Finnair plane that has a capacity of hundreds of people. Although I see myself as a social creature, I have to admit that it was F A N T A S T I C to be on a plane with so few people! The air stewardess were super friendly, giving us extra snacks and telling us that we could move around as much as we wanted (but then gently stopping a passenger that was on his way to business class). One little Chinese boy got so excited he wanted to try every single free seat in the plane (!) and ran around and made a mess.

Once we landed in Shanghai it was the same thing: no lines to the immigration counters, and the bags came after 5 minutes.

I had friends flying to Shanghai from Hong Kong and from London, and then another one going from Shanghai to Sweden via Moscow around the same time and they had similar experiences. So, if you prefer a flight with a minimum of people/heaps of legroom, I can definitely recommend you to fly during the Chinese New Year. Tickets around that time are cheap too. Sweet!

Immigration point at Pudong airport, Shanghai -no lines. No people

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lost at home

Can something be more crystal clear? I don't think so!

One thing that amazed me in Sweden was how badly equipped Stockholm city is for foreigners! All signs are in Swedish –and that’s not always easy to understand. Like, how is a non-Swedish-spoken person going to understand that “utgång” means exit?! I’m so used to China where there are signs for a lot of things in both Chinese/English, and sometimes even pictures.

Fortunately Swedes are pretty nice if you ask them for directions… if you are a foreigner. If you’re a Swede asking the wrong kind of Swede though… naaaah, not so much! So, sometimes when I’m in Sweden and get lost I ask people for directions in English. Works like a charm!

Speaking of getting lost, I have to admit that I feel a bit out of place when I am in Sweden. For instance, I never know how to order food in restaurants. You’re supposed to sit there and wait, and then discreetly give the waiter a meaningful look that says “yes, I’d like to order now!” and then the waiter is supposed to come up to your table and take your order? But what if the waiter never looks your way? Then you have to sit there and look hungry and meaningful for an hour because god forbid, you cannot put your hand in the air!

I have to say I prefer the Chinese way where you can call for the waiter or simply make a small wave without it being considered a rude gesture.

Jet lag grief

OK, either I’m aging too fast or there’s something wrong with me. I’ve been jet lagged for one week. One week! That’s pretty full on. And not healthy.

I’ve been living abroad for almost 10 years (ironically, my “10 year anniversary” is on September 11. Yes, I landed in London around the same time as a plane crashed into the World Trade Centre. Heard about it on the radio news in the taxi on my way from the airport). Out of those 10 years, 3,5 have been spent in Australia and 4,5 have been spent in China. In other words: I’ve been going back and forth between different time zones for 8 years! I SHOULD be used to this! And it should NOT take 1 week for the body to adapt.

Going back to Sweden (when you “gain” extra hours) is never a problem: it’s going back (and “losing” 7 hours) that messes things up for me. For the last week or so I believe I’ve slept a total of 10 hours (and I look the part) and my whole body is just not functioning: I’m not hungry when I’m supposed to be, my stomach is giving me grief and I get headaches when I’m supposed to be asleep. The other day I got so desperate I ended up getting sleeping pills from the pharmacy. But in the end I didn't dare to use them. I’ve been scared of medicine bought in China since a friend of mine went to a Chinese pharmacy ended up with sleeping pills that are banned in Europe because of dingy side effects. Also, I don’t want to start the whole sleeping pill carousel. It feels like a nasty one and I think it’s easy to get addicted. So, those pills I got are going to the bin!

Last night I managed to fall asleep (yay) and stay asleep (yay yay!) until 5am! Big improvement from the other nights where I have been awake until 4am and then fallen asleep for 2 hours before I’m awake again. I finally feel that things are going the right way.

But seriously –is it supposed to be like this for now?! That it takes a whole week to get back to normal? I’ve never had big issues with jet lag before. A day or two of being tired and then fine. Not a week of minimal sleep and desperate trips to the Chinese pharmacy. What do you guys do in order to beat the jet lag and get your body back into your old habits? I might be fine for now but I'm obviously going to be travelling again later this year.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Luxury bag craze

I’m back –jetlagged, sleep-deprived but excited to finally have stepped into the year of the rabbit (and to have the internet up and running, yay!)!

I had a good trip to Sweden and stayed at a beautiful hotel at Skeppsholmen in Stockholm. Not that I got to enjoy it that much though –each day was packed with meetings from early morning to late night. But that’s what work trips are about so I’m not complaining.

I travelled together with a Chinese colleague from Shanghai, and I think our biggest culture shock was the fact that the hotel where we were staying didn’t have any hot water boilers or mugs in the rooms.

When I went to the reception to ask for one, the front desk guy gave me a strange look:

-We don’t have any?

-But…. So… like… how do your guests drink tea then?!

At the end he gave me a thermos!! Haha! But better that than nothing. Didn’t keep the water very hot though. So note to self: one must always bring their own tea and hot water boilers when travelling and staying at hotels in Sweden.

The funniest thing about the trip, however, was when my colleague asked me for some free time to run an errand.

I asked her where she was going and she said:

-Louis Vuitton store.

-Eh… right?!
I looked at her. She was wearing a pink bagpack and fake leather boots. Did not really look like the kind of girl who would splurge on luxury handbags.

-Oh, I am buying a bag for my friend! She asked me to do it! Gave me loads of money to do so!

-Ahh…. But… like.. doesn’t she want to buy it for herself? Choose the bag for herself?

-Nah, she just wants it. She’s been saving for a year. And they are cheaper here in Sweden than in China. So she asked me to get it for her.

Wow. I must say that Chinese girls impress me when it comes to their luxury bag craze. I tried to envision it being me: having saved for one year (!) and then NOT getting the chance to buy the bag for myself? Not stepping into the store and selecting my dream bag, having the snotty Louis Vuitton shop assistants sucking up to me (they better be nice to their customers, right?!)? Not seeing my dream bag being packed into a luxurious bag and handed over to me? Not being able to take it home, unpack it, and stand with it, in front of the mirror and just look at how good it looks on my shoulder?! Yeah, I simply don’t get it –just buying it would be half of the pleasure?!

But sure, it makes perfect sense: if you just really want the bag then having a friend that is going abroad anyway getting it for you is kind of convenient. Even though it is kind of boring.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Net-less in Shanghai

Dear blog readers, forgive my absence. Since I got back to China last week I've been without an internet connection. Hopefully we'll get it fixed soon (I'm thinking tomorrow!). Until then.