Fortune Kooky

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While fortune cookies are explicitly analogous with Chinese cuisine, many Westerners would be surprised to find that most Chinese have never eaten a fortune cookie; the ones that have, just like us, probably wish they hadn’t. However, the Chinese would find the Japanese origin of the mostly-unsweetened-cookie-pocket to be even more scandalous than its lack of flavor. Though the facts surrounding the introduction of the confection into Western society are uncertain (it is suspected that Japanese entrepreneurs unfortunately took advantage of a niche market for stale baked goods), its popularity is not. The fortune cookie has been a mainstay in Americanized Chinese food culture since sometime in the 20th century, and its entertained and sometimes superstitious fan base isn’t wont to let it die out soon.

The paper-cut-happy slips of destiny inside these crunchy cardboard compartments are largely (read: entirely) responsible for the fortune cookies’ longevity. Whether or not you’ve bought into their ability to divine the future, wallpaper your dorm walls with morsels of wisdoms detailing the proper way to say ‘I ate too much’ in Chinese, or simply enjoy adding ‘in bed’ to the ends of the fortunes, you’re probably one of many Americans who find an increment of joy in reading ambiguously universal predictions.

In the time I have before class, I’ve compiled a list of fortunes that I think one might read were the cookie to be produced here:

1. “Step out in traffic without checking both ways ten times, never step anywhere again.”

2. “He that can’t endure the bad will not live to see the good, so stop whining and finish the cookie.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/niainneverland/6281601962/in/pool-21755378@N00/

3. “A black cat will cross your path and meow adorably. Do not touch it, it has rabies.”

4. ” You will soon be forced to make a choice between having a closed umbrella which is a useless umbrella, or an open umbrella which is a soon-to-be-demolished-by-the-wind umbrella.”

5. “Copyright laws, like menu descriptions, leave room for interpretation.”

6. “You will make a new friend on the bus whether you like it or not, with invasion of personal space as grounds for friendship.”

7. “Courtesy is contagious. Wear a mask.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/11482851@N00/5970841651/in/pool-21755378@N00/

8. “Save face, wear someone else’s.”

9. “You have a deep interest in all that is artistic. Good luck getting into college.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristinwilliams/6044716124/in/pool-21755378@N00/

10. “An admirer is concealing his affection for you. Call the police if he changes his tactics.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/rckmsckm/5985430758/in/pool-21755378@N00/

11. “Confucius say, stop quoting me unless you’re studying.”

12. “If you love your bicycle, leave it unlocked; if it loves you, someone will return it eventually.”

13. “Learn English: Economic Decline 经济衰退”

14. “Lucky Numbers: 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8.”

(of interest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/jamesreynolds/2008/07/lucky_number.html)

6 and 8 are both lucky, and 6+8 is 14, so I should stop here. But 1+4 is 5 and that’s bad. Guess I’ll just have to risk it.

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Becoming 明星:Babysteps towards rockstardom

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“They ambushed you in the hallway?!” I sputtered, shaking the rain from my Sesame Street umbrella as Camilla and I trudged up the slippery stairs of our 宿舍楼. “Did their purses also happen to be big enough for bodies? Say, involuntarily immobilized ones?”

“What, do you think I can’t judge character?” Camilla challenged, smiling.

Earlier that day, when Camilla was escaping the torrential price of living in a beautiful but rainy locale, a pair of girls had approached her in the stairwell. “Wow, you’re beautiful! And foreign!” they’d expressed admiringly, “Can you sing?” A surprised Camilla had hummed a few bars, and they’d collected her phone number, convinced. Their intention? To put her on stage during a festival and have her 表演.

This was not the first time I’d heard of ‘random acts of foreign entertainment collection.’ In fact, I’d been recruited before myself. One day in 口语课,a marginally unhinged but fun Polish-American had informed me that he liked to jam, and had been paid to play at a business function with a few of his international friends. I told him that ‘OhmygodIlovetosing’ and after making me prove it by singing to him in the dorm lobby, he gave my name to his agent (i.e., a bandmate’s ex). She emailed me the next day about a singing function, asking for my measurements and pictures of me– but not for a clip of my voice. If she wanted me to sing, shouldn’t she know whether or not I could?

The prevalence of jack-of-all-trade entertainment agents, who simultaneously serve as Chinese teachers, real estate agents, modeling agents, travel/passport acquisition agents, and probably secret agents, is due to the fact that EVERYONE IN CHINA IS OBSESSED WITH FOREIGNERS. I have a friend who was paid to stand at a door for an hour in a tux and do naught but say ‘Hello’ and smile (with gritted teeth- he felt a bit demeaned, but of course ‘sold out’ of his own accord). Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you can sing, dance, act, juggle plates, juggle lawnmowers, whatever; it just matters that you look foreign and that you look good doing it.

Though I’d declined to follow up with the first agent (I hadn’t met her and was a bit sketched out that she didn’t care if I could sing or not), I ended up getting scouted by a foreign singer herself at a loft party one evening.

“I have two gigs tomorrow night and I can’t make both of them!” she fretted, leafing through her planner. My ears perked up.

“What do you have to do?”

“Sing three songs, for like $100 each.” While there are a lot of agents and a lot of people who want to see foreigners perform, there aren’t that many foreigners, making them a hot commodity. Agents will literally stand outside classrooms, ready to poach a foreigner with potential for stage presence.

“I can sing,” I ventured, excited and nervous.

“Can you sing these songs?” she asked, her eyes brightening as she pushed a scrawled list of tunes into my hands. I suddenly became acutely aware of just how much of an aberration my musical taste is, and how much I’ve only ever memorized the lyrics to musical theater songs.

“I can memorize them quickly. When is the concert?”

“From 1pm-8pm tomorrow.” Oh. Rockstar dreams dashed again.

“I’m meeting my language partner, but please let me know if you ever need a backup?” I received an affirmation, and that was that.

Camilla had met her new friends in person, however, swore they were the real deal, and knew what the concert would be like; she had enough to go on to think the gig was both safe and that it would actually come to pass.

“Camilla,” I started nervously, “would you give them my name, too? If they need other singers, of course.”

“Sure, why not?” My heart leapt higher than a roundhouse-kicking monk.

Two days and many hours of agonizing over which song I should sing later, I put down my hairbrush microphone and went to meet the girls with Camilla. Insofar in my life, I’ve only sung songs that I sort of liked in legitimate performances (musical theater—I’m trained classically as a vocalist) and performed songs actually really like in karaoke bars; I’ve never had the opportunity to sing a favorite song at a real concert. With that in mind, I was really intent upon making a good impression. I wanted this.

The girls sat us down in the first floor of our dormitory and explained what would happen in Chinese. Of the twelve people in the performance, Camilla and I would be the only two singing. The entertainment, it turned out, is multitalented: dancers of all designs, musicians, you name it. When asked about our accompaniment, Camilla and I realized that it’d been a good idea to download the karaoke versions of our songs for practical use; we’d be singing on stage, by ourselves, with karaoke accompaniment. Not as real of a concert as I would have liked, but there would be a real stage and real speakers and real lights and real people listening to me try to be a fake rockstar, so I was appeased. Rather, I was in no position to make ultimatums. Camilla and I were asked to sing our songs again (I’d chosen I Think I’m Paranoid by Garbage, a band with a statuesque redheaded frontwoman whose voice is even deeper than mine), right there in the lobby. We complied, received positive feedback, and let down our guards a bit to get to know our ‘agents.’

An hour and a half of Chinese conversation later, I finally felt like I had a reason to be in China. The girls were students in the Fine Arts program (the Chinese have Fine Arts programs in college, kids, it’s not all Math and Science) who had planned the concert all by themselves—this was their pet project. The Chinese music scene is alive and well, and as someone with an interest in the music industry, it’s encouraging to think that a nation with over a billion people could be tapped as a potential audience, were I able to communicate with them effectively. The girls were genuinely interested in us and learning about our personal language histories, too—it wasn’t simply a business transaction. What’s more, they told us we were outgoing and pretty and that I was ‘sunshine.’ It always boggles my mind how much Chinese people think literally ANY foreigner is pretty, but I’m not complaining. I liked them already. The best part was getting to practice my Chinese in a real world setting—they knew a bit of English, but not much, and we both had to whip our trusty dictionaries out of their holsters to complete the lingual transactions.

Sometimes, though, even if the words themselves are understood, the meaning gets lost. When 天主 asked me if I could dance, I told her that I like to dance but that in America I’m considered to have two left feet. As I laughed to myself, I noticed the two girls eyeing my feet with surprise. They’d actually thought I had two left feet. Five minutes of laughter later, I managed to explain that I’d used an idiom.

The dress rehearsal is tomorrow, the concert the day after, and a huge after party with the girls’ friends right after that. I have a lot to look forward to, a lot of practicing to do, and a lot of artistic reasons to continue my Chinese education.

I Column Like I See ‘Em: The Last Mandated Tour, or, Thinking Deeply Without All The Facts Hurts Brains

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“The city we are going to visit is poor because there are lots of private businesses there.”
Say what, Tour Guide? I took out my earbuds. Lost in translation?
“They don’t like to pay their taxes so the government is weak.”
Oh, nope. Just China being oxymoronic… like usual… hold on a second, I see what’s going on here…

Train of thought (Moral of Story: Don’t make rash assumptions, especially when sleepy): Greed is pervasive in Chinese culture, even though the Chinese insist that they’re community-oriented (haha oriented)… but, those two things don’t go together, so China’s a hypocrite? Will I only find peace in studying China when I affirm that I can’t understand it because its culture is in flux? Wait… are my standards for hypocrisy different than the Chinese standards? Is it okay for concepts that don’t mesh to exist side by side? How do I say ‘standards for appraisal’ again, 评价的标准,right?Man, these seats are uncomfortable… am I, am I listening to Bob Dylan? Or is that Britney Spears?

…yep.

8 am is way too early to start blowing my mind.

———–
The gaggle of groggy undergrads and myself had flung our appendages about the tour bus seats (themselves so mod they would not be out of place on the cover of a geometry textbook), readying ever so gradually for what would be a taxing day. Part of participating in the Xiamen Program, Professor Yue’s pet project, is paying homage to a plethora of historical places. On Saturday, this meant spending a workday’s worth of time taking in various Confucian temple museums and the creepy robe-clad mannequins within. We weren’t so thrilled about rising with the sun and proceeding to involuntarily immobilize within seat constraints; I’d still managed to get a workout alongside khaki-clad businessmen at the track beforehand, as I anticipated sitting for the better part of the day. Even so, our group tries to make the best of edifying experiences, though why students would ever want to learn, I don’t know.

STOP NUMBER ONE: THE BUDDHIST/TAO/FOLK PARK

“No way,” I gaped, pointing at the tower of graduated roofs. “There is no way that is real. It looks digitally enhanced.”

We stood at the base of a skyscraper of a pagoda. It juts out from the ground in waves of rock, its peak seemingly flush against the clouds. I’m usually appreciative of architecture, but not maniacally so (buildings are just inanimate collections of stuff—a bunch of atoms you can’t really interact with [unless you count vandalism, but I won’t {publically} condone that]) but I’d never seen a pagoda before, and I was more impressed with rocks than usual; Too big for my scope of vision, it required more than a good stare, or even a scan of the eyes, to comprehend. While our tour guide gave us a lecture, Professor Yue simultaneously gave his own bonus lecture. Meanwhile, I noticed an expanse of chains reminiscent of a ropes about a ship’s mast at the top of the pagoda—structural or aesthetic, I wasn’t sure. I asked about them in Chinese (dumbdumbdumb), to which I received an answer (as expected) in Chinese, and came away with no new knowledge other than how to say ‘chain.’ I remain yet suspended in my understanding of suspensions.

We then checked out a giant wall embossed with three-dimensional images of creatures. According to the tour guide (who we understood despite the Chinese explanation this time), the big image in the middle was of one of the sons of a dragon that gave birth to nine ‘different skinned’ (unlike) children. This one happened to be, I think, a unicorn—but all the Chinese mythological creatures look equally four-legged, scaled, and fire-breathing to me in their temporal depictions, so I’m not sure. On either side of the ‘unicorn’ were cranes and a special kind of tree (whose name I didn’t understand despite the English explanation), representing Taoism and Buddhism, respectively. When I asked then, for which sect exactly is this yard intended, the tour guide and Professor Yue explained that while the yard is primarily Buddhist, conflicting faiths and ideas intermingle in China (Okay! Score!). Buddhism isn’t Chinese in origin, so it’s had to integrate itself into the culture with the help of native adaptations. According to Professor Yue, the laymen’s version of Buddhism isn’t even pure Buddhism. When we visited the yard’s main temple, presided upon by a family of intimidating golden buddhas, Professor Yue told me that I was right in saying that the purpose of Buddhism was to let go of material attachment—which is why it’s ironic that people pray to a Buddha. As he would mention again at the Confucian temple, people need something to pray too (I disagree), or something to ground themselves (I find plausible). I then asked about the tiny green aberration of a monster (in Chinese again- I NEVER learn) that was peaking out from behind a Buddha. Though my first stab at understanding let me to believe it was a bodhisattva, I later realized that it was a Buddha’s personal steed. In any case, it was seriously deranged in appearance; I could only imagine riding one at a rodeo. That would be one exciting way to re-enter the cycle of rebirth.

After that, we played in the courtyard and took pictures with shocked Chinese children. It was here that I would make one of my worst puns to date.

“Hey Alex,” I started, as Janice, Jaydee and Keeli climbed the roots of a fichus to pose for a picture, “how many Asians fit in a fichus?”

“I don’t know, Hannah. Do I want to?”

“Tree.”

I should have hung my head in shame, but Alex took it upon himself to complete that task for me.

STOP NUMBER TWO: I DON’T REMEMBER SO IT MUST BE SOMETHING SUPER IMPORTANT OR NONEXISTANT

STOP NUMBER THREE: THE MUSLIM MOSQUE, c. 1009

We stared at the ground, ambivalent. At a point in the distant past, the entire dome of the mosque’s prayer hall had caved in, covering the ground in priceless relics. The keepers of the mosque decided to build a new prayer hall rather than clear the scene, and time had allowed the ground to reclaim the dome and cover it with a lush layer of grass and other weeds. “If you like treasure, you should dig here!” our tour guide joked lightheartedly. I hoped that there were no imams in earshot.

The mosque also had a mini-museum with various documents detailing the ‘pedigrees’ of some families and ‘genealogies’ of others. Racism, or unintentionally poor translation? I never asked.

Other exciting stops and the inside jokes that accompany them (this post is long enough already…)

STOP NUMBER FOUR: LUNCH AT THE BLUE NUN (or, The One Where Everetttook our pictures as we ate Buddha only knows what)

STOP NUMBER FIVE: THE CONFUCIAN TEMPLE (or, The One Where I made even more bad puns, just like everywhere else, and Professor Yue taught us that Confucius is prayed to as a god even though he tells people that he can only help people who help themselves)

STOP NUMBER SIX: THE MARITIME MUSEUM AND ISLAMIC CENTER (or, The One Where we, tired, expressed Zoolanderesque astonishment at the model boats [‘Let’s hire different engineers, these ships are too small, and hey! Why are they testing their ships in stagnant water? There’s no wind here!’ ‘This rock is the first and only rock used as a boat.’ etc.).

As we walked through the museum, I accidentally turned off the filter between my brain and mouth and started rambling inanely about my personal philosophies.

“My conscious is telling me that I should feel bad for generally not appreciating museums, but, people are too attached to attaching meaning to things. They should just accept that this stuff is just matter (oh boy materialism, here we go) doing nothing right now. I know that on a deeper level they’ve HAD meaning before, and in the context of human existence they’ve meant major turning points in innovation, but… I just don’t feel like appreciating them. I’m utilitarian. Is it wrong that I only attach meaning to things when they apply to my life and ungraciously deny meaning to things that don’t directly influence my existence or help me? Or…”

At this point, Rich stopped me (thankfully, ‘cuz I probably wouldn’t have stopped myself).

“Woman, you’re trippin’,” he said, “most people don’t think this much. It’s a rock. A ROCK. Maybe you should just recognize that these stones and ship models are kind of boring and move on. Stop analyzing. Take a nap or start making sense.”

I was struggling to isolate my conscious from my ego while simultaneously trying to find meaning in the fact that I wasn’t finding meaning. Rich is right: no way these models, or anything really, deserve that much of my mind.

STOP NUMBER SEVEN: THE CONFUCIAN TOMBGARDEN er GRAVEYARD (there goes my English, oh dear) (or, The One With the yards that look like empty pools, replete with unused towels, and have really bad paint jobs; also, The One Where Rich decided that if when he becomes Ruler of the World, he will spend government money on creating a sculpture of a giant man on a horse with a raised hand to complement the one that exists on a hill at the cemetery, to represent The Most Epic High Five The World Has Ever Seen (‘Isn’t he just shielding his eyes from the sun?’ ‘NO IT’S A HIGH FIVE!’)

I SHOULD STOP WRITING BECAUSE I’M UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF CAFFEINE.

Shanghailights: Part III

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“It’s like a farmers’ market!” My mother yelled ecstatically as she sank into a quicksand-like crowd. Grabbing for her hand, I pulled her out of the baked goods section of Shanghai Foods and navigated away from the throng.

Shanghai Foods, the giant expo center of treats set a few hundred yards from where my mother and I stayed in the city, is set up much like a department store, but without room to try out the goods. Apart from mounds of ‘by the kilogram’ goodies, schools of ‘has been’ fish and items marked International Goods (an aside: if Chinese grocery stores were the main authority on the international community, one would think that the only foods available outside of China are coffee and chocolate. Amazingly, the world subsists), Shanghai Foods plays host to a bustling cafeteria set apart from the grocery foods. After perusing a selection of meat buns varying enough to rival Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., we found a dumpling restaurant in the cafeteria and I ordered my mother a plate of them. I am yet to become a connoisseur of Chinese food, but I figure that if the girls working at Pizza Hut came to eat lunch there openly, the dumplings must have been comparatively good. We sat with an ABC Chinese, finished our meal, and went to explore The Bund.

Foreign influence in China is best expressed by The Bund’s skyline. A fascinating stretch of embassies and economic edifices, The Bund follows alongside the RIVER as a symbol of international intellectual colonialism. Over the past few hundred years, foreigners have taken over Shanghai and then been ‘beaten at their own game.’ In an effort to take back their pride, the Shanghai government funded various projects allowing the Chinese to technologically advance further in fields created by foreigners, as with skyscrapers. In sincerely hope that the purpose of the skyline is to attract foreign capital to the city as it is prestigious in the public eye, rather than to simply create reason for pride—the Chinese might be winning at a foreign-created game, but they’re letting foreigners dictate the rules of the game by agreeing to play it. In my opinion, Shanghai is like a beautiful celebrity who’s gotten significant plastic surgery—she’s still pretty, but there’s something off and unnatural about her. How could China modernize without Westernizing? In China’s eyes, according to the books we’ve read, China modernizing is a means to soft power, which is a means to hard power. If China has what the international community wants, then it will command respect, and only then will it be able to dictate rules to a new game that plays by China’s rules. In the book What Does China Think?, the author sets up an analogy called ‘The Village of Zebras’ which further explains this style of thinking, whereby a rising power masques something new with something old and gradually replaces what’s old with what’s new as people get used to it. Although the analogy relates mainly to styles of economic development rather than urban and cultural development, it seems like it would be a good way to gain the respect of the international community. You have to play the game before you can rewrite it. ANYWAYS, my mother and I traveled along The Bund as tourists principally, appreciating rather than assessing the ‘authenticity’ of the view.

That night, we found dinner at Xintiandi, a renovated beauty of a shopping district made out of the dilapidated remains of sikumen houses. Rather than demolish the relics of the past, Shanghaiese contractors salvaged the sikumen and gave them new life. In an essay I wrote for class, I expressed how it was sad that the sikumen were only deemed worthwhile if they could be made utilitarian, but in a land where land itself is scarce, things really do need to have utility to remain.

The next day, we strapped on our fanny packs and set off on foot to find the Copy Market, Shanghai’s ‘secret’ five-story celebration of copyright infringement. The bazaar, hidden in a building marked ‘Korea Market,’ plays host to kiosk after kiosk of scarves emblazoned with Hermess, Yevs Sante Lawrent Type purses, and native Shanghaiese who, speaking broken English, drag you up all four floors to their hidden rooms of belts and then accost you for wasting their time and making them vulnerable to police and they need you, pretty lady, to survive (guilt tripping tactics times a million) when you tell them you’ll ‘come back later.’ After a billion hours, my mother and I came away with various scarves, bags, backpacks, belts, wallets, new Chinese vocab words (courtesy of one seller who, seeing that I was actually trying to learn her language, helped me learn obscure colors), and tougher skin—appealing to emotions is part of the transaction, and you can’t let that affect you if you want to get a good price. We finished the day with a stroll around Beijing and a trip to the Good Fragrance Restaurant, a ‘Florida Gothic’ style establishment reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The food was awesome, a wedding was going on, and a bellboy watched me attempt to eat a crab for about an hour. I was definitely getting used to eating outside of the cafeteria.

Our last day in Shanghai, we took in a leisurely breakfast, took another walk (this time knowing the city well enough not to inadvertently walk into an apartment complex), visited The Gap and picked up PANTS because it’s COLD in Shanghai, and then decided that we ought to take in a bit of culture via a trip to an exposition center. The SUPEC, or 上海城市规划展示馆 would give anyone a reason to like Shanghai. Decorated with giant sculptures and accolades, the brick ode to cityscape expansion and renovation soars skywards from its post in 人民公园 (People’s Park), celebrating the most efficient urbanization process in all of history. As I wandered its multiple floors of pristine halls, I wondered if it is too celebratory. The lack of critical exhibitions, paired with unfailing praise of the city’s efforts, give it a commercial edge rather than a purely historical one, and so I am questioning of my sources as objectively historical. Regardless of the promotional nature of the place, Ever since reading the book The Concrete Dragon by Thomas Campanella, a UNC Professor, I’ve been skeptical of Shanghai’s modern resplendence. Campanella calls the SUPEC “a symbol of triumph over the past and its humiliations” in a “reclaim[ed] city” but the city’s new architecture continues to be built in foreign fashion albeit sinofied; a style that requires using Western technology and Western design to promote a desired image, because what is Western seems to represent what is prosperous (as Mark Leonard writes in What Does China Think?, ‘the cult of the United States of America’ ). Like I wrote earlier, by insisting on ‘doing the West one better,’ I believe that China is foregoing its own ways of doing things and letting the West dictate what the game is. When I walked into the third floor of the center to see the Gastone Biggi exhibit—an exhibition of an Italian modern artist whose work, while impressive, had nothing to do with Shanghai or urban planning– I not only felt the idea that having Western accents was a plus in China, but truly understood the commonly held sentiment that Shanghai could have been built anywhere—anyone can show an international artist’s work, anywhere. Apart from an obscure modern art exhibit and pro-business jargon, the expo center has a floor celebrating Maoist society, a 1:120 replica of Shanghai that takes up an entire floor and uses about as much electricity to light up as a small American town, a 30 minute highly-advanced (read: green screen) film detailing the glorious history of Shanghai (with foreign actors and English subtitles! I’m pretty sure they want foreigners to read only the really simple stuff discussing how Shanghai has become awesome, because the stuff I actually wanted to read about was the stuff that wasn’t translated—I wonder what they’re keeping from me, with my lack of knowledge!), and, MOST surprisingly, an interactive children’s center encouraging people to design their own cities. One thing I’ve noticed about China is that people aren’t encouraged to debate, or create; they’re encouraged to memorize and further existing concepts. In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve technologically, however, maybe the government is pushing people to experiment and innovate, even if only in the context of a simple children’s digital game.

That evening, we returned to Xintiandi, packed up our bags, and readied ourselves to return home— er, to Xiamen.

I haven’t been writing much as I’m getting ready for midterms and presentations as well as partying with giant Montenegrins and a sizable delegation of other Eastern Europeans. I’ll try to write more soon, though!

Shanghailights: Part II

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We woke up the next morning refreshed and with expectations of epic proportions for the day. However, it was the hordes of Chinese tourists that conveyed ‘epicness’ rather than our touristy conquests. An hour after leaving the hotel, we found ourselves taking refuge in the quiet and hallowed halls of a four-story Starbucks (星吧克), an Eastern shrine to Western prosperity. Just outside, half of the Chinese population grappled for space on a ferry for which space was limited and becoming flotsam was imminent. I had anticipated taking my mother ashore Gulangyu (鼓浪屿),but decided that my other family members would not look fondly upon my mother and I being asphyxiated against the flimsy walls of a Chinese ferry, and so grudgingly began brainstorming a Plan B. The building with the Starbucks, as a result of it being less of a tourist attraction than Gulangyu, was devoid of life.

While wandering a building quieter than a Chinese college library, we came across a wall-sized infographic discussing the history of tea in China. As I blatantly showed off my reading skills to my mother, a man in an apron descended upon our duo from the direction of an equally dead café. To my surprise, after introducing myself to him in Chinese, he began a conversation with my mother and I in fluent English. The man, whose name I am embarrassed to have forgotten, told us that the café had opened two weeks ago, and he had just come back to China after living in Miami for five years. Currently, the café employed three people—more people than would be dining there, including my mother and I. This realization brought with it a respite for me from ordering in Chinese and an opportunity for the both of us to monopolize an entire café staff’s attention.
While eating, my mother looked out the window with a look of amusement and disbelief.

“What’s up, Mom?”
“China is surreal.”
“How so?”
“I get a feeling here that I haven’t felt since visiting my grandparents in Florida when I was a little girl. It’s a sense of community and openness, I believe, that can only exist in places of homogeneous ethnic background. When everyone is old and Jewish, you know how to interact with people, and there’s a sense of trust and family. In China, because the people themselves are of the same lineage, everyone interacts with there guards down— there’s one way of life. Not only that, but China itself is surreally industrially and culturally reflective of America in the 1970’s—it physically looks like Florida and the people live like they do there, too.” Kinda Twilight Zone. “It doesn’t just remind me of what a homogeneous society acts like.” The afternoon was surprisingly productive, just not in the sense I thought it would be.

We went back to school by way of the beach, where my mother and I became the subject of a group of Chinese girls’ interest. While my mother expressed surprised delight at how giddy the girls were and how much they wanted to speak with us, I was jaded. I’d been in China long enough to know that it had nothing to do with me, but the fact that I was foreign; I’d been desensitized to people being surprised at my existence.

“I used to like getting my picture taken and feeling like a celebrity but it’s kind of unsettling now. I feel bad because it’s not even like I earned the attention. I want to just be left alone. And they’re always staring at me; I have nowhere to just be. I feel like they’re judging me.”
“Hannah, it might not be a big deal for you anymore to be here, but think about what we talked about earlier. What if you’d grown up in a society where everyone acted one way and looked one way, and one day, you saw a girl wearing different clothing and looking drastically different than yourself. You happen to have some skill in a language that would allow you to speak with her, but you don’t even know where to begin—how do you interact with something you don’t understand? Each time you meet someone here, there’s a chance that you as a foreigner are a rarity to them.
You’ve grown up in America, though, where political correctness exists to allow for different ways of life, and you’re used to living with people who don’t look and act like you. While being the only one who’s different a lot of the time was at one point reason for culture shock here, you’re even used to that now. Re-orient yourself to see just how amazing what you’re doing is! In the end, just because someone wants to approach you isn’t just about you doesn’t mean interaction can’t be interesting for you, and you’re not necessarily being judged. Just humor them.”

It really isn’t about me—it’s about differences between groups of people. I am an ambassador of culture—American, and Jewish. It is in the best interest of other members of my cultures to present myself as likeable and understanding. Moreover, a Chinese person looking at me is about curiosity, not necessarily judgment. Anyways, how can you judge something accurately or even know how to approach comprehending something if your judgment system might not even account for what you’re judging?

In the end, even if I’m feeling overwhelmed and jaded by other people’s shock, I have to remember that there’s a reason for that shock: it is somewhat about me. Not only am I different, but I’m doing something extraordinary all the time. I’m voluntarily living outside my comfort zone and expanding the comfort zones of others, just by being near them. I’m the foreigner doing that. I’m the foreigner who made the choice to study abroad. Simply by being brave enough (or crazy enough) to do that, to challenge myself to live like someone else, I’m a curiosity, as an individual. I did earn the attention.

Maybe getting my picture taken isn’t so bad.

Shanghailights: Part One

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On October 7th, 2011, I officially boogied my two left feet into the realm of adulthood, earning my rights to both imbibe a half-glass of wine before ‘feelin’ it’ and tell children to do as I say, not as I do. My mother braved the wild world of Chinese air travel to mark the occasion, flying across the Pacific to spend a week with me. Unbeknownst to her, the reason that I happened to have time off on my birthday was not because the entire country was celebrating my milestone, but rather because it occurred within the timeframe of when the Communist Party likes to celebrate its own birth. Once a year, the Chinese are encouraged to take time out of snapping pictures of themselves wearing cowboy hats to do so in other areas of China during an event humorously titled National Day Holiday Week. The week long vacation is meant to encourage national tourism, thereby increasing both national pride and the profits of national businesses. More importantly for my mother and I, that meant that we would be fighting for foot space in Xiamen and Shanghai with the most ardent tourists China has to offer. Fanny packs packed and tourist maps at the ready, we accepted our challenge and embarked on a seven-day epic.
             We started simply; culture shock can hinder agreeable passing of vacation time. After waking up from my first full night’s sleep since coming to China, my mother and I left the hotel for a self-guided tour of my university. We survived our taxi ride (something you never, EVER take for granted), and began a walk that would end up being my mother’s introduction to my roommate and room (she brought us both vitamins), Chinese cafeterias (she made the wise decision to postpone {forever} eating there), and Chinese travel laws, or the lack thereof (I think she reprimanded herself internally for ever allowing me to cross the street by myself here, and made me promise never to walk into any street occupied by a bus- ambulating has become circuitous since). I ordered lunch for us in a family-run restaurant, which had the effect of turning my mother off of family-run restaurants. It should be noted that, while a menu’s language is translatable, its recipes and cooking styles might not be between cultures. After lunch, I attempted to redeem the laymen’s Chinese cuisine with a trip to see Zhongshanlu, or ‘Middle Mountain Road.’ Zhongshanlu is famous for it’s smorgasbord of live shellfish in tubs, dead shellfish in pans, and veritable harvest of exotic fruits. While we didn’t partake of street food (it’s not advisable to eat anything in China unless you’ve watched it be prepared), I did get a chance to exercise my Chinese abilities while shopping in the mall! We detoured at the hotel before trying out a famous Xiamen restaurant called Good Taste Restaurant, a locale we later learned traditionally caters to parties larger than your average football team. While full flocks of ducks were being devoured around us, we were having our purses awkwardly stowed underneath seat cushions and picking at our tamer Western portioned meals for our Western sized stomachs. We retired to our hotel with significantly more knowledge and, surprisingly, not significantly less cash—the exchange rate in China definitely suits the American pocketbook.