A Travellerspoint blog

The Kindness of Strangers

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My decision to visit China last year was based on what I’d learnt in my A-Level Geography classes. I read a few textbooks and watched the odd BBC documentary and gained an impression of China that I imagine many have. Some of what I read and the assumptions I made proved to be true, both the good and the bad. A piece of me may have been initially disappointed when I stepped off the plane and didn’t walk right into a scene from Mulan. And I won’t pretend that I’ve been accepting of everything that I’ve seen here, or that I’ve warmed to every Chinese person that I’ve met.

Nevertheless, I decided to come back to China this year based on what surprised me the most about the Middle Kingdom. While the ideas we have in the West about the Chinese may be true to an extent, what I’ve seen brings me to their defence every time. I wonder if it is purely because I’m foreign that I’ve been shown so many random acts of kindness but I’ve been treated by the Chinese, both in rural Yunnan and in cosmopolitan Shanghai, in a way that I’ve never seen people treat one another before.

People don’t stare or take photos in the (sometimes) claustrophobic way that they do in Yunnan, most people that serve you won’t bat an eyelid and can speak to you quite confidently in English. Occasionally someone on the metro will look at you inquisitively, or you get the impression that waitresses have a particular interest in your order (from the way that they totter off to discuss the event) but overall I’ve lived quite normally here. But what constantly reminds me that this is a unique country are the small things that people have done for me.

First, the genuine concern my Chinese colleagues show whenever I tell them I’ve been somewhere by myself may be annoying be to some, but to me really touching. “But how will you know what to do?” “How did you make communication?” they worriedly ask. I reassure them that if I go anywhere alone it’s usually somewhere that I’ve practised my Chinese before and somewhere that I feel confident. They never look convinced and I know they are waiting to hear some of my Chinese phrases. On my first day, I told a Chinese girl in the office that I was going to get a coffee. “I’ll come with you.” I explain to her that latte is a universal term, but she walks me there anyway. I have since passed the how clueless is this foreigner test, but my friend still likes to ask questions at me in Chinese until I give her a sufficient answer. If I answer in English, I’m soon taught what I said in Chinese. Perhaps I’ve never seen such concern before because every tourist I’ve ever met has been able to speak English, so I’ve never felt that worry towards someone trying to get around.

The next is that once someone has served you, they remember you. The third time I went into aforementioned Uncle Toast, a young boy came out from the counter and pointed to Peanut Butter Toast on the menu. I then saw him talking to his mum and as she pointed at me, he let out a sigh of despair. He trudged over to me with the milk tea he had just bought. I gather that he sais something along the lines of my mum told me to give this to you and I really can’t believe he did, for no other reason than the fact they know that English people like tea. In the pizza place, I decided not to bother the waitress once again with the pantomime of asking for olives on my pizza. But after taking my order she runs back over, points to the word olive and asks if I would like some. The next time I go in a waitress I hadn’t seen before serves us so I definitely don’t bother her with extra toppings. The chef pokes his head out the door after a few minutes and sure enough, my pizza arrives with olives.

Lastly, when it rains here, it’s almost monsoonal. I’ve never seen such swollen raindrops. The traffic is worse than ever when the rain is bad and taxis hurtle past whatever colour the lights are, so there isn’t much chance of crossing the road. A canopy of umbrellas formed around me and I made a mental note to barter with the nearest street vendor for one of my own later. My bad mood was made worse by a girl standing ridiculously close to me, but then the rain seems to stop falling and a purple hue hangs over me and I realise the girl is actually holding her umbrella over me. I’m so surprised by her kindness that I keep looking up to see if she means to hold the umbrella over my head, but as the lights change and I step out into the road she walks with me shoulder to shoulder. She askes me where I’m going and I point towards my office and she apologises that she works in the other direction. The street where I work is very busy and crowds of people pour out of the metro, I really couldn’t believe a stranger had seen me without an umbrella and made the effort to walk to where I was standing.

It’s these things that I think are most important about China and taught me the most about the country. So sometimes an older member of the public will physically lean against you on the metro as if you yourself are the door-frame or will constantly tap at you or stand on your foot until you move. But then a teenager will grab hold of your bag and pull you into the carriage if it looks like your arm is about to get crushed in the door. A businessman will give up his seat for you, insisting that you take it even if the next stop is yours. China seems to have no time for being awkward or embarrassed, if there is something they can do for you, in my experience, they will do it.

Posted by emilyferris 00:32 Archived in China Comments (0)

The very Western side of Shanghai - Part 2

Do you have any Percy Pigs?

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As I mentioned, however Western life can be here there are always little reminders that this is definitely China. My week continued with this in mind and I was sent home from work the next day after a sewage pipe burst next door. A maintenance worker kindly told us that we should all go for lunch, as soon the street would be out of use. We did not return.

This gave me the day to explore Tianzifang markets; put this at the top of your ‘To Do In Shanghai’ list. I don’t often get to see Shanghai during the afternoon so it was great to walk around the district while it was relatively quiet. The narrow streets consist of boutiques, café’s, galleries and shops selling traditional Chinese gifts. We were there for an hour or two but you could easily spend a whole afternoon there if you stop for lunch. We went to a small teashop that intricately brews any tea that you would like to try for free. This was probably the most ‘Chinese’ part of my week, and my friend was happy to practise some of his new speaking skills. But even so as we came out of the small streets and onto the main road, we found ourselves in Subway on the way home.

That night we went to Bar Rouge, a favourite spot for us interns and popular amongst expats and native Shanghainese alike. From the rooftop you get the perfect view of The Bund (Shanghai’s skyline) lit up and it’s worth going up for just for one drink to have a look. People are always lined up against the rails along the Huangpu River, which separates the two major districts in the city, so it’s nice to get a view from above the crowds. I live in the commercial and residential half of the city, and the river overlooks the financial zone of Pudong, where the most recognisable skyscrapers are. At night, this is my favourite part of the city and the thing that I couldn’t wait to see again after my visit last year.

The next night, my friend and I went to Wagas, a (Western) chain serving really fresh food and one of the few places you can find muesli or a salad that is sustaining. I was almost crying with joy over my bowl of pesto and pine nut pasta.

By Sunday (after eating pan fried noodles for lunch at least) I found myself in the expat hub that is Marks and Spencers. While most Western stores have their odd Chinese variations, everything about M&S is identical to one at home and you can guarantee you’ll see at least half of all expats mothers dragging a child around the cardigan section. I queued with my hot cross buns and waited to be served by a girl who couldn’t speak English, which was fine, but very frustrating for the couple in front of me. I was interrupted by an older Chinese man, asking if they did or did not have what he was looking for. She looked at me. Even I know what he’s saying, I thought. Then I realised it was what he was looking for that she didn’t understand. You mei you he shouted (have not have?)… Percy Pig. The poor girl didn’t answer. P-E-R-C-Y P-I-G he spelled out for her in determined English. Having scanned the food isle for them myself, I used my limited Chinese to tell him mei you Percy Pig. He thanked me in Chinese and looked like he’d never said any other English words in his life. I laughed to myself as I left the shop as that really summed up the very Western side of Shanghai. The weekend ended in Wagas (again) a few other interns, a latte, and a slice of apple and cinnamon cake.

So I might not be having the most cultural experience, and I have avoided the odd rice and noodle dish occasionally in favour of a pizza, but every day I’m faced with a situation that teaches me something new about China. In many ways Shanghai is incomparable to a small town in the rice terraces, but also many things that face a foreigner when going to China, or anywhere unfamiliar really, I’m sure are the same where ever you go. IMG-20140822-WA0008.jpg20140816_151747.jpg

Posted by emilyferris 23:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

The very Western side of Shanghai

Margarita Pizza translates to Margarita Pizza in an accent

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I’ll admit I haven’t had a week filled with much Chinese cultural activity and I can’t say I’ve eaten much of the local cuisine, but when living in Shanghai (after my last rural Yunnan experience) it can be tempting to indulge in some home comforts when you they are there. Besides the odd reminders (some of which need a little more patience that others) such as the continual car horns and locals spitting in the street, being in Shanghai is like being in any other city. However I also like to see that right next door to McDonalds and Starbucks, right behind the giant Prada and Cartier stores, locals still queue up for street food; vendors selling hot steamed dumplings and thick savoury pancakes. Chinese people love to have their lunch break in Starbucks as much as anyone does at home, but I laugh when I see even the most well off looking girls, while carrying Prada, slurping at noodles from a polystyrene bowl.

My week started off with my first day in the editorial department. I was nervous as I made my way up to the third (and top) floor from the marketing department on the bottom. I’d got quite comfortable at the bottom with the other interns and amongst the Chinese workers, where I was the best English speaker. But I knew I needed to get onto the floor where the writing happens and so asked (begged?) pretty much everyone from editorial to let me join them. Home to an English Editor in Chief as well as an English online Editor and a team of writers from America and Europe, I knew I needed to prove my worth.

However I had a comfortable first day and I have to admit, it’s good to spend a few hours in an exclusively ex-pat bubble. I hadn’t understood the ease with which people move to Shanghai, but as we ordered lunch from a café called Urban Soup Kitchen and discussed the upcoming opening of Pret a Manger Shanghai I could see just how. Listening to lunch orders has become one of my favourite activities but perhaps I’ll share them from the safety of Hong Kong airport. Let’s just say there were lots of things ordered without this, and absolutely without that.

The next day a friend got the train down from Beijing, having been at a language school a few hours outside the city. While fairly un-Westernised cities are the best places to learn Mandarin, as speaking it becomes a necessity, he was ready to join in with all things ex-pat. Western food is still very cheap here (around £5-£10 for a meal) but pricier than Chinese food. There are a few noodle, dumpling and rice restaurants (ranging from 80p - £3 maximum) that I enjoy going to for lunch and are a massive money saver for travellers, but it’s good to know there is a Subway, an Italian café/restaurant and a place called Uncle Toast all just five minutes away from my hotel.

I'd say I only found these places to show my friend but that would be a lie. Another intern and I discovered the small Italian restaurant Monday and have been back a number of times since. It’s cosy, cheap (£4-£6 for a pizza) and doesn’t seem to have been discovered by many others yet. A lot of “Western” cafes in Shanghai claim to be so but often sell odd Chinese variations of food and drink, for example fruit pizzas or berry and cheese muffins (the same muffin). I suppose this is how Chinese people react when entering a “Chinese” take-away.

On the walk back to the hotel the lights, sounds and smells are those particularly of a Chinese city and I’m still surprised to see standstill traffic at 9pm, but as I spend more time here all those things become more usual. I often have to remind myself that I’m at ease here because my life has stayed the in many ways the same and I’m surrounded by interns and employees from all around the world. But there are challenges and Shanghai still offers a lot of culture. There are still many traditions and values to respect and I’ll forever be grateful my previous experiences in China, ones that prepared me for all the interesting and surprising Chinese eventualities.

Posted by emilyferris 23:58 Archived in China Comments (0)

Two weeks as a Marketing Intern

The Devil (almost) Wears Prada

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Just a few weeks ago I was sat on the sofa at home, fully engrossed in Gossip Girl, laughing at Blair Waldorf as she battles with a range of technology before breaking down during a magazine internship. If you’re now completely lost, Gossip Girl is a fictional TV show set in New York, and Blair is a fictional character with whom I doubt I would share any similarities with, if she were to be real. That would never be me. Who needs more than one phone? I’d keep it together.

A few hours into my first day as a marketing assistant at a popular expat magazine in Shanghai, I was forced to think back to that cosy afternoon… and eat my words. With the office phone balanced on my ear while both my personal and Chinese phones rang with equally important messages, I tried not to cry as I navigated my way through the seven Internet tabs I had open. I reminded myself what the three excel spread sheets at the bottom of my screen consisted of and when I thought I’d sussed it out, the second computer that I sat in front of reminded me that I now answer from three email accounts, and that they must all be checked at all times.

The office was in preparation for their annual Food and Drink Awards and it’s down to the marketing team to call the winners, congratulate them and to ensure they arrive at the right venue, on time. I then became their contact for the night, allowing them to call, text or email me if they needed anything before or during the event. At times this was challenging and it took a few conversations to keep up with who from what restaurant wanted to know what, etc. As people started to arrive on the night, I had to make sure winners were ready to collect their awards. I made my way round the venue to find them, but I’m pretty sure they spotted me a mile off… running round with my phones, clipboard, array of pens and probably a look of sheer panic. However as their names started to be called it was great meeting everyone that I’d been in contact with and I’ve been offered a free meal here or there as a thank you. Shanghai has a great expat community and it was exciting to be part of an event planned by a big magazine. I found it slightly surreal to be given so much responsibility in my first week but then again, this is China, and anything goes.

Once the awards were over my fellow intern and I joined the rest of the party. Women walked past me wearing Prada, Chanel and Cartier to name a few. Looking around the venue, they really did look like they'd come straight from Nanjing Lu, Shanghai's most expensive road. But then again, the fake markets are just a side street away. Stepping out onto the roof-top terrace, looking across at other high-rises lit up, talking to people from all over the Western world, I couldn’t believe how far removed I am in Shanghai from that quiet town in Yunnan Province, where my students have probably never even read about nights like this. It was surreal for me too, I could so easily have been at home looking at pictures from the event via the magazines’ twitter feed and that’s what makes me really grateful that I’m here. Yes it is an unpaid internship but I’ve been really lucky to be given the opportunity at the magazine and for events I will get to attend. It makes living in Shanghai feel like home and I think it’s fair to say this month has been the quickest of my life.

My boss really isn’t the dragon that intern supervisors can be made out to be, she's lovely – but she does have a business to deal with. After the weekend, I get back to the office and there are emails to answer and spread sheets waiting to be filled out. This week is my last in marketing before I move into the editorial department, and my last task involves being sent to a meeting with another assistant. She tells me how it will be great to have an English speaker to help her negotiate and she shuffles me into the taxi. The driver pulls up at a cafe just as I'm wondering how long it will be before I'm sick; it wasn't the smoothest journey. We're met by a very Chinese man who apologises that he cannot speak English well enough to negotiate with me in the meeting and so I sit and listen to (what I can assume) is fierce discussion, politely nodding at the sentences that I do pick up on. Halfway through the meeting, the man looks at me with determination and says Latte? Your English is just fine, I tell him.

I go back to the office and my boss asks me for the outcome, and I admit that unfortunately it was all down to the assistant and that my English was not needed. She replies by reminding me there is a stack of business cards to go through. I laugh to myself. At least for one night, I got to pretend I was in charge.

Posted by emilyferris 22:55 Archived in China Comments (0)

First Impressions

'If you don't know, don't worry"

overcast 25 °C

As I walk around the French Concession, Starbucks latte and a packet of tissues in hand, a car almost splashes me as it drives through a puddle. The rain starts to fall furiously, forcing me to dive into a supermarket for cover. I stand next to a couple who make a comment about the weather as their little girl battles her way out of a raincoat. I think to myself how this is a scene straight from England. But as I venture back onto the street, I am stopped from crossing the road by an 80-something woman on a push bike trying to overtake a bus, which screeches to a halt as she swerves in front of it. A sucsession of car horns follow, even those driving the other way, because that's the thing to do. I take my chance as the crossing says it's okay to go and as I dodge those cars that a red light does not apply to, I am instantly reminded that I am once again in China, very very far from home.

It feels quite strange that it was now over a year ago that I was sat in Hong Kong airport, writing my last blog about my time in China, writing about the things that would bring me back here again. At the time, this was just an idea I didn't plan on pursuing - I was happy to be going home - and I did not expect to be coming back here so soon. I thought perhaps I would go to Shanghai for a holiday in the far off future and if I'm honest, had someone told me I'd be back in that airport just 13 months later, I would have told them they were hugely mistaken.

However I settled back into my routine at home quickly and by the time I'd completed my first term of uni, I remembered why I wanted out of the classroom and I was ready for another adventure. I considered for a few weeks where I could go and for what purpose, then one night I got an email advertising internship opportunities in Shanghai. Is this something I should even consider, I thought. Can I realistically live in China again. I didn't really have the answers to these questions when I sent my CV, but equally I couldn't turn down an opportunity getting experience in journalism in a city that I fell in love with after three days.

Now I'm sitting in my hotel room, one metro stop away from central Shanghai, nearly three weeks into my eight week stay, and I know I made the right decision. I can count on one hand the times I've just sat in my room with my laptop, but that's what I already love about the city. If you want to make plans, whatever your taste, you can do; day or night. There are sixty other interns in the same hotel, so there's always someone around or various plans being made. We've found favourite pizza spots and favourite bars and at the weekend there is shopping, sightseeing and sleep to catch up on.

Getting into a busy routine has allowed me to feel really at home here, and at the end of the day I look forward to getting back to my room as if it were my own. My shoes and bags and books are scattered around my room just as they would be at home and I don't think I'll get bored of seeing the skyscrapers and lights from my window. Of course there are challenges and I know I shouldn't be surprised that everyday the city gives me something to be surprised at. Compared to last year, living in a small school in Yunnan province, Shanghai is easy. I can live easily as a Westerner here, but still you can never really be Western in China. Sometimes you just have to give in a and be a bit Chinese. In one of bar, "If you don't know, don't worry" hangs in red lights. So if I don't know why the woman next to me on the metro is trying to use her child as a bargaining tool to get off first, or why the same man in the shopping centre has asked twice to "cut off half your hair good price" or what the ambiguous Chinese food really is, I've learnt not to worry too much.

Posted by emilyferris 06:34 Archived in China Comments (0)

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