Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shanghai, China March 1-June 19 Week 1

My flight to Shanghai from San Francisco was eventless, which is just how I like it when flying. I flew Air China and was pleasantly surprised both by the service and quality of the food in particular. The flight to Beijing took 12 hours, and I had just 90 minutes to go through customs, collect my bags, recheck my bags and make my way to the domestic terminal for my connecting flight to Shanghai. I made it to the gate just as the plane was boarding. One of the advantages of transferring through Beijing is that is gave me the option of flying to the Hongqiao (SHA) rather than PuDong (PVG), which is much further away from the city center. While the flight was a codeshare with Air China, the airplane was China Air. I have never been so cramped in an airplane seat! What made it worse was that I had a window seat and the seat back pocket in front of me was literally torn from the seams, limiting my range of movement even more. Mercifully, this flight was only 90 minutes and I somehow adopted an attitude of acceptance. 
My research assistant and interpreter, graduate student in ethnomusicology Jing Zou, was waiting for me at arrivals as we had planned with a clear sign. I was able to withdraw some Chinese currency with my ATM card without issue, and we boarded a taxi for the Old French Concession. The trip took about 15-20 minutes and cost only 64 RMB ($9.70) for the 19 kilometer trip (12 miles). My landlord for the next three month, Jia Geng (who I met through Airbnb), was waiting for me at her apartment, and after a brief explanation of some of the appliances, I said goodnight to my two hosts and fell asleep within minutes of getting into bed. 
Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed that it takes me much longer to adjust to a new time zone than say, 15-20 years ago. This time was no exception. On the first morning, Wednesday, March 2nd, I got up at 4:30AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, a sign of difficult days to come. On time practically to the second, Jing came over at 11:00AM and we embarked on a day of activities. After having a delicious brunch at a local French bakery, we began what I thought would be a long, arduous search for a digital piano. Surprisingly, the piano we were planning to buy  – a Casio PX-120 – at Amazon.com.cn if the search didn’t go well was for sale at Parson’s Music on the corner of West Fuxing Rd. and Fenyang Rd., just minutes from the apartment and right next to Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The one they had on sale was a floor model for just 2,000RMB ($304). The problem was that for the longest time they couldn’t find a power adaptor. After searching desperately in fear that they’d lose the sale, they finally found an adaptor from another model that worked. When I tried to use my credit card to make the purchase however, it was denied so then we had to go search for a bank to make a cash withdrawal. We must have taken too long to return to the store, because when we walked back in they were screwing the keyboard back on the stand! We began fierce negotiations to have a sustain pedal included with the purchase. My argument was that if it we had purchased it new, that the sustain pedal would have been included. The shopkeepers – young kids, no older than early 20s – argued that the reason it was offered at discount was precisely because it was a floor model with no accessories. In the end, I paid another 200RMB ($30) for a basic stand and sustain pedal. Jing and I walked the keyboard back to the apartment through the crowded streets. It must have been quite a sight to see! Within minutes after dropping off the keyboard, we found both a power adaptor and place to buy a SIM card to insert into the cell phone that my landlord Jia is letting me use while I’m in Shanghai. Since we had accomplished so much in so little time (I was anticipating that searching for the keyboard would take a day at least!), we called it a day for errands and took a taxi to Shanghai Old Town/Yuyuan Gardens to have a delicious lunch in the food court on premises that serves dishes from all over China. Afterwards, we walked through People’s Park and I bought a Shanghai Transportation Card and loaded it up with 80 RBM of travel credit.
Yuyuen Garden Pavilion
The next day I also got up at some unreasonable hour, and after catching up with email and the like, went back to sleep and didn’t get up from bed until 1:00PM! With a map in hand of the Old French Concession, I made my way along West Fuxing Rd. and found a number of interesting shops, including the JZ Club and Yoga 109, a “true, boutique style yoga studio.” On the way back I edged north a bit and checked out the area around Changshu Rd. station, happening upon the Whisk Choco Cafe, which is EXACTLY what it sounds like. The entire street fronted beckoned pedestrians in with the enticing aroma of chocolate. I am proud to say that I resisted the chocolate, but could not resist a scoop of gelato! In the evening, I considered a number of restaurants along Dongping and Taojiang Rd. and finally settled on Simply Thai for dinner. The service at this Shanghai chain was impeccable and the interior quite atmospheric and relaxing. For the price I paid 168 RMB ($25) I wasn’t terrible thrilled with the food, but I think I ordered some dishes that may have been more suitable for a group eating buffet style. I think I should probably give this restaurant another chance.
Jing and I spent most of Friday, May 3rd searching for two facilities: a fitness center and a Chinese language school. We spent a long time walking but in the end only found two gyms, one called the Johnson Club on West Fuxing Rd., followed by the gym affiliated with the Ambassy Court residence apartments. The Ambassy Court requested a mind-boggling 3,100 ($450) RMB for a three-month membership. I wouldn’t even pay these fees in the United States, never mind in China. I also visited Eternity Fitness near Changping Rd. Station. before making my decision, but even this place was offering a “discounted” rate of 888 RMB ($135!) a month, and they didn’t even have aerobic machines or weights, only classes. In the end, I chose the Johnson Club for convenience and value at just 700 RMB ($106) for three months with no initiation fee. It is a quick five-minute bike ride down West Fuxing Road and while it is a bit dark – it’s located in a basement – it has aerobic machines, weights, a heated swimming pool, and a modest offering of group classes, including “spinning” classes (i.e. exercise bikes), yoga, pilates, and tai chi. In addition the service is quite friendly. The young women that work there do their best to make sure that I know what is going on. I really hope that the yoga classes work out, because I’d rather not pay the prices they are asking at some of these “boutique” yoga studios in the French Concession like Yoga 109 and Y+. Both studios offer 3-month unlimited class memberships for upwards of 2,600 RMB ($395). I suppose if you go every day and break it down to a daily cost it’s not that bad, but I can’t see myself going to a yoga studio every day while I have a gym membership. 
One of the more entertaining moments of the day came when I saw what appeared to be a “market” taking place in a large space on West Fuxing Rd., at which point Jing attempted to explain that this was a “raw materials” market and probably wouldn’t be very useful for me. Now, as an American when I hear the word “market” I see an image of fresh, leafy green vegetables, perhaps some homemade salsa, pies, and even soap and candles, so I couldn’t for the life of me get why she wouldn’t think that I could find a market useful. I insisted on seeing this “market” for myself and Jing lead me inside. Within an instant I knew exactly what she meant by “raw materials.” As we entered, off to the left was a vendor with a cage full of live chickens. There was a customer in front placing an order, at which point the vendor grabbed one of the chickens, and with one swift swipe of the hand chopped off its neck and starting plucking it of its feathers! If anyone reading this blog can come up with a better translation than “raw materials” market, please let me know, because in retrospect Jing’s translation was right on. It was the concept itself that I couldn’t for the life of me understand.
So this brings me to a topic for discussion: (un)egalitarianism. My landlord Jia, who was educated in the U.S.A. and is quite the global citizen, said that Shanghai is one of the most unegalitarian societies in the world. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant at first but it is starting to make sense. Products in China are available in an enormous range of prices depending on the income of the consumer. I suppose you could say this about many places, but I’ve never seen such a wide disparity between the upper and lower ends of the spectrum as I’ve witnessed in Shanghai. You could easily find yourself a nutritious bowl of noodles for lunch for as low as 8 RMB ($1.20), but you could just as easily spend a week’s salary at a 5-star restaurant intended for expats and rich businessmen. It appears to me that many of the upper end services, not surprisingly, are geared for foreigners. To tell you the truth, although “eating like the locals” is often the least expensive and most delicious option, the language boundary gets in the way every once in a while. Sometimes it is worth paying just a bit more for a menu that you can read and understand exactly what you are ordering!
On my first Saturday in Shanghai, I met my erhu teacher, Chen Chunyuan’s cousin Rita Liang for a delicious lunch at Ma Boon Kron, an upscale Thai Restaurant near South Huangpi Rd. station. After lunch we explored Dongtai antique market and walked along Nanchang Rd.
Dongtai Antique Market
It was a nostalgic walk for me because this is the same walk I took in December 2007 when I first came to Shanghai for the ICTM Music of East Asia Study Group Conference. I bought another stunning scroll painting from artist Duo Jia Lu, who has a modest storefront just outside his residence on Nanchang Rd. The Lonely Planet writes, “It’s not quite the Shanghai Art Museum but his work does have a personal touch, and are fairly priced at 50 RMB to 100 RMB. A great place to pick up a gift.” After mid-afternoon tea I said goodbye to Rita and had dinner at Kagura Japanese Restaurant on the way home. My waiter was a delightful kid, trilingual (English, Japanese, and Chinese), and worked hard to make sure his customers were happy. Kagura was quite busy this evening with a large group of demanding Japanese customers, and since this young man was the only one whose Japanese language skills were sufficient, he was running around like a maniac. I waited nearly 20+ minutes for my bill and finally had to get up and practically walk out the door to make it clear that I had been left waiting too long. 
Artist Du Jia Lu
Sunday, March 6th was dreary, cold, and rainy all day long. My interpreter Jing Zou led me on another search for a gym and helped me locate a major supermarket. We tried in vain to search for Yang’s Kitchen recommended in Lonely Planet, which has evidently moved, and eventually decided on Quanqiu Restaurant on Hengshan Rd., where we enjoyed mouthwatering pancake dumplings. After walking for what seemed like miles, we finally found Star Gym just off South Shanxi Rd. It was a huge facility with new equipment and an extensive group class schedule, but I found it just too crowded and expensive. For afternoon tea, we enjoyed an absolutely exquisitely designed tea house called Loushi at 145 Nanchang Rd. near South Mao Ming Rd. Afterwards, we found the two supermarkets with direct access from the South Shanxi subway station. After buying some groceries to get me by for a few days, we took a taxi back (it was STILL raining and the soles of my feet were BURNING) to my house and I cooked up some pasta and a salad.
On Monday, March 7th I was given my first tour of the academic institution that I’m affiliated with during my residence, Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In the afternoon, Jing helped me buy a bicycle at a local shop. She tried hard to negotiate the price down but they weren’t budging. In the end I paid 518 RBM ($78) for a brand new city bike with a basket and wheel lock. After saying thanks to Jing and went to Dragonfly Therapeutic Spa to buy a term membership card for 3,000 RMB ($456). This entitled me to 30% discount on massages and 15% discount on facials and other services. Considering that a 60-minute massage will only cost 105 RMB ($16) after the member discount, this gives me something special to look forward to on a weekly basis, and will provide a welcomed respite from the hectic urban turmoil in this gigantic city. For my first treatment I opted for the lavender oil full-body massage. Just heavenly! There are other establishments in Shanghai that are probably less expensive, but Dragonfly is consistent, clean, and works hard to create a magical atmosphere, complete with incense, candles, and detailed care paid towards interior design. 

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