Archive for December, 2010


A Shopping Story

Today I probably qualified  for the “weirdest foreigner in Shanghai” award – (非常奇怪 fēicháng qíguài).

I wandered through various shops and department stores bundled up in my thick winter overcoat and scarf and at least 10 other layers of clothing trying to find a swimming costume. Outside, yesterday’s snowfall still covers the ground and an icy wind sends leaves and people scurrying between the buildings. But tomorrow we are heading to Thailand in search of the sun and a beach and an ocean, so I need alternative clothing. The shop assistants looked at me in amazement and with some degree of concern for my apparent loss of sanity. “You do know that it is winter, don’t you” their body language and facial expressions said it all. “We don’t sell swimming costumes in the winter”.

Eventually I found a sports shop that had some costumes with a relatively “beachy” vibe. So off I ventured into a tiny changing cubicle (sized for the average Chinese woman, who is clearly much smaller than I am) and had to extricate myself from under the aforementioned 10 layers of clothing to try on the unseasonal garment. Success – it fitted – but then I had to reverse the unlayering exercise before I could climb out of the pocket-sized capsule. Fortunately there were a few less head-shakings after I had explained my holiday plans.


It’s snowing…

It doesn’t often snow in Shanghai, but yesterday it snowed…a lot.

View from office

The initial surprise and fascination of watching the falling snow from our office window turned to mutterings and unrepeatable thoughts as we had to make our way home. Darkness descended earlier than usual and every taxi that that could be seen was already ferrying its quota of occupants. So we started to walk – anything to keep warm. Our first day of extracting our winter overcoats from hibernation turned into a day where we should have pulled out every scarf, glove and warm-weather item of clothing that we own. It was freezing and our umbrellas struggled to protect us from the continuing falling flakes as the wind just whipped them  underneath and around the umbrellas.

We shivered our way for 3 blocks and then pounced on a taxi driver that was on the opposite side of the road and had decided to do a U-turn to escape the traffic – I wish I knew the word for “hero” in Mandarin – I don’t think he knew just how grateful we were for being rescued from those icy blasts

Coming from Africa, I still find a certain novelty about snow – but I think it is only magical when you can watch it from the comfort of a warm home; or when children can play in it; or when you can choose whether or not to be involved with it!

Today the sun has re-appeared (without bringing any warmth) and the snow is sprinkled across the gardens and rooftops. Some very determined flowers have shrugged off the cold and bravely add some colour to the scene.

Snowy Gardens


Fringe Benefits

I could not put it off any longer – I could not see out from under my fringe. I HAD to do something about having my hair cut, trauma or no trauma

So, yesterday I crept back to the hair salon – a sort of spur of the moment, “maybe my brain won’t realise that it needs to panic if I don’t make too much of it” decision.

It was no use – the instant I walked in through the salon doors, the Foreign Language department in my brain put up a “Closed on account of previous traumatic language foreign speaking experience in this location” sign.

I stammered and spluttered through “we want haircuts”: my husband had bravely decided to join me – his first haircut in China even though we have lived here for 2 years! We were given the option of three possible stylists: owner – RMB 100; 2nd most experienced – RMB 60; or apprentice – RMB 30. I decided that the owner should have the honour of cutting my hair and picked the next most experienced stylist for my husband.

My haircut went fine – I managed to rectify the damage inflicted by the RMB 30-apprentice that cut it 4 months ago. (On that fateful day I somehow missed out on the option of choosing which stylist.) The apprentice had done to my fringe what many gardeners do to their lawns and flowerbeds – “let’s just neaten it out a bit more; trim a little bit more from there; cut it back a bit here along the edges a little bit more”… and before you know it you have an enormous gap between the lawn and the flowerbed. In my case I ended up with too broad a fringe extending WAY across my forehead. Note to self: don’t assume that the stylist knows what he is doing even if he has an extensive array of scissors, brushes and combs in a very fancy briefcase. [Actually I am making it sound worse than it was – mostly he did a great job, but this was the one area that I had to fault him on.]

Anyway, this time I made sure that the stylist knew that I was unimpressed with the previous over-generous, extensive fringe and that I needed “more lawn and less flowerbed”. I said it at the beginning and I said it again later. Well, what I mean is that I communicated with one word sentences: too much, not good, need less, and used sign language to make sure I was understood. She got the message – now I have the correct width of fringe and just a few more weeks of waiting for the damaged lawn area to grow out properly.

My husband is happy with the results of his haircut too! He thought he would be finished long before me, but his cut ended up taking longer. He was very impressed with the care and attention to detail that the stylist put into his cutting efforts.

So we have survived this round.

Except for the Foreign Language Department melt-down – clearly some intensive trauma counselling sessions are needed here….


Colours for a rainy day


Cyclist Rainbow

Colours to brighten up an otherwise drab and miserable day


Keeping it Real

One of my dilemmas about writing this blog is this:

How do I keep it real without stepping on any Chinese toes?

Cultivating and maintaining a sense of humour is often the only way we preserve our sanity and prevent explosions of negativity, but humour often comes at the expense of someone or something in the Chinese context that we don’t understand or appreciate. What we find strange and bizarre behaviour and/or customs might be perfectly normal and acceptable, at least to some.

I don’t want to offend any of my Chinese friends that may read this blog, so I need to be culturally sensitive. But if I avoid all mention of the situations that deviate from my own cultural and personal viewpoint and perspective, I won’t have anything write about. And if I can’t paint the cultural differences with the brush of humour, I will probably become negative and cynical; and there are more enough other negative voices that shout at China, her people and her ways.

What to do? 没办法 – méibànfǎ!- Can’t be helped, nothing can be done about it!


Youthful beans

At an office meeting this week, we were reminding our team of the need to make the product delivery process as smooth as possible. My husband tried to emphasise this by referring to the importance of removing all the “pimples and warts” in order to make it the project a success.

This statement was met by blank stares and silence so we had to deviate into finding the correct Chinese translation for “pimple”. After explaining that “pimple” had nothing to do with “pimp” and “pump” and other possible similar-sounding words, we managed to communicate that we referring to the skin condition.

Oh, they said, we call those 青春豆 – qīngchūn dòu which literally translated means: youthful beans – so named because they are most often experienced by young people!

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December 2010
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