Archive for March, 2011


Meandering through the French Concession

One of my favourite areas in Shanghai is the French Concession. The streets are older and narrower and there are glimpses into the history of Shanghai hidden in dusty alleys and behind wrought-iron fences – sometimes it feels as if one is stepping back in time. In summer the plane trees offer leafy shade from the baking heat, but at the moment they seem very hesitant to welcome the incoming spring weather – their winter boughs are still without cover.

Last weekend we started our Saturday morning with a brunch in the trendy Tianzifang area – this is a community in which some of the older shikumen (stone gate) buildings have been restored and combined into an up-market arty district of art galleries, shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars. Some of the residents still have their homes above and among the converted buildings, but as the area seems to grow more popular and prosperous, they appear to be being squeezed out by more commercially viable projects.

However, it is a really an interesting place to visit, to have a drink or a meal, or just to browse through the shops or the art galleries.

We fortified ourselves with brunch at Origin – their Eggs Benedict with Salmon and Spinach was a real treat.

We had the whole upstairs area to ourselves when we first arrived, but it became busier as we lingered over our meal.

After further sustenance via a delicious bread basket, we set off through the streets of the French Concession – always finding different routes and streets to explore, always fascinating, as life spills onto the street and mingles with the passing traffic.

Our destination was the shop/fruit stall belonging to the now famous “Avocado Lady” of Shanghai. This enterprising lady is one of the few fruit sellers that stocks avocado pears and has increased her standing amongst the ex-pat community by stocking other imported goods, ranging from cheese to anchovies, olive oil to pesto, as well as all sorts of fruit and veg, both local and exotic. Her prices are considered to be cheaper than some of the retailers that specialise in imported products. I managed to limit our spending to avo’s (from Mexico), blueberries (from Chile), and some asparagus, but if M hadn’t been there to curtail my buying instincts, I am sure I would have loaded my backpack to the brim. Perhaps the knowledge that we still had to detour through Carrefour for our regular grocery shopping also helped to dampen my enthusiasm.

P.S. The avo’s are delicious!


Pharmacies and Ping-pong

I had forgotten how much fun it is to play in Chinese pharmacy. You get to bounce from counter to counter like the ping-pong computer virus of a few years ago.

When I visited the ophthalmologist, I was given a “prescription” for eye-drops – you don’t actually need a prescription for them, but the doctor thought it would be helpful to assist me in asking the pharmacist for what I needed. Wise man!

[For the record: I had just had my pupils dilated for the retina exam and my eyesight was seriously blurry, affected by bright lights etc, so I walked around with a sort of scrunched up, squinty outlook on the world… I trust that no adults, elderly citizens, children or animals were harmed during events that followed.]

Stage 1: Enter the pharmacy and head for the nearest counter. Benignly smiling elderly male pharmacist looks at my brandished script and waves in a vague friendly way to direct me to the next counter. I manage to avoid the glare of sunlight coming through the window and notice a long counter with ladies in white coats scattered along at regular intervals.

Stage 2: My next attempt at seeking assistance meets with an equally friendly smile and wave further along the counter. [Thinking….this could go on for a while.]

Bounce 3: Jackpot! I must be at the right place: pharmacist No.3 is ready to assist. She checks the script, scribbles a product code and a quantity on a scratchpad, tears off the page and tells me I need to go somewhere else to pay and then I can come back to collect the eye-drops.

Bounce 4: Not thinking (or seeing straight) I head back to the elderly male pharmacist, who gleefully waves me away in the opposite direction. Struck out, again!

Bounce 5: Duh! There is a sign saying “Cashier” (in English!) I hand over the scrappy piece of paper and my cash (foreign credit cards are not welcome here). I get my change and a till slip indicating that I have paid.

Bounce 6: Back to Pharmacist No. 3 who pounces on the till slip and digs the eye-drops out of the counter and hands it over. But not until I have signed my name on her list of products issued for that day. I am also instructed to sign the till slip in order to continue with my mission. She manages to convey to me that if I need a fāpiào 发票- the generally accepted document as proof of payment  for tax purposes – I need to head over in THAT direction. I don’t really need one, but I feel that if I bail out now, I won’t get full credit for completing Level 1 in my pharmaceutical ping-pong endeavour.

Stage 7: Head towards the door, bypassing the bemused elderly male pharmacist (who doesn’t seem to do anything except traffic control), I spy someone with a computer and terminal near the exit. I hand over the duly signed till slip. A look of horror crosses the fāpiào lady’s face as she struggles to read my signature. I then comprehend that I should have printed my name, not signed this piece of paper. As she starts struggling to spell it out verbally, I help her out by rewriting it in capital letters. Luckily her computer can handle Chinese and English. After one failed attempt, I retrieve the “chopped” (stamped) fāpiào (with a sort-of Russian version of my surname) and….

Home-straight: I am ready to exit stage left.

Level 1 – Game Over!


As an aside…I just have to make reference to the wonderfully appropriate Chinese characters that are used for the game of pīngpāng! Don’t you think they depict the game perfectly?




What were they thinking?

  1. What was the taxi driver thinking when he did a U-turn in the middle of morning rush hour traffic, pulled up a few metres away from us, displayed a green “unoccupied” light, with 3 passengers in his vehicle, yelled “qù nǎlǐ 去哪里?” – literally “go where?” – listened to my answer, then violently shook his head, did another U-turn, remained stationary for a few minutes, and then sped off back in the original direction of travel with his passengers still in situ. What was he thinking?
  2. What are the Chinese book publishers thinking when they publish and print a book consisting entirely of Chinese except for the English title on the cover of the book? Or the publishers of some Chinese magazines and textbooks – English sub-title and content headings and then not another English word in sight. What are they thinking?
  3. What were they thinking when they came up with Blueberry, lime and cucumber flavoured crisps? [We tried the lime/cucumber flavoured crisps once…only once…my taste buds reacted violently and I could almost hear them spit at me: “What are YOU thinking? Are you some kind of fruit loop?”] And then there is Purple Potato yoghurt….
  4. What were they thinking when they built our office building in such a way that the outlet pipe where the kitchen sink needs to drain, is at a higher level than the inlet pipe? Did they think that the water would miraculously flow upstream?
  5. What was the lady thinking as she sat on her upright chair in the middle of the street? On one of our walkabouts we came across some kind of official, or neighbourhood watch lady, well, she was in uniform, and she had a clipboard, so she must have been there in some kind of official capacity. There she sat on her chair in the middle of the road with an ancient, dilapidated bicycle propped up besides her waiting for…who knows what. There was very little traffic, so I’m not sure if she was doing a statistical survey, or maybe she was waiting for the owner of the bicycle to return so that she could fine him. In either event, what was she thinking?


Salt intake

In the light of the recent tragic events in Japan and the ongoing uncertainty about the possible spread of radiation, many Shanghai residents have been swept up in the rumour that they need to stock-pile and consume large quantities of salt as a deterrent against radiation sickness (and also in case the sea-water along the Chinese coast becomes contaminated and affects the future salt supply).

I think the frenzy has subsided a little over the last few days, but just in case there is actually any truth to the rumours, we are going to keep buying large quantities of our favourite comfort/snack food: Lay’s Original (Salt) flavoured Crisps. Consuming 4 kg of raw salt vs 400 kg of crisps (PS. I haven’t actually done the maths!) – decisions, decisions – it’s a no-brainer: I’m heading for the snack-food aisle.


Visiting the eye-doctor

I was very brave yesterday…..I went to see an ophthalmologist here in Shanghai. My eyes have been a bit scratchy and uncomfortable lately and I felt that, seeing that I have missed out on the recommended annual check-up for the last 3 years, it would be best to do something about it. With my myopic history, and lens implants a few years ago, there are all sorts of dire threats and warnings about gory and cataclysmic events like retinas potentially detaching themselves or renting themselves into separate shreds, so perhaps a more regular check-up would be wise.

Optometrists and ophthalmologists rank on a similar scale to dentists (and doctors and physios and…) in my books – I try to put off the visit as long as possible and until absolutely necessary. So for me to make the decision to find an eye doctor here in Shanghai was quite an event.

I googled and found a generally favourable-reviewed International Eye Clinic (with corresponding international consultation fees), but as the one fellow-sufferer commented: you only have one pair of eyes, so better to be safe than sorry. This was NOT the time to find the chop/swop shop on the corner with the best deals, or to bargain about the fee structure.

So I went along to New Vision Eye Clinic at Ruijin Hospital and I was suitably impressed. The staff were very friendly and professional and I felt comfortable that I was in good hands. All spoke excellent English (Yay! – no need for Foreign Language Department Meltdown Syndrome!)

The only traumatic experience occurred when the doctor tried to turn my eyelids inside out – I had already warned him that I was known to have lashed out at other eye doctors for trying that stunt, but it seems that he didn’t take me seriously. Anyway, now he knows better than to try that again. I’m sure he even wrote it down in my file – “Don’t touch this woman’s eyelids – irrational oversensitivity and propensity for violent outbursts – she intends to perform grievous bodily harm….”

I got a generally clean bill of health for my eyes, which was great news – except for the depressing report that my eyesight isn’t going to get any better as I grow older.

So, all in all, a non-event!


Sociable division of labour

Performing general/maintenance tasks in China is a very sociable event. After all, why send one person to fix something when a crowd can do the same job and make it a sociable experience at the same time?

There is usually a supervisor/manager person who oversees the task. He looks important, may carry a piece of paper or clipboard, but doesn’t often do anything. Often he is accompanied by a junior supervisor, or manager-in-training, who does NOT look important and does even less than the person he is job-shadowing. He really looks like a spare part.

Then there is the actual maintenance guy – the only one that knows what he is doing – although a free-flowing stream of suggestions and advice is offered by all members of the team. If he is lucky, he might have an apprentice to do some of the more menial aspects of the task at hand while the master maintenance guy gets on with the important stuff.

Sometimes, if an interpreter is needed, like the time when our air conditioner decided to play “dead” in the middle of last summer’s heat wave, the team is accompanied by an interpreter, and perhaps someone from the estate management office that has nothing better to do on that day and needs an outing because he has been deprived of other forms of social interaction..

When we first arrived in Shanghai, our shipment of belongings was delivered by an unpacking crew of  5 or 6 people, but only 2 1/2 of them did any actual unpacking.

In most restaurants, this concept of division of labour is also widely practiced: there are hostesses to welcome you at the door; different hostesses to show you to your table; one group of waiters/waitresses to bring you the menu and take your order; another group of servers who actually bring the food from the kitchen and hand it over to the first group to place it on your table; and a third group who come and clear the dishes away at the end of the meal. It is a good practice because it means there are more jobs for more people.

So far the only exception that we have seen to this sociable labour practice was the poor post office lady at the parcel counter on the Saturday before Chinese New Year, when we – i.e. the Saigon shopper and ourselves – and 50 other people were trying to test/stretch the capabilities of China Post. She had two colleagues (both male): one at the collections side of the counter and the other checking the contents of the parcels. The collections guy had a seriously underwhelming amount of work and the inspection guy gave each parcel a cursory glance at best.

But poor Mrs Why-Am-I-Doing-Everything-Myself? behind the counter bravely handed out forms; picked the next lucky customer out of the scrum; collected forms; packaged the goods into China Post boxes of various sizes; sealed the boxes; weighed the parcels; calculated the money required; answered questions; settled disputes; collected the money; heaved the parcels from the weighing machine (in our case 20 kg each); filled in the weigh-bill documents; added the documents to the parcels; and then tossed/lifted the completed packages into the heap waiting for transit.

This brave heroine/martyr of the Post Office, “manning” the whole show in the face of a growing crowd of eager and ever-restless wanna-be parcel senders, while Mr Collections and Mr Inspection parked off, she deserved a medal.

Oh, now I remember another task that is usually performed by a lone crusader – the veggie-weigher at the supermarket!


More about shoes

If my feet are considered to be of a non-Chinese size, my husband outranks me by a few notches. Last Friday evening, we went looking for a pair of waterproof, not too casual shoes that he can wear to the office on rainy days.

We began our search in one of the fascinating “department” stores, which can be better described as many stores within a single department. This one specialises in sporting and hiking clothes and shoes. There are about a hundred different vendors, spread across two storeys, each selling specific brands or items, ranging from shoes to sporting equipment, hiking/skiing gear to gym clothing.

We were able to narrow our search down to those selling waterproof footwear, probably about 15 stores all together. And then the fun began…almost exclusively in Mandarin. [Ed. Translated here for the reader’s benefit!]

We need shoes, a BIG pair of shoes. Oh, so sorry, we still haven’t worked out exactly what size our feet are (as measured in China) – we use a European or UK size in South Africa and here they use something else – American? [Ed. I just re-read the labels more carefully and discovered that actually SA and the US use the same “small number” size and it’s the Europeans that use this large “what on earth does it measure?” – number.] What’s the biggest pair you have?

Everyone looks at M’s feet, much shaking of heads, méiyǒu 没有, don’t have. Strike 1, strike 2…

Then we try a new tack. We like this pair. What’s the biggest size you have? Yes, I know they might be too small, but let’s try them anyway.

With much muttering and looks of disbelief the shop assistant wanders off somewhere, to look for big shoes. She brings back a pair of shoes – size 43.

Oh dear, it’s too small.

Smirk on face of shop assistant – “I told you so, and now you’ve wasted my time having to fetch them out of the storeroom.”

Oh, look, there’s a label in the running shoes that M is wearing – and its got a UK CM, a European AND an American size – OK, so we need size 45. Do you have a size 45 in this style? In any style? méiyǒu 没有, don’t have.

Strike 3. Move on to stores 4, 5 and 6. Much simpler now…

Do you have any shoes in size 45? Oh, only in the psycho neon green with orange laces? Or the ugly brown with yellow reflectors? [I can see just picture those with his navy suit…]

Strike n. Store (n+1).

Somewhere in the preceding (n+1) stores I looked up the word for waterproof in the dictionary on my mobile phone, so by now I am actually asking: Do you have any waterproof shoes in size 45?

Strike n squared.

Last store before we hit the exit – there are two possible options: right colour and don’t look like they need to be on the slopes of Mount Everest to feel at home.

Do you have either of these in size 45? Oh, you can look them up on your computer without having to head for the storeroom – why didn’t anyone else around here think of that?

yǒu 有, have, qǐng děngyīxià 请等一下, please wait a moment…

Happy shop assistant re-appears with shoes that actually fit. We’re still a bit hesitant because even though this pair is the right size and the right colour and isn’t pining for a glacier, the label says water-resistant, not waterproof.

Look of panic appears on shop assistant’s face – I really thought I had a sale here, and now these damn lǎowài are going to back out of the deal. shìde shìde, 是的是的, they are waterproof – look – read the Chinese label on the back of the box.

(yeah, right! As if I can read all that…). OK, we’ll take them, it’s not as if we have a whole lot of options to choose from….

Then begins the interesting point-of-sale routine common to many of  these “department” stores.

The senior shop assistant fills out a complicated sales invoice (3 layers deep) in a book and hands the 3 copies to the junior shop assistant. You then leave your goods that you are trying to purchase and head off in the wake of the assistant to the central cash-point, which may or may not accept foreign credit cards. If they don’t accept foreign credit cards, then you have to pay in cash or enquire about the whereabouts of the nearest ATM, and make a detour to draw the required wads of cash – the largest denomination here is 100 RMB. You pay your money in an acceptable and appropriate form, and then the central cashier keeps the top copy and the remaining copies are carried back to the store, where they are handed back to the senior shop assistant, who then holds onto the second copy for her records and gives you the third one, reuniting it, and you, with the goods of which you are now the proud (hopefully) owner.

One pair of size 45 “Made in Vietnam” shoes later, we emerged triumphantly from yet another successful purchasing mission!

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March 2011
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