Shanghai Disneyland Trials

I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events.  From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.

At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!

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We got the “golden” tickets

And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016.  Okay “few” might be stretching the truth.  The park opened in early May for a six week trial period.  Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse.  So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day.  By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park.   But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

C and I visited the park not just once, but twice!  Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate.  We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.

I am not a Disney expert.  I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks.  I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year.  We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go.  I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter.   There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them.  I have never even been on the Mine Train.  I am a single mom of a four year old girl.  We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh.  We meet a lot of Princesses.   And that is totally okay.  That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.

We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel.  The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit.  I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent.  I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her.  After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down.  C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area.  It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests.  It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove.  We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.  It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style.    Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200.  Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her.  Then she wanted to ride again.  (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)

I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida.  The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising.  So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows.  We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view.  (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze.  The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though.  You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.

If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit.  Of course international visitors will still come.  And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come.  But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom.    And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.

For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind.  You read that right.  And for the Chinese that is not a problem.  And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me.  I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option.  I am getting a bit old to squat.  Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be.  Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in.  That was not a fun day for me either.  So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints.  Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

Then there is the food.  If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you!  Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park.  If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place.  None of these float my boat.  If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind.  It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck.  Western food is not out completely though.  You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park.  The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads.  In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.

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This is joy!

There are a few downsides…

The FastPass system.  It kinda sucks.  When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online.   In other parks there are FastPass machines.  Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located.  The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself.  I much prefer the Disneyworld model.

Line Jumpers.  This was a disappointment.  Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly.  At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it.  At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me.  When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.”  When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China.  You are not going to be able to control us all.”  That does not bode well.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

Language.  Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese.  You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language.  i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean.  Not a chance.  Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese.  Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town.  We went to see the Stitch Encounter.  I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait.  In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.  In Paris, it’s in English or French.   In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese.  (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese).   My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again.  Ever.

And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests.  She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line.  She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters.  It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.

I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park.  It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney.  It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back.  Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving.  Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway.  I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl.  But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.

So did we have fun?  We sure did.  This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park.  Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California…  I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel.  Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.

 

From Sheep to Monkey: Shanghai Year One in Review

New Year decorations Feb 1 2015 (1)

Soon after we arrived in Shanghai we welcomed in the Year of the Sheep/Goat/Ram.

I have marked one year in Shanghai.  I had a hard time sussing out when I felt I had truly hit the one year mark.  Sure, there is the one year anniversary of when we arrived here on January 28, 2015. That is a good place to start. Or maybe my first day in the office, February 2? Or the first time I picked up a case in Shanghai – on February 5? Or the first time I interviewed on the line, which due to a fluke of training and the arrival of Chinese New Year was not until February 26?

Now I can safely call the one year mark, but I have been struggling to find the right words to characterize my year.  The easiest way it seems is to boil it down to the visas since they occupy such a huge part of my existence.

In one year I fingerprinted 5,760 people and adjudicated 24,075 visa cases.  It’s mind-boggling.  I do not know how many people I fingerprint verified in Ciudad Juarez (verification just requires one hand print to verify prints collected at an off-site location; fingerprinting requires taking ten prints, i.e. the four fingers on both hands and then both thumbs), but in my two years I adjudicated a total of 15,112 visas.  And I managed over 24,000 in Shanghai in a year even with a month-long Medevac.

I wanted to hit 25,000.  I had seen another colleague reached 50,000 after two years in Shanghai and I decided, before even arriving, that I too wanted that number.  Just because.  I know it is a crazy, maybe even a completely pointless and meaningless goal, but we set some goal like this here to help us get through the hours, days, and weeks of interviewing.

Fingerprint scanner

“Left hand four fingers.  Right hand.  Two thumbs.  OK. Next!”  I dare you to say that, and only that, over 100 times in an hour.  I triple dog dare you to do it in Chinese.

Still to put my number into perspective a colleague of mine hit over 27,500 in a year of adjudication and another colleague 31,000 in a year.  So as amazing as my number might sound, though it is a lot, I am by no means one of the fastest.  And the fingerprinting number…it is a pittance!  We had a temporary duty (TDY) colleague here for three weeks over the winter to help us during the busier season and in that time she alone fingerprinted 6,001 people!

One day after fingerprinting over 430 people over the course of 3 3/4 hours I came to a number of conclusions.  One is that a surprising number of people appear to be missing digits or parts of digits.  And it makes me wonder how it is that person came to lose them.  Or when the prints seem to be particularly bad, how it is those prints came to be worn?  So many stories exist just in people’s hands.  Another is that you can never judge a person’s fingerprints by their appearance.  Some young people have terrible prints, some old people have wonderful prints.  And finally, really clear, excellent prints are a beautiful thing to behold.  I never thought the image of the lovely whirls of a truly great print would be the thing to blow my hair back, but life is a funny, funny thing.

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Hundreds of average Chinese line up outside for a chance at a US visa

It can be hard to see the amazing activities colleagues around the world are doing while you are busy doing hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands of visas.  In the past few months colleagues have posted about meeting Colin Firth and Meryl Streep, having a conversation with a Thai princess, meeting Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, or flying on the Air Force jet with Secretary John Kerry.  Meanwhile today I interviewed over a hundred completely ordinary Chinese people.  And it was a slow day.

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We marked the beginning of our second year with the arrival of the Year of the Monkey.  According to some birth tourists, the Chinese love monkeys, so much so that the hospitals in China will have a bumper crops of babies and just be too busy.  I’ll just leave it at that.

But everyday people can be pretty cool too.  I will admit that I do suffer from interviewing fatigue.  Everyone does.  It is not easy to do this day in and day out for two years or four.  But there are days when it is, dare I admit it, fun.  Each morning or afternoon, depending on the shift, I sit or stand, depending on the adjudication window, and take a deep breath before I pull up the blinds and face the first of so many applicants.  There are times there is a sense of, not dread, but well an acute sense of opportunity cost – that by being there doing the interviews there are so many other great things I am not doing.  But other times there is a quick sense of anticipation, and even excitement.  I cannot speak for everyone of course, but there are many things to like about interviewing.  And even in the short time I have to talk to each applicant you can see a glimpse of a story.  The retired sisters giddy with excitement to take an 18 day group tour to America.  The students nervous and hopeful for a chance to study in America.  The completely unqualified applicant stammering out answers, knowing it is a long-shot, but still dreaming you might give them a visa anyway.

However, just because I think it is fun and interesting work sometimes does not mean I do not struggle with it.  I do.  A lot.  And it has been harder these past few weeks to write and post this because although I have crossed the one year threshold I cannot say that I have only one year to go because I extended until April 2017, which moved me from a winter bidding cycle to the summer. Because I have no idea how the bidding for the next tour will go – bidding that will not begin until late this summer – it is possible that I leave earlier than April 2017 and it is possible I leave later. Yet right now I just do not know how much longer I have, when I will even reach the one year to go mark.  So right now I feel I am in a sort of limbo.

Shanghai bulldozer on sidewalk 2

A symbol of stagnation.  Over 13 months after my arrival and it is still @#$&ing there.

And in this limbo I find it harder to do the visas.  Harder to face the rising numbers of applicants that characterizes our summer season.  Harder to shrug off the cars and buses and motorbikes that run red lights.  Harder to deal with the pushing and the shoving that comes with being in any public place in the largest city in the world’s most populous country.  If you look back at my one my early posts from Shanghai, there was a bulldozer parked unattended, unused in the middle of a sidewalk on my way to work.  It sat on the footpath blocking any pedestrian use, just after a particularly greasy, grimy stretch of sidewalk.  It is still there.  And I did not think it would be possible, but that sidewalk is even more caked, mucky, and encrusted with slime than before.

Yet there has been so much more over this past year than the work.  In Shanghai we have been to so many museums and sightseeing spots from the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Propaganda Poster Museum, and the Science and Technology Museum, to Dishui Lake, the Shanghai Zoo, and the Jing’An Sculpture Park.  Within China we have traveled to Hangzhou, Nanjing, Sanya, and Hong Kong.  We have also been back to the US three times, including my unexpected Medevac, which certainly livened up the year, and to Singapore (another Medevac) and the Dominican Republic.

Shanghai has been an extraordinary place to live.  My daughter and I not only have a nice life here, but we have fun here.  C has especially thrived here.  It is amazing to watch my three-now-four-year old speaking Chinese.  To hear that she refers to China as where we live and America as where we are from.  To have her making friends with children with diverse backgrounds who all find themselves here.  She loves Shanghai, so I love Shanghai.

I am not sure how to end this but I suppose it isn’t necessary because I am not done with Shanghai.  I have a year and then some left.  More visas and more fun still to come.

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And no matter the day, whether it is a love visa or hate visa day, I never grow tired of the view from my apartment

 

 

Can I Buy an Iron Lung on Taobao?

Taobao oxygen

This one is very snazzy. I think that blue really brightens up the whole room.

Taobao is China’s version of Amazon. It is China’s “largest online shopping platform.” It is the place where you can order just about anything under the sun, except apparently not an Iron Lung. It turns out Iron Lungs are really, really large contraptions, about the size of a tanning bed. However, if you want to buy bottled oxygen you can. They come in all different kinds of bottles, in a range of colors even. There are the kinds for home use and the ones for taking on the go. There are also ones especially marketed to pregnant women or students or travelers. You can get your oxygen bottles in 2, 4, 10, and 15 liters for home use.

On Taobao you can also purchase any number of anti-pollution masks. In fact a China Daily article from December 2015 noted a steady rise in the mask orders from the online market. Some are very stylish. Some are cute. Some are, well, interesting. If you have been hankering for a face mask that looks like you have a teddy bear on the lower half of your face then you can make that happen. Probably the most popular are the basic white 3M disposable masks. Although unfortunately that mask you buy might not be real. It might cover your face but not protect you from the pollution. In December 2015 Chinese customs authorities seized 120,000 counterfeit masks in two separate raids. Counterfeit face masks, who would have thought? Well, it is China.

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C and I get wacky in our Vogmasks.

The other day I saw a woman walking toward me in the street and I noticed her striking face mask. It was black with silver adornments. Although what popped into my mind was “Hannibal Lecter,” which admittedly sounds gauche rather than graceful, I did find myself thinking I would like to have a mask like that. Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?  Should I get in on this before it is too late?

Honestly, as stylish and fashionable as my mask is I am not that into wearing it. I wear glasses and whenever I put on the mask, which tends to be in winter when the air quality levels are on average worse, they fog up. In general if the air quality levels are high, over 150, I try to limit my time outdoors and my nanny keeps my daughter inside. On weekdays that is pretty easy. I live only a ten minute walk from work and there is an indoor play area for kids within the building. On weekends it can be a downer if I have plans to get out for a walk or head to a museum. Poor air quality can be the deciding factor in our extracurricular activities.

If we do have to stay indoors though the Consulate provides us with BlueAir purifiers; they are reportedly some of the best on the market. We receive one for each room. At least every six months the management section delivers us new filters and we change them. It is super easy to change them but it is astonishing how dirty the filters are after six months in a small apartment even with four purifiers running.

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Few things say “have a great holiday” than buying yourself or your loved ones an anti-pollution mask.

When people hear about air pollution that hangs in a pall over a city they do think of China, but usually it is Beijing that is in the news. And frankly, I guess with all things being relative, Shanghai is really not all that bad. It is not Beijing. It is not Shenyang. It is not Chengdu. In fact in a 2014 study examining the PM 2.5 levels across China that ranked 74 Chinese cities by their air quality, Shanghai came in at 48th place. And if you look across the world Shanghai is not Delhi or Peshawar or Ulaanbaatar. I am not sure this makes the level more tolerable or okay, but I do realize that things could be worse. (Though they could most certainly also be better – on the most recent day I checked the PM2.5 it was 153 or “unhealthy” in Shanghai, and 46 in Washington, DC, and in Los Angeles, a city known for its smog, the level was 9, yes NINE, with a daily average of 41.)

I do not know where Shanghai’s average PM2.5 level falls. I have a colleague though who could probably tell you as he has created a spreadsheet or a computer program that figures out the average and he can tell you the range for each city where we have a diplomatic mission in China. This is the kind of thing I guess some people do for fun in China. To think that before I arrived in Shanghai I never once thought about checking the Air Quality Monitor (AQI). Now it is something I check fairly regularly. It is part of my vocabulary.

I do not check the monitor so much now as I used to when I first arrived though. One hardly needs to check when just a glance out the window will give you the kind of “mask” or “no mask” indication you are looking for. If you want the exact numbers so you can complain smartly at work, then yes, you will need to check it. But if I haven’t checked it, then I am sure someone at work has.

Window View Montage

My apartment view on a good, bad, and ugly air quality day

All kidding aside, the pollution levels may have some long term affects on myself and my child and I do not yet know what they might be. In the short term however I do notice that I need to use my asthma inhaler more in China, and particularly more in the winter. And in October I was Medevac’d to the US for a procedure for a heart condition I developed in China. I have no idea if the air quality had anything to do with it but I did not have a heart condition before I came to Shanghai.

I sometimes daydream about being somewhere I do not have to think about AQI. There are so many places on my projected bid list for my next tour that might not fit that bill. I wonder if I will eliminate them as a result? There are days when I suppose the only reasonable next place should be an island country with few high rises, few polluting industries, few skyscrapers. A place I might reset the damage done this tour. When on vacation outside of China, away from the AQI monitor I do feel liberated, and I realize how much it does affect my life in Shanghai. When in Shanghai, I get used to it.

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Is this the next step? Do my cats need their own kitty masks? And yes, this is my actual cat. And yes she kept this mask on and let me take pictures.

Christmastime in Shanghai

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The Christmas Tree Light display in front of Plaza 66 mall

Full disclosure: I do not have a history of celebrating Christmas. In fact, I have generally escaped from partaking in Christmas revelry. In the twenty-one Christmases from 1995 to 2015 I have spent only four in the United States, three of those four are since I joined the State Department in July of 2011 (two because I was in training at the Foreign Service Institute where there is a general no-leave policy and once when we flew back from Mexico). There were only five of those Christmases I did not travel somewhere. I have spent Christmases in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Curacao, Antigua, Sri Lanka, Batam Island, and Mexico. You may notice the warm weather locale theme.

I have not changed the plan this year either! The morning of Christmas Eve has us heading south to escape the cold and dreary Shanghai winter – at least for a few days.

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The Christmas decor section at the supermarket – not too shabby

But Christmas in Shanghai, just like in the US, is not really just one day. There have been decorations up for quite some time. Case in point: C and I headed over to the Kerry Centre mall across the street on Thanksgiving Day to purchase some wine to bring to my colleague’s home. There was tinsel and ornaments and wreaths and piped in Christmas tunes. The basement supermarket had a section of holiday items at the base of the escalator – front and center. It was so authentic – for C at least – that when she woke up the following day and learned Thanksgiving was over, she cried because she thought she had missed Santa. It took some convincing to get across that Christmas and Thanksgiving were in fact two different holidays.

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The lights in the trees lining Nanjing West road for blocks on end

C and I have not been out and about very much lately. The weather has been less than lovely (cold, wet, grey) and work has been busy. Yet we live at one of Shanghai’s premier addresses on the major thoroughfare of Old Shanghai. Here the Christmas decorations have been out in force. And I do mean Christmas – there is not much of the Happy Holidays sentiment that has some Americans upset about the ‘War on Christmas’ (except the Starbucks in my complex did have the red cups). Though it is very much a commercial holiday here, and one that caters to expats. It is largely the fancy malls that have the displays – walk just a block or two off the main street and there is almost zero sign of the season other than it being cold.

The Shanghai Centre, the complex where I live, hosted a holiday party for the residents and this included a buffet, live band, and of course a visit from Santa for the kids. The Portman Ritz Carlton hotel, which is a part of the same complex, set up a Christmas market selling gifts, sweets, warm beverages (Gluhwein!), and live trees. They also had a Swedish choir perform holiday songs, a tree lighting ceremony, and a very large gingerbread house on display in the lobby.

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After seeing this gingerbread house I realize it is of no use to ever try to build one of my own.  Portman Ritz-Carlton lobby

This is the first Christmas though that my daughter is old enough to sort of understand what is going on. I say sort of because we celebrated Christmas on Saturday, December 19 since we would be out of town on the 25th and C has no idea it was not the actual Christmas Day. Still, through various DVDs including My Little Pony and Paw Patrol she knows some Christmas traditions that I was unable to recreate.

For one, she expected snow. Despite her very limited exposure to the cold, white stuff (one time in Juarez and a few days last winter in Virginia) she talked about it. That on Christmas there would most certainly be some snow. I tried to explain that the climate in Shanghai is generally too warm for snow but that doesn’t make much sense to her as it is not warm outside at all. We have our coats and covered shoes on each day after all.

She also seemed particularly upset about the lack of a star on the top of our Christmas tree. I did buy a tree, a small plastic tree about two and a half feet high. It was not a purchase I had planned to make but C made a comment about wanting one. The giddy delight with which she greeted that miniature fake tree (“Oh mommy, mommy it is the most beautiful tree in the whole world! It is Awesome!), however made it so worth it. At the supermarket I also found the string of lights for our window and the small red and gold ornamental balls, tinsel, and candy for the tree. However, there were no tree-topping stars and no time to find one.

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Our first Christmas tree.  Small, and hopefully one that travels well for this lifestyle.

It made me realize that there were all these traditions from the US that I wanted to share with my daughter – candy canes, driving through neighborhoods full of beautifully (or crazily) lit homes, singing along to Christmas songs on the radio or listening to carolers, watching the Night Before Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer on television. Even just running out to a store to pick up those last minute Christmas needs – like a Christmas tree star or egg nog.

Just after I returned from my Medevac in mid-November we received email notification from the DPO (Diplomatic Post Office) that in order to guarantee delivery before Christmas orders would need to be at the DPO facility in California by November 22. I placed an order for all of my daughter’s presents before that date so they did all arrive. But the two rolls of wrapping paper I purchased were barely enough to cover three presents so the rest were wrapped up in a Frankenstein-style hobbled together from random paper bags I found under my sink.

Luckily my daughter is so young that traditions are ours to be made. There are times we will be back in the US at Christmas and be able to take advantage of those special traditions, but more likely we will be overseas and there is no telling what may or may not be available on the local market or how the holidays may or may not be celebrated. This turned out to be the most excited I have been about Christmas since I was a child and though I realized a bit too late in the game I still put on a pretty wonderful Christmas morning. Though I still don’t want to be cold on Christmas.

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The not yet finished (at the time of the photo) Christmas decor in front of Westgate Mall, where the Shanghai US Consulate Visa Section is located

Visaland

[scene opens with the camera panning through a lush green bamboo forest]

[Voice over begins]

“In a land far, far away…” [camera rushes across a lake with a Chinese pagoda on its shore]

“There teems hundreds of thousands of souls…” [camera zooms across the Great Wall of China]

“eager for the opportunity to travel across the seas…” [camera zooms over the city of Shanghai]

“in search of opportunity, package tours, and luxury handbags.”

“This is China. This is VISALAND!” [camera pans over the crowd of visa applicants outside Westgate Mall]

“And facing this onslaught are the incredible visa officers of the Shanghai Consulate” [camera zooms toward an awesome group of smartly dressed Foreign Service Officers standing hands on hips, heads held high, in 1, 3, 5 formation]

“I am one of these officers.” [zooms in on me grinning]

Yes, Mission China is a study in visa superlatives. And working here, at least in my mind, is sometimes like a movie, perhaps a cross between Mission Impossible and Office Space.

China by the numbers.

The visa numbers for China are astounding.

H1-B visas, for temporary workers in specialty occupations, are limited each year to 65,000 worldwide (with a few categories that have exceptions to the quota). According to a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 2013 study, Chinese represented 8 percent of H1-B visa beneficiaries, the second largest group after India.

F-1 visas are for full-time students. Institute of International Education (IIE) data indicates Chinese students now make up nearly a third of all international students at US universities. The Chinese also appear to very much like US private secondary schools; they make up 46% of international students pursuing high school diplomas.

And Chinese tourists? Approximately a quarter of all US B1/B2 (tourist) visas issued worldwide go to Chinese! This year alone Mission China (all our Consular units in Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou) is expected to issue some 2.3 million visas.

The average Chinese tourist spends US$6000 while visiting the States. That translates to tens of billions of dollars a year. And right now these Chinese tourists to the US represent only about two percent of Chinese travelers. Mind. Blown. Right?

Shanghai is the second largest non-immigrant visa (NIV) post in the world (blowing my previous post of Ciudad Juarez, ranked about number 15 for NIVs, out of the water) . We are in the top 10 of H1-B posts and a major post for student visas.

Since last November when the US and China announced an agreement to extend tourist visa validity from one to ten years, Chinese applications for US visas has been on the rise. Basically since my arrival in Shanghai, we have seen record breaking numbers every month.

In March we hit an all-time high, adjudicating more than 5,600 visas in a single day.

In April we printed a record-breaking one day total of 7,000+ visas. Yet in June, after the worldwide consular systems issue resulted in our being unable to print tens of thousands of visas, our incredible print team remained late one night immediately after systems were restored to print over 13,000 visas in a single day.

June is our busiest month. It is when our normal 50 student applicants a day (the average in March 2015) reach over 800 a day. In total, Consulate Shanghai adjudicated almost 87,000 visas in June 2015.

Visa applicants begin to line up outside Westgate Mall.

Early morning Shanghai, visa applicants begin to line up outside Westgate Mall.

What in the world is it like to work here?

Most days we aim for approximately 4300 interview appointments. That is more applicants than some posts see in an entire year! Each visa officer is expected to interview a minimum of 120 applicants a day, though most of us, once “on the line” for more than a few months exceed this amount.

I arrived in Shanghai in late January 2015 and due to my training schedule and the Chinese lunar New Year, which occurred just three weeks after my arrival, my first interview day was not until February 26. Yet from that time through June 30, I adjudicated over 9,000 visas. In June my month tally was 2,667. And to think I am one of the slower adjudicators.

I will be honest here, it isn’t easy. Interviewing that number of people every day is mentally and physically draining. It is not tiring in the same way as I found the Immigrant Visas in Ciudad Juarez. The complexity of the cases, the amount of paperwork, and the stakes for the applicant (to become a new US citizen or not) are generally higher in IV work. There were cases that kept me up at night and many that made me weep from joy or sorrow. There are cases from Juarez I doubt I shall ever forget.

It is the repetitiveness of NIV and the sheer number of cases per day in a post like Shanghai that wear on the visa officer. Still, I will not say I do not like the job. There are days that are fun and interesting; there are applicants that bring a smile to my face and even a few that cause me to choke back tears (generally happy ones).

I am astounded by the number of Chinese students who want to pursue their educational dreams half way around the world. At 18, I was pleased as punch to be going to an out-of-state school in Georgia, some 650 miles away from my Virginia home. And although I did do a study abroad in Beijing my fourth year, I am not sure I would have ever been ready at that age to spend four years studying so very far from home. I have had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of interviewing easily over 1,000 Chinese preparing to go to the US for their BA, MA or PhDs. It can be mind-numbing to hear yet again that the reason for his/her interest in studying in the US is “because the US educational system is the best in the world” or “this school is ranked X in the US in my degree program” or “the teaching level of this school is optimal for my career goals,” which, as genuinely as the applicant may believe these statements, simply sound like well-practiced platitudes. It is far more interesting to hear an authentic declaration such as the student’s hope that they will find either llamas (California) or alligators (Florida) on their university grounds or their fervent fascination with the number of hectares the campus of their college occupies. Although these do not sound like particularly relevant reasons to choose to study at one school over another, they are a welcome change. Of course the best answers are the sincere and honest ones, in which the student’s eyes shine in anticipation and hope that you will grant them the visa and make the first part of their dream come true.

I am even more astonished at the number of students prepared to attend our private secondary schools. There is of course many a US family (many Foreign Service Officers among them) who choose to send their children to private boarding schools far from home. Yet, I am not of that world and my daughter is so young, I have a hard time imagining sending my 14 year old child 10,000 miles away for high school.

These children often arrive at their visa interview alone, on their own to present their case for study in America. Many are shy and stumble over their words. Others appear incredibly mature and confident. Faced with one such young female student I was impressed when she answered my question about being concerned to study in the US alone with “No, I welcome the adventure and the challenge.” Her tone told me she no doubt did.

I see relationships on display every day in the interview line. In a culture where public displays of affection are still infrequent, it is nice to see a father familiarly hang his arms across the shoulder of his wife and teenage son and grin or long-time friends give other a joyful slap on the back when they know they get to take their 18 day USA group tour together. While I may not be too sure of the idea of a two week group tour with my parents, here I have interviewed many adult children traveling with their parents, grandparents with their grandchildren, married siblings with their spouses, married couples with both sets of in-laws, even the occasional ex-husband and ex-wife traveling with their child. I am amused and intrigued by the number of newlyweds who wish to honeymoon with a group of friends-maybe it is actually a nicer way to celebrate?

Sure, as a visa officer at a busy post I only get a few minutes at most with each applicant and I cannot lie that there are days when I see this as monotony stretching for the next 22 months. But other days, I see, and feel, the amazing opportunity to both serve my country and interact with a heck of a lot of Chinese, who just want a chance to visit the US.

Some days it is pretty incredible in Visaland.

The Long, Not-so-long, Expat

On an extension, bidding prep, and the challenge of being at a post with too much to do

So the big news is that I have extended here in Shanghai. Or rather, my request to extend has been approved, because nothing like that happens without getting approval from DC.

Why in the world would I want to do even MORE visas? Especially when colleagues around me are applying for onward assignments that allow them to curtail. Many of the younger and/or single folks heading on to third tours opted to bid on and accept handshakes for positions in one-year unaccompanied posts, or the Priority Staffing Posts (PSP) like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Yemen. Of course married folks too opt for these posts. But me, the single mom of a toddler? No. No, I extend.

I requested the extension so that I might move from the winter bidding cycle on to the summer cycle, because A. there are more bidding options on the summer cycle and B. because soon enough school will become an issue for us and it would be nice not to have to pull my daughter out in the middle of a school year (though summer cycle does not guarantee that – nothing in the Foreign Service is ever really 100% a sure thing).

It helped my case that Chinese is a super hard language that generally takes 36 to 44 weeks at the Foreign Service Institute to reach the required level and China is experiencing a huge boost in visa applications and we are short staffed to meet demand (though making a super valiant effort anyway). Here I was, already in China, with the requisite Chinese level, asking to stay longer. So it was granted.

A three month extension brings my tour to April 2017, which makes me eligible for the summer cycle.

Bidding. It is bidding season now, though not mine, but there is that whiff of excitement and anxiety in the air. Colleagues who are in the midst of the cycle huddle together, whispering about “handshakes” and jobs “slipping off the list” and follow-up phone calls and emails, about interviews and “lobbying packets.” There is a whole vernacular devoted to mid-level bidding.

I will not start until next summer, yet it has not stopped me from already daydreaming about the possibilities. Alright, truth be told, I am doing far more than dreaming. I am researching potential posts. I am thinking through the ramifications of another stint at language learning at the Foreign Service Institute (something I swore up and down that I would NOT do before my third tour). I am imagining us in Post X in Central America or Post Y in Africa or Post Z in Asia. Do I want myself and my daughter to take anti-malarials the whole tour? Would friends and family visit? How difficult is it to import pets? Is the tour straight up Political or is it a Pol-Econ or jack of all trades? Is it an Embassy or Consulate, large post or small? How are the schools? Each and every one with positives and negatives to ponder.

However, although it is fun to research and ruminate over the options of where we might find ourselves living next, it is also a bit odd to already be thinking about the follow-on post. I liken it to running for the House of Representatives. No sooner have you been voted in when you begin to prepare and campaign for the next election.

Every month a farmer’s market of sorts is held in the atrium of the apartment complex where I live. There one can find fruits and vegetables from organic farms but also homemade chocolates and baked goods and other products. Many of the sellers are foreigners who have lived in Shanghai for awhile, they have set up businesses. Last month I stopped at a table where a woman, about my age, was selling specialty soaps and home tonics. I ended up talking with her for about 30 minutes and found out that it is a company she founded and operates with her husband – an Australian/New Zealand couple with seven and fourteen years living in Shanghai respectively.

I have spent the past few weeks thinking on that. My three month extension means that we still have approximately 22 months left here in Shanghai. [“Approximately” because an ETD is still always rather fluid as one could leave April 1 or April 30 or even March 1 or May 31 and still be within the general departure guidelines.] But Foreign Service Officers are generally less permanent and more nomadic than many other expatriates. We arrive in country knowing we are here for only a certain period of time. Sometimes you will hear us say such things as “I can live anywhere for two years.” So even if we have to put up with a less than ideal assignment, with less than ideal housing, with less than ideal local conditions, we know it is temporary.

And as a result I feel quite eager to see and do as much as I can in and around Shanghai before we move on to the next tour, wherever that may be. Yet there is just WAY too much to do in Shanghai. As I noted in my post the 5 Pros and Cons on Being Posted to Shanghai there are some 70 museums alone in the city and they keep opening them faster than you can visit. In the last few years alone several world class museums have opened. Add in the restaurants and special events (Cavalia, a sort of Cirque du Soleil with horses, is coming this month as is Linkin Park in concert) and the cultural and historical sights like the Bund, Yu Gardens, the temples, the French Concession… Next year brings the opening of both Shanghai Disneyland and Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center. What’s a history/museum/travel-loving mom to do?

Reading a “Real Post Report” for one small southern African post I am considering bidding for my next tour the author wrote that the biggest quandary on a Sunday would be whether to go to one hotel for brunch or another hotel to swim. I wonder how I would deal with that. Part of me thinks it sound wonderfully simple and another part of me worries I would be bored. Would I feel more like an expat and less like a long-term tourist?

For the time being it is a moot point. We still have time here. My biggest dilemmas are often should I rest after that exhausting week of visa interviews or should I pound the pavement and ride the metro to yet another incredible sight?

5 Pros and Cons on Being Posted to Shanghai

Several other Foreign Service bloggers are putting forth posts on the five pros and cons of their city/country. This might be a post better written with more time under my belt, but what the heck, here it is:

PROS
1. Things to do. There is no shortage of things to do in your spare time in Shanghai. Are you into museums? Shanghai reportedly has over 70 museums with something for everybody. These include large world-class spaces such as the China Art Museum, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the Shanghai Museum, and the newly reopened, refurbished Shanghai Natural History Museum. Yet you can also find lesser known museums such as the Shanghai Post Museum, the Shanghai Museum of Glass, the Shanghai Museum of Public Security, and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which is so much cooler and fascinating than its title leads one to believe. There are also the little one or two room gems such as the Propaganda Poster Museum or the Shanghai Chopsticks Museum.

Are you interested in history? Although Shanghai cannot compete with the 600+ year history of Beijing, its history is nonetheless fascinating. Stroll through tree lined streets of the former International Settlement or French Concession area to see beautiful homes from the 1920s and 1930s during Shanghai’s celebrated and turbulent coming of age. Or stroll along the iconic Bund on a sunny day and contemplate the historic waterfront, then turn to look across the Huangpu River at the modern high rises of Pudong.

Do you like hills and nature? You might not believe it but Shanghai’s highest peak, Sheshan Hill, is surrounded by Sheshan National Forest Park and the 10 acre Chenshan Botanical Garden, one of the largest in the world, is nearby. You can also find restored Shikumen, a type of residential neighborhood popularized in Shanghai in the early 20th century, with winding narrow lanes filled with boutique stores and restaurants. The most famous are Xintiandi and TianziFang. Within Shanghai limits you can visit several ancient water towns, think Venice with a Chinese flair. There is a zoo and an aquarium and a wild animal park. If you like amusement parks Shanghai has several with the Shanghai Disneyland set to open in early 2016.

Of course there are also restaurants and bars galore serving all manner of cuisines and atmosphere. For kids there are indoor play areas, parks, and summer camps. If you like to watch sports you might be interested in Shanghai’s Formula One or the Rolex Masters. If you like to participate there is anything from tai chi in the park to the international marathon. There are even several vertical marathons, given Shanghai also boasts some of the highest buildings in the world. There are world-class stages where you may to see such performances as Chinese Opera or Katy Perry.

It is quite obvious I could go on and on and on. Yet I do not have the space and unfortunately even if you stayed here more than one tour, you would be hard pressed to see and do it all.

Living Room 1

Don’t hate me because my apartment is beautiful.

2. Housing. You will not be disappointed with your home in Shanghai. A common complaint in the Foreign Service is the Drexel Heritage furniture that you find wherever you go, whether posted to Jakarta or Juarez or Tbilisi or Timbuktu, but here in Shanghai you get a break from Drexel (or DrexHell as some lovingly call it) as all the housing is furnished in house. All are serviced apartments or villas with at least twice weekly housecleaning service. The amenities and conveniences in each of the housing options are numerous. Whatever your day brings you, your home in Shanghai is nice to return to.

3. Travel. Even with the incredible number of things to do in Shanghai you do occasionally need to get out of town. No problem. Shanghai has four main rail stations that will take you to famous nearby destinations such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing. The high speed rail will whisk you to Beijing in only five hours. Or head to one of Shanghai’s two international airports and head off to Chengdu to see pandas or Hainan Island for beaches or any number of incredible Chinese destinations. Or if you are tired of China, flights out of Pudong head to over 70 international destinations, with frequent flights to Southeast Asia.

4. Energy. There is a spirit and energy in Shanghai that is infectious. Although entrepreneurship is not easy in China, and sometimes the local government runs afoul of Beijing, people in Shanghai are making things happen. There is a buzz and hum to the streets. Seeing some of the tallest buildings in the world rise up to the sky and beautiful feats of architecture and innovation in the form of incredible new museums is astounding. When I first visited Shanghai in 2002 there were three metro lines with a total of 35 stations, today there fourteen lines with a total of 337 stations. People in Shanghai are literally moving and shaking! There are most certainly many wealthy people in the city (see the cons) and a certain amount of capital is required to make projects move, but it is the everyday people, both foreign and local, that are shaping the future of this city and beyond. It makes you want to do more yourself!

5. Work. There are plenty of pundits which define the U.S. – China bilateral relationship as one of the most important in the world. Of course all diplomatic work matters, but diplomatic work done in China is most definitely on the radar in Washington and Beijing. In whichever city you work, in whatever section you work, your contribution to the team effort is important. As part of the massive U.S. Consular effort in China, know that each tourist you approve to visit the U.S. spends an average of $5,400 during their trip. Every sixteen Chinese tourists to the U.S. supports one U.S. job. Last year that meant 1.8 million Chinese tourists spent over 2.1 billion dollars in the U.S.  That number is expected to grow in 2015.

AQM

Pollution mask or no pollution mask? That is the question.

CONS
1. Poor Air Quality. It is very unfortunate with all the wonderful things that Shanghai has to offer that the pollution levels are at times too bad to spend much time outdoors. You will quickly bookmark the Consulate’s Air Quality Monitor link and even if a quick look out your window tells you the air is bad, you still check the AQM to find out just how bad.

2. Internet Access. You have probably heard by now that the Chinese government tightly controls access to the Internet and/or rather certain sites on the Internet. Over 2,700 sites actually. All you want to do is read the news on BBC, or get on to Facebook to post your latest photos from another day out in fabulous Shanghai, or send an email from your Gmail account, or watch a video on YouTube, or post to your WordPress blog, but every single one of these sites is inaccessible through the domestic Internet. In order to access such sites one must employ a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and it is a constant (and frustrating) cat and mouse game.

3. Costs. In 2014 Forbes ranked Shanghai the 10th most expensive city in the world. I talked about the high prices of many items in my post Lap of Luxury. There is a good reason that Foreign Service officers receive a 50% Cost of Living Adjustment here. Still I wonder who buys all of these luxury goods? Who can afford 200 RMB (US$32) for half a pound of cherries? The millionaires of course! Shanghai also ranks in the top ten cities with the most number of millionaires, over 166,000. There are also over 1000 multimillionaires and approximately 23 billionaires. If you have preschool aged children and want to send them to an international preschool (State Department does NOT cover this) get ready to fork out the dough.  The average cost is US$24,000 a year. For preschool!

4. Crowded/Lack of Privacy. There are over 14 million people living in Shanghai so it is a pretty good assumption you will never, ever be alone. If you make the mistake of heading to IKEA or the Science and Technology museum on a rainy Saturday (guilty on both counts) be prepared for the deafening crowds. If you attempt to stop to look at a display it is very likely you will be carried away with the flow. I have had bags ripped from my hands on the subway as people jostled to get on and off the train. Once I even nearly lost hold of my three year old in a similar crowd and it was a terrifying moment. And speaking of adorable blonde three year old cherubs; if you happen to have one or two, cameras will constantly be pointed at your child. A quick stop to check a map and I can look up to find we are surrounded by cell phone camera wielding Chinese. If you look anything other than Chinese, then when out and about, it can feel a bit like living in a fishbowl.

5. Work. You will be busy. Very, very busy. As awesome as it is to be part of something as significant as the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, it is also important to have some downtime to enjoy some of Shanghai’s numerous diversions. There are many days when I simply do not have the energy to leave the apartment again once home. (good thing for #2 in the Pros)

EDIT: Honorable Mention PRO: I have already received a few messages letting me know I have been remiss in not mentioning two very fabulous aspects of any Shanghai/China tour.  One would be massages.  I hear ya.  There is a massage place on just about every other block and if you can get off the main drag they are more than reasonably priced.  Another is shopping.  This country is the manufacturer of the world after all.  Yet I am not talking about clothes and knock off electronics.  Of course you can buy lovely chopstick sets, hand painted perfume bottles, and have your name carved into a Chinese chop.  There are also furniture shops and pearl markets.  So when the cons start to get you down have a massage to melt the stress away or indulge in a little retail therapy.

Three Months in Shanghai: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Disgusting

Three months. Wow. I can hardly believe it. Here we are now one-eighth of the way through my two year tour. All of my Household Effects (HHE) have been delivered. The apartment is set up. C is in swim lessons. The nanny is working out great. I got the visa interviewing thing down.

When I started to think about this post, I wanted to write about all the great things C and I have seen and done since our arrival. Shanghai is a city chock full of things to do, places to visit, activities to experience.

Then it happened, that magical time in the cultural adaptation cycle when the honeymoon is over and you start to kinda, sorta, really, really, become bothered by little things. Sometimes Every. Little. Thing.  Culture Shock.

Culture shock graph

Yeah, there I am, right there in that trough.

Early this week I was walking to work the “short cut” way. It is not really a short cut in the true sense of the word. It is basically the same number of blocks, just less traffic on the “back way” allows for opportunities to jaywalk and thus arrive at one’s destination faster.

Anyway, I am walking along that road and get to this section of sidewalk that is just so disgustingly dirty that sometimes when I walk on it I slide. This section of sidewalk is only for half a block. It is caked with filth and for whatever reason a bulldozer is parked on one part of it. That morning I saw another person approaching me on the road rather than the grimy segment, and I too decided I would prefer the street.Of course I do not believe the street any cleaner however I do not expect a street to be clean and the sidewalk is an affront to my sense of order.

I thought to myself: I have been here for three whole months and no one has even attempted to clean this sidewalk. It is in a nice section of town and there it sits all mucky. Someone should power wash this sidewalk! I generally dislike power washing sidewalks because it seems like such a waste of water, but this here sludgy, slimy sidewalk screams “power wash me!” And I will probably walk this way on my last day to work in two years and it will STILL be sickening slick and revolting. It will never, ever, ever be cleaned.

I hate that sidewalk.

And the “work in progress” site that is directly in front of the Cartier store that has been in progress for three whole months without any visible work being done EVER.

2015-04-29 16.32.47

Art installation or social experiment maybe, but certainly not a work in progress.

And then while buying a salad in the swank Isetan department store the cashier, before giving me my change, turned back from the register, cleared her throat in the classic Chinese style, and hocked a loogie into the trashcan in front of me. Nice one lady. That sound may haunt me for weeks.

And there is the pollution. It makes me crazy that my top used bookmark for Shanghai is the Consulate’s Air Quality Monitor. Is it a face mask worthy day? Or a just don’t bother going outside at all kind of day?

First bad smog day Feb 4 2015

Hey, wanna play outside? Hang on, let me just get my air pollution mask with exhale valve.

And those people who ride the elevator in in our work building. Those ones, who even when they see you coming or even that you are right behind them, start pushing the door close button as soon as they can; I got hit with the doors pretty hard on Monday. Thanks a million lady. I hope one day you need a visa and you happen to get in my line… (I know, I know, undiplomatic thoughts, bad)

And as I predicted in my post Lap of Luxury, I have grown irritated running the luxury brand gauntlet to and from work. Or basically whenever I leave my apartment. After three months of passing a window display of a sweet pair of Ferragamo shoes on my daily commute, I finally went in to ask the price. Big mistake.

2015-04-30 02.37.01

See that lovely pale blue shoe on the left? Only 7,200 RMB or $1150. I hope it comes with a second one for free.

So, this is actually a really, really, really good time to remind myself of the many good things we have already experienced

I have a long list of things I want to see and do in Shanghai and I have most certainly not been remiss is getting out and about. In the category of temples we have visited touristy Jing’An Temple and the quiet, reserved Temple of the Jade Buddha.

17 almost closing

Temple of the Jade Buddha

We went to the top of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower and even sauntered out on the glass bottom walkway. Especially for C we visited the Shanghai Aquarium and M&Ms World.

6

C and her stuffed cat contemplate Shanghai from the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower.

I have also dragged her to the Shanghai City Museum, the Shanghai Municipal History Museum, the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, the Shanghai Postal Museum, and the Propaganda Poster Museum. To C’s credit she usually promptly drops off to sleep to give me time to enjoy the exhibits.

2015-02-22 00.02.32

The incredible scale model of the city at the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum.

I have been through the culture shock rigmarole quite a few times and I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That sidewalk might bother me for awhile (especially if it is never, ever cleaned and/or that bulldozer never, ever moved) but the bright side is we have sidewalks, right? Not every place does. Just trying to keep things in perspective.

Hanging in Hangzhou

“Above there is Heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou” ~ really old Chinese saying

Well, I wouldn’t go THAT far, but it turned out better than expected given the weather.

Murphy’s Law: The day before, even the day of, our departure to Hangzhou was lovely. Then once we were on our way it wasn’t. Our first trip outside of Shanghai since we arrived 9 weeks ago and the weather was terrible. I cannot be exactly sure, but it may have begun to rain the minute our high-speed train departed Hongqiao Station.

And it kept raining.

Through the train journey. Through the ride in the taxi to our Hangzhou hotel. Through the night. And through our first day.

I had wanted for years to visit Hangzhou and had certainly been looking forward to this trip (almost desperately) for weeks and now…

2 Anna & Elsa contemplate weather

Queen Elsa and Princess Elsa seem as disappointed as I contemplating the poor weather.

We had breakfast in our room and I poured over the Hangzhou tourist brochure looking for something, almost anything, that we could do on a rainy day. But even the tea museum had an outdoor component. So I gave in.

I decided our first day would just be a relaxing day at the hotel. Just C and I. And I looked at the bright side.

I managed our first trip in China. Getting C and I to the train station on the metro and then to Hangzhou with the two of us sharing a single seat on the one hour journey. I managed, with the help of my little spitfire, to get us from the Hangzhou train station to our hotel. Surrounded by taxi touts refusing en masse to use their meters and tossing out crazy, inflated numbers. As I walked away and they followed, C yelled at them “Leave my mommy alone. BU KEYI!” Yes, in Chinese she told them to basically buzz off. (Well, she said “Cannot!” but I know what she meant.”) I negotiated from 80 RMB ($12.80) to 50 RMB ($8). (Though of course, as I learned later, the real meter cost is 12 RMB or $1.92).

We had a lovely lunch at the hotel and then we went to get a foot massage. Or rather I did while C enjoyed the adjacent chair – in our private room! – with her iPad and then fell asleep for her nap. This is the first massage I have had since a post-partum one within a month of C’s birth. I also read a book. Gasp!

We enjoyed an hour swim together in the hotel pool and then dinner. The hotel had a Tex-Mex promotion and did not do half bad. Sure, I had never before had Mexican Lasagna, but it was very tasty.

When I threw open the curtains on day two to find another overcast, grey day however, I felt a bit defeated. I debated just cutting our loses and heading back to Shanghai whether I received a refund on the third night at the hotel or not. I did not know however if I could get a ticket back on the train. It was a holiday weekend after all. And then, through the clouds, I saw a little glint of sunlight hit a nearby building. So I threw some clothes on C and myself and we headed out.

I thought I would first thing get a taxi to Hangzhou’s famed West Lake. But down in the lobby I thought to the glimpse of greenery, a park perhaps?, I had seen across the street with what looked like a traditional Chinese bridge. We would head there first to see and then back to the hotel for a taxi.

We did find not only a park but a canal filled with upgraded traditional dugout canal boats. In a little exercise park by the canal, friendly grandmas and grandpas getting in some workouts and moms and their kids out for a stroll, came over to check us out and chat us up. They were curious and sweet, testing my Chinese and practicing their English. One woman told us rather than head back to our hotel, why didn’t we head to the little canal boat dock on the other side of the bridge, and head down river a ways?

So we checked out the bridge, where we again became the subject of much kind interest and then over to the boat dock. Turns out the boats are canal taxis. They are fitted with mechanical transport card readers. I did not have a card of course and asked how much. I did not get far as a kind older woman motioned to me and C as she scanned her card three times. It was on the house. (I think it cost 3 RMB, or 48 cents, for a ride)

What a fantastic little trip! We meandered along the canal (or a river with incredibly tamed banks) for at least half an hour. I honestly lost track of time. Our canal trip benefactor took the opportunity to snap some pictures of C enjoying the boat (as did I) and since she had been so nice we both acquiesced to a photo with C on her lap and giving her a hug (because no one gets a photo like this unless C agrees). The canal was lined on both sides with a tree lined walking paths and periodically with covered Chinese gazebos where old people rested and watched the water, did exercise or played Chinese musical instruments. People walked their dogs. Moms and dads walked with their babies and children. The low clouds created a mist that only made it more inviting.

15 bridges

14 bridges Just some of the beautiful scenes along the boat trip.

We were let off at the terminus where pretty little white houses with grey roofs and red lanterns lined the canal. We walked back a little along the canal path, underneath willows and plum trees in bloom. C ran and laughed. Geez, it was lovely.

Then we made our way on foot several blocks to West Lake. We stopped for lunch and unfortunately the skies opened up and buckets fell. Thankfully it started after we entered the restaurant and by lingering a bit longer it ended before we left. A few blocks more and we found the lake.

The weather was still overcast. Clouds hung low and the opposite bank, even boats on the water, could barely be seen through the mist. Still it was beautiful and, judging by the crowds, we were not the only ones longing for a stroll by the lake.

We walked for hours. C alternated between the stroller and running excitedly ahead. When it drizzled, we found refuge under the trees or in one of the lakeside gazebos or even once in a temple. King Qian’s Temple was a wonderful respite from the buzz of the Chinese crowds. It cost 15 RMB to get in and I was a bit hesitant at first, but I am so glad we took the time to visit. Just off the main path around the lake it was as if we were suddenly transported a long way away. The crowds were gone, only a handful of other people were inside, and it was so incredibly quiet.

27 temple quiet

Enjoying the tranquility of King Qian’s temple.

I did not make it all the way around the lake. I had no such anticipation when I started as it is expected to take approximately FIVE HOURS to do so. Yet I did not even make it to Leifeng Pagoda. C conked out in her stroller and I too became tired. So I made the decision to head back to the hotel but told myself that Hangzhou is worth another trip, soon.

29 blossoms and pagoda

About as close to the Leifeng Pagoda as we got. Not a bad view, despite the clouds.

I think C enjoyed the trip. The one part though that seemed to disappoint her is that we never did find “Joe.” Seems every time I mentioned going to “Hangzhou” she heard something about “Joe” (zhou in Chinese is pronounced quite similar to the name Joe). Even just now as I write this, while looking over the pictures of our trip, she said, “Next time let’s visit Joe.”

So there is likely to be a next time.

The Lap of Luxury

I work on the eighth floor of a posh mall on Shanghai’s most extravagant commercial street in the heart of China’s wealthiest city. As I walk to work I pass such stores as Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana, Chloé, Mont Blanc, Tiffany & Company, Fendi, Rolex… Inside the mall where I work are high-class stores such as the up-scale Japanese department store Isetan, Godiva (the chocolatier), Ermenegildo Zegna, Cerrutti 1881, Versace, Coach, and Burberry. Our applicants reflect this environment, some dressed to the nines and I have seen some of the most stylish nails around while fingerprinting (though I admit it, I have also seen some of the most hideous nails one could imagine).

My apartment is in one of the towers of the Shanghai Centre, part of Shanghai’s Portman Ritz Carlton hotel complex. This year Shanghai Centre is celebrating its 25th anniversary as Shanghai’s first multi-purpose building, and was once the tallest building in the city. Within the complex are offices, including several Consulates (like that for Ireland), restaurants, a supermarket, clinic, pharmacy, and theater (home to the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, the oldest such troupe in Shanghai). Amongst the retailers at the Shanghai Centre are Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Louboutin, Miu Miu, and Paul & Shark.

Inside my apartment, from where I sometimes have a breathtaking view across the city towards Pudong (when it is not obscured by a pollution haze), where I can make out half of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, there are wooden floors, marble countertops, and leather closet doors. (LEATHER CLOSET DOORS! Who in the world needs leather closet doors? Certainly not a woman with two cats with sharp claws!!) It is bright and inviting place to come home.

The supermarket is full of imports. The cheese selection is incredible. Twenty years ago there was imported cheese at a few upscale supermarkets, but the quality and quantity were far less. In 1994, as a student in China, I recall heading down to Sanlitun with several of my classmates. This was the area for the international stores, the Beijing World Trade Center, and Embassies. After more than a month traveling around China, even the more adventurous eaters amongst us were craving some goodies from home. I found a large block of cheddar cheese for US$10. I circled the store three, four times before I gave in and bought it. (My friends bought ice cream. Imagine four foreigners sitting on a city curb in the sweltering July heat; three eating ice cream, one gnawing on a block of cheese.)

Nowadays in the Shanghai Centre City Shop supermarket you can buy just about all you might want. Though a bag of Tostitos will cost you $7.80, a pack of shredded mozzarella for $7.60, a 250g package of light butter for $6.99, a 16 fluid oz jar of baby kosher dill pickles for $7.20, approximately $10 for a box of regular sized box of cereal, and the most expensive thing I have bought thus far was the 6.2 fluid oz of maple syrup for $19!! Shanghai is amongst the most expensive cities in the world, and for prices like these State Department employees do receive a 42% cost of living allowance (COLA). This is not an additional 42% of salary, but rather percentage of spendable income, calculated by the portion of salary expected to be used to purchase goods and services included in a market basket. It sure helps, because pancake Sunday with my daughter is not nearly so great without the maple syrup.

Walking back from the supermarket through the garage today, I passed multiple Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Lexus, Jaguar, Land Rover, Audi, and Cadillacs. Yesterday, on a walk around the neighborhood I passed a Lamborghini. I feel rather relieved I decided to leave my classic, dependable, non-descript silver Honda Civic at home. Not just because I would have been a nervous wreck driving around Shanghai, but also as it would have stood out like a sore thumb.

There is one place that appears to stand out – the McDonald’s. It is located in the CITIC Square mall adjacent to our mall. Inside you will find such shops as Armani Collezioni, Lancel Paris, Max Mara, Givenchy, and Pandora. On the lower ground level you will find McDonald’s, across from Starbucks and Wagas, an upscale sandwich and salad shop, and cattycorner to Armani Jeans. Still this is a McCafe, with all the usual McDonald’s fare, but also quality coffee, delicate macaroons, and petit cakes. There are no wait staff or white table cloths, but it is not as incongruous as one might expect. The diners are generally dressed smarter than in the average U.S. McDonald’s.

It is not a bad place to be, this area where I work and live. It is an area of high fashion and low crime, short hemlines and high boots. It is smart and clean and bright, even after the sun sets. The sidewalks are broad and perfect for a stroll. But I am so conscious of the conspicuous commercialism, of the lavish affluence. The billboards, with their airbrushed models dressed in stylish clothing and shoes and handbags, stare down at me as I pass beneath them. I have once or twice eyed a smart handbag or chic dress, even stopping for a moment to look, before I snap back to reality and realize these ensembles would set me back a good chunk of a paycheck, if not the whole thing. I have only once owned an Armani dress, something a friend passed on to me before she moved abroad. You will also find some nice Nine West or Anne Klein shoes in my closet, as a sweet pair of high heels is one of the few things on which I will splurge. But mostly I am a recovering backpacker and though I love the clean lines of a beautiful well-made dress, I am most comfortable in an old, comfortable pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and flip-flops.

I can write about this now because although I am aware, it is not yet bothering me. Yet, I know there will be days when all of this lavishness is going to get to me. It will make me sad. It will make me angry. I know there are days when I am going to feel like a chump for spending what I do on a box of cereal or a small bottle of maple syrup. And it will occur to me that the cost of those items would probably feed a family of four for a week in some countries. Or that the cost of a single pair of deliciously gorgeous but ridiculously expensive Christian Louboutin shoes is about the equivalent of a plane ticket back to the US. I will feel small and powerless at times thinking about the global economy and the intersecting lines of wealth and poverty.

I know because I felt it acutely at some particularly low moments while living in Jakarta, as I slid up the escalator from the basement supermarket, hands full of groceries, in yet another designer mall, filled with wealthy well-coiffed Jakarta women with their Prada bags and Gucci watches and Chanel something or other, followed by two charmingly dressed children who were themselves each followed by plain-clothed, plain-faced minders. There are days it would make me feel so unimportant and unattractive and other days it just made the world feel ugly.

Thankfully, I know I can feel this way and knowing is half the battle, right? I have already found that even here on Nanjing Lu, behind the high fashion façade there are everyday people doing everyday things. Just a block or two away, you will find the fruit seller where you can buy blueberries and oranges and strawberries for a fraction of the cost of the Shanghai Centre City Shop. You can find supermarkets and beauty salons with more reasonable prices. You will see the colorful laundry hung out to dry from hundreds of windows of more common apartment buildings. And there are still Shanghaiese who travel on foot or via the metro or by motorbike or on bicycle instead of luxury car. I hope I can stave off the lows by regularly stepping off Nanjing Lu and exploring the streets behind the glitzy veneer. Nanjing Lu is Shanghai’s most well-known road, but it is not all there is to Shanghai.