Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category


If you’re looking for examples of modern China, consider my friend Aviva.

She’s the one in the yellow sweater, and she is dancing on the bar in a place called Zapata’s, in Shanghai.

She’s 30 years old, which means she was born about the same time China decided to transform itself from a Mao Zedong-led Communist state into what it is today, an exploding market economy that is both faster-growing and less regulated than just about any other in the world.

The government that has decided not to regulate its exploding market economy still calls itself the Communist Party of China, but at this point it might as well be called the Party That Will Do Whatever Will Keep It In Power. And that, of course, means keeping up the kind of economic growth that makes a story like Aviva’s possible.

Aviva grew up in Inner Mongolia. These days, she’s a stock broker in Shanghai.

Only in America, right? I mean, only in Communist China.

Aviva has been in Shanghai for seven years now, and she spent two years in Guangzhou before that. Which means that at 21, an ambitious girl from Inner Mongolia finished school and moved to the big city to become, of all things, a stock broker.

Her heroes were the guys on Wall Street, half a world away in a country many Chinese idolize and are doing their very best to emulate. She still compares herself to them, sounding very much like an American business major with hopes of becoming the next Gordon Gekko.

“It’s not like the guys in Wall Street,” she says of her Shanghai finance job. “Those guys are really cool.”

Her English is nearly perfect, but she still studies as often as she can to improve it. Many of her clients are foreigners, and like just about every young professional you will meet in China, she wants to do business overseas.

The number of small private businesses that are springing up in still-technically-Communist China is pretty amazing, and almost all of them seem to be doing business overseas. It’s hardly a secret that Americans are buying up zillions of Chinese products, but Americans might be surprised by some of the Chinese entrepreneurs who are doing the selling.

A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese couple in a restaurant. They were both in their early 30s, and they were helping out a friend of mine who had just opened a new restaurant. It is not uncommon for friends or family to help out at a friend’s restaurant when they are short on staff, and I had always wondered how people were able to take the time off work in a city where a two-day weekend is a luxury.

In the case of this particular couple, it was because they own their own business. They sell fishing supplies online, and most of their customers are Americans. None of this was particularly noteworthy until I asked my new friend how many people worked for his company.

“Me and her,” he said, pointing to his wife.

The entire business consists of one man, his wife, and a website.

So how is business going for the couple from Yangzhou and their fishing website? The global financial crisis hasn’t helped things, of course, but they didn’t seem too worried about it, either. When I explained that many people in America are losing their jobs, he joked that they will have more time for fishing.

And as all of those newly unemployed Americans scan the internet for bargains, they may well end up buying their Christmas presents from a single couple running a tiny, online export business from somewhere in Communist China.


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Joan, a middle-aged colleague at Yangzhou Tech, still remembers it.

It was 1995, when she and some 20 other teachers took a trip to Beijing on an educational tour organized by her college. It was her first trip to Beijing, and doubtless the first for many of her colleagues.

She was in Tiananmen Square, where just six years earlier her government had opened fire on unarmed student protesters, when she saw it.

Her first KFC.

Sitting in the foreign teacher’s office for her speaking exam at the end of an oral English course for faculty, Joan recalls the meal 13 years later.

“It was in 1995,” she tells me. “I was in Tiananmen Square, and I was introduced to KFC for the first time.”

She remembers it the way one remembers an important moment in one’s life. The way I might remember my first night market in Thailand or the first time I walked into a little restaurant in China and clumsily attempted an order.

Thirteen years from now, I might tell someone about the time I walked into a little place in Ban Phe and ended up with a whole fish floating in a bowl of clear broth. Or my first plate of eel at the airport in Tokyo. Or the time I tried pig brains at a hot-pot place in Yangzhou.

But to Joan, who would think nothing of pig brains or eel or a bowl of fish soup, an overpriced plate of fried chicken was the most exotic meal she could ask for.

This all seems very silly to an American, of course. But put yourself in Joan’s position.

For the past 35 years, you have eaten nothing but Chinese food. You’ve read about this place on the other side of the world, watched a number of foreign films about it, and basically built it up in your mind as the most exciting and wonderful place in the world. A place where everyone is rich and attractive, the women sleep with everyone they meet (a lot of people in China and Thailand believe this about American girls, probably because of the movies), and all of the important decisions in the world are made.

Now imagine that you have the opportunity, for the first time in your life, to taste the food that people eat in this place. A meal from a real American restaurant!

For anyone old enough to remember a China without the Western fast-food chain, which can now be found in all the major cities here, that is what it felt like to walk into a KFC for the first time.

Even today, the American fast-food chain holds a position of honor in the Chinese restaurant scene. A meal at McDonald’s or KFC will cost you more than 20 yuan, which makes it one of the pricier dining options in a city like Yangzhou, where the equivalent Chinese dish won’t cost you more than 7-10 yuan. A Pizza Hut qualifies as high-end dining in China, with meals going for more than 50 yuan. When one enters a Pizza Hut here, one may be surprised to find a sign that reads, “Please wait to be seated.” And sure enough, a hostess will appear to seat your party.

You will always find a McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut at the trendiest and swankiest locales in any Chinese city. In Yangzhou, for example, the choice location in town would have to be the area around the traffic circle at the head of Wenchang Road, which marks the center of the city’s downtown commercial district. Sure enough, occupying two of the most visible addresses in town, just opposite the famed circle, are a Pizza Hut and a KFC.

And though a meal will cost you three times the price of a Chinese equivalent, you won’t find an empty McDonald’s in China. I’ve walked past quite a few in Yangzhou, Nanjing, and Shanghai now and I haven’t found one that wasn’t full.

It’s really something in a country where people will argue over a two-dollar cab ride. It’s still hard to believe, as an American, but Joan offers three reasons why she continues to hold the food at KFC in such high regard.

“First, it’s standard,” she tells me. “Second, it’s clean. And third, it’s delicious!”

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I am always curious about what people here think of America.

I’ve had this image in my mind of a group of Chinese college students sitting around a table after a few drinks and talking about what the Americans might be up to. Having recently graduated from a university in America, I know American college students have been known to talk about China after a few drinks. And I know those conversations (at least the ones I took part in) generally involve some very paranoid speculation about how soon China will take over economic control of the universe, how terrible this might be for us, and whether or not all of this will somehow lead to World War Three.

So, naturally, I wanted to know if these same conversations are going on over here about us. After all, we have spent the last few years fighting simultaneous wars in multiple foreign countries. And we’ve somehow managed to do it without a draft and (even more incredibly) while actually cutting taxes.

One can only imagine how dangerous we must seem to the rest of the world, especially if they care to speculate about what we might be capable of if we instituted a draft and took the (extraordinary?) step of actually cutting domestic spending and raising taxes to support the war effort.

If China – which presumably scares us because we think they might want to spread their Communist ideology and which has paradoxically begun to terrify us by making large sums of money through capitalism – makes us this uncomfortable, the Chinese should be asking themselves whether the Americans plan to attack on Tuesday.

As it turns out, my local friend Luis tells me, America’s habit of invading foreign countries is a topic of conversation among at least one group of Chinese college students. But unlike their American counterparts, they don’t seem all that concerned about it.

“We like to talk about current events, you know?” Luis tells me. “So we say, ‘who will America attack next?’ But it’s just a joke.”

Luis, who is 21 and goes to a technical college near Yangzhou Tech, is a big fan of America. Everybody in Yangzhou seems to be.

They love our movies, they are huge fans of our basketball league (Luis’ best friend chose “Steve Nash” as his English nickname), and just about everybody I’ve talked to seems to think America is one of the best places in the world to live. I’ve even had a number of people ask me about our election and tell me they hope Obama will win (I haven’t met any McCain fans yet, or even anyone who has heard of McCain, but I did have a student tell me she had been supporting Hillary in the primary).

Luis and his friends have a number of amusing misconceptions about us, of course. He was surprised to hear I don’t own a gun (“But most people in America have one, right?”) and he appears to think the average American soldier looks a lot like Rambo (the Rambo movies are really big here, apparently).

Most of what the people here believe about Americans comes from the movies or the news, so their view of us is a bit distorted. But it seems a lot closer than our view of the Chinese.

If Luis had been in Madison this time last year to hear some of the things I used to say about China when we’d all had enough drinks to think we knew something about politics, he’d have had a hell of a laugh.

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The list, of course, is growing.

I’ve already mentioned that college professors sleep in bunk beds here, and that every now and then they might have to miss a class or two to “learn the knowledge of the Communist Party of China.”

But I haven’t told you about the singing.

Singing is a really big deal here. If you spend enough time with locals, sooner or later one of them is bound to ask if she can sing a song for you. She will probably expect you to sing something in return, at which point you will have to explain that singing songs to people you’ve just met is one of the many things that just wouldn’t happen in America.

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s faculty-wide singing contest. I found out about the contest when one of my colleagues explained why he was the only person to show up to my class on Tuesday. The 37 other teachers who were supposed to be working on their conversational English that day were getting ready for Wednesday’s performances.

So the next afternoon I went to the school auditorium to see what all the fuss was about. And for the next hour and a half, I watched faculty from each department in our school deliver spirited and well-rehearsed performances of Chinese nationalist songs.

Every group had costumes and at least some minor choreography, and every group was under the direction of a faculty conductor. One group even had props, in the form of miniature Chinese flags to be waved dramatically at the song’s climax (my resident interpreter explained that the song in question was about waving the “red flag,” meaning the flag of China).

One of my colleagues from the course I do for the faculty served as my interpreter for the event. She was in one of the first groups to perform, so she spent the rest of the contest telling me what each song was about. Invariably, the songs were about China and the pride one should feel about living there.

There was one exception to the nationalist theme, though my interpreter told me the song is very popular in China. It was “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, translated into Chinese. According to my interpreter, “everyone in China knows this song.”

American films are very popular in China, actually. They have weekly showings of Hollywood movies at Yangzhou University, so the students and members of the community can practice their English, and all the movie theaters have current Hollywood films, either dubbed in Chinese or with Chinese subtitles.

The locals are genuinely surprised to learn that I have never heard of any of the Chinese movie stars and pop singers they ask me about, since they know so much about American stars. Just another example of how much more interest the rest of the world has in us, than we have in the rest of the world.

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If you work in construction, they need you in Yangzhou.

I don’t think there is a place in this city where a crane is not visible. If you can only see one from where you are standing, you’ve found a pretty rare spot.

Almost always, it seems, the cranes are at the site of another new block of apartments. There are many dozens of apartment buildings in Yangzhou, many of them were built in the last three years, and many more are being built as I type this sentence.

They are building so many new apartments because they don’t build houses in Yangzhou. Houses aren’t efficient enough. They are an extravagance reserved for countries with fewer than 1.3 billion citizens.

Houses are so rare in Chinese cities that the locals here have trouble understanding how I could have grown up in a house that was in a city. To the Chinese, houses are only for the countryside, where there is actually enough land to build an entire building for just one family to live in.

It is incredible to think about how much of this city is brand new. I am typing this from an apartment on a college campus that is only a year old. Another college on our street is still half-finished.

They are building a giant apartment building across the street and a block down the road they are building another one. There is a large plot of cleared land between them, which will soon be the site of another major building project.

The main commercial street downtown, which leads to the most crowded and happening part of town, is only ten years old. That means the entire downtown shopping scene, and its multiple shopping centers and dozens of fashionable shops and restaurants, is less than ten years old.

They have since built an even newer street, leading to an even newer part of town. Everything on that street, which my local guide refers to as “the new city,” is less than three years old.

This type of growth is astonishing to someone who until a few weeks ago thought Bethesda, Maryland was growing pretty fast. I even assumed that America in general was growing pretty fast.

Living in China has a way of putting these things in perspective.

In an American city, you tend to notice when there is a major construction project in your neighborhood. If there is a 10-story building being built, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s the only construction site on that block. In Yangzhou, there’s a pretty good chance it isn’t.

But even with all of this growth, there are small things here and there that remind you that this is still China. You can still find very old men riding very old bicycles on even the newest of the city’s brand-new streets. Some of them drag large carriages behind their bicycles, hauling logs or farming equipment down a four- or six-lane road that wasn’t there in 1997.

Our brand-new school, just one year old, has strict limits on electricity in the dorms. Students can’t even use electric fans in their rooms, much less air conditioning.

And every day there is a steady stream of students carrying hot water from the water room back to their dorm rooms in a thermos. Even in a year-old technical college, there is no hot water in the brand new student dorms.

And lest you think the professors are living a modern life of luxury, most of them sleep in bunk-beds in shared dorm rooms. These are college professors with advanced degrees. If they lived in America, they might be turning down offers from the University of Wisconsin because the school doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits.

Here, the less senior faculty sleeps four to a room.

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There are many things I love about the supermarket here in Yangzhou.

They sell pig hooves in the meats section. There are black chickens in the poultry aisle. MSG takes up nearly an entire aisle, and you can get rice in giant plastic sacks the way you might buy mulch or lawn fertilizer back home.

But my favorite part of the store is the large area in the center of the produce department, which can best be described as a small aquarium. Next to the weighing station, where I bring my bell peppers and granny smith apples to be stamped with a price tag, are a number of clear-plastic tanks that house a pretty comprehensive display of live sea creatures.

There are fish of various sizes and colors, a wide selection of critters you might expect to find on a snorkeling trip, a few things I’m pretty sure I had never seen before, and some turtles.

Yes, turtles.

In the supermarket.

There is a saying about the Chinese that claims they will eat anything that walks on the earth, swims in the sea, or flies in the sky. Evidently, they aren’t opposed to amphibious creatures, either.

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It was Saturday night and the only person I knew at the time who spoke any English had other plans. I’ve since met a few Chinese girls who want to practice their English by taking me on little tours of the city, and a middle-aged colleague who wants to do the same, but at the time I was on my own for the evening.

So I decided to do a bit of exploring. There is a little shopping area across the street from the Educational District (our school is one of four small colleges that sit in a row of maybe four square blocks on the same road). It has a bunch of restaurants and shops and sidewalk food stalls that create an atmosphere that feels very Chinese and very college-town, which I suppose makes quite a lot of sense for a neighborhood in China that has four colleges across the street.

As I walked deeper into the neighborhood, it began to feel more and more like a Chinese college town. I passed dozens of sidewalk restaurants serving something in Chinese characters for 4-8 yuan (in a town like this, any meal that costs you more than a dollar, which is 7 yuan, is pretty expensive). I passed a bunch of cheap clothing shops that were surprisingly full of students at 8:00 on a Saturday night, and a tiny, outdoor roller-skating rink that was packed with students trying to skate in jeans and dressed-up tops.

And then I got to the local supermarket, which was also surprisingly full on a Saturday night. Not only was there a steady stream of shoppers entering and exiting, but a large crowd of people had gathered around a stage in front of the store. Being far too much of a journalist to pass a scene like this without finding out what was going on, I paused the Baseball Today podcast on my iPod and joined the crowd at the supermarket.

What I had stumbled upon was perhaps more Chinese even than the crowd at the roller rink. One by one, college-aged kids got on the stage and sang Chinese pop songs. They were introduced by an MC of sorts, handed a microphone, and cheered by the five or six friends they had brought to watch them sing. The song’s music video played on a big white screen behind the singer, along with the lyrics for karaoke. There may have been a prize of some sort for the winning singer, but I left before it was awarded.

The scene was a bit like the Chinese equivalent of the parking-lot rap battle in “8 Mile.” I wouldn’t expect any of the contestants to be signed by a record label, but there’s something nice about the idea of living in a town where dozens of people stand outside a supermarket to watch a karaoke contest on a Saturday night.

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