The Flower of Shanghai

Day 214 (10th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Good mooooooorning SHANGHAI!!

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This city… there’s something about it.

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In the picture above you can begin to see the neighbourhood allocation as symbolised by the different colouring of roofs. When viewed from above, Shanghai’s neighbourhoods are colour-coded through legislation which forces developers to use certain colours for roof tiling depending on the property’s location. It’s a beautiful sight when you have the opportunity to see it from high up.

I’d rather not spend these blogs recounting the somewhat mundane routine of work and class, both of which are occupying a lot of my days at the moment. Instead, I’ll skip to after class.

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THAT is what I have the pleasure of eating whenever I so please. How lucky am I. That’s something I’ll be missing. I’ve never eaten so much Peking duck in my life.

Walking back to my room I began undergoing somewhat of an internal crisis which would last for the coming few days. It suddenly occurred to me that for the first time in my gap year, I really, really don’t want to leave. I talked about this feeling in my last blog, but its intensity is much more noticeable this week. It even has me resenting the prospect of needing to settle back into my bubble in Sydney. Starting with a fresh slate in a new place can be incredibly rewarding after the initial hurdles of establishing yourself . I spent much of the afternoon researching options for universities outside of Sydney.

That sounds very odd that I’d ever consider something like that – I know. I concluded the few hours of research with a renewed desire to complete my undergraduate at the University of Sydney, but I came out of it much more comfortable because I had made myself aware that there was always an “out”.

In the same way that Xuzhou ended up being very doable with the knowledge that I could always book a flight home to Sydney the next day, stepping back into Sydney for study seems very doable with the knowledge that on any given day I could transfer to Melbourne or another city to continue afresh.

I think that thoughts like this reveal to me that I really do have a newfound independence which I not only rely upon in situations like this, but in fact am more comfortable resorting to than anything else. Being your own person is enthralling.

It also revealed to me that I have a personality type which is dissatisfied unless I am undergoing some sort of upheaval, challenge or change in my life. That’s what gives me drive and purpose.

As such, the way that I currently view my ideal future looks something like this:

  • Undergraduate: Sydney
  • Postgraduate: Anywhere other than Sydney (UK/USA/elsewhere in Australia)
  • Early career: Shanghai/Tokyo/Hong Kong
  • Middle/late career: Sydney

That’s the dream.

As I continued thinking later into the afternoon, I received some messages from Emma and Kelly, two of the Americans who I met last week. They wanted to catch up for a drink somewhere after having worked from Saturday through to Monday. After browsing through some of the options available, we settled on the Boxing Cat Brewery. This chain of bars in Shanghai is beloved by expats, and it’s known for serving one of the best selection of beers in the city. I had been meaning to try it out at some point, so this opportunity came at a good time.

I headed out to the French Concession a little early to find some dinner before meeting the others. Looking out from the Hongkou Football Stadium metro station, I realised how Shanghai was quickly becoming the sort of city that Hong Kong is in many places – a CBD with two street levels.

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Upon reaching the French Concession I passed an “Urban Soup Kitchen” and it looked like just the sort of comfort food I needed.

Ten minutes later there was a steaming carrot, ginger and celery soup sat in front of me.

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I listened to some music on my phone and enjoyed the moment of eating a warm, cosy meal.

Strolling down the surrounding streets afterwards revealed yet more nooks and crannies of this amazing district which I had not yet seen.

And then, hidden amongst the Sinan Mansions, the Brewery.

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And what a night it was. I met some excellent new friends, all from North Carolina, and became much closer with those who I already knew. It turns out that they all liked the same small Australian bands as I do, including among others Jagwar Ma, an act who went to Riverview.

I also found out that for a little over AU$800/month, these guys can get a place with this view. Makes me ALMOST regret being in the student hotel

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Day 215 (11th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Last night Kelly suggested that she should invite me to come climbing with her and Carrie today. This morning she made good on that offer, and I quickly accepted in an effort to try something a bit different.

I met the pair as soon as class wrapped up and Carrie took us to her new find- a sushi taco store.

“What are sushi tacos?” I hear you ask.

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Why, they’re tacos made out of seaweed and filled with rice, lettuce, fresh avocado, meat of your choice, egg and tomato sauce. A Chinese take on sushi. Like chicken sushi in Australia (a Western take on Japanese food), I guess this is the equivalent of over here.

It was delicious. This is the new big thing. The first person to open a sushi taco store in Sydney will make big bucks.

We continued our walk down the street alongside the university and decided to walk to the climbing gym instead of taking the metro. There was a lovely park we could walk through – I’m almost ashamed that I’ve never known this existed despite how close it is to my room. Apparently Carrie takes her hammock out here most afternoons and sets it up for a snooze.

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The park was very big. It was mostly filled with elderly Chinese playing chess and doing their classic muscle rubs. It’s amazing to think of the era these people have lived through. Most of them would have been children during the Cultural Revolution, and since then they have witnessed some of the most rapid growth this globe has ever seen in a single city. And yet they still congregate at the park, just like they would have half a century ago.

The park led all the way to Hongkou Football Stadium. It’s quite a beautiful structure amidst its surroundings.

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And best of all the sky was blue and unpolluted just like yesterday.

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The climbing gym was nestled up in the stadium amongst some seedy Thai Boxing facilities. Inside revealed the best bouldering facilities Shanghai has to offer (and a few harnessed climbs for good measure).

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I certainly wasn’t up to Carrie or Kelly’s standards, but I’d like to think I could hold my own. Three hours later, our forearms were too lethargic to hold us up on any wall. It seemed like the right time to go.

We made sure to walk via the Hongkou Plaza food court on the way home so that I could buy the coconut and purple rice drink which the girls talk about so often. It lived up to its expectations – genuinely one of the freshest tasting drinks I’ve had in a long time. I’ll be returning for this one.

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The evening consisted of homework and tutoring. For a total of AU$5, I ordered these three tofu and lamb dishes with plenty left over for later.

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Day 216 (12th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Class was a little more entertaining today. Unfortunately I was stuck in a discussion group with “Ting Ting”, the same American from lunch last week. I had to sit with a poker face and endure her arrogant proclamations of wealth and extremely unattractive churlishness. One of the more interesting parts of class was having to do this question:

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The task here is differentiating between the use of two Chinese words (暗暗 and 偷偷) which both mean “secretly”. In the second question, you’re required to finish a sentence. It reads, “Santa Claus doesn’t give you presents, ____”. So obviously, you’re expected to write something along the lines of “secretly, he doesn’t exist” or “secretly, it’s your parents.” I found it to be an incredibly depressing task.

I spent most of my time in school dreaming about my next sushi taco, so I rode off to buy another as soon as I was let out.

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While I was out, I also picked up a bing and some sort of cake from a bakery which I had been recommended to try.

I found a quiet park within the university campus to have my lunch. It reminded me very much of doing similar things across the expansive campus at Jiangsu Normal in Xuzhou.

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I darted into a clothing repair shop to get a few ripped buttons sewn back onto some shirts (I haven’t been in any fights, don’t worry) before heading back to my room.

While in the lift flicking through my WeChat feed, I noticed a notification from one of the Australian groups which Harry added me to. “ACYA Alumni Speaker Series”, it was called. “ACYA” stands for the “Australia-China Youth Association”. It’s a group which I have always been a member of on social media but have never actively participated in any of their events. I wasn’t under the impression that they were a particularly organised or large group. That is, until I took a risk and booked a ticket for the evening to go and see what the fuss was about.

I suited up as best as I could with a blazer and jeans not knowing how formal the event would be. I walked nervously into a freshly air-conditioned and bright room on the 17th floor of a building in Jing’An only to be ambushed by a girl.

“Is that, is that you? Xavier?”

I turned around and squinted my eyes, amazed that someone could know me so far away from home but confused as to why I didn’t recognise who that person was.

“I’m Bronagh Marley, Peter Marley’s younger sister. From your Riverview Chinese class?” she said, noticing that I was confused.

No. Way.

What a small world. I know Bronagh. I met her back in Year 6 when I was at a birthday party in Peter’s house. She was a few years older than me but with Peter and I having gone through school together from a very young age, we always knew of each other.

“Bronagh! How are you!?”

It turns out that she’s a secretary at ACYA while she’s studying here. The night went superbly from there. I found myself in a room of two dozen Aussies, many of whom I had mutual friends with, watching a Q&A panel featuring someone from Brisbane who works at Westpac’s Shanghai branch. I even found myself engaging in the Q&A myself – I asked a question about what Western businesses are doing wrong in China and why we’re not reaching our capacity. I also directed the conversation to whether Uber selling themselves off to their competitors here was yet another Western business falling in this harsh landscape or a success in disguise.

I must say, though, after having not spoken in front of a crowd for almost a year now (even if it’s only asking a question in front of a couple dozen people), I found myself extremely nervous. It’s amazing what little practice and a lot of isolation does to your confidence.

Soon enough I was in my element. I met people from Perth all the way to Byron Bay, many of whom were studying similar degrees to me. There was even exchange students from the University of Sydney there. I felt completely at home.

After the talk, we got given a tour of the Australian government’s launching pad for young people’s startups looking to enter the Chinese market. Seeing the coat of arms in such a foreign place was incredible. But even more incredible was that it was denoting a room made to facilitate the projects of people just like me. I’d like to think that I’ll be making use of this room at some point in the near future.

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Afterwards, we walked through Jing’An towards Dr Beer, another one of the pubs famous amongst expats here.

We stayed here until a little after midnight. I found myself getting along particularly well with Dave from Westpac as well as Bronagh and a guy called Jack from Melbourne Uni. It makes a lot of sense that there would be people with similar personalities to mine over here – I just wish that I was better at spotting opportunities to meet them. I’ll definitely be catching up with everyone here again at some point soon.

Day 217 (13th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I woke up this morning and immediately turned to my phone to check if my tutoring students were in their HSC English Paper 1 exam yet. They were. I genuinely felt on edge – it’s a good sign that I’m emotionally invested in their performance. I spent much of the first class pondering over it and thinking through their preparation before I received the messages I’d been waiting for. It sounds like they smashed what was a very bearable paper (despite the whingeing of much of the state over the lack of a visual text).

My second class was Audio-Visual (the movie class). I really detest this class – the teacher is a pain. I opened up a calculator to quickly work out how many classes I was legally allowed to miss. It turned out that I was effectively able to miss another five classes before I leave if my visa were not to be overturned. I decided to use one of those coupons today and flunk this class. Gosh it felt good.

I spent the afternoon sleeping.

Jake from the first night with the Americans messaged me tonight seeing if I would be interested in going to find some hairy crab with him. Hairy crab is a specialty of Shanghai around this time of year, and I had been meaning to go and have some. I was glad that Jake wanted to as well – he’s one of the people who I gel with best in this city.

I waited patiently in some chaotic lines to squash myself onto a subway where I went out to meet him.

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While waiting at Longde Road station for Jake, the Canadian with the Xuzhouren girlfriend from Uptown Records ‘n Beer just happen to walk past me. We had a good chat before Jake arrived and we parted ways. It’s amazing how small this city can seem when you’re a part of a minority community.

Jake and I had an excellent time catching up – we have very similar personalities. I greatly admire his courage for packing up and leaving the States after finishing his degree. He had no promise of a job when he came over, but has since snatched up a teaching job while he attempts to make inroads into his preferred industry. One of the areas which he really likes is men’s fashion. He actually worked quite high up at M. Dumas & Sons, one of the leading clothing stores in his part of the U.S.

We shared a drink on the classic Chinese midget-stools outside before a table opened up inside. Our hairy crab was served after not too long of a wait.

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It was a messy affair. There were no crab crackers – only your hands and teeth. More shell was eaten than I would like to admit. The crabs were seasoned to perfection. Jake and I halted all conversation and couldn’t stop smiling while we devoured the whole plate.

We bought a vegetable hot pot dish to finish off the meal while we resumed chatting.

We ended up taking a walk around Jake’s local area so that he could show me around. It’s amazing how despite having been in Shanghai for a while now, I still haven’t passed such huge structures like this.

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We ended the evening with one more stop in a nearby pub before calling it a night. Jake’s definitely a friend who I will catch up with again one day after leaving Shanghai. I’m glad that I could make connections like that despite only being here for a short amount of time.

Day 218 (14th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Despite today being the last day of a long, long week, it ended up being filled with work right until the end. The weekend didn’t look like it was going to provide much time for classwork, so I had to finish the bulk of it over the course of the day. I still managed to take a good lunch break with Florian and some of the Italians at the cafeteria over some duck noodles. We also began to organise the coming week – slamball (basketball on trampolines) and the Shanghai Brewery (two for one burgers) are both on the cards.

I also heard about the successful English Paper 2 back at home. I correctly predicted a part of one of the essays. My students will be thanking me for that one.

The main event of today was the evening’s festivities. Tonight is the opening night of the weekend’s JZ Festival, Asia’s biggest jazz festival hosted in Shanghai. I’ve always been somewhat of a closet jazz fan – it’s a genre which dominates my study and late evening playlists. It was therefore with great delight that I received a message from Emma inviting me to the opening night. As an illustrator based here in Shanghai, she’s working over the weekend making art at the festival and had a few spots to give away at the opening ceremony.

The evening also coincided with the opening of the new JZ club, a permanent location for jazz in the city. The club is in a spectacular location – a refurbished mill underneath a park in the city centre.

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I met with Emma and a few of her friends and we went through the venue observing the arty graffiti and beautifully carved pillars.

The club itself had a really warm Shanghai 1920s feel to it. Despite buttoning up my dress shirt and donning the blazer I was still somehow underdressed.

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We claimed a spot on one of the balconies and mingled with the people around us.

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I became a lot closer with Joe, an American from D.C who was at the Storm Festival with me. Joe’s studying at Fudan, one of the best universities in China. He also turned out to be a trumpet player, so it was good hearing some of the technicalities of the show described to me by a pro.

The highlight of the evening was a performance of “Shanghai” – a piece wrote specifically about this big band’s experiences in the city.

Afterwards, I followed Joe and his Spanish friends to “Zapatas” where they could return to a comfortable refuge of salsa dancing and tequila.

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It wasn’t our scene, so we soon slipped off.

Day 219 (15th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

A midday sleep-in and some lazy afternoon tutoring was just what I needed for my one day off after the seven-day week. After a bit of blogging and psyching myself up to leave my room, I eventually made my way out to Nanpu Bridge. Exiting this stop gives you a superb view of the layered entrances to one of Shanghai’s many ring roads.

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I was here for a very specific reason, though: the fabric market. The ‘South Bund Fabric Market’ is famous amongst foreigners for its vast array of suits and coats, all of which are tailored and copied at a very high quality for a low price. I figured that with the winter fast approaching that I could do with a coat, and a few hard weeks of work had me feeling like I deserved a little something new.

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Initially most of the shopkeepers weren’t happy with me taking pictures. I think that it was largely to do with their blatant copying – many of them had the Hugo Boss catalogues either printed or open on a computer, and you could pick from any suit and have them copy it exactly. After using the excuse that I was sending the pictures to a friend to buy on behalf of them I was allowed to take a few shots. It wasn’t a lie, though. I was contacting many people from back home to see what they wanted.

I browsed through a few options and was surprised by just how much you could customise each shirt. I flicked through dozens of these fabric books and eventually was frustrated by the excessive choice and left to find food.

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While perusing through the nearby People’s Square Raffles City I stumbled across a restaurant which sold Australian steaks as fast food.

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It was a little out of my price range, but luckily I found something which looked just as good nearby.

After dinner I headed out to Paul’s apartment to take some tickets off his hands for tomorrow night’s soccer game at Hongkou Football Stadium. He was very kind to give them to me.

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By the time I got back to my room I was a walking zombie. With an early wake-up needed the next morning, I figured that it was time to hit the sack.

Day 220 (16th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

At 6:45am my alarm sounded. Today a class excursion had been organised to Tongli Water Town near Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. It seemed odd to organise an excursion on the weekend after a seven-day working week, but I figured that it would be a good opportunity to get to know my classmates better before I leave.

The buses departed at 7:30am from the main hall. The breakfast food packs were actually pretty decent. My favourite bit was the packaged single banana.

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Most of the drive was spent dozing off. By the time my eyes snapped open, we had arrived.

This was my third trip to TongLi – I went once as a young boy with my family and once with the Riverview group earlier this year. As a result, my priority wasn’t so much seeing the scenery as it was meeting people and enjoying myself. I still managed to get a few nice pictures of the place.

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Hidden amongst the canals were houses containing setups of traditional water town furnishings.

This particular garden was build all the way back in the 11th to 13th year of the Guangxu Reign of the Qing Dynasty. It belonged to the General in charge of defence for the surrounding regions.

As I walked around the town I began to find some smaller community streets which I hadn’t come across during my past visits.

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Down here you could spot shopkeepers stretching sugar and caramel to sell later.

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My friend Suzanna and I were the subjects of many photos. I’d say it was her blonde hair which made us so popular.

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To address someone’s question after my last blog as to why it seems like I’m only making friends with girls here – do keep in mind that I’m studying a language (a subject with a very skewed demographic). A couple of the boys in my class have already dropped out, so I’m now one of just two boys in our thirty-strong class. Not only are my options limited, but a lot of the girls in the class are great company.

As we followed the winding street it became more narrow and less gentrified.

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Eventually, Suzanna and I parted ways while I found myself a meal of zhajiangmian.

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It was nice to eat while looking over the adjacent lake.

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While here I also received an exciting call about one of the opportunities which I’ll have coming up in the U.S. in November, providing more clarity to my possible plans around that period.

We were back on the bus by 2:30pm for our return to Shanghai. I spent much of the trip sleeping and reading.

By the time we were nearing the centre of Shanghai, I was nervously looking at my watch. With tutoring starting at 4pm Shanghai time, I needed the traffic to start flowing. Realising that this wasn’t going to happen, I contacted my student to postpone by an hour. As it reached nearer and nearer to 5pm, it looked like I would just make it to my room with a minute to spare. With less than ten minutes to go to the guesthouse, the bus driver made a rapid stop. Everyone was looking around and confused. He stood up very calmly, opened the door and walked down the side of the bus. Some yelling was heard, and then everyone leaped up out of their seats and scrambled to watch out the window as our driver began landing punches square into the face of an e-bike rider.

“FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” people started chanting.

The e-bike rider landed a few blows in return. I was desperately trying to get a view above the crowd of people. A few Chinese swear words were heard amongst the kerfuffle as yet more blows landed. The men were left with busted, bloody noses.

It was one of the strangest things I have seen in my trip.

Suddenly, as if it had a scheduled end, the fight stopped and the driver climbed back onto the bus.

He sat still at the wheel until he stood up and yelled to the passengers, “BUS CANCEL!”

It was a real disappointment and meant that I had to cancel my tutoring. It did leave me with a good story, though. Apparently the e-bike had plowed into the bus (I didn’t even feel it) and the driver had pulled over to give the rider a piece of his mind.

By the time I reached my room I had to leave almost straight away for the football match. Carrie had been telling me for some time that she was meaning to see the soccer in Shanghai, so I offered the other ticket to her. We met up for some of Yang’s dumplings at Hongkou Plaza before heading into the stadium. Carrie was dressed up in the team’s colours of blue and red while I came relatively unprepared.

The match was fought out between Shanghai Greeland Shenhua and Henan Jianye. Shenhua, meaning ‘The Flower of Shanghai’, is ranked 3rd while Henan is ranked 9th in the 16-team Chinese Super League. The games get an average crowd attendance of just over 20,000 and have a decent following in China. A lot of the clubs have deep pockets and are able to lure some talent from Europe and South America among other places.

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The atmosphere was great – it has been some time since I’ve been a spectator at a sporting event like this.

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The most enjoyable part of the evening was having the Chinese people sitting around us teach us some war cries.

We made sure to teach them some Western things too, like the ‘shaka’.

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Unfortunately the game was a draw at 2-2. I happened to get one of Shanghai’s goals on camera.

It was an enjoyable end to a very busy week – but a week which made me not want to leave this wonderful place. I’m not sure if it’s coming across in my blogs, but this place is bringing me some of the best memories of my gap year to date. I’ll definitely struggle to say goodbye!

Until next time,
Xavier.

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