The Sinophile

Day 221 (17th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Photo of the day.

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I was buried beneath those toy-like blocks early this morning when going for a stroll. I never go for morning strolls. I just love it here.

It was a good way to freshen up for the morning’s classes. By the 8am start I was already well in the zone. The walk must have taken some energy out of me, though, because I found myself being remarkably hungry just an hour into school. I excused myself for the bathroom and instead ran down to one of the university shops where I found them selling SISU mooncakes.

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After class and tutoring I was in such a bright mood that I figured that I would round up a group of people to join me in going to the Shanghai Brewery as Florian and I had discussed a few days prior. Some WeChat messages and open invites later, and there was a table booked for 16. I was just hoping that no one had interpreted it as me shouting.

The Shanghai Brewery has two locations in the French Concession, and it is quite a well known establishment amongst expats. Among other things, it’s particularly known for its “Two for One Burger Night” on Mondays. We were out in full force to abuse this promotion.

As soon as tutoring wrapped up I moved out to the French Concession area an hour early. I’m becoming hyperaware of the fact that my time in Shanghai is coming to an end in just over three weeks, and I need to make use of every spare minute I have to explore streets which I haven’t yet been through.

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I did what I could to span the area behind the K11 mall at South Huangpi Road which I hadn’t yet been to.

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It was good fun, but like so many places in this city I found myself let down by not having enough time (or money) to fully appreciate everything on offer. There’s no doubt I’ll be back whether it’s in this trip or later on in life.

Did the Aussie beef cheeseburger live up to its expectations? It absolutely did.

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The company at dinner was good – among the people there were Carrie, Florian, Suzanna, the Italian group and the Russian group. There was some talk amongst some of us of arranging a weekend trip somewhere before I leave (I suggested Harbin, Shenzhen or Guangzhou), but to be honest I doubt it will materialise into anything. It’s hard to mobilise so many people with conflicting schedules and budgets on such short notice.

I resisted the temptation to get a taxi home like the others and instead suffered through the metro (saving up for Europe is on my mind…) As I’ve written about in this blog before, China can either be the most frustrating or the funniest country in the world depending on your mindset. There’s never any in-between. It’s much harder when you’re on your own to see the humour in having people stampede into your carriage before you have the opportunity to step out, but I’m slowly getting better at it. If you get worked up or snap back at them in Chinese, not only do they genuinely not care, but you realise that they also meant no harm by what they were doing. It’s just a different way of life. It’s better to sigh at it and laugh at hypothesising how people would react if it happened in Australia.

Day 222 (18th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Photo of the day.

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No, not Star Wars. Shanghai.

I went quite well in class today – I was ahead of the game and answering faster than usual. I think I’m going through another upswing in my Chinese which is incredibly rewarding. It’s taken more than a month of re-immersion, but it’s still getting somewhere (albeit not as fast as it was in Xuzhou). Perhaps my good performance in class backfired, because it resulted in me being assigned a particularly hard task due the next day: a group scene on travel agencies.

Group work. In another language. *shudders*

I managed to gather together a reluctant but nonetheless very competent group consisting of Naomi from Hungary and Nastya from Russia. We met outside Naomi’s room on the 13th floor later in the day after lunch (which looked like this, by the way).

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For the next hour and a half we lay sprawled out on the hallway carpet. A lot of Chinese speech preparation is about skewing your dialogue to a different question which you’ve answered at some point in the past, from which you can copy and paste all of your previous work. We managed to do this to one of my HSC preparation documents, and eventually we made it so that the dialogue was practically a recitation of my HSC Chinese Continuers speaking. Timely considering the Chinese Continuers exam was actually on back in Sydney today (congratulations Elijah and Angus).

The approaching tutoring session gave me a good excuse to cut the preparation short and call it a day.

Following work, I rode my bike down to Hongkou Plaza to find dinner.

AU$8 bought me this.

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You know when you’re too far into a purchase to back out? You’ve ordered, they’ve named a price and sent the order to the chefs, and you’re left gawking at the bill with no way out? This was one of those situations. $8 may not seem like much, but you have to put yourself in my shoes. I clumsily organised accommodation without a single cooking facility. I am eating out for two meals a day every day for two and a half months. That bill adds up. Fast.

The other thing which is really hurting my budget is milk. I guzzle that stuff like no one else. One litre of fresh milk over here is about AU$2.30 (compared to $1 in Australia), and that lasts me two to three bowls of cereal. That adds up. Combine that with $8 small boxes of imported cereal and breakfast becomes my most expensive meal of the day.

Speaking of breakfast cereals, I later found out that Weetbix are launching here as “Nutri-Brex”. How many can Yao Ming do?

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Day 223 (19th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Photo of the day. The Yan’an East Road Interchange, a road under which I ate dinner tonight. It’s actually lit up all in neon like this. Shanghai embraces its futuristic image.

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Some of my tutoring students have a maths exam on Friday, and one of them convinced me to begin tutoring at 6am (9am Sydney time), meaning that I was up bright and early again this morning. By the end of the day I had been tutoring for four hours – that will make up for my milk consumption, surely.

In class we learned a few interesting things. One fun fact is that China’s “Singles’ Day” on November 11 (the biggest online shopping day in the world, Taobao alone sold AU$18.7 billion worth of products on the one day last year) has the nickname “剁手节” (duò shǒu jié), meaning “chop hand festival”. It has gained such a popular nickname because it’s commonly said that you should “chop your hands off” before the day comes so that you don’t splurge your life savings on the incredible bargains. At the moment I’m scheduled to leave just a day before this huge day. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse.

For lunch I ate some baimian before watching most of Searching For Sugar Man, my homework before the next tutoring session with Bianca who is studying the documentary.

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Hardly a difficult task. What an excellent film. I’ll be playing plenty of Sixto Rodriguez in the weeks to come.

This afternoon I also rode my bike to the closest post office to investigate sending a few boxes of things home to Australia before I leave for some more travel. Unfortunately the biggest box size wasn’t overly large, but still large enough to have me awkwardly carrying it across my bike’s handlebars on the way back. I was really fitting in with the local scene.

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As it was approaching evening, Bronagh messaged me very kindly inviting me to join her and her friend Cassandra at Lotus, a Yunnanese restaurant which I’ve been recommended many times. I gladly accepted and made my way to the Ya’An Interchange pictured in the photo of the day. Up some narrow stairs was a beautifully adorned wooden Yunnanese hut, similar to the lodge I stayed in at the rice paddies. The menu was full of the food I remember from my days in Yunnan in 2013 – lots of goat cheese, mushrooms, banana leaf salads, mint salads and of course the classic bees and worms combination.

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One of the Yunnan specialties which we ordered was sticky rice cooked within bamboo. It’s a snack which I remember Ming Yue buying Angus, Vidya and I on the trip that we first met.

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Day 224 (20th of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Photo of the day. Shanghai revealing its inner Blade Runner.

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Another 6am tutoring session, and another kick start into the day of classes. The new routine had worn me down by midday though when I managed a quick power nap before work. Today I also tutored my third new student of the week – I’m increasing my teaching hours in an effort to save more for Europe, but it’s certainly making my days much busier than they were before.

While riding through the university district after class to print some things out, I by chance spotted a hole in the wall sushi restaurant. I practically leapt for joy and ran over to see what was available. I left with a “dragon roll” – salmon, tuna, crab and cucumber. Perfect.

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I ate it back in my room while finishing Searching For Sugar Man. I found the time for another twenty minute power nap before the afternoon’s work started with yet another new student.

A few Taobao orders also arrived today, included my deodorant – a product which flat out isn’t sold in this country.

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While collecting one of my purchases I also passed this shirt being dried just outside the hotel.

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That’s a Queensland University of Technology shirt. Maybe there’s an Aussie hidden somewhere within my building after all…

The rest of the day was filled with chores – going to the Australian Consulate to get a signature witnessed, doing homework and writing this blog.

The Australian Consulate was a comforting experience as always. I was surprised that when I arrived there were a dozen or so Aussies, mostly in their 40s or 50s, waiting in line to get various things signed off. Just for the signature and stamped verification of my passport and credit card, I was charged $80. There’s one way to lose money quickly…

Day 225 (21st of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Photo of the day.

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Ahh… the Friday three hour intensive reading slog. I was battling to stay engaged in this class. Some caffeinated assistance pushed me through to that oh-so-relieving Friday lunch at the cafeteria where I can eat knowing that the working week is over. The early afternoon was occupied by tutoring some strong students in my preferred subject, and so it sent me into the late afternoon in a good mood.

My mood was only about to get better, though. In town tonight was Jeremy Clarke – the very man who first encouraged me to begin studying Chinese. Jeremy is a close mentor of mine, and a lot of where I am today can be credited to his inspiration and favours (think… sponsoring my application to get into Riverview, for example). He was in Shanghai leading a tour group as part of Sino Immersions (http://www.sinoimmersions.com/), the new venture he’s started up in the past year. It was a particularly timely opportunity for me to be able to see him given that he’s been talking to me about being his Tour Assistant on some future tours. He’s already thrown a bit of a “player profile” of me up on the website: http://www.sinoimmersions.com/our-team

The typhoons around Hong Kong have been pushing some truly horrific weather up north into Shanghai over the past few days, and by the time I arrived at the Astor Hotel at the north of the Bund I was dripping wet.

Here, I met Jeremy along with his Tour Assistant, Sam, and the rest of the tour group. Unfortunately Paul wasn’t able to join us tonight with the family all battling sickness – here’s hoping that they recover from that soon.

I joined the group of pilgrims from the parish of St Ignatius in Adelaide as they embarked on a cruise down the Huangpu River. With many of the guests being aged between 60 and 80 it was an impressive feat, but they all seemed to the have the energy of someone my age. They braved the weather better than I did.

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Unfortunately the weather and low-hanging clouds meant that much of the Pudong skyline wasn’t visible, but it actually made me enjoy the cruise all the more. Shanghai in this weather becomes even more alien. Even more surreal. Even more Star Wars… We sat on the boat discussing how much China had changed since some of the pilgrims had last been here in the 1980’s.

 

One of the people in the group turned out to be Fr Joe Dooley, one of the Jesuit priests who met me as a nine year old boy first starting at Riverview. Joe and I knew each other all the way through my schooling until he was transferred to Adelaide in 2012, but I always seem to run into him at various places and enjoy saying hi. With it being a number of years since I last saw him, I reminded him of my name when he greeted me. He thought it was silly that I would have thought that he’d forgotten and went on to recall all of the things he remembered of me when I was younger – it almost made me embarrassed that I don’t put as much of an effort into remembering such minute facts about every person I meet. When you do put in that effort, though, the person feels especially valued.

I also got my daily Chinese practice out of the day with Yuan, the Chinese tour guide who organised the boat for Jeremy. She told me that the price of lighting up the Shanghai skyline until 10pm is 1,000,000RMB (AU$194,046) every day. What an astonishing amount. I guess they’d make that money back through making the Shanghai skyline such a tourist attraction and status symbol.

Following the cruise the group was given free time for dinner. Most elected to try a hot pot restaurant next to the hotel, but Jeremy, Sam and I jumped in a Didi to go to my new favourite restaurant, Lotus.

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With Jeremy having spent more time in Yunnan than the both of us, he pushed us to order the pineapple purple rice. It was one of the best dishes I have tasted during my time in Shanghai. That’s a big call. I’ll have to collate all of my favourite meals of the trip at the end of the blog.

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After a couple of drinks we shared a good chat about a number of things. I learned a lot about Sam and became much closer to him over the night – I might even try to duck to Beijing to visit him in the next few weeks after he finishes the tour. He’s from Washington D.C. and was taught by Jeremy at Boston College. Among the most fascinating experiences which Sam has had include spending a year of his high schooling at the age of 16 living in a Hutong in Beijing (a whole year… at 16… to think that Xuzhou was hard). Sam also spent some time on a retreat in South Africa where he found himself undergoing the test to become a ranger in Kruger National Park as an exercise designed to push him past his physical limits. His group was given a loaf of bread and a small portion of meat to survive on for the whole week where they had to travel for dozens of kilometres on foot daily. They rationed the food out amongst the group, and it equated to only a pinch of bread in the morning and one measly slice of meat in the evening. He recalled being freezing cold without a sleeping bag in the evening and becoming completely verbally unresponsive by the end of the week but still walking in a straight line following his leader. Such an amazing story. In many ways it made me want to return to South Africa (probably not as a ranger, though).

We also all discussed the potential future of Sino Immersions. I expressed my opinion that most of the business lies in selling tours to Chinese tourists coming to Australia. One of Chinese tourists’ biggest complaints when travelling to countries like Australia is that their tour guide is from China, they stay in hotels with mainly Chinese guests and eat at Chinese restaurants. I couldn’t think of a less authentic experience of Australia, and I think there’s a huge opportunity in the market for companies like Sino Immersions to mobilise the small pool of local Australians who speak Chinese to lead these sorts of tours. I’m hoping that by the end of university Jeremy and I will be walking big groups from Shanghai down Manly Beach and giving them the run down in their local lingo.

Overall it was an incredibly enjoyable night. So much so that I agreed to meet them again the next morning for their last few hours in the city before departing to Hangzhou.

Day 226 (22nd of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Photo of the day.

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Happy birthday Mum! I was glad to hear today that Mum had a great day celebrating with countless friends and family. No one deserves an enjoyable birthday more than her.

I slept in as much as I could before hastily leaving at 8am to reach the Astor Hotel on time for the group’s activities. The original plan was to head to Lujiazui to see the skyscrapers and one of the architecture museums, but the group elected to go to the Tianzifang alleyways instead due to the weather.

Before we left the hotel, Jeremy also gave me a Sino Immersions shirt. I’m officially part of the team!

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The slogan is “入乡随俗”, the Chinese equivalent to “when in Rome…”

I was on Didi and Uber-organising duty to get the group to and from Tianzifang. From there, I relaxed and spoke with some of the guests at one of the cafés while they got their morning coffee fix. The alleys were actually much better in the drizzle because of the lack of a crowd. Before leaving I was also put on bargaining duty to help some of the older guests not get ripped off while buying trinkets for their relatives back home.

With the group on a tight schedule to get to the train station for their trip to Hangzhou, I said goodbye. It was wonderful to be able to see Jeremy and Sam as well as to get a taste of what it’s like to guide a tour through China. Jeremy will be returning to the city in early November when I’ll hopefully be able to see him again (contingent on my plans staying as they currently are).

Already being close to the Bund, I decided to continue south in the city to the nearby Fabric Market. After I visited this place last week and sent Aimee some photos of some coats, she had decided that she wanted to buy one for Europe. I had her waiting patiently on Facebook ready to send through some measurements for the tailor, but then she made the (smart) move of choosing against buying anything without trying it on. I wasn’t too disappointed that I found myself out in this part of Shanghai. Anything that’s not my room is exploring – something which I have very little time left to do in this city

I had skipped breakfast and so I figured that I would go to a nearby café while I figured out what to do with the rest of the day.

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While eating breakfast, I figured that I needed some button up shirts and a coat for Europe and that now would be a prime opportunity to buy them.

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A few hours later I left with the receipts for picking up two tailored shirts and a trench coat next Saturday. I also had pockets full of business cards. One of my bargaining techniques is saying that I’ll tell all of my friends about their shop, and they’ll often put a number of business cards in my hand to hold me to account.

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I returned home and got changed into my party uniform – a Taobao Fred Perry shirt, Taobao chinos and Taobao Fred Perry bag. All pretty good quality stuff for the price I paid. I can hardly tell the difference with the real versions.

Tonight it’s Kelly’s birthday party. Her place is near the International Cruise Terminal. The station was quite something.

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Kelly is the one with the stunning view from her apartment who I talked about in last week’s blog. I met up with Jake beforehand and we arrived together. This is Jake. Hey, Jake.

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Can you imagine looking at this view while you fall asleep. Now can you imagine looking at it for just $800/month?

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We even turned all the lights off to experience it properly.

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It was a great night with plenty of good music, dancing and banter. It’s good to know that I’ll always have friends in Shanghai – I think that a few of these guys will be here for some time to come. I don’t blame them. If circumstances were a bit different, I’d stay too!

Day 227 (23rd of October, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I was able to strategically organise tutoring today so that I needed to wake up at a reasonable hour but it could still be a sleep in. I was up by 9:30am and two hours later Anneke had produced the best English comprehension a Year 8 student has ever churned out.

After that session ended, I jumped on my bike to do some banking. My local ICBC branch is in quite a local community, and whenever I ride there it feels like I’m going back into Xuzhou.

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I bought the cheapest take-away lunch I’ve had in this city and began eating some of it while I watched the local children play.

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One of the members of the community’s excessively large dog population had found a resting spot just in front of my bike.

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While riding home I passed a butcher selling something which I just had to take a picture of.

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That’s right – a big plate of pig schnozzes.

Whilst the lunch was quite tasty, dinner ended up being nowhere near as satisfying. Not only that, but it was also expensive by Western standards. I did not leave the cafeteria very happy at all.

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Unfortunately, my night ended on somewhat of a low. I’ve been spending the last few days filling out my visa application for the U.S. for my brief trip in mid-November. Normally Australians are exempted from having to apply for a visa, but since I have been to Iran I am an exception to that rule for the next five years. That means an interview, $210 visa fee and long wait every time I want to enter the U.S.

I wasn’t able to complete my form last week since my accommodation had not yet been confirmed. Today my requests for AirBnB’s were finally approved and I was able to move forward with the visa application. The last step of the application involved paying the visa fee. There are two options for doing this – online debit card payment or going to a bank branch. The online option wouldn’t work because I needed to create an account with the consulate’s partner bank and have my identity verified (a process which, from experience, can take a week). I therefore had to resign to not finishing the application tonight and I will go into a bank tomorrow to try and figure it out.

It’s frustrating because of the limited time I have to get this organised. After I (hopefully) make the payment tomorrow, I then have to schedule an interview which is normally booked out for the next week. Then, I have to wait eight days according to the website for regular visa processing. If, however, I’m selected for further processing, the visa application could extend to two months. I simply don’t have that time, and if that happened I’d have to withdraw my application altogether. To make things even more difficult, my passport is taken for this whole period. That means that I can’t travel while I’m waiting for it. That includes domestic Chinese travel, where a passport is needed just to collect train tickets. If I get the payment done tomorrow then I’m cutting it fine by a matter of days to getting my passport back in time for my departure to Hong Kong.

I’m getting quite nervous, but I’m drawing comfort from the fact that there’s nothing that I could have done to change anything. I didn’t know if I had an opportunity to do some work experience in the U.S. until someone confirmed it with me just last week, then I didn’t know if my accommodation was confirmed until just today. At every step of the way I have acted in as fast of a manner as I can. If it doesn’t work out, then it was never going to happen.

I’ll just have to hope for the best.

Other than that, the week has been another good one in my favourite city of the trip so far.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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5 thoughts on “The Sinophile

  1. Fabulous read. Aussie tour guides speaking the customers lingo is a must. That’s what we get when we visit a country. Thanks for my birthday wishes. Love you x

    Like

  2. Xave,
    We also agree with the Aussie tour guides speaking the chinese language, and you could always introduce them to some of aussie slogans like
    G’Day Mate & sheel be right.
    Football, meat pies, kangaroos & holden cars
    Introduce them to some of our sheilas
    Try out our thunder boxes in our backyards on some of our canefields in the north.
    I would love to be your Bus driver, I have learnt a bit of chinese over the years, Number 11 on the menu is curried prawns and rice, or my favourite Number 22 scallops, ginger & shallots.
    I look forward to your collation of your favourite meals that you have had during your gap year.
    This will be some Blog.
    226 days and I have calculated that you have close to 1000 meals in that time.
    However I guess it is right when in Chine do as the locals do. EAT.
    Love
    G & P

    Like

    1. Hahahaha genuinely the funniest comment I’ve ever read on this blog. Didn’t know you could fit that much slang in one paragraph. I miss it all so much! Keen for a few meat pies when I’m back.

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