Archive | November, 2011

Zhōng wén*

30 Nov

The frustrating thing about learning to write Chinese characters is that you have no sense of any alphabet, at least not in the way that H. has asked me to do it. Sure, I can recognise a few strokes but they don’t mean anything at all to me, either phonetically or in terms of associating the stroke to any general or specific semantic concept… If I understood correctly, strokes are not letters and if they are, it’s only for some words which don’t have a graphic concept. Also, you don’t know how flexible the strokes are, meaning when does your writing becomes wrong? Is it ok if this rectangle becomes more squarish or not?

It’s not that I’m not enjoying writing ten times each of the 29 words she asked me to write. It is actually quite relaxing to replicate each character and overall I find something quite aesthetic in the two pages I’ve just filled. However, I do doubt my ability to recognise, let alone write again, most of these words in the future and therefore my capacity to read or write (not replicate) to ever develop…

* i.e. written Chinese. There are different words for written Chinese (Zhōng wén), spoken Chinese (Hàn yǔ) and Mandarin (Putòng huǎ i.e. common dialect).

No. 88

28 Nov

or Bābā (literally eight eight in Mandarin) is a well-established club and one especially known amongst foreigners to be one of the places where young Shanghainese party. We went there ten days ago, on a Saturday, after pseudo artsy drinks with friends on the top of a building housing design firms, and got our first experience of Chinese clubbing.

Bābā is located in the French Concession and immediately appeared to be a popular place given the number of people around it on the street. After a five-minute queue at the cloakroom, we had to pass through a magnetic door as if we were at an airport. The security checked each girl’s bag but even though every single person beeped, they let everyone in. As if this didn’t already defeat the purpose of having security, inside was the most claustrophobic and visually and physically busy club one could ever imagine.

The overall theme was let’s say something like Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousands Leagues under the Sea”… The walls were filled with fake copper propellers, pistons, valves and other types of machinery. Most of the tables were laid out in elevated types of booths and the place was absolutely packed! I could only catch a glimpse of the furniture and chandeliers but enough to appreciate how kitsch they were. To add to the clutter, the people and the cigarettes (something I’m not used to anymore), extra smoke was continuously being added to the air. It took a little while to adjust to the atmosphere and until we found a good spot, near the DJ, there was a lot bumping and pushing going on. In Shanghai, people do not really physically give way, be it on the roads, on the pavements or in clubs…

The party was interesting in many respects. First, when music was playing, the DJ enjoyed changing songs about every 20 seconds. It was unusual to get more than one minute of a single track. Second, Chinese people do love drinking and in order to encourage one another, they like playing rock-paper-scissors (or roshambo, which I am told by Wikipedia is a Chinese game, dating back to the Han Dynasty, 220-206 BC) and the losers (or winners?) get to do “gambei”, i.e. bottoms up! Third and most exciting was by far the live performance. We had just missed a female performer as we arrived, but then we had the privilege to get up close and personal with the very androgynous male performer dressed with a mini-cape. The security, strategically posted within the club, prepared his appearance by forbidding anyone from standing on the tiny stages. I can’t remember the song he started with, but shortly after he suddenly disappeared only to reappear virtually immediately a meter away from us. Overall, his accent was quite good until he started singing Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and making a lasting (laughing) impression with a relentless and persistent “zee edge, zee egde, zzeeeee eeeedge, zzzeeeeeee eeeeeeedge”! At that critical point, the smoke had become so thick and sulphurous that my eyes started crying as relentlessly as the singing, which was terribly embarrassing as I felt like a Beatles’ groupie in one of their first appearances in the 1960s…

The evening didn’t end that well. J. realised that his brand new Iphone 4S went missing from his front pocket. We did our best to find it in the mess around us or by the bar where we were earlier. A very compassionate Chinese guy lent us his own Iphone 4 to light up around us and look for it. To no avail… After about 20 minutes of desperate searching, we gave up and left thinking Bābā Iphone…

Bésame mucho…

24 Nov

I am a person who does lists. There’s always a list of something in the back of my mind, like what I want to bring back from my room in Beirut to Shanghai, interesting companies to send my CV to, to do lists at work, etc. And I do derive some pleasure from crossing out individual items as I’ve achieved them or acquired them.

Since arriving to Shanghai, I’ve witnessed several oddities or been in weird situations. Here are my two lists:

Mysteries to unravel

  1. The guys wandering around town with their bicycles equipped with trunks and continuously ringing a bell. They are clearly indicating to people around that they are here but I don’t know why. Most of the time, the back of their bike is empty or has a few items that don’t seem to have anything in common. Sorry I haven’t got a picture.
  2. The pyjama ladies: women going around town in their pyjamas at any time of the day… The pyjamas I’m afraid to say are often childish, with teddy bears or other similar patterns. I really don’t know what it is… Maybe the pyjama has another dressing or fashion value over here… Here’s a stolen picture of a prime example below. I so wanted to get a picture of her that I ran to catch up with her.   
  3. Why do all CD street sellers play “Bésame mucho” all the time????

Mystery no.3 brings us to my second list.

Weird or absurd situations

Globalisation is certainly fantastic but it also leads to situations, which are so disturbing that you feel the two hemispheres of your brain are being dislocated or that your sense of personal geography is being severely stretched. For example:

  1. Hear “Bésame mucho” and occasionally other bossa nova songs on the streets of Shanghai…
  2. Be asked, however kindly, by a Lebanese guy to enrol to a salsa class taught by his Chinese girlfriend…
  3. On your first week in Shanghai, end up at a house party with 10 Lebanese people and speak Arabic while eating French cheese, mozzarella and (tops it all) kabis (Lebanese pickles)!
  4. Repeat after your teacher new Chinese words and try to get their intonations right while Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole sing Christmas carols in the background at Starbucks in November.

On the cuter side, but equally odd to me…

Chinese people may be dog eaters, but Shanghainese are certainly fond of their four legged friends. Dogs are very pampered here and their confidence and jolliness do reflect their spoilt brat status. Also, owners like to accessorise them and definitely make sure that they don’t get cold.

Unbeatable. I saw two shoed dogs yesterday.

Aì Lì Yà

18 Nov

I now have a Chinese name and it is Aì Lì Yà! Aì being for my surname and, unsurprisingly, Lì Yà for my first name. In Chinese culture, everything goes from the general or wider context to the particular. So you always put your family name first and you introduce yourself this way as well. The same goes for giving or writing dates, the year first, followed by the month and day.

Back to my name, I did know, thanks to a Google search a few months back now, that my first name would most probably be Li Ya. But I didn’t know what it could mean and let alone all the intonations. My friend Clo, who has been studying Chinese since she’s 16, told me then that it could mean beautiful (Li) duck (Ya). We cracked a few jokes about it but I did like it very much and that’s how my blog was named Joli Canard.

When H. said I should have a Chinese name and named me Aì Lì Yà, I immediately asked her about the meaning to see if I would be officially baptised Beautiful Duck. So Aì means to love (except that the character above is only a phonetic one indicating the surname) and Lì does mean beautiful. I anxiously asked if Yà meant duck but H. looked at me, frowned slightly but unconvincingly and ignored my question outright. She said Yà means the second one. Sorely disappointed, I told her the beautiful second does not mean anything! She said: “Why? Do you want to be the first one?” Almost insulted by this remark, I said that I just wanted my name to mean something a little more meaningful! She calmly raised her eyes to the ceiling, thought for a moment and then said: “It could also mean Asia.”

So here we are, I am called she who loves beautiful Asia.

(I still love duck though…)

First Mandarin lesson and homework

15 Nov

I’ve started Mandarin lessons yesterday. After a lot of researching of schools, I decided to go with a private teacher at least until Christmas. Many reasons for this, the primary one being that if I register with a school now, I will be missing too many classes while I’ll be away for Christmas and New Year’s and, given the tuition and the intensity of the course (4 hours everyday from Monday to Friday), it would be a pity to waste so much money and time.

My teacher’s name is H. Tiffany from the relocation agency recommended her to me. She’s very nice and incredibly patient. The first lesson was mostly spent re-learning how to read pinyin (for those who don’t know, pinyin is the phonetic transcription of Mandarin) and work on the four intonations. I had such a hard time with this and we did it so many times that at the end of it I couldn’t pronounce my name correctly anymore and after two hours, I was glad the lesson was over.

This afternoon, after a bit of procrastination, I finally started my homework which consisted of the whole five chapters of pinyin from the book and mp3 that H. gave me. Basically, I have to repeat and read simultaneously each chapter twice. I cringed when I saw that each mp3 was between 6 and 9 minutes. I did not enjoy it yesterday, what will make me enjoy it this time round? Plus there’s no one to correct me… I started nonetheless, reluctantly repeating after my computer each sound and syllable…

An hour and 15 minutes later, I had done the first, second and third chapter. Quite satisfied, I pursued with the fourth chapter. As I was starting to enjoy the exercise and feeling more confident in my pronunciation of tones 2 and 3, I heard a knock on my door. It started slow but became more and more persistent. I walked to the door and was about to open it but then realised that the door is not equipped with a hole and because the knocking became more aggressive (even though it wasn’t really banging) and I could hear two voices from outside, I decided not to. I waited for a second, then heard a door slamming… I’ve clearly been bothering my neighbours. Concerned, I started testing all the walls and it turned out that most of them are made of bond stone.

Although I could understand that anyone could be annoyed by my monosyllabic repetitions and voice strangulations, I was really upset that all I was able to achieve with my first efforts to learn Chinese was to antagonise my neighbours… :-(

Sun day, laundry day

11 Nov

After 10 days of completely overcast weather and sporadic showers, the sun has finally graced us with its presence. And suddenly the streets and balconies have been literally invaded by drying laundry. Laundry is everywhere, on the pavements, on window sills, in alleyways, on balconies whatever their heights.

I was already surprised when I arrived to Shanghai that window sills were so well equipped with laundry wires. Those are different than the ones I’m used to see in Mediterranean cities. Shanghainese laundry wires run perpendicular to the windows, not parallel, and over hang off the building’s façade by at least 1.5 meter. So obviously most people dry their cloths outside, in spite of the severe pollution.

But today, it looked as if people have been stacking up dirty clothes until the sun was willing to come out. And just as it made an appearance, they’ve simply installed their drying racks on the pavement or just made use of sign posts and light posts on the street, letting the wind gently cradle their blankets, sheets, t-shirts and pants…


6 Nov

Anything I do these days, anywhere I go, almost anyone I meet generates some sort of amazement, wonder or intense puzzling. The supermarket perhaps even more so as it is meant to supply you with something as basic as food.

So far, I’ve had two supermarket experiences. The first one was comical, the other one started in a fun way but ended up in utter repugnance. So much so that the second time we’ve resorted to online delivery (and overspending to make sure we hit the minimum spending amount to be delivered).

The first supermarket experience was at a local Tesco Express (Le Gou in Mandarin). We wanted to buy some cleaning products and some food on the very day we moved into our flat. Our idea of a quick shopping trip was cut short when we realised we actually couldn’t make informed decisions about most of the products because it was ALL written in Chinese… A few examples below:

Which one's the shampoo and which one's the conditioner?

What to choose?

The second experience was at the gigantic Carrefour (Jia Le Fou) to the west of town. I needed to get a hoover machine, a kettle, a hair dryer as well as more food, that we could recognise one way or another until we start knowing and mastering local products and foods. I started with the house appliances section and was immediately and aggressively greeted by 7 or 8 salespersons throwing themselves at me. One lady even took hold of my trolley and would not let me go any further, until I firmly shouted some mono-syllabic word at her. All these people started selling their products in Chinese. Why did they bother so much I don’t know because obviously I don’t speak the language, second what do I really know about hoovers? The situation did make me laugh, it was so ridiculous. I had to shout a big “ok, wait!” and to wave both my arms laterally to shut them up and start having a look. Once the hoover was chosen, the shouting started again for the kettle, and again for the hairdryer. Apparently, all these people are not employees of the supermarket but of the different brands and get paid by commission. You could find other salespeople in the cleaning products and food sections.

The rest of the shopping experience became gradually horrible, trying to find different things such as coffee, sugar, tea, pasta, cans of tomatoes, corn flakes, olive oil. However, I was very amused on a number of occasions when I came across interesting products (see below) and things I just couldn’t figure out, like why ALL of the instant coffee pots were sold without their lids… It started being annoying when, as in the first supermarket experience, I couldn’t recognise some products because the packaging would NOT tell you what it is in English, but would stress in English that “[The producers] adhere to strict standard of high quality for remarkably delicious taste.” Obviously, it’s only at the very end that I discovered the “Western” section of the supermarket, tucked in a corner, and it became clear why I found that there were two sorts of “western” customers: those who looked very purposeful and focused and the completely bewildered and frustrated species like myself…

Anyway, hopefully never again now that we have all appliances and that the rest can be found more locally, namely at City Shop on Nanjing Road and at the legendary Avocado Lady, who deserves her own dedicated post. Watch this space…

Papaya and ginger perfumed cleaning products :)


This is not seaweed, this is tea! Bought it but didn't try it yet.

Don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but I shall pass on this for now...

Aargh but what is it??? Milk, yoghurt, soya milk, rice milk???

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