Tag Archives: laowai

The Year of the Horse – Part 1: Celebrating with noise!

2 Feb

On Thursday and Friday, China and a few countries around celebrated the Chinese new year and the forthcoming year of the horse. After the year of the dragon and that of the snake, it is our third lunar new year – or Spring Festival –  since we moved to Shanghai. For the first time, we decided to stay around, first because we took too long to buy our plane tickets to Cambodia and second because we thought that we ought to spend a Chinese new year in China at least once. We had been told or warned by a few foreign veterans that spending Chinese new year in Shanghai was great, was terrible, was a bad idea, was a “special” experience, etc. etc. etc. The most precise information I got though was from a colleague who told me that she loved it because, overall, Shanghai is very quiet because most people head back to their hometowns. At the same time of course, one should expect a lot of fireworks. Not the pretty kind done by professionals in a wide open space for everyone to see. The small, noisy, non-visual type that anyone can buy and blow on the street. She also said that the only way to enjoy it was to take part to the hype. So I decided that we should embrace the whole idea. This year the holiday started on the day of Chinese new year (that was Thursday 30th of January). Those of us who didn’t flee the country went to work on that day. The city had already considerably emptied up and, after a short day at work, I ran a few errands before going for dinner with friends. At 5:30ish, the normal rush hour, streets were empty. Commercial activity, which never ever stops in Shanghai, was practically non-existent. Eight if not nine out of ten shops were shut, anywhere you looked. In addition, the very high pollution levels and consequent low haze and glaring light gave the city a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere,  intensified by the either distant or closer sound of fireworks interrupting the general, heavy silent. Truly an apocalyptic atmosphere suited for movies…

The AQI levels on that day

The AQI levels on that day

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Oddly our friends managed to find the restaurant they wanted to go to open – Di Shui Dong (very good incidentally) on Maoming Lu. The restaurant itself is quite a warm place in terms of its décor and relaxed atmosphere. It was quite full and lively and therefore a welcome contrast to the outside vibe. There we met other friends, a group of six boys arriving with their stash of fireworks. Although J. was not keen about the whole fireworks thing, I insisted that we join them later as part of my embrace-the-event plan. And so after dinner, I asked a friend where we should actually pop the stuff (I might’ve spent too many years in France and the UK, being so mindful about health and safety issues) and was a bit disturbed when he found the question a bit stupid and replied “Just here… anywhere… on the street…” I didn’t quite have the time or space to tell him that we should perhaps look for a suitable place, we were already out of the restaurant and one of his mates was already lining firecrackers just at the entrance of the building. The guy wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him to do it elsewhere and just lit it here and there, causing more noise and smoke than anything else.

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

We then headed to a nearby (small residential) street close to another group of lǎowài (turned out it was my colleague, her family and friends) who had already started their festivities with their young kids and who were greeting one another with “Xin nian kuai le!” – happy new year in Mandarin. Our stock lasted half an hour I guess. It was fun, convivial, noisy, unconscious, slightly dangerous, spontaneous, childish, traditional, not very mindful of local residents or traffic, smoky, scary, not environmentally friendly at all and brought back childhood memories of celebrations of Eid el Saydeh (the Virgin Mary’s Day) in Lebanon… J. and I then headed back home while the others split to continue their evening. At midnight, all hell broke loose with noise levels truly high and fireworks reaching us all the way to the 18th floor and lighting up our flat with their colours. It lasted for a while into the night. But since then (3 days now), I can’t say that there have been more fireworks than the usual. I liked the whole experience and I will remember it fondly. We may not be locals and never will be but after the third one, Chinese new year is now part of our calendar and the lunar signs of the dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, etc. siding next to the scorpio, taurus, pisces, virgin, balance, etc. * lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

Six months on…

1 May

and I’m still jobless (yekhk) but when I think about our state of mind six months ago, things are actually positively interesting. We’ve been around a lot of places in Shanghai and, although we still need to discover many more, we generally know what people talk about when they mention different spots around town or street names. Linguistically, not wanting to brag out too much, but my Mandarin is quite satisfactory. I manage fairly well on the street, in most shops or taxi situations and, most importantly, to negotiate prices. Script-wise, I may know less than 150 characters (I have to double that by July 22nd for my second exam), but six months ago, had anyone told me that within this short period of time I’d be able to have basic text message conversations in Chinese, I would’ve never thought it possible.

It’s interesting to look back. Five days after arriving to Shanghai in November, we were invited by one of J’s friends, a Lebanese who has been here seven years now. We had just moved into our flat, done a thousand things on that day and were really exhausted. That evening, we met what is probably the majority of the Lebanese community in Shanghai. Leaving the party, we felt a bit depressed seeing how comfortable these people were in this city, how well they spoke Chinese and all the things they knew and we didn’t. And, mostly, we thought they were kind of crazy anyway coming to China and settling here, some at a really young age… For about two weeks after getting here, when I walked on the street and spotted other foreigners, my eyes widened up as if I was looking for some sort of solidarity on their behalf just for being here too. Most of the time, they passed by without looking at me.

Today, after having had family and friends coming over and meeting two days ago with other Lebanese people visiting Shanghai, I feel I’m part of a sect. I can spot foreigners who have just arrived to China, their eyes open wide when they see me. I smile compassionately. With other lǎowàis*, we have the same codes, exchange tips on where to find this or that type of food we miss, are always amazed at the Avocado Lady’s stock, make sense of the lùs**, who employs an āyi***, who’s the best tailor at the fabric market, what VPN**** is better to access Facebook or You Tube or all normally censored websites and how many devices you can connect it to… and even mimic taxi drivers!

To top it all, we finally organised our overdue housewarming party yesterday. It also happens to be my birthday today and it’s heart-warming to be surrounded by about 15 people we didn’t know at all six months ago, some of whom I hope will stay lifelong friends.

* lǎowàis: respectful word for foreigner

** lù: road in Mandarin

*** āyi: aunt, auntie, but also meaning cleaning lady

**** VPN: virtual private network, usually accessible at a monthly or yearly fee. It’s basically as if you’re using the Internet from the US or another network from non-censored country. We use VPNExpress.

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