Tag Archives: Living in Shanghai

The Avocado Lady

30 Mar

In more than one post I have referred to the Avocado Lady. Far from being an elusive character, she is nothing short of a celebrity for the foreigners’ community of Shanghai who regularly go fill up their fridge and pantry at her very unassuming shop in the former French Concession. There you can find all sorts of Western food products as well as fabulous vegetables at really reasonable prices. I think she sometimes has more on offer than expat supermarkets. I never went there to shop and not found what I was looking for! Polenta, couscous, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, parmeggiano, parsnips, San Pelegrino, very good dried fruits, red and green lentils and other pulses, tehini, De Cecco pasta, etc.

The shop is held by two Chinese ladies, but the one with short hair is the one in charge. Just Google: Avocado Lady Shanghai and you’ll see what she looks like. She speaks English or at least knows the English name of all her products and so you can ask her for whatever you want and she’ll find it somewhere in her tiny shop. She’s very friendly and will never hesitate to round down what you owe her which, amongst other things, makes her a great trader. I was told three years or so ago, her shop was half its current size but due to her success and being able to win the loyalty of many foreigners, she’s expanded into the next unit.

She’s been dubbed the Avocado Lady because avocadoes used to be a very rare commodity in Shanghai and she was one of the first to sell them. Now you can find them in many places but the nickname stuck, which comes in handy because her shop, like most fruits and vegetable shops of the city, has no name.

So next time you’re despairing over the expat supermarkets’ prices and complaining about not finding this or that, head to the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Wukang Lu and walk southwards on Wulumuqi Lu on the right hand side of the street. Just watch for the many laowai holding blue plastic bags and you’ll spot the place!

The Avocado Lady's shop

The Avocado Lady’s shop

Giving in

3 Feb

If you have been vaguely following the news lately, you may have seen that China has been featuring regularly in the headlines. Not so much because of the unexpected growth in January, contrary to 2012 anxieties and predictions, but because of the terrible pollution that has blighted first and foremost Beijing and, to a lesser degree, Shanghai. (Although distinct, I don’t think the two issues are entirely unrelated.)

A healthy air quality index (AQI) is between 0 and 50, which has probably not happened in Chinese cities in the last 30 years. You may also know that the American Embassy in Beijing has been independently monitoring the air quality in Beijing and, more recently, in Shanghai. According to their website, an AQI above 200 is considered “very unhealthy” and above 300 “hazardous”. About two weeks ago, Beijing reached a terrible 993!!! for which there is simply no descriptive term. One of the reasons, besides the number of cars and factories, is because coal is still heavily relied on in power stations and to heat houses. A lot of coal mines or mining cities surround Beijing and obviously make the situation worse.

From what we know, Shanghai has never reached such toxic levels as Beijing has. Its periphery is still heavily industrialised and so are many of the cities surrounding it, like Hangzhou, Suzhou etc. However, we are far from healthy air quality levels. There are a few mobile apps, which tell you what the daily AQI is hour by hour. I have a few friends who have downloaded it but I refuse to. We all know the air quality is shit so why know precisely how bad it is. On bad days I can see it from home, which is on the 18th floor. Even on those days, life goes on as usual. J. goes to work and so does anyone who has to go out of the house, for whatever reason. You may have seen in the press this picture of people doing their taiji in Fuyang (about 3 hours on the train from Shanghai).

In Fuyang

In Fuyang (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

In Beijing

In Beijing (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai probably some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

The other side - also on that clear day

The other side with Suzhou Creek – also on that clear day

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

From home 2 - bad day_small

The Suzhou Creek side

So we, or to be more accurate, I have given in. Unlike two of our friends, I still have not bought the face masks, but as of today we are equipped with this:

Spot the odd looking object

Spot the odd looking object

Air purifier 2_small

This is an air purifier that we’ve just bought. J. doesn’t really believe in it but I do because I think it can’t do any harm and we should put chances on our side. Doctors recommend that you should have one if you have kids at home, so why not adults?

The poor transparency and apparently lack of or few improvement measures about all things health related are definitely the most worrying aspect of living in China. There’s no easy way around it. One has to hope that, as my father says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Nopes, no way, can’t do it!

12 Dec

I recently got overly excited about an online “premier” “safe, high quality” grocer called Fields. Their website is very well done and they’ve got quite a large variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and pantry products, which they deliver to your home. This is primarily why I was so interested. As a foreigner, you probably find 90 to 95% of what you need here to cook the dishes you are used to. The trouble is you have to go to a few places to get them. I get my meat from Yasmine’s, an Australian butchery or from some specific supermarkets renowned for their good products (mainly Metro). For pantry and dairy products (and anything else really), you could go of course to City Shop but it costs an arm every single time. So I usually go to the Avocado Lady (on whom I still need to dedicate a full post), on Wulumuqi Lu/Wuyuan Lu, who just has everything you can think of at very reasonable prices. But, it sometimes feels like a mission to get all you need, hop on a cab, get to the other place and hop on a cab again to go home.

This is why Fields sounded brilliant. And it is! I had my first delivery last Saturday. The vegetables, most of them organic, look fabulous. I had ordered, amongst other things, their value pack which is filled with all sorts of vegetables (including green and purple kohlrabis, which I need to experiment with), as well as 10 organic eggs and a free-range chicken. When I received the package, the chicken was frozen in its bag. It looked small and I tried to figure out if it was a whole chicken or two legs or… I couldn’t so I simply put it in the freezer and only got it out yesterday to be defrosted for today’s dinner.

IMG_2949_small

IMG_2948_small

So here I was just a few minutes ago, enthusiastically getting some spices out and opening the bag to start marinating the beast before putting it in the oven. I get it out and find out that a) it is a whole but really small chicken and b) it still has its full head and two feet!* I got a squeamish “eeewww” out and put it in a dish. I froze for a while, took a deep breath and thought: come on, this is your dinner, man up and just chop the neck and feet. With two fingers I grabbed a leg and, as the neck and head unfolded from under the body, the full head appeared and a black eye, mostly pushed into the head but still able to peak out through translucent skin, gave me a horrible deadly look. That’s when I thought, ok no way, can’t do it… I froze again, wondering if I should throw the animal or what, then decided better let the āyi (cleaning lady) do it for me tomorrow. I’ll give her the feet to munch on** and have pasta tonight.

IMG_2972_small

IMG_2975_small

* That’s how chicken are sold here – see the post Chop the head yourself!

** Chicken feet are a big delicacy in China.

Promoting appropriate behaviours

27 Nov

We’ve all had unpleasant experiences on public transportation, in any city anywhere in the world. Somebody speaking too loudly on their mobile phone, somebody pushing you or stepping on your foot and not apologising, someone throwing something on the floor and leaving it there, etc.

A lot of people who live in China or who have visited some of China’s big cities will tell you Chinese people are rude. It’s hard and unfair to generalise of course, but it is also fair to say that some of their habits are different from ours and therefore some things, which are frowned upon elsewhere, are accepted here. Examples are: spitting loudly on the streets, making noise when you eat or not refraining a burp afterwards instead getting it out discreetly. Of course, like everywhere else, rude people exist here as well and I have seen spits in our elevator or, worse, one of my students spitting in class. Obviously, as an intolerant lǎowài*, I was so shocked that I yelled at him instantly. It is also fair to say that some Chinese people are particularly uninhibited, like the man taking off his shirt and casually lying on his side at Beijing Airport (see this post: Shanghai Randoms #1).

In new situations or settings, it can be argued, some people do not know what is acceptable behaviour from what isn’t and it may take some time to adapt. The subway or underground network in Chinese cities is not old at all. I would say about 10 years at most. When you take the underground in Shanghai (and probably in other cities – it certainly was the case when I was in Beijing in 2004), what you will notice first is that people on the platform certainly don’t wait for people to get off the train before getting in. So if you are unfortunate enough to commute during rush hour every day (thankfully I don’t), it can be an extremely violent experience at every station. Likewise, when there are free seats, people will rush like mad and push you around to put their asses down. No courtesy to be seen here. And there are far worse behaviours, which shock Chinese and foreigners equally – this China Smack link probably tops it all. So that’s why, I assume, the underground company has decided to put these videos (taken it seems from the CCTV cameras inside coaches) of people behaving inappropriately, such as picking their toes, and to point out what’s acceptable and what’s not during your daily or occasional commute.

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

Dog control

18 Jul

I have mentioned in a previous post how mad Shanghainese are about their dogs (see link to Bésame mucho…). They definitely are no dog eaters. They pamper them and are extremely conscious about their wellbeing. In winter, they make them wear warm outfits as well as shoes. In summer, they change the warm clothes for lace ones. They also like to accessorise them: dogs get to wear earrings, have their hair died (more than one colour please), as well as fake colour nails put on their paws! On my street, there’s an especially dedicated beauty parlour for dogs. No other pets allowed. It’s really amazing and I for one certainly have a blast witnessing all of this and trying to capture it with my camera.

Dog beauty parlour on Taixing Road

Shoes and lace!

Well groomed

Her name was Wang Wang

The trouble is that their love for dogs has become excessive. And any phenomenon or habit that starts to be adopted by too many people in Shanghai or China is likely to become problematic for society at large, just because of the sheer mass of people in this city (23 million officially, 30 million I heard if you factor in all the “clandestine” dwellers, foreigners included) and the country. So dogs have become a problem in Shanghai. There are simply too many in the city and this is posing real hygiene problems on the streets due to all the dog shit. I have seen many Chinese picking up their dog’s poop from the pavement but I don’t think the majority of dog owners do it. As in Paris, you have to be very careful when walking in residential neighbourhoods. I’ve unfortunately stepped at least once in dog shit too.

Dog shit all over

To address the problem, in 2011, the municipality of Shanghai adopted the single dog policy which, as its name indicates, limits the ownership of dogs to one per family. According to the French newspaper Libération, in 2010, the number of dogs in the city had reached 800,000, only 25% of which were licensed. Other sources quote other figures. Today there must be at least 1 million. Prior to this law, if you owned more than one dog and if they were all duly licensed, you could keep them. In Guangzhou however, you had to get rid of all your dogs but one.

If they’ve done it for kids over 30 years ago, I personally don’t find it that shocking when it comes to pets. However, I did find it hilarious that they duplicated the single child’s policy for dogs! You can see that, in their own way, they’re equally spoilt. Children are dubbed “little emperors”, I don’t know if dogs have a nickname too. I also wondered about the fairness of the policy. Had they put in too many restrictions regarding dog licensing and health monitoring, the policies would’ve been criticised as being in favour of rich people who would be the only ones to afford to have a dog. With the single dog policy, everybody’s entitled to one toy.

Walking the dogs in a pram!

Heat and humiliation

8 Jul

When I left Shanghai end of May, the weather was warm, occasionally verging on hot. When I came back a few days ago, there was no more room for thermal ambiguity. It is now properly HOT! Tài rè le!!! Too hot! The temperatures, announced on TV and the net as low 30s, are really in the mid and high 30s. That would be barely bearable on its own, but you have to factor in very high levels of humidity. So high I don’t want to know how much. Look it up for yourself. All I know is that the first breath of non-conditioned air at the airport felt like I was mutating into a fish. It was like breathing water…

The few first days after my return, I didn’t go out much. The sun, which apparently had not shown its face for a while, was scorching. If there was any wind, it was really hot, like blow drying your hair. So all I did were small excursions to run errands and went back inside, turning on and off the air-conditioning.

Two days ago we had a really strong shower, throwing a depressive atmosphere over the city. It was weird to go out. So hot you didn’t feel like putting on any additional clothes than what minimal decency requires from you. It was also a first for me, heavy rain and heat, summer clothes with flip-flops and umbrella, being both sweaty and drenched. See, in Lebanon, it practically never rains in summer. Maybe once every 5 years. So I guess for as long as I live and in spite of 5 consecutive rubbish English summers, summer and sun will always go together for me.

Now I don’t want to sound like I am complaining. I really wouldn’t dare to, when I know what people who aren’t as fortunate to have their flat fitted with 4 air-conditioning units have to endure. Or those who have to take the tube everyday or those who have to wear suits and visit chemical factories. A friend fainted in the tube during her morning commute, the doctor said she was quite dehydrated. And my boyfriend came back from a day’s factory visit in the worst mood he is capable of, feeling sweaty and dirty under his shirt and suit. To sum it up, as my friend C., a long term resident of Shanghai and Guangzhou before that, says: “In Shanghai, there is no other way. During the summer season, you will be humiliated.”

Integral sun glasses

Clever dog: lying down right under the air-conditioning unit

Men’s coping strategy to handle the heat: rolling their shirt or t-shirt up and exposing their bellies. Not the best example but will strive to find a better one.

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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