Monday, September 26, 2011

Mind the Gaps

I rode the metro today.  While on it, I was trying to figure out the last time I was on a metro, praying that it wasn't the Underground, because that would just make me sad (it wasn't.  There's a form of the metro in SLC called Trax).  While I was trying to figure this out, I was looking around and noticing all the posters and signs, including the notices over the doors to "Mind the Gaps".  I started to feel a little nostalgic as we were pulling into a station, and then the intercom flickered to life.  "Mrgngsk mgsgdien [insert Chinese words here]."  I ignored the Chinese while I waited for the English translation second.  This happens everywhere.  Something will be announced in Chinese and then the announcement will be followed by the English translation, spoken by someone (usually female) with a strong Chinese-English accent.  When the English translation kicked in on the metro, I kid you not, it was spoken in a very British accent.  "Please mind the gap between the train and the platform."

Cue London Tube flashbacks.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I was robbed once. When I was studying abroad in London, a friend and I decided to sees Four Christmases at a cinema down the street from our residence hall. We had done other things earlier in the evening, and in the course of our ramblings, had stopped at an ATM to get out some cash. Since my birthday had occurred during the semester, I also had some American cash in my wallet, courtesy of generous relatives. I had been saving it for who-knows-what, and I hadn't thought of a better place to keep it than my wallet (maybe I thought that if I saw a good exchange rate somewhere, I would trade it for the Pound?). After the lukewarm movie, we stopped at Tesco to get I-don't-remember-what and both opened our wallets to discover them empty of all forms of cash (21st birthday money included). It was one of the most disappointing and scariest feelings I've experienced.

Last night, I had a dream where it happened again.  The same friend and I were contemplating what Chinese candies to buy when I opened my wallet to discover that all the cash had been taken.  In addition, my credit and ATM cards were missing.  And I was still in China, several hundred miles away from the airport where my return flight is originating.  I awoke in a cold sweat, with my heart racing and my mind listing all the things I needed to do: call the bank, call the office, figure out how to get home, etc.  As with any nightmare, it took several minutes to calm myself down and finally fall back asleep.

Now, my question is: what the hell happened to my nightmares?!  Not that I want to have them, but if I do have a nightmare, please make it a proper one!  Monsters in the closet, things under the bed, being chased by an unknown thing, getting a B in a math class.  You know, proper nightmares.  I want to still believe that the Headless Horseman is in my closet, because that's where I put him when my mom read me the story (I always made sure that my closet was closed after that).  What is it with these "grown up" fears and dreams?  No more, please.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


To say that I was not excited about this business trip to China would be an understatement. I didn't particularly enjoy my previous China trip, and the only difference I expected from this one was that is is going to be a week longer. I spent the days leading up to the flight whining about China to anyone who would listen. It's hot and humid and muggy and crowded. And they don't speak English. And it's hot. And humid. And muggy. And it smells! And then I realized that I would be traveling on my birthday. Alone. In a foreign city. On my birthday. Not excited. At all.

Slowly, over the course of two days, I managed to readjust my attitude a bit about the trip.  Even got it to the point that I was enjoying being here.  It helps that I have two coworkers in the area, both of whom are Chinese, speak Chinese, and know what to order at Chinese restaurants.  One even recommended some places that I should visit if I have time.  So by Saturday (my birthday), I had a list of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to see.  A good start.

After a lazy morning, I grabbed a map, my camera, and a water bottle before setting out.  A study of the map showed that it would be a bit of a hike to Nanjing Road, but I had nothing better to do and all day to do it.  Plus, I promised myself an afternoon snack of ice cream.  I set out in a very balmy (but not so hot) afternoon and started down the street.  After several blocks, I realized that I was inadvertently stalking a short, middle-aged, white man with an umbrella.  The fact did not escape him, so he started a conversation.  His name is Francois, a French Canadian who spends one week every two months in Shanghai.  He was out for a walk on the doctor's orders. When I told him my destination, he said, "Oh, that's far!"  And for the next hour, we walked together through the muggy streets of Shanghai.  90 minutes after setting out, we had reached the mouth of my destination, 8km (5 miles) away and 4km longer than Francois had planned to walk.  Before leaving, he said that he was going to drop into a hotel bar for a drink and asked if I would like to join.  After buying me a Chinese beer (tastes like Corona), he took off.  That was surprising event number one.

I had no more than 10 minutes to myself, exploring People's Square, before I was approached by a tiny Chinese girl.  "Nice to meet you!" she said (a phrase almost all Chinese know).  I smiled and made to move on my way when her male friend struck up a conversation with me.  It included asking me where I'm from, what I'm doing in Shanghai, how long I'm planning on being in China, and the same information about the two of them.  They then asked if I had any plans and I mumbled something about wanting to see Nanjing Road.  They started listing things I should see, and then said, "Why don't you come with us?  We'll go this way and then back to Nanjing Road."  Since the area was full of people and these two seemed okay, I followed them up to the crosswalk and down a slightly-less crowded street.  We then turned down an alley way of sorts and walked into a dingy mall-like alcove.  As we kept walking, I started getting more and more nervous.  We turned and started up a flight of half-lit stairs and down a nearly vacant corridor.  By this time, my internal dialogue was saying, Oh Steph!  What have you gotten yourself into?!  This is not safe!!  I got a firmer grip on my purse and sized up my company.  We then stopped at what looked like a massage place.  A small Chinese girl welcomed us and showed us down a hallway.  A door slide open and I looked inside.  A handful of chairs were crammed around a table where several glass jars of questionable-looking grass.  They're going to drug me and rob me! The voice in my head screamed.  I sat down between Lily and Ji, the seat where they say new friends always sit, and they explained that they were going to learn about how to brew tea.  The small Chinese girl moved to the other side of the table and started heating water.  She showed us a menu of sorts, which calmed my nerves a bit, as it did look professional.  I agreed to the tasting and the lesson, and soon we were sampling our first tea, a slightly-sweet oolong.  The oolong was followed by a series of teas, all brewed slightly differently, all with distinct flavors: some sweet, some bitter, one fruity, one flowery.  Six teas in all.  By this time, I was almost enjoying myself.  Still very suspicious of my companions and not too excited about the bill (>$60/person, and I was informed that Chinese people always split the total evenly, even though Lily had been the only one to purchase tea), I started thinking of how I was going to shake them off when we left.  Lily then surprised me by buying me a small container of tea, and both of them exchanged email addresses with me.  We walked outside and they escorted me to Nanjing Road before taking off for their evening plans.  I took a picture of them and watched as they disappeared into the crowd.  By this time, I was almost sure that this day had been a dream.  That was surprising event number two.

Now, nearly four hours after I had set out, I was at my destination and finally on my own.  I meandered down the crowded pedestrian road towards The Bund, where I staked out prime property on the waterfront and waited for dark, taking skyline pictures along the way.  After I had satisfied my artistic side, I started back up Nanjing Road with my feet beginning to show signs of soreness.  More pictures and a stop for Chinese snacks preceded my hailing of a taxi.  Well, not so much hailing as jumping into one right after a family vacated it.  I successfully told the driver where I needed to go (I handed him a piece of paper with the address written on it).  

Now, as I sit here, enjoying a birthday ice cream and reflecting on the day, I'm still not positive it wasn't a dream.  This was not how I imagined spending my 24th birthday.  Heck, it wasn't even how I planned on spending my day this morning.  And yet, it turned out better than I could have imagined.  I don't think I'll ever love Shanghai.  I don't think I'll even like Shanghai.  But I did enjoy how I spent my birthday this year.  And I didn't spend it alone.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to Leave the Country in 5 Days (or Less!)

I have a great job.  At graduation, I was one of the lucky ducks who had a job (in my respective field, nonetheless!), and in the past year, I've learned quite a bit and have gotten to do some of the things that I really enjoy.  My job consists of writing computer code, reading emails, and traveling.  The travel is sporadic and usually last minute (I went to Europe for 5 days on 24 hours notice once).  And then there are days like today.  My previous post is of the conversation[s] between myself and my boss earlier today.  The result of these conversations are two plane tickets and a very stressed employee.  Luckily, I have some experience with work travel and have figured out some useful tips for these last minute trips:

  • Set up online bill pay.  Even the Great Firewall of China will still let you pay most of your bills.  This way, you can pay them from anywhere.  An even better step is to set up automatic bill pay.  That way, you're never late and you don't have to worry about it (as long as you keep sufficient funds in your account).
  • Stop mail.  The US Postal Service has a handy website for arranging a hold on your mail delivery.  It's free, unlike some other sites, and you can arrange the start date for after you return.
  • Arrange a remote access account for your home computer.  This step may not be necessary (and in some cases may not even work) but in case you need emergency access to some of your files (or if you're just missing some of your favorite websites, like blogspot) you will be able to log in and retrieve them.  I use LogMeIn to link between my work laptop and my home laptop, and I'm hoping that during this trip to China I'll be able to log into my home computer using this account.
  • Hand sanitizer.  Toilets in China are rare.  Most of the public restrooms I saw in my previous visit consisted if holes in the floor and platforms to put my feet.  TP and soap were almost never seen.
  • Some hotels have a laundry service.  It might be a little expensive ($3-4 per item), but if you just need a few things washed (I thought it would be considerate to my seat mates to be wearing clean clothes on my 14-hr return flight) it's a good way to go (and you can expense it).
  • Go digital.  I may be gadget-happy, but I continue to sing the praises of the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad.  Sure, the iPad has a reader feature, but the lit LCD screen is hard on the eyes.  The Kindle's e-ink technology is realistically book-like, and the memory is large enough to house a small library.  Plus, there are thousands of free books available.  The iPad is great for videos and games and general websurfing.  
  • Make copies.  I was stopped and questioned at the Amsterdam airport.  The security's biggest concern was that I didn't have a hardcopy of my itinerary.  So, while I don't like to carry papers around, it is wise to have hardcopies of your travel itinerary.
I leave Tuesday for Shanghai and won't be returning until September 28th.  At least, that's what my ticket says.  My boss says that we may push out the return date.  Oh boy.

Going, Going, Gone

<email from my boss> Please look at flights leaving [for China] next week.  Lets buy today
My boss: "Have you researched some flights yet?"
Me: "Yes.  When do you want me to leave?"
My boss: "Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday."
Me: "Wait!  THIS Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday???"
My boss: "Yes!  This Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday."
Me: ". . . can I leave Tuesday?"

Me: "How long will I be there?"
My boss: "Well, let's plan on the 28th, but we might push it out."

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