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I never got around to publishing this last week. I’m working on something about my time in St. Petersburg now, but my feelings are so different from what I wrote last week that I feel this needs to be published before I write anything else.  […]

Shanghai-Tested: My first ‘Chinese’ haircut

Shanghai-Tested: My first ‘Chinese’ haircut

The hairstylist put down the bleach and took out a jar of brown dye. That’s when I realized something had gone awry.  As part of my recent deep-dive into embracing China local life, I took the plunge and did something I had never done before – I let someone who […]

coming face-to-face with my mortality aka ‘just a typical morning commute in Shanghai’

coming face-to-face with my mortality aka ‘just a typical morning commute in Shanghai’

 

My scooter slips. I skid into a crack on the pavement and veer sharply to the left. The man on a motorbike to my left narrowly avoids me and squeezes past, unfazed. The car behind us screeches to a halt, the driver’s palm glued to his horn. He doesn’t stop honking as I readjust the pedals on my scooter. He continues honking as I get back into street formation. He doesn’t stop honking, through we’re at a red light and traffic has halted to a standstill.


My morning commute is twenty-five minutes on an electric razor scooter, disobeying traffic laws, dodging bicycles, pedestrians, and families of five perched precariously on a single moped. Shanghai is a city of almost 24 million people, yet China is a country where a red traffic light is merely a suggestion.


I’m on a Mobike, too low for my height and it feels like I am driving the bicycle equivalent of a clown car. The left brake tugs against me and gives out and I am flying forward, turning left down the wrong way of a street because there are no cars. It’s only ten minutes to get to work up Xiangyang road, until I cross the elevated roads and bike into a narrow alleyway. I walk my bike through the steam of 10am noodles and the workers who eat them, the middle-aged woman huffs at me, but I give her a sheepish grin. She understands that there is méiyoŭ bànfǎ.


On Fridays and Saturdays, the elevated highways light up a blinding blue-neon.

 

 

Spanish paella, LobsterFest 2017, and other reasons to celebrate Spring

Spanish paella, LobsterFest 2017, and other reasons to celebrate Spring

I had planned to write about how the miserable of the past week, but instead I’m writing about the beautiful. I’m writing about the beautiful, because life in Shanghai has reached peak levels of the exhausting and the absurd, and when things get tough, there’s really no […]

The most beautiful things about Florence

The most beautiful things about Florence

I feel like the word breathtaking is overrated. We use it so much that when something truly takes our breath away – and I mean with that sharp intake of breath and an utter loss for words, I completely lack the vocabulary to put my feelings into words. […]

The courage to eat with a spoon

The courage to eat with a spoon

Learning to use chopsticks in China is easy. Learning when not to use them is hard.

 

Dinner in Shanghai – my home for the past two years – is rarely eaten alone. A dinner is the sort of grand occasion where one squeezes a group of seven or eight (let’s say eight, because eight’s a lucky number in China) in tight plastic chairs across a large, round table. You sit down, unwrap the vacuum sealed pack containing a small plate, a bowl, a tea cup, and a wide-slotted spoon, then someone  – traditionally the youngest, with foreigners, usually the one closest to the tea kettle – pours out tiny cups of muddy, lukewarm green tea. Then, the food arrives, always on shared plates – deep bowls of catfish stew with Sichuan peppercorns, fish-fragrant eggplant in a sticky-sweet sauce, soft tofu with pieces of ground, browned pork.

 

At these dinners, using chopsticks is a point of pride, another piece of the cultural barrier chipped away. When your Chinese friends compliment the way you picked up that cucumber slathered in chili oil and vinegar, it’s the same kind of sense of accomplishment you feel when a cab driver finally understands what your directions, or when the bank teller knows that you are at the bank to replace your card, because a rabid ATM swallowed the last one.

 

In a place so different from the sleepy Massachusetts town I grew up in, I’ve often felt the need to plunge into Shanghai life headfirst, to have the authentic experience of living abroad in China. Some mornings that means forgoing my double espresso breakfast routine for warmed soy milk. Other times it’s resorting to drinking room-temperature water in sweltering July heat waves, because only tourists ask for their water iced. There’s always a guilt that comes with getting a salad and sandwich combo for lunch, or paying close to eight dollars for a jar of organic peanut butter.

 

But this desire to fit in is, at times, frankly idiotic. It’s one the cultural myths we build about living in a foreign place – and how it has feel different, even when life abroad is not really as alienating as it may seem. People in China don’t just eat Chinese food. They don’t sip tea in dim teahouses; they line up behind you at the Starbucks to pick up a morning latte. Most importantly, when you – a foreigner trying your best to fit in –  maneuver slippery tofu onto your plate with chopsticks, people around you forego authenticity and pick up a spoon.

 

After a few months of looking like an idiot at the dinner table, there comes a moment when you too get the courage use that spoon. It’s only when you get the confidence to understand what needs to be authentic and what doesn’t, that living (and eating) in China finally starts making sense. This desire to to live authentically is just a need to prove to ourselves that we can embrace life abroad, with all its difficulty, its thrills, and its challenges, but that doesn’t always mean that we forego common sense. People in Shanghai use spoons for eating fried rice or picking up soft tofu. They too watch superhero movies on weekends and eat eggs at brunch.

 

Living abroad, at the end of the day, is simple. When life – or the waiter at the dinner table – hands you both chopsticks and a spoon, you can, and you should, forget decorum and just use both.
Leaving WordPress

Leaving WordPress

I’ve done it. I’m self-hosting my blog! This feels like a big step, because Skipping Customs (first called Pasta Republic) is something I started over three years ago and over the three years it’s become a place where I’ve been able to openly (or sometimes not openly) document […]

Getting stung by jellyfish in Malaysia

Getting stung by jellyfish in Malaysia

twelve mai tais Happy Hour is from 11am to 5pm and it just seems irresponsible not to order four at once. Mai Tais in hand, we walk up and down wet sand part of the white beach. We each take turns recreating the Baywatch slow-motion […]

If I put soy milk into my latte, am I Chinese enough for China?

If I put soy milk into my latte, am I Chinese enough for China?

 

I’ve been on a huge China kick the last couple of weeks – I’ve finally started getting groceries online from YiHaoDian (an online Wal-Mart/Amazon hybrid where I can buy puppy food, sparkling water, and a Kindle all in one go), ordering lunch through ele.me and meituan then giving virtual Red Packets of ele.me cash on WeChat (oh man, it does feel like I’m speaking a foreign language). I’ve been biking every day to work on a Mobike (well, that’s because of the scooter ban that just hit Shanghai, though I’m sure that’s temporary). I’m back in Chinese classes. I may even take the HSK 4 in June!

And so, I feel like I am steamrolling through being in China, but at the same time, asking myself why it took so long to get to this point. I feel like expats like me sometimes make life here so hard, by refusing to really acclimate to China. I still insist on bringing things like Ibuprofen or Cetaphil face wash from the States, but if I had bothered to look up the generic names, I’m sure I could find it all in China (after all, everything’s made in China, isn’t it?)

To be fair, I still don’t know how to use TaoBao or AliPay, but once I get those two accounts connected that’s where all of my money will go (instead of where it goes now – buying artisanal sparkling water on YHD).

So what am I doing in all of this? I don’t have a good answer, but this is making me feel better about being an expat here in Shanghai and for now that is enough.


Ahh! I’m throwing in an announcement here.. this is officially my 185th post and I’ve been on wordpress.com for over two years. Over the next month, i’ll be transitioning this website to wordpress.org – a self-hosted wordpress site. After all, I’m a web developer by day, and I feel like my street cred (is there such a thing as developer street cred? how do I get more) is way in the dumps because I’ve been to lazy to transfer this to my server.

I don’t think any of the subscription features will change and I’ll work really hard to make sure that this is as seamless of an experience for everyone who reads this as possible, though there may be a few hiccups along the way! Hope you guys will continue following me and supporting me through this new beginning!