Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to be happy

Brand guru/market research dude Martin Lindstrom wrote this article for Fast Company about his 300 days of world travel looking into what makes people happy. It isn't exactly breaking news - we've all heard stories of happy communities supported by strong family ties in regions of abject poverty, but this section juxtaposing rural Australia to urban China was especially resonant:

"Another journey took me way into the Australian bush to a place where a toilet capable of flushing would be a novelty. Kids were busy kicking around a football on the street, but almost all took time out to speak to me, curious about who I was and what I was doing there. A young man told me that he felt happy when he helped others. He tried to perform one act of kindness a day. This young man had only seen television twice in his life.

But it was when I got the chance to visit some of the 60 million newly built homes in China that all this really hit, well, home. Each new home was wired for the 21st century. Every room had television screens hooked up to high-speed Internet and each home came equipped with the latest in electronic gadgetry. In fact, the entire block was connected to a community intranet designed to help the neighbors stay in touch. I couldn't help noticing that there was an important element missing: smiles. I didn't see one of them.

I pursued my questions of happiness with a young Chinese family who had only been living in the city for two years.  There responses were measured. They said, "We're doing fine, but there is still so much to achieve before we will become truly happy."  It seems the family aspired to all the things they were seeing being won on the daily online video shows. "I've seen what you can get, and we still don't have many of the things. So, we need to work harder. Then, I'm sure, one day we will get there."

The city was orderly. There were no children playing outside. I'd been instructed to wear a mask, wrap my shoes in plastic, and sit on a cover on the chair.  Everything was to stay clean and uncontaminated. Almost all the homes I visited around Beijing and Shanghai shared the same idea that sanitary living meant living a longer life."

I don't have much to add to that, except that his research corresponds with my personal experience. Shanghai lacks smiles. The economy is gangbusters but it's buoyed by a lot of people who work incredibly hard and aren't having a good time because they literally have no time to have a good time. It's a strange place we live in: I have more vacation time than I would in the US, I can afford things (like a cleaning lady three times a week) I'd never consider in the US, and I'm surrounded by Chinese people my age who are under tremendous pressure to buy a house, buy a car, support their parents and generally get ahead.

I like the occasional reminder to be grateful for the choices I have and to enjoy life wherever I am.

Monday, February 27, 2012

down with the imperialist pizza slingers

The English-version of Shanghai Daily had a big article devoted to the audacity of British-owned Pizza Marzano who had the nerve to list one of its branches (in English and Chinese, big mistake) as located in the "French Concession."

In my magazine (and all other mainland official media) we're only allowed to refer to it as the former French Concession. In English conversation, people say "French Concession" all the time. And we all understand it to mean "the leafy- tree-lined area of town with all the best boutiques and cools bars" NOT "the area of town under French rule." However, Chinese people never say "French Concession" when they speak in Mandarin, they call it by its district name, Luwan or Xuhui.

Shanghaiist has translations of outraged Netizen reactions. I don't think they're indicative of the average Shanghai resident's feelings. Nationalistic fervor has a way of boiling over on the microblogosphere.

The analysis around the water cooler seems to be Pizza Marzano is being made an example. Shanghai Daily reminds that: "In 2001, a real estate company was fined 64,500 yuan (US$10,237) for stating in a leaflet that an estate 'retains the romantic atmosphere of the French Concession days.'" Yikes.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beware the Taiwanese shrink

Yesterday we found a mysterious piece of paper in our mailbox. It was a typed letter (no envelope, no address) and I could read just enough to deduce it was some sort of cautionary tale, and that it had to do with Taiwan, the heart, and men and women (I've been studying characters for two years now, that's all it's got me).

Usually the only mail we get is junk mail and the occasional holiday card. So I got rather excited ... perhaps it was some sort of subversive political message!

Luckily a Taiwanese friend also arrived yesterday - she's staying with me for a week - and I made her translate. Turns out it was a warning: There's a man who calls himself a psychologist (literally translating psychologist would be "inside heart scientist") from Taiwan in the area and he's been sleeping with loads of women and he has AIDS.

Sigh. I'm a bit disappointed. Nothing political ever happens here. And by here I don't mean in China, I mean within my tiny neighborhood sphere.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

He gives and He takes

For the first time in almost two years of Shanghai living, I walked into my favorite import grocer and saw a copy of Vanity Fair. A single ray of sun burst through the clouds and illuminated its glossy specter on the magazine rack. I bowed my head and it slid into my open palms, like receiving manna from heaven.

Then I asked the register boy how much it cost. 90 kuai. About US$14.30.

I put it back.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How bad is air pollution right now?

News about air quality in Shanghai often comes couched in phrases like "medium polluted" or with references from "fog" rolling in from interior provinces. That's right, in China fog rolls toward the ocean.

That's okay though because I have my own internal particulate-matter reader: I am a pretty sniffy person. I have allergies. Anywhere I move they belatedly follow, always adjusting to new things they decide offend them. When I was a kid, it was dandelions and the high pollen count of Alaskan summers. Now I'm in Shanghai and, since there are no plants, it's dust/pollution/crappy air. It's always worst in the mornings and I'm rather self-conscious because that's when I have one-on-one Chinese class and often enough my teacher has to watch me blow my nose six or seven times. These past few weeks have been blessedly snot-free. It's also been off-and-on rainy and damp for the duration. This morning I had to get up and retrieve tissues. "The weather must be dryer today?" I asked her (I hadn't been out yet). She laughed, yes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Debbie Spend It Now - Comedy Gold!

I'm almost a whole week late to this (scratch that, I'm even later because I didn't finish this blog because it's deadline week -AAAAAH), but it's too hilarious not to re-post. This is a political ad that aired in Michigan during the Super Bowl.

I would bet a lot of money that this girl is American, because she doesn't sound Chinese. And uh, China is a rice paddy? Are China and Vietnam the same place? I also like how she does the coy eye-batting thingy, like some kinda peasant dragon lady.

On the one hand, some Asian people (mostly Asian-American people, Chinese people in China don't care) had to be offended in the making and airing of this ad, and that's unfortunate. It does have that "scary other" quality. On the other hand, this is like high comedy art. And I'm glad it's out there for my amusement. I can't imagine it's really doing much for Pete Spend It Not since it got so much negative press.

In other news that book I was editing (read: rewriting) for forever ... I'm going to have to do some more editing. Wah. But the good news is I have more work because it got a favorable first reading at a big university press. Hurray. The people said it was well written. Yay.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Early Valentine's Day

half-dozen creamy, fresh Canadian oysters
lobster bisque
Cesar salad
lobster and shrimp pasta
rib eye
Hendrick's martini (me), Manhattan (James)

James and I did V-day on Saturday at Shanghai Slim's - an American-style steak and lobster joint. Valentine's is the one holiday no one should do on the actual day. Restaurants are booked up and are out to get the best profit margins out of the holiday meal, plus when it falls midweek, you have to rush home to get ready... So we went out yesterday. We've both been so busy that we didn't wind up ever doing a Christmas dinner, so we really splashed out last night. Phew. There are few things in life that match the joy of a really good meal.

Then we came home and watched Paranormal Activity 3. Who knew slamming doors could be so creepy!