Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to: Use Didi Dache

Kristin December 2013: I hate taxi apps. They are ruining my life.

Kristin September 2014: I looooove taxi apps. They are the best thing ever.

Yes, that's right. I'm totally switched sides and am now addicted to using Didi Dache to get around Shanghai. I'd be hanging my head in shame if it weren't for the fact that I'm sniping taxi cabs off the street on a regular basis now.

The main reason I resisted the taxi apps for so long was because my ability to read Chinese characters is pitiful. However, Didi Dache is fairly straight forward and easy to use. You must be able to speak basic Chinese to use the app. Fair warning.

You can use Didi Dache to book taxis in advance or as needed. This tutorial will simply cover booking a taxi for immediate use.

Step 1: Download the app from the app store (available for both Android and iPhones)

You'll need to search for it using the Chinese name so either change your phone's language to Chinese or simply copy and paste the Chinese name (滴滴打车) into your search box.

Step 2: Register your phone

After you download the app, you'll need to sign up for an account. This simply means inputting your phone number the first time you open the app. If it doesn't automatically ask when you open the app, click on the person icon in top left corner.


After you enter your phone number, press the button immediately to the right of your number. Within seconds, you'll receive a text with a confirmation number in it. Enter the confirmation number as shown below and then press the button marked 开始 (Begin).


Step 3: Call a taxi

Yes, you are all ready to call your first taxi! The home screen will display a map showing your location (the blue dot) and the location of taxis in the area around you using the same app (the little taxi icons). Your address is technically listed in the middle, after the characters 我在, meaning "I'm at...". However, you can ignore this and state in your message where you are located. Make sure you know your current location as well as where you want to go. And yes, you must say it all in Chinese.


Press and hold the orange button with the microphone icon on it, located at the bottom on your screen.


The screen above will pop up, recording your voice. This is where you need to state your location (example: Wǒ zài Huaihai Zhong Lu Sinan Lu) and where you want to go (example: Wǒ yào qù Yueyang Lu Dongping Lu Lùkǒu).

When you are finished, release the microphone button. You will be brought to the following screen. If you press on the blue dot, you can listen to the message you recorded. If happy with it, press the orange button on the bottom on your screen. If you want to record again, press the < button in the top left corner. At this stage, you can also decide to leave a tip if you would like by pressing the ¥ icon. I usually do not.


Step 4: Wait

You screen will display how long you have been waiting in addition to the number of taxis that have received your message. If your wait time is long, you have the option of adding a tip again.


Step 5: Confirmation!

Fairly quickly, you should get a response from a driver. The following screen will pop up, showing you the license plate of the cab, the driver's rating, and a phone icon if you would like to call your driver. 


Step 6: Jump in your cab

Make sure you are in the location you specified to the driver. You can view the location of your driver on the screen and should look for the license plate number on the car. Your cab driver may call you so keep your phone out. Generally they just want to confirm your location. 

Step 7: Enjoy your ride

Technically, you can pay for your fare using Didi Dache but that gets more technical than most people want. When you ride ends, simply pay as usual. If you feel like it, leave your driver a review.


While it might seem complicated at first, using Didi Dache is quite simple. Try out my steps above and let me know if you have an easier time catching taxis in Shanghai.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Grasslands Extreme Marathon

The first weekend in July, fresh off a trip to the US, we boarded a plane with some friends for the Grasslands Extreme Marathon in Xiwuqi, Inner Mongolia.


Getting there was a bit of an adventure, so I'll save that for another post. But the half marathon itself? Well, that was also rough.

I should start by saying that Inner Mongolia is simply stunning. We left Shanghai among some intense pollution and grey skies. Inner Mongolia had none of that. Blue skies, fresh air, and rolling hills. Yes, I said hills.


Simply put, this was not my race. Having trained on the flat roads of Shanghai, I was challenged by the constant change in elevation. Additionally, it was hot. I don't do hot well. Previous years had seen more moderate temperatures, but the day of our run was quite steamy. This course isn't one for personal records, and I certainly did not set one that day.


But the scenery was beautiful. At numerous points along the route, we were greeted by sheep, cows, and horses, all seemingly immune to the race taking place around them. 


For someone who usually runs in the city, seeing endless green in front of me was a nice change. However, it also meant limited water stops and non existent bathroom facilities. For most of the race, the only spectators were the previously mentioned cattle.


Despite a less than ideal personal time, I enjoyed the Grassland Marathon. Would I do it again? Probably not, but it was a nice way to see an area of China that I otherwise might have missed.


Interested in taking part in the grasslands marathon? Registration is already open for the 2015 race.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Shanghai Supper Club

Last Saturday, Matthew and I were thrilled to be a part of August's Shanghai Supper Club.

Tonight's special #shsupperclub #shanghaieats #fields

What exactly is SSC? You can think of it as an underground foodie group that meets monthly around the city, each time boasting a new location, chef, and group of people. Founder Camden Hague started the club last fall and previous events have brought together graffiti and Mexican food as well as burgers and a skate park. For each dinner, Camden invites ten different people, each of whom brings one guest. The result is an eclectic mix from Shanghai's expat scene. Our dinner included well known faces from the F&B scene, teachers, and an adorable engineer (that would be my husband).

Shanghai Supper Club #shsupperclub #midsummernightsgreen

This month's event was held in a beautiful lane house, owned by Shanghai native and chef Anthony Zhao. The intimate setting had us laughing with other guests like old friends in no time and left me with some serious kitchen envy.

photo courtesy of Fields

Fields, an online grocery store, sponsored the evening. Looking to highlight their fresh produce, Fields partnered with chef Kimberly Ashton of Sprout Lifestyle to create a healthy vegan meal that left even the meat eaters at our table satisfied. Though I did miss the alcohol (Kimberly opted not to have any served in order to keep in line with her principles for healthy living).

Ending on a high note #shanghaieats #shsupperclub #midsummernightsgreen #parfait

While the food was good (not surprisingly, my favorite dish was dessert), the company was even better. We heard fascinating tales, met unique individuals, and even received a hot tip on where to buy the best coffee smoothie.

Want to join an upcoming Shanghai Supper Club? Fill out your information here and cross your fingers that Camden invites you to her next even in September.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hua Mulan Temple

During my trip to Henan in April, our hosts were kind enough to arrange various activities at night for the volunteers. We ate massive meals, sang karaoke, and were even treated to a visit of the Mulan Temple. While interesting for most members of our group, I was ecstatic. You see, Mulan and I have some history.

Disney came out with the movie Mulan around the same time that I started taking Tae Kwon Do classes. I was well past the princess stage in my life and quickly latched onto this dynamic character who just happened to practice martial arts like yours truly. I even threw myself a Mulan themed birthday party that year (Yes, I was entirely too old to be this obsessed with a Disney movie. I pretended it was ironic at the time, but yeah, I was totally into it.). I remember reading that the movie was based on a Chinese story but knew little else at the time. Year passed and my obsession with Mulan faded, though I might still have my Mulan and Shang Barbie dolls. Shut up.

Shortly after moving to China, I made Matthew watch Mulan. It was amusing to see our new country through the eyes of Disney and yes, I still found the music catchy. Though the movie also made us cringe at some of the poorly pronounced Chinese names.

So when our hosts in Henan announced we were visiting the Hua Mulan Temple, this girl pretty much lost it. I was beyond excited.


For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Mulan, here is a refresher for you, based on the famous poem Ballard of Mulan.


During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), a man by the name of Wei brought home a lily magnolia tree from the nearby mountains and planted it in front of his house. Ten years later, when the tree finally began to blossom, his wife gave birth to a girl. The baby was named Lily Magnolia (or Mulan in Chinese).


Mulan’s father was a soldier and raised Mulan like a boy. She not only learned weaving and embroidery from her mother, but also practiced martial arts, archery, and fencing with her father.

The emperor sent out a decree to form an army and draft recruits from all over the land to put down the hostilities along the northern borders. According to the decree, all male adults were to register, and that included Mulan’s elderly, ailing father. As Mulan thought of her father going to war, she knew he would likely die. But if he refused to go, he would be branded as being unpatriotic. Mulan’s brother was still too young to enlist, so Mulan made up her mind to disguise herself as a man, and take her father’s place in the army.


For 12 years Mulan served in the army and received numerous honors. After the war ended, the emperor wanted to award her an official position, but she declined and asked for a good horse instead as she wished to return home to her family. Her wish was granted, and the emperor also sent an envoy to escort her home. Her parents were overjoyed to learn of their daughter’s return,  but when they saw a general riding toward them, they didn’t recognize their own, long awaited daughter.


After Mulan changed into her female attire, it was her comrades' turn to be stunned, for the warrior who had fought side by side with them for 12 years, turned out to be a woman.


While the famous poem ended on a high note, other versions of the story have a less fairytale ending for Mulan.  In those stories, when Mulan refused the high post offered by the emperor, he had her detained at the court. To express her strong protest, she hung herself. In author Chu Renho's novel, Sui Tang Yanyi, the emperor summons her to be his concubine. Again, she hangs herself in protest. Disney clearly went with the poem's ending.


So was the temple all I hoped it would be? Not really. Apparently the original temple was quite grand with over 200 buildings covering an area of 10,000 square meters. But that temple was destroyed in the 1940's and now only a small memorial sits in its place. While it did not quite live up to my expectations, I did enjoy visiting the hometown of one of my childhood heroes. And I got to take this picture.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stepping Stones Rural Volunteering Tour

I watched as one boy in my class debated over what to do. I had asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up. All around him, the other students were busy copying pictures out of their textbooks. Police, teacher, farmer. His brow furrowed, his tongue slowly crept out from between his lips. Then his hand began to move as he stared down at his paper intently.

After a few moments, I glanced over at his work. At the top of the paper, he had written pilot, simply copying the words from his book. But underneath, he had written the following, "I want to be a pilot when I grow up. I want to fly to the stars". An elaborate spaceship was drawn underneath, complete with a self portrait of the artist himself inside.

By the end of class, the paper lay discarded on the floor. I picked it up and asked the student if he wanted to take the picture home to show his family. He shook his head no and stated that he didn't need it. As the students left the room, I wondered about this student and what his future would hold. Would he become a pilot? Would he even have the chance? Or would his dreams simply fall away, discarded, much like his picture?


In April, I traveled to Shangqui, in rural Henan Province with Stepping Stones as part of their bi-annual, week long volunteer teaching tour to underprivileged schools. What followed was one of the best experiences I have had thus far in China.


Stepping Stones works with volunteers to teach English in Shanghai’s migrant schools and community centers, reaching over 4,000 students in 20 different migrant schools. They also regularly take groups of volunteers to teach English to children in rural schools outside of Shanghai. This is what I had chosen to be a part of.


We traveled by train to Henan, a province located in central China. Henan is the third most populous province in China, sending out millions of migrant workers every year to urban areas like Shanghai. This means many of these children are growing up with their grandparents, only seeing their parents once or twice a year if they are lucky.


In many rural schools, the standard of English teaching is particularly low, especially oral English. In China, English is one of the three core elements of the Chinese school curriculum, along with Chinese and Math. A student’s grade in English is one of the key criteria for entry to higher education, making a basic command of English critical to a child’s life chances.


The majority of migrant children do not make it to senior high school, and only a small handful are able to attend university. It is the goal of Stepping Stones to help these children from rural areas to attend senior high school and university, and thereby improve the future prospects of rural families.


A friend of mine had volunteered for a trip the previous year and recommended the experience to me. While I work in education, I had no direct teaching experience. However, the Stepping Stones coordinators ensured me that all I needed was a positive and enthusiastic attitude. And a command of the English language.


The students were amazing. Kind, attentive, and eager to learn. One the first morning, a group of my sixth grade students skipped their break and asked me to practice vocabulary with them instead. 



At the end of the day, I was presented with flowers picked by the students and hugs farewell. Do I think my few hours with these students greatly improved their English? No. But I know that I gave them a positive first introduction with a foreigner, provided them with fun lessons in English, and reminded them people care about them and their future.


Want to join the next volunteer teaching tour to Henan this November? Contact Gloria at projects@steppingstoneschina.net or check it out at http://steppingstoneschina.net/rural-volunteering-tours.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

America Observations

In June, I spent two weeks in the USA for my semi annual detox from China. And while it was wonderful to see family, friends, and eat foods I had been missing (Auntie Anne's Pretzels, I'm talking to you), I was shocked by some of the things I encountered. Perhaps it was reverse culture shock or just my poor memory but I found myself noticing odd things wherever I went. What surprised me the most? Here are five things about America that blew my mind.

1. There are a lot of dead animals

Seriously, what is going on with all the roadkill? I've seen exactly one animal that was hit by a car in the 2.5 years I've been in China. But America, holy hell. I saw three dead deer on the five minute drive to my dentist. And don't even get me started on the amount of roadkill I passed on the 3 hours drive from NY to PA.

(not a dead animal, I saved him from the middle of the road)

2. Being carded is a real thing

I ordered a beer in a restaurant and was shocked, SHOCKED, when the waitress asked to see my license. Officially, the drinking age in China is 18, but I think that's more of a suggestion than a law. I've never seen anyone carded here or anywhere else in Asia. So being asked to provide my license at the age of 30 gave me a pretty good chuckle.


3. English is everywhere

I know, I sound like an idiot for this one, but hear me out. On an average day in Shanghai, I see thousands of signs and hear hundreds of conversations that I simply cannot understand. I've learned to tune out most of it or treat it as background noise. But in America? I can understand everything! I found myself listening to all the conversations around me, simply because I could (Which also led me to interrupt a few random people's conversations. I'm pretty sure that makes me creepy). But at times the massive amount of information coming my way was just too much to process. Plus I really didn't want to hear all about the bowels of two men behind me in line. Sometimes it's nice not to know what people are talking about.

4. Tipping

I have no idea how to do this anymore. How much am I supposed to give? And to who? I gave exact change to a waiter one day and he just stood next to the table waiting for me. After a swift kick from my husband, I shoved some money at him while mumbling something about being out of practice. After that, I tipped everyone. I think the Target cashier was confused when I told her to keep the change.

5. Grocery stores are overwhelming

I walked into Wegmans (do you all know about Wegmans? You haven't lived until you've grocery shopped at Wegmans) and fully freaked out over food choices. I even hugged the cheese display before Matthew reminded me that people were watching. There are 23 million people in Shanghai and we have no where near this amount of variety in our grocery stores. I counted over 100 different brands of cereal at Wegmans before I got tired of counting. How is that even possible? And why? I can find 5 maybe 6 different brands in Shanghai if I'm lucky.

American grocery store cheese sections are overwhelming #expatlife

Those are the things that surprised me the most while visiting the States this year. Anyone else find themselves experiencing reversed culture shock when they returned to their home country? Or perhaps try to hug a cheese display? No, only me? Fine then.

Monday, July 21, 2014

FAQ: Part 2

Today I present to you the second half of the questions I am most frequently asked. Click here for part one.

Should I bother bringing appliances like my espresso machine, Kitchen Aid Mixer, and food processor?
The short answer: No.

For any of the large kitchen appliances, the transformer would be just as large or larger than the appliance itself. You’d be smarter to buy the items here (check Shanghai Craigslist for secondhand options) or you’ll find yourself adapting to life without it (though I still dream about my Kitchen Aid).

What about curling irons, straighteners, blow dryers?
Again, no. General rule of thumb is that if it heats up or has a motor, you are better off leaving it behind.

Can I drink the tap water?
China’s water sources are amongst the most polluted in the world. A World Bank study found that 13 of the 15 major cities (including Shanghai) in China are affected by severely polluted water.

The most common pollutants in Shanghai drinking water are high levels of chlorine, bacteria, lead and toxic heavy metals. According to PureLiving, Shanghai’s water authorities have publicly acknowledged that tap water potability is compromised largely by secondary contamination from old piping. So no, you should not be drinking the tap water in Shanghai.

Can I drink the water if I boil it?
Nope. When heavy metals are the main concern in your water, boiling it will only concentrate the metals. Boiling water works to kill bacteria, but does nothing for removing heavy metals.

So is the water safe in bathe in? Can I rinse my toothbrush?
Other than the water being a hit hard on your hair and skin, it is absolutely fine to bathe with. And yes, I do rinse my toothbrush with tap water in Shanghai. When traveling to other areas of China however, I err on the side of caution and rise with bottled water.

Where can I find books in English to read?
You can buy Kindle books to download here (though you may need to be on a VPN, I’ve never tried without). Also, does your current library allow you to take out ebooks online? I’ve saved a ton of money by simply “checking out” ebooks via my small, hometown library.

There are also some book stores that stock English titles such as Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore (390 Fuzhou Lu) or Garden Books (325 Changle Lu). Additionally, there are a number of spots where you can pick up second hand books. I recommend Apleines Mains, a charity which operates a used book sale on Jiangsu Lu or the small Shanghai Book Traders Used Books shop at 36 Shanxi Nan Lu.

How do I watch my favorite American TV show?
You can watch almost any TV show you want here. You can buy cable/satellite packages but to be honest, your best bet is to visit your neighborhood DVD store. As soon as movies are released in theaters, they will have a copy in the store (no, it’s not exactly legal but it’s what everyone does). For many series, you can watch them online via Youku (it’s like Hulu for China). I wrote an entire post on watching TV that you can read here.

Is there a question that I missed? Anything else you are wondering about? Feel free to shoot me an email or leave a question in the comments. Perhaps I'll even cover your question in a part 3 in the future!
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