Friday, December 21, 2012

I'll Be Home For Christmas

Having celebrated a majority of the holidays over the past year in China, Matthew and I are beyond thrilled to be back in the States for Christmas. This blog will be quieter than usual for a few days while we eat our weights in cookies and cheese, laugh with our friends, and catch up with our families. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and we will be back to posting soon.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fashionable Favorites

Shanghai is an incredibly fashionable city. Coming from a small town where the nearest mall was thirty minutes away, I'm not the most in vogue. So in an effort to seem a little more hip (which I clearly am not), I've decided to showcase two trends which I have seen repeatedly since our arrival in Shanghai.

First up, glasses. I have a lovely set of eyes with 20/20 vision so I've never had the need for glasses. But everyone looks smarter with a pair of spectacles. You'd trust anything this girl told you, right? She's clearly pondering how to stop North Korea from launching another rocket. Or perhaps curing cancer. Regardless, she's clearly so much smarter with those frames on her face.

But here's the thing about the glasses trend. If you don't really need glasses, the lenses can be distracting and cumbersome. So for fashion's sake, the Chinese simply wear the frames. See, no lenses (and I take back everything I said about this girl looking smarter with glasses on).

The second trend to note is wearing animal adorned clothing. I know what you are thinking, "But Kristin, animal print is worn everywhere!" and this is true. But in China, they don't just wear animal print, they wear clothing that looks like animals. As in, has ears and tails.

Exhibit A

And no, that isn't a 15 year old girl rocking that tail. In Shanghai, it's perfectly acceptable for any self respecting adult to wear animal inspired clothing. See, even my cat shirt looks smarter with glasses.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Happy Holidays Giveaway

Update: This giveaway has now ended. Thank you for your entries.

I love the holiday season. Snowmen, icicles, glitter on EVERYTHING, and most importantly, presents. I obviously love to receive them, but I'm going to get all cheesy and admit that my favorite part about presents is actually giving them. I love watching someone open the gift I painstakingly picked out months ago and wrapped tightly with a bow (or if you are my sister, wrapped in prefect precision with enough tape to wrap the equator twice). So that is why I have decided that I want to give a gift to YOU. That's right YOU. To celebrate this holiday season, I am giving away a present to one lucky reader.

And in keeping with the theme of this blog, I'm going to gift this lucky someone with something I purchased at a local market, a pair of genuine fresh water pearl earrings.

How do you score this gift? Simply answer the following question in the form below: What is your favorite thing about the holiday season? For an extra entry, like our fan page on Facebook.

This giveaway is currently open to residents of the continental U.S. only. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, December 7, 2012

Beijing: Cloisonné Factory

Growing up, I remember seeing cloisonné in my grandmother's antique shop and admiring the bold colors and intricate details on each of the pieces. At the time, I had no idea how cloisonné was made or that I would one day be living in a country which still produces these masterpieces. So when our guide suggested we stop at the Cloisonné factory on our way back to Beijing from the Great Wall, we enthusiastically said yes. 

To make cloisonné, you start with a metal base (in this case, a copper pot).

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

A craftsman then bends small pieces of copper wire to create a design on the surface of the metal base. By doing this, they also create small enclosures, known as cloisons (French for partitions). The enclosures are then pasted or soldered onto the metal body.

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

A glass paste or enamel of varying color is then added with an eye dropper into each of the small enclosures.

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

The item is then fired in a kiln at a relatively low temperature (around 800°C or 1470°F). The enamel often shrinks after firing, so the process is repeated several times to fill in the designs. Once this process is complete, the surface of the pot is polished until the edges of the cloisons are visible. The remaining metal is then gilded, often in gold.

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

Beijing: Cloisonne Factory

We enjoyed our tour of the factory greatly but be warned, many tour companies make a commission off anything you buy and can therefore be quite pushy in the gift shop. We specifically booked our tour through a company that does not participate in this practice.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Beijing: The Great Wall of China

Our third day in Beijing brought us to perhaps the most iconic tourist attraction in China, the Great Wall of China. To avoid the crowds, we ventured an hour outside of Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the Wall. Here, we boarded cable cars and road to the top of the mountain. I could barely contain my enthusiasm as the Wall began to peak out from above the tree tops.

Contrary to popular belief (and what your guide will most likely tell you), you cannot see the wall from outer space. Still, the Great Wall is nothing short of impressive. My dad simply stared in awe at our surroundings for much of the time there, remarking that he never imagined he would see the Great Wall in person.Visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World was rather surreal for all of us.

After climbing endless steps and taking hundreds of photos, we prepared to leave the Great Wall. And like most things in China, even getting off the Great Wall was an opportunity for some toursity fun. So we hopped on single person bobsleds and tobogganed down the side of the mountain. Totally fun, totally unsafe, and totally worth the overpriced ticket.

To get to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, I would highly recommend hiring a guide and driver. While there are many companies which offered guided trips, I greatly enjoyed our experience with Hi-tour Travel. 

Barry Xu 
Director of Marketing 
Hi-tour International Travel Service 
Cell Phone: 13901107220
Telephone: 86-10-63961002

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thanksgiving Weekend

Two weeks ago, we celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Shanghai. As I posted about previously, we are extremely fortunate to have a vast network of friends here who helped us celebrate. Over the course of one weekend, we managed to celebrate the holiday twice, attended a Swedish Christmas party, and even made our way to an Elton John concert.

Our first Thanksgiving was a small gathering, which included an Australian couple who were experiencing turkey for the first time. Or rather, experiencing good turkey for the first time. They had eaten a horribly dry, overcooked bird once before and stated that they weren't sure why anyone would choose to consume turkey ever again. After one meal of well cooked, moist turkey, I think they understood our obsession.

A little Elton John in the middle of our holiday

Our second gathering was a larger affair comprised of mostly Americans with a few Brits thrown in for good measure. The food at this dinner was divine. From my experience with holiday dinners, most families have one or two dishes which they excel at making while the rest are generally just average. But when you are coming to a potluck of expats craving holiday fare, you will no doubt put your best foot, or in the case food, forward. This meant we had juicy turkey which had been slow roasted in butter, gooey macaroni and cheese, and divinely crusty fresh rolls. Heaven I tell you. Heaven.

While we may have missed out on Black Friday shopping  and the Macy's Day parade, we certainly did not miss out on the things that really matter, good food and even better company.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Beijing: Forbidden City

After a wet start to our trip, we were rewarded with clear skies on our second day in Beijing. Too bad the wind decided to pick up instead. Despite the chilly temperatures, we spent over eight hours wandering around Beijing. A whopping six of those hours were spent entirely in the Forbidden City. Most tourists only spend a short time here but we simply could not tear ourselves away from the stunning architecture and beautiful scenery. Or the sordid tales of jealousy and betrayal among the Emperor's concubines. One such woman was even drowned in a well by the Emperor's wife. Those Real Housewives women have nothing on Imperial China.

This was actually my second trip to the Palace Museum, yet with two visits and over eleven hours of touring, I still have not managed to see the entire Forbidden City. Perhaps a third visit is in order?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Kids On The Block

A few weeks ago, I started a photography course. I'm not delusional enough to think I will be the next Ansel Adams but I do at least hope to better capture our time here. During a recent class, we headed to Xujiahui Park to take a few shots of children running around. In the US, I'm pretty sure hanging out at a playground, snapping photos of children would get me arrested. Here, the parents were happy to pose their children for the nice American lady.

And I only managed to make one of those little beauties cry. I'd consider that a successful outing. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Shanghai Family

Last month, I was at an event with our close friends. A photographer walked up and said he would like a picture of their family. I slowly backed away from the group hug when my friend Jen grabbed my arm and said "You should be in this photo too. You're Shanghai family".

I cannot begin to express how true this statement is. Friends in Shanghai are more than just acquaintances you meet at the bar for drinks. They are your lifeline. Simply put, without a support system of close friends, we would not survive here. I realize that statement sounds a tad melodramatic and while I do have a flair for embellishment, I truly believe this to be the case. Because to be honest, living in Shanghai sometimes sucks. While I try to be optimistic on this blog (which generally isn't hard since I am an overly enthusiastic person), I also do not want to present our time here as entirely filled with rainbows and kittens (even if one rather fabulous cat does play a large role in our lives). Some days here are downright challenging.

Take last week for instance. On the subway, I was shoved, stepped on, and then had a booger flicked on me by an 80 year old woman. If I'm being perfectly honest, I'm not sure that my calf was the intended destination of her snot, but alas, that is where it landed. And while I am aware that my Mandarin skills leave something to be desired, it can be rather discouraging when I attempt to order something in Chinese and am blatantly laughed at. But perhaps the most infuriating situation is when I overhear pieces of a conversation someone is having about me. I know the Chinese words for American as well as fat and am very aware when they are being used in reference to me.

Experiences like these are why our friends are so important here. Because when you have a Shanghai day, as I've come to call them, my friends are here with a bottle of wine and a story about the time a taxi driver assumed they were prostitutes to make me laugh and forget about the numerous frustrating situations I find myself in on a daily basis. As much as I can try to explain my life in Shanghai on this blog or through phone calls and emails back home, unless you are a fellow expat, it is hard for others to really understand what my experience is like here. But other expats get it. Almost all my female friends have been called fat at some point. They've struggled with learning Mandarin. They too have fantasies about cheese. And these same friends come with an amazing insider knowledge of Shanghai. I'm not sure how I could survive without knowing the location of a shop that sells hard to find avocados or how to successfully avoid peeing on my leg while using public squat toilets. 

Sure, friends provide this same sort of support and advice no matter where you live. But when you move to a country that is vastly different than everything you have ever known, it can be comforting to surround yourself with people who understand the culture shock you are experiencing. While my friends here will never replace the family I have in the US (who are sadly departing Shanghai today), I am thankful to know I will have a place this week where I can celebrate Thanksgiving with people that I love, eating foods that remind us of home.

I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving, filled with love, laughter, and the people you care most about.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Beijing: Temple of Heaven

My parents arrived in Shanghai on Thursday afternoon and by Saturday morning, we were boarding a train to Beijing. To be honest, I am not a big fan of flying, which is why I simply adore using public transportation in China. We sped through the countryside at over 300 km/hour and arrived 1300 km away in just under five hours (think Boston, MA to Charlotte, NC for our American readers). Unfortunately, the weather was less than cooperative for our visit. We were welcomed to Beijing by rain and temperatures hovering just above freezing. North of the city, it even started to snow.

My family was determined not to let the weather ruin our trip and after layering on a few extra pieces of clothing, we headed to the Temple of Heaven. We were clearly not impressed with the less than ideal conditions.

The Temple of Heaven was an imperial sacrificial altar during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The emperors would visit this location in order to pray to the heavens for a bountiful harvest. Today, the temple is surrounded by a large park where locals come to practice tai chi and a community band leads impromptu singalongs with tourists.

After a few hours of wandering the grounds in the rain, we ducked into a Szechuan restaurant where we warmed up over hot tea and spicy food. My mother even had the pleasure of selecting a live fish for our meal. Though I doubt pleasure would be the term she would use.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Street Eats: Jian Bing

My parents are currently visiting us in Shanghai and we have been having a blast showing them our beloved city. After a family run through the park, we hit up the street vendors for a quick breakfast. So what tasty treat did I share with my parents? Jian Bing or a Chinese pancake.

To make this Chinese breakfast staple, the cook ladles batter onto the hot griddle and allows it to form into a thin pancake. Then an egg is scrambled on top. A hint of garlic, some chili sauce, a generous scoop of bean sauce, and cilantro are added to the inside of the bing. Finally, a piece of fried dough is placed in the center for a little added crunch. The cook then rolls up the bing and cuts it in half as drool drips off your chin.

Jian bing was such a hit with my father that we visited the same vendor again the next day. I wonder how many more of them we will consume before their trip comes to an end?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Water Calligraphy

Water calligraphy is one of my favorite activities to witness in China. During the early mornings, older men and women gather with large paintbrushes to draw Chinese characters on the ground, using water instead of ink to draw their lines. The writing is often political in nature but can also be ancient poetry or proverbs. I find it beautiful that they generate these masterpieces while fully aware their strokes will fade away within minutes. They seek to create their art, not record it.

I apologize for the insanely poor quality of this photo. I shot it while I was jogging in Xujiahui Park. I promise I wasn't just trying to snap photos of men bending over.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dear John

Since I'm obviously not afraid to talk about body fluids on this blog, I thought it was about time I brought up the restrooms in China (and I wanted to see how many different words I could think of for latrines). Let me introduce you to the squat toilet.

This thigh burn inducing bowl is prevalent throughout China. In an international city like Shanghai, Western style hoppers can be found at many restaurants, malls, and hotels. When in a pinch, Starbucks is always a good bet to find your traditional American privy. But in general, the majority of lavatories in China look like these. Even in hotels.

The Beijing Tourism Administration gave the john above a whopping two stars. I give it zero.

For months, I avoided using these facilities at all cost. I used the handicap accessible stall (which thankfully always has a full size seat) when available. I slipped into Western hotels. I urged our driver to break speed limits. I begged my bladder to pretend it belonged to a camel. 

But finally, I gave in. At 4am, after a night of dancing, while teetering in heels. Perhaps not the best time to test out whether my thighs were strong enough to support a proper squat. But I did it and have successfully used these porcelain thrones on a few other occasions since then. I'm still not a fan but at least I no longer run out of the bathroom when I encounter one. Unless the person before me had poor aim, then I run as fast as my stinging thighs will allow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chicken Plucker

Some of you may have seen this picture when I posted it on Facebook earlier this week. This my friends, is a chicken plucker.

The recently deceased chicken is placed inside this cylinder which has rubber fingers attached to the inside of the barrel. When it begins to spin, the fingers pluck the feathers from the chicken. The rather bloody feathers then come out the bottom shoot and you are left with a featherless chicken.

Anyone want me to bring one back as a Christmas gift? Anyone?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day

On my eighteenth birthday, my dad woke me up bright and early. But instead of giving me a carefully wrapped present, he drove me to our local voter registration office. My father wanted to instill in me the value of having my voice heard, and from that day forward, I have voted in every general election. Today, millions of Americans will head to the polls to cast their votes in the 2012 general election and for once, I will not be one of them.

Thankfully, an absentee ballot will keep me from being disowned by my father for failing to make it to the polls on Election Day.

Voting from abroad is a rather easy process. First, Matthew and I submitted our requests for absentee ballots to New York State through the Overseas Vote Foundation, a non-partisan organization dedicated to assisting U.S. citizens register and vote from abroad. While we no longer maintain a physical address in NY, this is the last state we voted in and therefore, we continue to be registered voters there. A few weeks before Election Day, we received our absentee ballots in the mail. We simply filled them out and then were tasked with returning them to our county board of elections. We chose to have our ballot delivered by diplomatic pouch (mostly because I thought it made us sound important), but could have had it delivered through international mail or a private courier service such as FedEx or UPS. For us, it was easiest to drop off our sealed ballots at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai and allow them to take care of the rest. 

While we may not be the U.S. this year for the election, I'm happy to know that my vote will count from abroad. And I'm sure my father is too.
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