Monthly Archives: September 2011

Beijing – A love/hate

Beijing and Shanghai are different worlds.  When I first came to China, just to visit, with the MIM program in 2010, I enjoyed the history, historical sites and tourist attractions in Beijing.  But when we got to Shanghai, I was blown away.  Shanghai is an awesome city.  Even at that time, after spending only about 5 days in each city, I said, “If I were to even live in Beijing or Shanghai, I would live in Shanghai.  Beijing is great to visit, but I would rather live in Shanghai.”

The Temple of Heaven! A rare shot without a million other tourists.

Well, fast forward 18 months, I’m living in Shanghai and when M&M (mom and Matt) are in town, I take my second ever trip to Beijing.  Another 4 days in Beijing and I draw the same conclusion.  I much rather be in Shanghai.

The air was awful in Beijing, not that I can hold that against them – chances are if you pick four random days out of the year to visit Shanghai you won’t be blessed with blue skies either.  Foreigners aren’t as plentiful, which isn’t a bad thing while living in a city – but I think Beijing gets enough foreign visitors who don’t know anything, that everyone assumes you can just screw over and rip off every foreigner you see.  In Shanghai, there is such a large expat community, with people from all over the world that LIVE here.  There are plenty of laowai (foreigners) in Shanghai that have been here for 3, 5, 10 years, who speak Chinese, who know what they are doing.  I don’t think Beijing is as used to that large of a community of foreign residents.  So taking a taxi, for example, becomes a major headache unless you look and speak like them.

I hated taxis in Beijing.  The worst cab riding experiences ever!  And if you think you can top me, just tell me this: Have you ever had a cabbie stop to get gas (when their tank was half full) AND go take a leak while you were on the meter?  Plus, he was coughing like crazy and spitting constantly, he told May he had been sick for the past few days but was back at work because he needed the money.  I love taking cabs in Shanghai.  I hate taking cabs in Beijing.  Even if you can manage to flag one down (empty cabs drive by and just ignore you constantly), it doesn’t mean they will be willing to take you to your destination, or they don’t want to rip you off by bargaining a price and not using their meter.

Do I need to say where this is? It is at 慕田峪 actually.

This being said, everyone – if given the chance – should visit Beijing (and eat the roast duck).  The Forbidden City, Tiananmen, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and the access to many locations on the Great Wall are fantastic, beautiful and historic sight seeing opportunities.  Even with hazy skies, you can get stunning pictures.  The culture runs deep and history surrounds you – unlike the westernized, modern, metropolitan Shanghai.

Obligitory Forbidden City photo

My favorite part of Beijing though – was not at the historic wall to keep out the mongols, it was not in the palaces and forbidden gardens of past emperors which survived the many dynasties. My favorite part of Beijing – the part of Beijing that I loved, that I wish Shanghai had – were the huotongs.   Hutong (胡同 – translation alley or lane) are small, old alleys, passageways of historic homes and buildings that make up large areas in Beijing and have been protected by the government so they are not torn down and replaced by skyscrapers and tall apartment complexes. I thought it was just one area of town when I first went to Beijing, but I quickly learned there are hutong all over Beijing – each a huge network of these small alleys, waiting to be explored and full of treasures to discover.

Wandering thru a 胡同

I loved walking around in, getting lost in, finding new places in the hutong.  May and I went to a bar one night to meet a friend of hers from the UK – he gave us instructions on how to get there.  As we turned off the main road into this teeny, dark alleyway, about the width of a car, we wondered if there was actually anything down there.  It was about a ten minute walk down this alleyway to the bar.  At one point we saw some neon lights and signs of restaurants, but the bar (Yes Bar or 好吧) was not there.  A few more minutes of dark houses and no sign of anything that looked like a place of business we found it – a little teeny bar, stuck in the middle of an seemingly abandoned hutong – with a selection of beers from all over the world.  We went back again the next night.  In the two nights we were there, we were the only customers  and we just hung out and talked with the bartender from Xinjiang, China (the far northwest province in China).

Way back tucked away in another hutong – in a nearby part of town – is another killer find for any beer loving American tourist. Thanks to MJ, brewmaster at my all time favorite, Boxing Cat Brewery, I knew of this little treasure in Beijing.  A microbrewery run by a bunch of Americans that has been brewing and selling beer out of a location in a Beijing hutong for less than a year.  Great Leap Brewery was one of the top things on our to do list in Beijing.  It took some time to find – both times we went – but it was well worth it.  With 9 freshly brewed, local mircobrews on tap, a killer garden setting to sit and relax in, and the owners there to chat with you can’t complain!  Oh, yea – and the beers were FANTASTIC too.  If you are ever looking for beer in Beijing, I highly, highly, recommend checking them out!  (see link here – they are also on Facebook.)

We found it! The door to the best beer in Beijing!

The view from the door of Great Leap Brewing - this isn't on some big, busy street!

The menu - 9 delicious beers on tap! (Actually, I think I only tasted 6 of the 9)

BEER! I believe this was the Danshan Wheat, a wheat beer brewed with tea leaves for a very unique but refreshing flavor.

The hutongs are old houses, communities. Not big fancy houses but little small rooms (which now can be extremely expensive to rent or buy) where Chinese families grew up and many still live.  Things are simpler in the hutongs and things like, well, your own bathroom, aren’t necessarily available.  My mom was shocked with the number of public toilets everywhere in China – but especially in the hutong.  After I witnessed an older woman coming and dumping a bucket with her days “waste” in one of the public toilets, we inquired about it.  My friend (and fellow MIM alum) Junyi, who grew up in a hutong near the Yes Bar, confirmed our suspicions.  Most homes within the hutong don’t have their own bathroom.  They use the public toilets and probably bathe in a sponge bath manner.  Some of the nicer residences, with the help of a larger income and lots of official paperwork, may have added bathrooms to their homes.  The majority, however, even the businesses and restaurants, rely on the public toilets.

Life in Beijing takes place in the hutong.  I would go back to Beijing, despite my many frustrations with the city, just to explore hutongs.  And of course, take more pictures.  Below are a bunch of the shots I got of life in a Beijing hutong.


A front door

We wandered into this little area - several families probably live here.

Front gates left open allow you to see into people's lives.

Sitting on the roof, watching the birds

Playing in the street

Selling a variety of eggs

Veggies on the street

Along a touristy/popular hutong


By Mom

I asked my mom and Matt to share about their China experience on my blog.  Here is what my mom had to say and some of her photos.

Jodi’s China Blog

China!  Wow .  It is another world.  It was better and worse than I had expected.

I have to say, in moving to Eugene, Oregon a year ago after about 18 years in the Rogue Valley, I was overwhelmed with the BIG city of Eugene and its 156,185 people.  Let’s just say my perspective has changed a bit.  Shanghai has about 23 million people, the most populous city in the world.  The number is too big for my little brain to wrap around.   That’s New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio and maybe San Diego all put together.  (Disclaimer – finding reliable, recent statistics online that specify the cities proper versus the metro areas is a bit of a challenge, so don’t quote me on this!)

From Shanghai we went to Beijing with a mere 12 million, though arriving in Beijing and going to tourist sites on a Chinese holiday, I wasn’t aware of the massive drop in population.  But what was amazing to me in all this massive humanity is just that – the humanity of the people.  Julia has mentioned the pushiness of people when it comes to lines and subways.  Sure, we saw that.  But we also saw people laughing, smiling, eating, humming, sleeping, cleaning, going to work, taking children to school.  The same activities we all do.  People living their everyday lives.

Impressively, with so many people everywhere, we were actually amazed at how civil everyone was.  Sure, there were people cutting blatantly into lines at the train station.  But as cars, cyclists, bus drivers, pedestrians, taxis and scooters all vied to get into the same lane at the same time, no one seemed to get upset.  I didn’t see anyone yelling or swearing or flipping anyone off at being cut off.  Being cut off is just part of the fabric of society.  Just keep nosing into the vaguest hint of a gap, and you’ll get there.   What’s to get upset about? It was actually rather refreshing.

In this millennium, Westerners are quite common in the big cities of Beijing and especially the very commercial Shanghai.  We saw other westerners everywhere we went.  We definitely are not a novelty in China any more.  So it was quite a surprise as we were out at the touristy places to find Chinese clandestinely (or not) taking pictures of us.  I suppose it serves us right as we were snapping photos of cute little kids, the food vendors, the bricklayer and cyclists pedaling down the streets.

Bricks in a Beijing Hutong

Julia has gotten a bit used to Chinese taking her picture.  But then she’s a good-looking blond young women.  Our very first day out, numerous Chinese would pull their cameras out from across the pagoda or out on the walkway to get a picture of Matt or me – the old people!   Near Tiananmen Square, a middle-aged gentleman in a worn suit (perhaps a man from out in the countryside, first trip to the Big City, a tourist himself), sidled right up to Matt and indicated that he wanted a picture with Matt, which of course turned into me,  the man and his whole entourage in the picture.

Posing for a picture near Tianamen Square (Julia's picture - M&M were busy!)

The award for best tourist attraction has to be Matt.  In Beijing’s Summer Palace, as Matt and Julia were sitting on a rock wall waiting for me to come back from the toilets (better left un-described!), a man came up to Matt, indicating interest in the camera (mine) Matt was holding.  (Wouldn’t want to lose a lens cap in those toilets, for sure.)  After a little incomprehensible small talk, the man started poking Matt’s knee.  It being a warm day, Matt was in shorts.  The man giggled a bit and then reached down to Matt’s calf, delighted to feel the hair on Matt’s legs.  While Matt thought people had been looking at his Keen sandals, they were apparently just impressed with nice, hairy western (male) legs!

The street scene:  Matt has described the traffic, both on the roads and the sidewalks.  But there is so much more than traffic on the sidewalks.  The sidewalks are where life is lived.  Yes, there are the vendors vending their food or flowers or trinkets, but this is where services are also rendered.  The bicycle repair guy has his “shop” set up on the sidewalk just around the corner from Julia’s apartment.  His shop consists of a rickety plywood box with old worn tires and rags underneath it.   Need your car detailed?  Just drive it up on the sidewalk in the middle of the busy block at the detailing guy’s place and he’ll do it there for you.

Making our breakfast! Notice the hand in the tin near the front, that is a do it yourself cash register!

Wonderful street food!

For many of these businesses, people seem to just set up shop outside their home.  Open the front door and set up shop on the step.  Closing hours don’t really exist.  If it’s a hot summer evening, what else is there to do but sit on your front step and talk to the neighbors?  If you’re just sitting out on your front step, might as well keep the business open.  10:30 at night and you could still buy mangoes, cabbage, squash and quail eggs or have about anything repaired.

Veggies on the street

Definitely another world.

By Matt

I asked my mom and Matt to share about their China experience on my blog.  Here is what Matt had to say and some of his photos.

Matt’s China Blog

We had a fantastic trip to China.  Shanghai was an experience like no other.  We arrived in a half full airplane, proceeded through a jammed airport and customs, a packed 425-kilometer per hour Maglev (high speed shuttle from the airport), to an overstuffed subway, to Julia waiting with an welcoming smile.  Julia showed us a wonderful time in China, both great tourist sites and places a vacationing tourist would never see in a hundred years.  She was amazing with her knowledge of the Chinese language and her ability to figure out from bus stop signs and maps all in Chinese characters how to get there, and how to get back!  Also, her friends May, Colin and Junyi, all fluent in Chinese, contributed to her terrific guide service.

Hazy Shanghai welcomes you! (Excellent picture, Matt!!)

Shanghai was all hustle and bustle, and I mean hustle and bustle like I’ve never seen.  The streets are full of traffic, including the shoulders and breakdown lanes.  The sidewalks are full, too, with pedestrians, bicycles, scooters and motorcycles.  There is a definite pecking order amidst the confusion.  The buses rule; everyone gets the hell out of their way.  Next come the taxis; they may give a cyclist or pedestrian a break, but it’s a chancy risk.  Scooters and motorcycles are down one more notch; most scooters are electric and silent, and they don’t use their lights – even at night.  Lower in the pecking order are cyclists, and they are everywhere.  Old, young, fast, slow, two wheels or three; one, two or three on a bike, maybe carrying 200-pounds of cargo, maybe with a dog or two, anything is possible.  I actually saw three riders (out of probably 5000) with helmets one day.  And pedestrians (that was us), had to watch out for everyone.   We were low man on the totem pole.  There were tons of walkers, scooters and cyclists on the sidewalk going in opposite directions around the hawkers and vendors and sweepers and card-players and cricket fights.  Made one pay attention.

Busy with bicycles

Loaded down bicycles!

Of the many little obstacles to progress along the street, my favorite were the food vendors.  Everything smelled good, except the stinky tofu, and even that was preferable to the cigarette smoke and the men’s toilets.  There was an unbelievable variety of food to be had, from the unrecognizable to the everyday ear of corn.  In front of the fabric market in Shanghai, we bought for a mere 50 cents a round, pancake / crepe / pizza crusty thing that was sweet, kind of tough and chewy, perhaps a little eggy, seasoned with chives and herbs that was so perfect and so delicious.  I could eat two or three for breakfast every day for a long, long time.  Yeah, we ate regular Chinese food in restaurants and western food at a great place called Boxing Cat that Julia has written about that had a delicious life-saving IPA.  But for simplicity, freshness, and cooked right before your eyes on a charcoal fire, nothing beats Shanghai street food.


I had a blast, wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Thanks, Julia!

No problem, Matt!  I was more than happy to have you as guests, especially considering your good taste in food & beer!  (My Boxing Cat blog can be found here.)

M&M Recap

Well, after two weeks of exhaustion and fun with my mom and Matt (M&M),  and a crazy, stressful weekend back at work, I have finally had the chance to sit down, breathe and get myself back together.  In the twelve days my mom and Matt were here, we saw many sights, drank good beer, slept a little, traveled a lot, ate all types of food and took thousands of pictures!  (I took over 700 myself, and I’m sure they took even more.)

There were many times over the couple weeks I thought, I could write a blog about this.  But I didn’t have time. Now, I’m in a relaxation and recovery state and I don’t have the creative/reflective juices flowing and I’m lacking the energy.  I will try to recap you though.

It was a non-stop adventure for all of us and exhausting! I’m sure dealing with jet-lag made it crazy for my guests, but I had to deal with keeping up with my normal life (I only took 4 days off work in the 12 days they were here), entertaining, hosting, sleeping on the couch and on a HARD bed in a hotel, and being on 100% of the time.  My brain, emotions and body were stretched to the limit.

Leifang Pagoda in Hangzhou

The last time I posted was Sunday, September 4th.  I worked all day and M&M arrived in the afternoon. That evening, we went to the train station where I learned we could only buy tickets to Beijing 6 days in advance, took a walk around to see a bit of the city,  went to dinner and got settled in my apartment.  The following morning, we met my friend and co-worker, Colin at 7am.  He had arranged for a driver to take us to the nearby city of Hangzhou for the day.  I have wanted to go to Hangzhou since arriving in China, and with mom here I finally got my chance!  We spent the first full day of M&M’s vacation touring around the famous and beautiful West Lake, eating a traditional Chinese meal at the famous Louwailou restaurant, visiting the Leifang Pagoda, Feilaifeng and a couple temples.  Which was followed by beers and french fries for an early dinner.  After making our way back to Shanghai, we had no energy left for a real meal.

Looking over West Lake with the city of Hangzhou in the background

On Tuesday, we started out by going to the Shanghai train station, again, where this time I learned I had miscounted and Wednesday was the first day to buy tickets for the following Monday, and then to a camera shop where we got mom’s camera fixed.  (Her camera had been pushed off the x-ray machine at the subway station on her way into Shanghai. The filter had completely broken and was crushed onto the lenses making it impossible to take off – luckily she had another lens for the day in Hangzhou, but still needed it fixed!).  We then went to the classic Yuyuan area, walked around classic Chinese building filled with touristy shops and down Fangbang Road.  I led us to Huaihai Road for a coffee break, then to the Bird and Flower Market where the older Chinese residence were busy gambling over cricket fights.  We continued walking through the antique markets near Laoximen but after a long morning, decided we needed a rest.

A cat chilling in front of a fish shop at the Bird and Flower market

I led us to Boxing Cat for a beer, but they weren’t opening until 5pm that day.  Tired and irritable, we managed to stumble upon a neat little place on Sinan Lu where we got some beers and refreshed our spirits.  We had dinner plans at 5:30pm, still had a couple hours to spare and weren’t sure what to do next.  Mom remembered she wanted to visit the ELS office and that it was somewhere in the French Concession.  I found the address by using the internet on my cell phone and with the help of the staff at the coffee shop where we were, I figured out the approximate location.  We decided our feet hadn’t had quite enough that day, and walked another 3 kilometers or so over to the ELS office. (When my mom worked in Ashland, Oregon, she worked for ELS for many years and was the director of their Ashland branch.)  The couple people my mom knew were not in the office, or were no longer working at that location, but we met the new director and he was willing to show the unexpected visitors around their beautiful Shanghai location.

After that, I realized we were right next to the Avocado lady, so we swung by but didn’t get anything from her, as it was about time for us to head towards Zhongshan park to meet a few of my Chinese coworkers for a delicious, spicy, Sichuan dinner.

I don't think Mom approved of me ordering the bullfrog for dinner, Matt ate it though!

When we got home we brought out the map of Shanghai to see just how far we had walked, Mom and Matt were impressed that I had in fact dragged them ALL over Shanghai, on foot.

Wednesday, was a more normal day for me.  But by no means relaxing.  My Chinese classes at Donghua University had started on Monday, and Wednesday, I decided, was the only day in the first 2 weeks of classes I could actually make it.  Mom and Matt got up and traveled over to the University with me, eating delicious street food for breakfast along the way.  While I spent 3 hours in Chinese class, they wandered around the area nearby.  After I was done in class we took the subway to the Shanghai South Railroad Station and finally, on our third try, got our high speed train tickets for Beijing.  We then made our way over to Tianzifang where we had a late lunch.  I left M&M with instructions to get back to my place, and I took off to go to work for the evening while they explored the area.

A painter at work in Tianzifang

Thursday morning, no time for rest!  We got up and went to Jing’an Temple.  Having been outside Jing’an Temple many times, but having never gone inside, I wasn’t sure where the tickets to enter the temple were purchased.  So when I saw swarms of people in lines wrapping halfway around the temple I got a bit nervous.  Why in the world were so many people lined up to get into the temple?  We would never get inside with hundreds of people in lines that seemingly weren’t even moving.  I knew there was a holiday coming up, but it was the following week, why was it so busy?

After a few moments of being puzzled trying to figure out what was going on, I decided to use a life-line and phoned a friend.  May also had no idea why everyone would be wanting to go to the temple that day.  So, as we were both confused, I did what anyone would do.  I walked to the beginning of the line and handed my phone over to a complete stranger – gesturing for her to talk.  May was on the line of course and was able to ask this nice, albeit confused, women what the deal was.  Turns out – none of them wanted to go into the temple!  They were all waiting in line for special mooncakes made at the temple!  Mooncakes are the traditional food eaten for the mid-autumn festival which was the holiday the following week.  All these people wanted the temple’s mooncakes!

One of two lines for Mooncakes! Can you see why I was concerned?

Oh… well, duh, Julia!  So we found the ticket window, with no line, and were able to explore inside Jing’an temple.  Afterwards, I took us on another hike through Shanghai as I figured exploring the city by foot allows you to see more than exploring the city by subway. We walked down West Nanjing, through People’s Square and all the way down East Nanjing until we got to the Bund.  It was a hazy day to walk along the Bund, and I don’t think I even got out my camera.  Haze or no haze, it is a must see for every visitor to Shanghai.  After walking for hours, we took a cab from the South end of the Bund back to my apartment!  A 20 minute catnap and I was off to work!

After what seemed to become a daily trip to Boxing Cat for M&M, Matt relaxed at the apartment that evening. However, once I was done working, my mom and I headed out to meet my friend May for massages!  A nice 100 minute foot and body massage was exactly the type of relaxing I needed!  One of the workers even offered to provide my mom’s treatment for free, in exchange for marrying her daughter.  Ha!  We did not accept the proposal.

M&M’s first four days in China were certainly packed full.  I’m exhausted just writing about it!  More to come…

A mother’s daughter

I often credit my mother for my wandering spirit, my longing to travel, see the world, learn of new places and experience new things.  She moved a lot growing up and she first introduced me to the foreign world and to traveling.  When I was in second and third grade my mom was getting her master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.  With my sister and I, she discussed where we could go as a family for her to teach.  We spoke of the great unknowns places as far apart and distinct as China and Cyprus. We finally landed in Hungary where we spent a year as a family shortly after the fall of the iron curtain.  An experience unlike any other for a nine year old American school girl and only the beginning of my world travels.

I saw Europe with my family at a young age.  I remember meeting my mother’s penpal from (former) East Germany – who she met for the first after over 20 years of snail mail correspondence. I tasted the culture again as an exchange student and tourist between high school and college.  My mom always supported me along the way.  I remember sitting outside Starbucks with her back in 1997 discussing how I wanted to go to Europe as an exchange student.  I remember waiting in the San Fransisco airport for 9 hours after over 30 hours of traveling having not seen my family or friends for an entire year. I called my mother as she was drinking margaritas in Arizona on vacation and told her I was moving from Oregon to Florida on a whim.

I grew up looking up to my mom’s students from all over the world, how they traveled to a foreign land from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Europe to study and learn English in a new culture; yet, provided for us a taste of their own culture.

I remember sitting planning a girls trip with my mom and sister, discussing where to go, where to explore.  I remember zip-lines, rainforests, beaches and white water rafting with my mom and sister through Costa Rico.

I remember the questions, the mothering, the worrying that came when I said I wanted to move to China. But all along, my mom supported me.  I remember her telling me she would come visit me in China, that her and her husband, Matt, were planning on it.  I remember the overwhelmed look of surprise and excitement that came over her face when my sister and I agreed to help fund her trip to China for Christmas this past year.

I went and visited one of my mom’s classes when I was home in July and met some of her Chinese students – now all significantly younger than me  – who all knew because of my mom’s stories that I am her daughter living in China.

My mom supported me along the way and I’m always happy to see her.  When she came to visit me in Corvallis, Oregon for mom’s weekend at OSU, when she would come and see my house in Portland, when I flew home after months or a year of being away, when we took separate flights and met in an airport miles from home to take a trip together, when we explored new countries together, I was always happy to see my mom.  However, never in my life have I been as excited to see my mom as today.

I’ve been talking about it for weeks, months in fact.  I’ve been counting down the days.  I couldn’t sleep last night.  I told my students about it today.  I jumped for joy and spun in circles cheering with excitement in the middle of my office!  I honestly could not contain myself.  Because today, I showed my mom the world.  My mom had been to Corvallis, to Portland, to Beaverton, my mom knows what to expect in the US or in Europe, my mom has traveled and seen the world and our eyes have seen things together for the first time.  But today, my mom came to my world.

My mom and Matt have never been to China, though both have wanted to over the years.  My mom told me the other day, In thinking about all the places in the world I want to go and where I might actually realistically go sometime in my life, China was never on the list.” China was always a dream, but never a reality – because of me, China is a reality.

My mom gets to see where I have been living for the past (almost) 8 months. She gets to walk the streets I walk every day, eat the food I eat, see the faces I see.  She can experience the packed subways, the traffic, the dirty streets, the view from my bedroom, the smells of Shanghai.  She gets to step inside the photographs, the stories, the blogs and take part in my life – a life so different than anything or any place she has known.  She gets to feel, to experience what I feel and experience every day.  What a million words, stories or a thousand pictures could never convey.

My mom is here.  Her and Matt arrived by plane at 2:35pm, I was still at work when they called at 3:05pm to say they made it through security and customs and were off the find the Maglev (the high speed train) to the city.  They had detailed instructions on how to take the train and the subway to get to my subway stations, where I was waiting, hardly containing myself, to greet them – and welcome them to my world.

Welcome home, Mom!  This is my life – this is Shanghai, China.

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