Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year!

December is always the most joyous and happiest month of the year but this December feels like any other ordinary month. In China, people don't celebrate Christmas. Being far away from home without any Christmas spirit is a little bit upsetting, mainly because usually you're with family, friends, you have a christmas tree, hear christmas songs, have decorations, lights and the atmosphere around you is just so positive. 

It's fine though because even though I didn't have a typical Christmas this year, I went to a Christmas dinner that AFS organized and then I celebrated Christmas Eve with my friend, Ling. Ling studied abroad in the US for a year, last year so her english is very good! She is also applying to colleges in the US! 

The AFS dinner was at JingLing Hotel, which is a five-starred hotel and is known to have a very good restaurant. One of the foreign-language school's was hosting an event that night and AFS was also invited to that. All of us went to the hotel to eat dinner and as we walked in our mouths started to water! The food looked absolutely delicious! For once, it wasn't Chinese food and also because it was buffet-style, all you can eat! At the buffet, they also had performances being done on the stage, some people hula-danced (which was funny because they were doing it wrong!), some people sang christmas carols, and the AFS kids went up to sing "Jingle Bells". All in all it was quite fun, and the food was so good! AFS also gave us a Christmas card and Christmas present, which included a stuffed animal, and a bunch of snacks! Yum! haha

our gifts!

On Christmas Eve, Ling and I went out to Xin Jie Kou. Even though most people don't celebrate Christmas, a lot of people go out because there are sales, and Chinese people go quite crazy when things are on sale! When my host mom said that it was going to be really crowded I wasn't expecting as many people as I saw...but then again, I should have kept in mind that China has a LOT of people. We went to a couple department stores but it was way too crowded and hot that we left. We went to another mall, which was less crowded and had H&M so we shopped there for quite a while and we ended up buying matching t-shirts :P Afterwards we walked and walked but there were so many people it was hard to get by. Ling and I get along very well so I was glad, we have a bunch of things in common and she is really nice! We had a little dinner "Tian Bu La" which is like fish cakes on a stick dipped in hot sauce, and also got milk tea at Coco. 

In Xin Jie Kou there were a bunch of "Santa's". Asian Santa's...not quite the norm but it was really funny because they were all so skiny, their beards were fake and attatched by a rubber band and were made out of cheap cotton, their outfit was made out cloth and it was definitely not like the Santa's we see in America! haha, that was really funny! 

Awesome Chinese Santa!


I spent Christmas day a little sick but skyped my family back home which was nice! 

They say the Spring Festival is equivalent to our Christmas and New Years in China, so that'll be exciting and interesting because I never celebrated the Spring Festival before! But for now, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Independent Travel: A weekend in Shanghai

Planning the trip wasn’t exactly a hard task, just very complicated. Applying for independent travel meant getting signatures from teachers, host-family and parents. Once this was done, AFS had to approve it. Luckily, AFS approved of my independent travel to Shanghai!

On Thursday, my Chinese teacher came to the train station with me to help me buy the speed train tickets. It wasn’t that hard at all. All we had to do was tell them the time and day we wanted to get on the train and they searched for the times that were available in the computer. Next time I can definitely go to the train station and purchase a ticket without any help! When I got home on Thursday night, I started packing for my trip, because I didn't want to feel rushed the next day.

When Friday rolled around, I was getting really excited. I was dismissed from my classes a little early so I can go home and arrange all of my things. My host-parents were at work and host-sister was at school so I was on my own (but being in China pretty much means doing everything on your own so I was used to this). Since my train ride was at 5:20 PM I left at around 4 to catch a taxi. Since there was traffic I was really glad that I left early because I got there with 20 minutes to spare! –which was very good because I also had to find the gate. When I first got there I wasn’t sure about which way to go, so I asked for directions! I wasn’t really “scared” or “nervous” about getting to the station and getting on the train by myself. I don’t really have the right words to explain how I felt at the very moment, but I just had to be aware of my surroundings and watch my things carefully. The train ride wasn’t all that bad. It was pretty nice actually. It took two hours to get to Shanghai and during that time, I was listening to music and reading a book. I had the window seat, which was convenient for me since I was going to be on the train until the very last stop (The train stopped in other little cities such as Wuxi and Changzhou before arriving in Shanghai).

When I finally arrived I was quite excited, I was staying with my dad’s friend, Stephen and his family. I called Stephen when I arrived and he met me out by the exit! He told me I was very recognizable because I looked like my mom and dad! Haha. Anyways, we walked over to the “driver” and he took us to their home! [In China, many foreigners have a driver so this is quite usual]. We were talking a lot about my life in Nanjing in the car. Arriving at their home was nice, they had three cute little kids and his wife, Maki was also there. Coming into their home felt like home, because the father was white and the mother was Japanese. I was also very happy that I got to use Japanese again because I haven’t had a chance to speak a lot of it other than the occasional skype calls with my family. The kids had already eaten dinner but Maki and Stephen waited for me to arrive so we could all have dinner together. Maki prepared lasagna, toasted bread with tomatoes and salad! It tasted good, I haven’t had a home-cooked –NON-CHINESE- meal in such a long time!! We were all talking for quite a long time, and I ended up sleeping at around 12!

The next day I got up around 8:30, got dressed and went to the bathroom.  They prepared such a nice breakfast for me! Toast, two eggs and bacon. Ok…so I know what your thinking “nice breakfast? That's a typical breakfast” But being in China for 3 months, I’ve had Bao Zi (Manapua’s/steamed buns with meat inside) every morning for the past three months, and after a while that does start to get repetitive and boring. The breakfast tasted so good! I put strawberry jam on my toast, and also had coffee with my meal! It felt great to be eating something familiar.

At around 10:30-11 AM Maki and I went out while Stephen stayed at home and watched the kids. Maki took me to the IFC mall and also the mall right next to it. It had all kinds of shops like: H&M, SPRIT, ZARA, BOSSINI…things that Nanjing has but has very less of. What shocked me the most was seeing foreigners wherever I went. Seriously, every two minutes you will see a foreigner and in Nanjing it is so much different because you would probably see a foreigner every now and then.  We looked around a lot and debated on whether to buy certain things but ended up not getting anything from these malls. Since it was already 1:00 by the time we finished browsing, we decided to grab a bite. We were trying to decide between sushi and Thai food but since I really missed sushi, we decided to go to the sushi restaurant in the IFC mall. The sushi was pretty good! I was very satisfied with the meal! (You will be hearing this a lot from this weekend). 
nom nom nom!

We also went to the Oriental Pearl tower to check it out, it is also another famous building in Shanghai. It is 1535 feet high. It is one of the tallest TV towers in the world.

Oriental Peal Tower

Maki and I

IFC mall

My friend in Nanjing told me about a mall in Shanghai that sells a bunch of brand bags, clothes and such and she said the prices that they settle for are quite reasonable so I told Maki about it and she said we could go if I could explain it to the driver in Chinese! At first the driver took us to a mall (probably thinking we wanted something more ”high-class”) except I explained to him again saying “Bargaining…bags, clothes…etc” and he said “OHHH!” and took us to the right place! Going in there wasn’t a surprise to me at all. In-fact, it reminded me a lot of the markets in Beijing. I’m a little surprised that I couldn't find something like this in Nanjing but I was glad I found one in Shanghai. I always find bargaining such a fun part of shopping in markets in China. Sometimes when they tell you 500 RMB you can cut it down to 100 RMB and they will start to compromise with you “OK OK BEST PRICE IS 350” and when say “no” and start to walk away, they will call you back and say “OK OK 200!” and then we can try to push it and push it until they finally agree to the price that you are willing to buy it for. Most of the shops had “secret back doors” which was storage for more bags or clothes hidden behind a door. The reason why they hide it is because sometimes police come in and bust them for selling fake things. We shopped here for quite a long time and I got a bunch of things here! It was already 7 by the time we were out of there and we got home by 8 PM. Shopping all day is quite tiring. When we got home, Stephen had ordered Thai food for us to eat! I was so happy because I also really wanted to eat Thai food (remember, I was trying to decide between Japanese and Thai during lunch time) and I think the only reason why he ordered it was because he knew I wanted to eat Thai food! Shopping with Maki was very fun especially because we were communicating in Japanese, made me feel at home. After eating, I took a shower and went to bed. It was such a fun but long day!
The market!
Only going somewhere for the weekend goes by so fast! Sunday was the last day in Shanghai, and sadly, it wasn’t even a full day. I woke up at around 8:30 AM again and breakfast was very appetizing again! Stephen made me a breakfast sandwich, some coffee and some yoghurt! It was the last American breakfast before heading back to my normal “bao zi” breakfasts! We headed out around 10 AM. Today was mainly about sightseeing. Since the driver was off work today, we went around by the underground train and by taxi.

We headed to the SWFC first, which stands for the Shanghai World Financial Center. The SWFC has 101 floors, and it is 492m or 1555 ft high.  The main floors have shops and restaurants, media center, office, sky lobby, and on the 93rd floor there is a Park Hyatt Shanghai, 94th floor is the Sky Arena then the 94th, 97th and 100th floor is the observatory! The elevator went up so fast!! The view wasn’t all that good since it was a pretty cloudy day but I think if it were a clear day, it would have been such a beautiful view. From the top, you can see many buildings including the Oriental Pearl Tower, Jin Mao Tower, IFC mall and basically everything surrounding those buildings! It felt a little scary because we were so high off the ground!
Inside the SWFC 

The view!


Jin Mao Tower

When we finished off with the SWFC we took the underground and headed to Nanjing Road, which then led us into an area called “The Bund”.  Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets. There are two sections to Nanjing road, East and West. Nanjing road was filled with many shops that can be found in America and Britain. Since this is a very famous place in Shanghai it was very very crowded. They say that there isn’t really a time when it’s not crowded. There were many foreigners in this area aswell! But then again, Shanghai has tons of foreigners! We walked towards the Oriental Pearl City, which lead us to the bund. The buildings here were very beautiful and being in this area didn’t feel like Shanghai at all! The Bund has many historical buildings that were once banks and trading houses from the UK, France, US, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands. At first, this area was a British settlement but later on America and Britain combined it and made it the “International Settlement”. In the 1900’s, the Shanghai government attempted to promote the concept of the Bund to boost tourism, and from 2009 the Bund was becoming very popular and was always busy. Across the street from the Bund was the Oriental Pearl TV tower, which all of you probably have seen from pictures. This area is the most famous place for picture taking, because it has many of the famous buildings.
The Bund

The Bund

Statue of Mao

The Bund!

Stephen and I at the popular area to take photos

We then headed to grab some lunch, since he told me I could choose what I wanted to eat, I chose Vietnamese food because I was really missing “Pho”-one of my favorite dishes! We hopped in a taxi and headed over to the restaurant but just before we went to eat, Stephen told me that there was an American supermarket that I could go to to buy some things. We headed there and I fell in love with the whole store! Walking in, I saw a whole counter of cheese, all kinds! – You never see this in China, they don’t really eat cheese here, or dairy products for that matter. I looked around for a while and choose three things, all of them were unhealthy… of course -.- but I couldn’t help it! I was craving the flavors from back home!! I bought Frosted flakes cereal, Cheez-its and Walkers shortbread cookies, yum yum yum!! Satisfied with what I bought, we headed to the Vietnamese cuisine.

The restaurant that we went to is very popular and gets very busy (especially at night). I was excited to eat Pho! When it came, it was different than always, the soup was darker and the meat wasn’t “raw” as usual but the taste wasn’t all that bad. It was actually pretty good! We also bought some appetizers: meat, spring rolls, tom yum meat-cakes, and spring rolls! I was happy that I finally got to eat Vietnamese food. Eating Italian, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese food was so great! Mainly, because I missed the tastes of other countries since it’s always “Chinese food”. Variety was good, and it was even better because it was all my favorite types of foods! After lunch, it was already 1:30 and my train ride back to Nanjing was at 4:40! Time was going by way too fast. We took the underground back to Nanjing road to buy my host-family a present. I ended up getting them peanut-crispies which is said to be one of Shanghai’s snacks. In that store I came across a little store (A store within a store) that was selling dried duck and pig face o_O! It was quite…. unappealing if you ask me! But that store was crowded with many people (Chinese of course! I don't think this really appeals to the foreigners).  We walked towards the underground again and headed to an area near home to find socks! I was in desperate need of warmer socks since the weather is getting so much colder now, cold enough to see your own breath! But I was unlucky because I couldn't find a good pair. But its not like I had to get them in Shanghai, I know they sell them in Nanjing too. It was already three by that time so we caught a taxi home. I already packed my things in the morning so I didn’t have to worry about that. I was so exhausted when we got back though. I was also thinking that I didn't want to go back to Nanjing. Mainly because I felt so comfortable at their home because it felt closer to home, and also because their life is the life that I’m used to living instead of the life that I’m currently living in Nanjing. But I knew that that was just a temporary feeling and that when I got back to Nanjing, I would get back to my daily routine of waking up, going to school, and coming back home. Maki and I talked for a while before it was time for me to leave but that went by quick!
Nanjing Road

yumm pig face..o_O Oh look, only 100 yuan...

snack I bought for my host family!

It was already 3:50 and it was time for me to head out. The whole family walked me out! They all put on their coats and brought me out to the main road. The three kids were so adorable! And it was somewhat sad saying goodbye. We called over a taxi and I said goodbye and thank you to everyone. I thought I was taking the taxi by myself but Stephen hopped in the taxi with me! I was surprised but it was very nice of him J He took me all the way to the train station and even came into the waiting room with me and waited with me until it was time for my departure. Once it was 4:30 it was time for me to get on the train, so I said goodbye and thanked him again for everything. After saying goodbye I felt a little sad because I felt like I was leaving somewhere close to home again, but the feeling soon went away after I got back to Nanjing. My host-dad picked me up from the station and once we got home, we all ate dinner together and it was nice! I also texted Stephen to let him know that I got home safe and thanked him again for a wonderful weekend.

Coming to shanghai made me realize that it is such a huge city! I thought Nanjing was big but in comparison, Nanjing seems so much more smaller and deserted than Shanghai, BUT if you compare Nanjing with the smaller cities like Changzhou, Hefei, Wuxi and such, it seems like such a big city and Changzhou, Hefei and Wuxi seem more like the deserted cities. So I guess it all depends on how you view each city.

This was another great and unforgettable experience, Shout out: thank you to my family for making all of this possible :)