Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Apartment Hunting

Apartment hunting was quite an experience. With the help of the school’s HR person and an agent I saw five apartments on my only free day between training and starting to teach. The first place we went to was a common old style Chinese apartment but with Western touches like a flush toilet and small washer. You entered a small village like area off a main road. They were basically rows of one story buildings and the “street” was all paved. We entered into the apartment through a covered outdoor area with a utility sink where people may do laundry or some food preparations when it’s hot. Then you walk into the building which was one room with a bathroom. The place was pretty rundown, lighting was awful and there was a large wardrobe and a mattress on the floor. Another door leads to the shared kitchen which looked in dire need of some scrubbing cleanser. With this as my first place to see I didn’t feel very hopeful. Honestly, I’ve lived in squalor in my life but in a foreign city adjustment to this way of living seems a bit more difficult. I was prepared to live in small quarters here but was hoping for more updated amenities. So I figured the agent was just really good at his job by showing me the really bad places first and building up to the more expensive, nicer places. At the next apartment building I almost had a break down as we headed to the unit. It was a high rise building and once you entered the lobby area, it resembled the projects in Chicago. Cold concrete walls, paint flaking away, dirt and grim everywhere, things just were run down, dilapidated and not maintained. I kept thinking about the horror my mom and aunt would experience if they walked into this building. Walking into the apartment was completely different from the exterior surroundings. Everything was rehabbed and new. The kitchen was spotless. There was new flooring throughout, new paint on the walls and it was fully furnished mostly from Ikea. There was a great balcony with a very intricate clothes drying system that the landlord loved to demonstrate. The place was more than I was hoping to pay but I figured the places were getting better so pushed on to the other three. I quickly realized I had seen the best. One was so dirty I couldn’t believe the landlord didn't take some time to at least flush the cigarette butts in the toilet. The second was on the 5th floor of a more traditional building that had accumulated years of junk and had some rather large holes in the walls. The last was another high rise building but more eerie with horribly cold, fluorescent lighting and a dingy, grey apartment. By the end I was having a mild panic attack and I knew I had to jump on the Ikea apartment but when we called the landlord said someone came who was going to pay more and it was gone. Not wanting to take any of the others the three of us stood on the street while the agent tried to scrounge up some more places. To my delight the Ikea apartment landlord called back to say she wanted to rent to a foreigner and upped the price a few hundred RMB. We went back to check it out and I decided I could get past the condition of the general areas. We spent several hours negotiating, preparing and signing the lease. My landlord does not speak English but her daughter speaks a little. They’ve been really great and have helped me out with Internet and getting familiar with the area. I kind of feel like I have a Chinese “mom” watching over me. Here are some photos of my Shanghai apartment.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Celebrating the small stuff

Tonight’s big task was to get a China Mobile SIM card for my phone. I successfully unlocked it thanks to the great instructions from AT&T so now I just need a card. I went down to the China Mobile store and was reciting my sentence, “I would like a SIM card to match my network: Wo xiang SIM ka" On the way I saw a guy almost get taken out by a bus. We even had the walk sign but the traffic turning right apparently doesn’t have to stop. Arriving to China Mobile in one piece, I was given a ticket by the woman at the reception desk and waited for my number to be called. There are guards in the banks and mobile stores that appear to keep order with the lines and, of course, prevent any wrong-doing. The guard was actually quite helpful because as the numbers were called the man before me was a bit slow to get to the desk before the woman advanced to my number. So there I was, unable to communicate, with my number on the screen but this other man being served. After he was finished the woman didn’t realize the error and was about to pass me up when the guard shouted something to her in Chinese and pointed to me then the seat. Up until this point I was still reciting my sentence in my head. As soon as I sat down and tried to spit it out I completely fell apart. I basically could only say “SIM ka” over and over. But, hey, it worked. I got my card. Loaded it and now have a mobile number in China. One problem is that the text messages in Chinese aren’t read by my phone so I just get a bunch of squares with a number thrown in here and there. Not like I could read the characters. The mobile phone networks aren't the same where you purchase a monthly minutes plan. You reload minutes by buying a card which are sold at most convenient shops and street vendors. That will be another hurdle to overcome eventually. The success of my days are measured in accomplishing tasks that are simple at home-—buying a metro ticket, ordering food, navigating your way to a destination, etc.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Day One: On the job and in the city

My first day on the job. Thanks to jet lag I was up before the sun so easily arrived on time to my first day of training. I'm working for an English training center that primarily teaches business English and focuses on spoken English. I’m training with three other teachers, another foreign teacher from the UK and two local, Chinese teachers.

At lunch our trainer, Robyn, took us to a western style restaurant. I guess she wanted to ease me into Chinese culture. She also introduced me to City Shop, an expat's dream when you're homesick for mac n' cheese or bagels. It comes at a steep price but, it was rather comforting on my first day. I can imagine going to seek refuge amongst boxes of Post cereal, Nature Valley granola bars and frozen pizzas.

After training I set out to really see the city for the first time. My fellow foreign colleague was nice enough to lead me to the metro station and show me how to navigate the system. He’s been in Shanghai a week at this point. The metro ticket machines have an English button which is a lifesaver. The system is really easy and the fare is cheap between 3-6RMB which is under a dollar. (7RMB=$1US) The metro is fast and clean with station stop announcements in Mandarin and English.

I took the metro to the Jing’an Temple district, an area that I wanted to explore because I’m interested in living there. It’s on metro line two so it required a transfer at People’s Square, a main transfer point and very busy station. Walking to the metro was my first real look at Shanghai. The Xijiahui station (where I'm staying) is beneath four converging malls on a main street. The shear amount of people was amazing. Forget about personal space here too. If there’s an empty space someone will soon be in it—-or even a car, moped or bike. Pedestrians are not safe and don’t have the right of way. I sometimes feel like I'm in the old B movie, Death Race 2000, where cars raced cross country and earned points for people they killed along the way.

The amount of advertising along the walk was mind-boggling. It’s everywhere and it’s HUGE. Bright lights, flashing lights, strobe lights, neon, video, gigantic projections—you name it, it’s here. It feels like Vegas and Times Square combined.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Arrival in Shanghai

I arrived in Shanghai at about 11pm on March 7, 2008 after more than 14 hours on a plane and a lay-over in Tokyo. Tired and anxious I stepped out from behind the barrier to face the sea of people holding name cards and looking for friends and loved ones. I was supposed to meet someone from my new school, Maria. The communication before leaving was a little vague and she told me to meet her at area 9. I didn't have a contact number for her and had no idea what she looked like. Our flight was a little early but as I made my way down the exit line I didn't see any listing my or the school's name. I went to the number 9 exit door. No one there looked like they were waiting for me. I went outside thinking maybe we were supposed to meet outside. No one there either. I had a few panicked moments as I imagined being forgotten and having to make my way into the city on my own at midnight. Sleep deprivation and jet lag was getting the better of me.

We took a bus from the Pudong airport to downtown Shanghai. It took about an hour and sitting with my escort it felt more like four hours. Conversation was a little strained and she wasn't overly eager to ask the hundreds of questions I had about the school, Shanghai and general life in China.

From the bus stop in Puxi, the center of Shanghai, we need to hail a taxi which wasn't the easiest. While we were waiting I had the chance to observe the lane designated for bikes and mopeds. People come whizzing by on electric bikes and you can't hear them at all. When we finally got into the taxi I quickly experienced the haphazardness of driving in Shanghai. We were almost side-swept by a bus. In Shanghai, it’s common for a passenger in a taxi to sit in the front seat. First, that’s where the seat belts are, and second, the drivers need a bit of direction and encouragement to arrive to your destination. Our final destination, and my home for the next week, was the Double Coin Hotel. It wasn't any luxury accommodation by any means but it was clean. It’s still cold in Shanghai and the heat doesn’t work very well. I was rather cold my first couple nights.

The hotel staff lacked personal skills and most times I passed through the lobby I was welcomed with cold stares. Even my "ni hao" (one of only two words of Mandarin I know) wouldn't get much of a reaction. However, every morning by about 6am I would smell the cigarette smoke alerting me to the morning shift workers' arrival.