Shanghaied, Chapter 14: How to get on the United States Customs Watchlist
Somehow, against all odds, the year is coming to a close. I feel like I’ve simultaneously been in China for only a few weeks, and also for years. And while I’m excited to head home, I’m going to miss China dearly. Shanghai has become my home, and it’s hard to leave behind the life and routine that you build up when you go and live somewhere new. It also means that this is my penultimate blog post for the year, which is kind of mind-blowing.
Anyway. Looking back on it, most of my recent previous posts have been about me travelling throughout China. That’s not bad or anything, but it’s a fairly limited snapshot of what my time here in China is mostly like. So, I wanted to take the time to recap on what I’ve been doing lately:
Studying for finals.
Thanks for tuning in, see you next week.
Okay, so maybe there’s slightly more than that. But it’s been really busy, and the workload has grown exponentially as we’ve entered the last few weeks. Finals have been exhausting. Like a Sisyphean prison, every time I think I’m almost at the top, someone dumps another final paper on me and the boulder rolls back down to the bottom. Currently I’m at three final papers, three presentations and two final exams, plus all of the Chinese homework that we’re doing. All things considered, maybe I’m not so sad about going home.
The largest final project that we’re all been working on here at Alliance is the Capstone Research Project. The Capstone is our final project for our sociology class, and kind of the feature presentation of our semester abroad. We’ve been required to conduct our own personal research on a topic of our choosing, and write a massive paper explaining our research and the conclusions that we’ve drawn from it. We’re also supposed to create a presentation to present to the class as a component of our final project. The project that I’ve been working on is how students feel about the new two-child policy. I won’t get into all the complicated details of my research, but basically the famous one-child policy (which is exactly what it sounds like: one child per family, with certain exceptions) has recently been abolished, and replaced with a two-child policy. Apparently not having lots of children means that you have a huge amount of old people and not enough workers to provide for them. The government recently repealed the one-child policy to try and encourage people to have more children. My research focused on how the new two-child policy has shaped student perceptions of having children in the future. I had to interview a bunch of students in order to get their opinions for my calculations. And then write 15-20 pages on it. It’s been a long few weeks.
I’ll spare you the rest of my rantings. I’ve managed to find some other things to do as the year winds down. We’re all started going to our favorite restaurants as a sort of “goodbye tour”, going to the parts of the city we hadn’t had the chance to visit yet, and getting ready to say our farewells. It’s an emotional time; as a bunch of students in a foreign country, we’ve been bonded by our shared experiences. Leaving that all behind will be incredibly difficult, and we’ve all tried to avoid that topic of conversation.
And drown our sorrows with retail therapy. As my time in Shanghai has come to a close, I’ve been doing my last major bouts of shopping for friends back home. In China, you can get pretty much anything touristy that you’d ever want for a fraction of the price that it would be available for in the States, if you know where to look.
Below the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum is the Science and Technology Museum subway station. This subway station isn’t just a transit point, however; it houses a massive shopping complex known as the A.P. Xinyang Fashion and Gifts Market. To us, though, it’s known as the fake market. It’s a confusing jumble of stalls (really more like small stores at this point) filled with aggressive shop owners. Random men approach you and try to sell you watches. When you turn them down, they follow you, hounding you and trying to convince you to come see their various goods. And there are lots of goods to buy: you can find every manner of souvenir, such as silk ties, porcelain, high power lasers (Jordan bought one and enjoys lighting things on fire with it), you name it, they’ve got it. However, it’s most prominent for its luxury goods. Here, large stalls are crammed with Prada bags, Nike shoes, Tumi luggage, name-brand sunglasses, and expensive electronics for tiny fractions of their usual prices. People haggle viciously here, and depending on what you’re buying, you can get some amazingly low prices for great stuff. I’m not really into buying those kind of things, but tons of tourists frequent the area. Pretty much every designer good you could ever hope to find is available there. They’re all fake, of course, though “fake” doesn’t necessarily mean “low quality”. If you know what to look for, you can buy pretty high-quality fakes. In fact, some of the nicer fakes come from the actual factories that the real products come from. All those luxury watches and fancy shoes are all made in China anyway (those watches are only assembled in Switzerland. They’re made in some Chinese industrial sprawl, like everything else you own). If you go to certain stores, you can essentially buy the exact same shoes/bags/wallets/glasses that you could get back home, and the only difference is that they have different labels. $1,200 dollar shoes are $25 dollars if you’re good. Watches that costs a month’s salary in the United States cost a day’s here.
And to any United States customs officials who are reading this, I of course would never purchase counterfeit goods and bring them back home. That would be illegal. And immoral. I might accidentally throw those noble luxury goods producers out on the streets, and then where would we be as a society?
Now, not that I would condone buying fake goods, and I’m only reporting the stories that I’ve heard from my heinous, greedy friends. But if you want glasses, here’s what you do. You can go to one of the glasses stalls in the fake market and get your eyesight tested. Either you can get an eye exam there, or you bring your glasses and they just take a copy of them. Then, using a lens grinder, they make you a new set of lenses while you pick a frame. They have all the luxury glasses brands, including lots of sunglasses. You can get prescription sunglasses, too so that you can wear sunglasses without contacts. And the best part is that they’re cheap. Glasses that go for $500 dollars in back home can go for as little as $30 or less if you know how to haggle.
…or so I’ve heard, of course.
This has been nice. No travel, just my day-to-day life in Shanghai.
And now, I will talk about my most recent trip outside of the city. I’m not good at holding still for extended periods of time. I need to see things.
Well, my trip wasn’t technically outside Shanghai, per se. You see, Shanghai isn’t just a staggeringly large city. It’s also a kind of province, or more accurately a direct-controlled municipality. There are four of these municipalities in China, centered around major cities, and they’re on the same level as provinces. However, the municipality includes a portion of the surrounding countryside, including some smaller towns that have essentially becomes suburbs on Shanghai. The one that we went to visit was Songjiang, which is my roommate William’s hometown. Located west of Shanghai, it’s now connected to the city by the metro system, which means that getting there isn’t particularly hard. Nevertheless, it’s still some ways out. William wanted to take us to meet his family and see his hometown, so we decided to head out for a day trip to visit. After a very long train ride outside of Shanghai’s city limits, we arrived at one of the last stops on the line, in Songjiang. From there, William’s mother (who was super kind to us) took William, Jordan, and I out for some sightseeing.
First, we all headed out to visit Zhujiajiao. Zhujiajiao is a water town, which is basically an old historic town crisscrossed with canals instead of major roads. It dates back nearly 2,000 years ago, and still has architecture from the Yuan dynasty, more than 700 years ago. Zhujiajiao is beautiful. Restaurants, teahouses, and the omnipresent touristy shopping stalls crowd narrow alleys that end in little docks by the canals. Old boats cruise back and forth along the waterways. Stone bridges link the sections of the town and present a beautiful view of the area. There are also many old temples. William brought us to a Buddhist temple, where he paid his respects to the various Buddhist images. We also passed by the temple for the city god of wealth, who (as you might guess) has a rather garish temple honoring him. We got a meal at one of the restaurants overlooking a canal, where William’s mother bought us food and got me some vegetarian dishes. At one point a rice cooker loudly exploded, filling the room with acrid smoke, which was rather startling. Past that, it was fairly pleasant.
And since we were in a scenic place, Jordan decided to have a mini-photoshoot. In our little housing complex, there’s a tattoo parlor, and Jordan got a Chinese phrase tattooed on his side and wanted to take some pictures. Credit to Jordan, he’s got no shame. He’s perfectly willing to take his shirt off in public for an Instagram picture. At least with all of our Chinese teachers around, you know you won’t accidentally tattoo some nonsense onto your body. You’d be surprised how many Chinese tattoos are totally wrong.
(Yeah. That’s right. You think that tattoo says “friendship”? I’d run it by Google translate or an actual Chinese person. Or maybe you really did want “larva” permanently etched onto your body. I’m not judging.)
William also took us to Songjiang University, which has a scenic campus with some pretty rivers. As the Dragon Boat Festival (a major Chinese holiday) approaches, people have been training for the boat races. Teams of people gather by China’s rivers to participate in the dragon boat races, where the coordinated rowers compete. It’s an important festival, and we watched the team practice their rowing in preparation for the race.
From there, we went to William’s home and had dinner with his family. His parents, aunt, uncle, and a few other relatives came to eat with us. Dinner was wonderful. William’s family specifically made me a bunch of vegetarian dishes. They were almost aggressively welcoming, constantly encouraging me to take more food or just directly piling it on my plate. That’s a very common Chinese custom of hospitality, and I graciously accepted. However, dinner was also incredibly frustrating. My Mandarin isn’t fluent by any means, but I couldn’t understand a single word that anyone was saying. It took me a few minutes to realize that they weren’t speaking Mandarin. William informed me that they were speaking what he referred to as Sōngjiānghuà, which would probably be translated as “Songjiangnese” or the local Songjiang dialect of Chinese. Songjiangnese is completely unintelligible if you only speak Mandarin, and as such I needed William to help translate what was being said most of the time.
I also learned how to play Mahjong, which is a very popular traditional Chinese game. For those who don’t know how to play, Mahjong involves making groups of different tiles based on their patterns or numbers. It’s a lot of fun, and Jordan and I actually managed to win a few games. Most of the time, however, William’s father crushed us. They have an automated mahjong board where you push all the tiles into a pit in the center of the board and it automatically set the game up for you, which is very efficient. Following that, we took the long trek home on Shanghai’s metro, back into the maw of finals.
All in all, it’s been an interesting and busy couple of weeks. Another thing of interest that happened was the Chinese performance contest. We had to create and present a skit or song to the student body and our Chinese teachers (who acted as the judges). We wrote an overly dramatic love story with a popular Chinese song number afterwards. Of course my marvelous Chinese class and I won, and I got a cool messenger bag for my work. I can see how much my Chinese has improved since I arrived. I’ve grown to love China, and it’s hard to see my time end here. And since this is my second-to-last post, I’ll have to end off this blog series with something interesting. I’d elaborate more but I have papers to write.
I’ll leave you with this: last week in class, we had another language placement test. Actually, it was exactly the same as the first placement test that we took. Maybe you remember: the first one that trashed me emotionally. And don’t get me wrong, it was still difficult. The questions still got harder and harder until you couldn’t answer them and were forced to move on. But it was significantly easier. I knew far more characters and grammar patterns than when I arrived in China. Not that I doubted that my Chinese would improve, but it’s nice to have a tangible measurement of how much my Chinese proficiency increased. I learned so much on my time abroad.
And as always, here’s the worst English of the week. I know I do a lot of menus, but they’re absolutely hilarious. I can’t decide whether or not I want some “fried peabut” or a “sautéed brake”. Decisions, decisions.