Chaotic Order vs Tranquil Organization

Toto, I have feeling we’re not in Shanghai anymore! 

Palm trees? Clean air? No blaring horns? And “excuse me” ‘s? What is this?? Where am I??

Surely not Shanghai.

Who knew a two-hour flight across the East China sea rests an island of total tranquility? A mere 427 miles and you escape the merciless city of Shanghai and are transported to the serene scene of Taipei. Immediately after our arrival, evidence of distinctions was everywhere. From the use of traditional characters, to the immense Japanese influence, the essence of Taiwanese uniqueness is even visually clear. But what was truly astonishing was the level of civil order that contributes to Taipei’s overall peaceful atmosphere. The stark differentiation between Shanghai and Taipei is largely cemented in this distinctive civil behavior.

At no other place have I ever experienced an entire population of modern urban citizens all abiding to the law. Contrastingly, as my fellow classmate, Lincoln Davidson, previously noted, China is a country that operates on the idea: rules that aren’t rules. Taiwan on the other hand, has explicit instructions everywhere and everyone follows them. Lining up in the correct location in the metro; waiting patiently for the passengers to descend; and fastening your seatbelt in the taxi all demonstrate Taiwan’s orderly virtue.  In Taipei, I could let my guard down; I felt no need to constantly be on the defensive. The transportation system and public facilities were all clean and orderly. Stealing apparently was not an issue either.  One evening, I witnessed two school girls leave their book bags at a table they intended to occupy with no concern of thievery at a food court. If this isn’t the closest model of a utopian city, I don’t know what is.

Don’t get me wrong; I am city girl. I love the hustle and bustle of the busy streets and thrive off the sensation of urgency. And of course consumerism is my drug of choice, but with the introduction to Taipei, I question why other metropolises cannot follow suit? Taipei has all the glitz and glamour of city conveniences without the stress. Prior to our visit, I did not believe words such as “serene” and “tranquil” could be associated with any city.

But is this reality? Is it that I am blinded by the outwardly aesthetics that I cannot really see what’s going on? I am at a loss on how this sense of tranquility is feasible in a major metropolis. What secrets does this little island carry to maintain such perfect order? Even with the brewing political tensions under the surface, there is simply no evidence of upheaval or distress. Perhaps it will take more than just four days in Taiwan to fully grasp what’s really going on, but it is undoubtedly a place where’d I love to call home.

A Peace of Taiwan in My Sole

The last night of our four-day trip to Taipei, I wanted to be bold!

From my understanding, many massage parlors function as a dual enterprise. While you can indeed receive a massage, if not careful, you could find yourself receiving something a little more than a basic package. Granted, these “special” deals might be strictly reserved for my male counterparts since scantily dressed women have never inquired whether I’d like a “sexy massage.”

Regardless of this knowledge, I was determined to satisfy my urge to get a foot massage.  Four days in a row, I abused my soles with the long excursions across Taipei. At the end of every journey, I nosily peeped through the glass, quickly assessing the legitimacy of the establishment, simultaneously wishing I was the one lounging in a plush green chair with my feet up. My desire to relieve this physical stress continued to brew. It was imperative that I addressed this issue. After all, what’s wrong with spoiling yourself a little?

After careful consideration, and days of being teased by the constant allure, I had to fulfill my curiosity. So I embarked on a journey to an unknown territory…

Bright and inviting, I strolled in Sunday evening and was greeted with a friendly smile from the owner. She kindly escorted me to an area where I would prepare for my foot massage by soaking my feet in a pail of skin-softening bath salts. Now on the other side of the glass, it was evident that this parlor was not the shady ones I had heard and read about. The establishment was bright and clean. Within moments, my mind was at ease. No shady business here.

The parlor was also distinct in its use of Chinese and Japanese texts. While soaking my feet, the co-owner greeted me as well. Noticing the immense influence of Japanese, I asked him if this was Japanese owned business. Once confirming my assumptions, I attempted to speak a little Japanese. After almost five years of not speaking the language, it was definitely a struggle. It ended up being an interesting compilation of Japanese and Chinese.  But nonetheless, we were able to communicate.

After five minutes of soak time and a little conversation, it was time for the real deal. It was finally my time to enjoy the plush green chair and what would hopefully be a pleasurable, lawful experience.

And it was. In fact, it was the best 40 minutes my soles had ever experienced! For only NTD 500 (or about USD 17), my precious feetsy’s and I were pampered like a princess. Not only was I provided a delicious cup of tea with, I also enjoyed a delightful exchange with my masseuse! Although he was an elderly gentleman, he was quite lively and very enthused. Curious to know about my studies and whereabouts, we discussed several topics, periodically interrupting the conversation to explain the complex reflexology as he applied pressure to certain areas. Overall, the experience surpassed my expectations.

In retrospect, my initial concerns were unwarranted. Taiwan is not China. Taipei is not Shanghai. The quality of life differs, as well as how they conduct business. Clearly, I had nothing to worry about. The masseuse’s performance yielded a sense of tranquility exclusively available in Taiwan. I left feeling like a new woman, ready to take on the commotion of Shanghai. Twenty bucks well spent.

China’s Public Display of Affection

Within the first 72 hours, we were ready to explore what Shanghai’s nightlife had in store.  Yet, we patiently waited for our “much needed” lecture on how to properly behave and conduct ourselves before hitting the scene. 

After days of avoiding the impending talk, we finally got Fuji to address what needed to be addressed. Besides the typical shpeal on being safe and watching out for each other, he further elaborated on the delicate nature of Chinese relationships. Emphasizing the cultural difference between the American and the Chinese notion of affairs, we were warned to stay clear of such interactions.  In other words, no hook ups. Fine by me. Given I already have a loving boyfriend, this definitely was not going to be an issue. And while I had no interest in hooking up in Shanghai, the discussion on Chinese relationships was fascinating nonetheless.

Due to the culturally embedded belief that one’s behavior is a reflection of one’s family, proper conduct is necessary to avoid “losing face.” By understanding that one’s reputation is at stake, it easy to comprehend why relationships are regarded with such seriousness. Additionally, there is a well-received perception that Chinese students have no time for nonsense. Busy studying and not finagling love interests, Chinese students are definitely presumed to be more studious and focused than us American students.

And yet, since the “talk,” what I have observed has intriguingly challenged such angelic perceptions. Everyday I am made increasingly aware of the apparent clash between the conventional attitudes and the actual behavior of today’s couples. After discussions with Fuji, Dr. Shen, and Wei Laoshi, it made it seem as if Chinese couples were extremely modest and did not indulge in any forms of public displays of affection…. FALSE.

While such projections may be the result of China’s deep-rooted desire to impose a picture perfect image of its citizens, there is nothing wrong with showing a little bit of love (‘course that maybe the Western in me speaking). Although PDA largely remains to be a foreign concept, there is a clear divergence from its traditional concept of “proper” relationship etiquette. From the simplest form of actions such as holding hands and coordinating outfits, to the more overt act of full on groping, I have seen it all. Evidently the combination of Western influences and the rise of a new generation have opened doors to new means of expression and behavior. Simply observing the sheer mass availability of condoms and hyper-sexualized advertisements and may attest to China’s increasing acceptance of Public Displays of Affection.

The Art of Not Giving a !@#$

Anyone can shop, but not everyone can bargain.

Bargaining in China takes finesse, guile, and a little bit of attitude. First you have to come to terms with the fact that the item you want may or may not be real (I personally like to believe that the items, “fell from the back of the truck” but that’s just me). Second you need determine what you are willing to pay and stick to it. Most importantly, the third rule is to not show interest. In other words, act like you don’t give a damn.

With all this in mind, a small group of us headed down to the notorious Fake Market on 南京西路 (West Nanjing Road) early Saturday afternoon. We’ve been here over a month now, and it was time to put my skills to the test. Four stories of “Gucci, Gucci, Louis, Louis, Fendi, Fendi, Prada” and other “name brand” goodies awaited our purchase…Challenge accepted!

The soliciting begins as soon as we walked through the door. Men and women alike called for our attention, fighting to get us behind the “secret” closed doors. And once you step in their office, the real work begins. Remember: restrain all excitement from surfacing your face. One must master the art of not giving a !@#$ to get what thou wants.

With my voluminous curly hair and cappuccino-colored skin, it is obvious I am not a native Chinese girl. But when it comes to buying-and-selling, all cultural or linguistic barriers are demolished. Nonetheless, utilizing whatever mandarin phrases you know is quite helpful. Simply using:“太贵了!(tai gui le! = too expensive!)” or “ 你疯了?! (Ni feng le?! =Are you crazy?!)” clearly gets the message across that you mean business. The exchange can take up to a half an hour. The banter between merchant and customer is like a game of cat and mouse. Where the merchant or “the ‘cat’ is unable to secure a definitive victory over the ‘mouse’ [the customer], who despite not being able to defeat the cat, is able to avoid capture.” [1] It is without a doubt the liveliest game you will ever play, and the reward is so sweet. If you succeed in the exercise of comprising, not only do you take home goodies, but also you have now become that much greater in the Art of Not Giving a !@#$. So, congratulations my friend, you have bargained yourself a Chanel purse, a Long Champ bag, and a Chanel wallet all for less than the average price of a pair of Jessica Simpson heels!

Nice shopping!


If You Teach Me, I’ll Teach You

I desperately want to understand!

Putting your “normal” life aside, and plunging yourself into a separate society is not enough. If you really want to learn a different language and culture, you need to eat, sleep, and drink like the natives. In other words, “入乡随俗 (rù xiāng suí sú) !” When in Rome, do as the Romans do! Or better yet, when in Shanghai, does as the Shanghaies do…But of course, easier said than done.

In a city where Western culture bears influence on nearly every aspect of contemporary living, we have been virtually catered to the moment we got off the plane. From our modern apartment styled dorms, to the delivery service of McDonald’s, there are a plethora of Western token items everywhere. Not that I am complaining! I have definitely indulged in my fair share of late night Chicken Nuggets and shopping trips to H&M. Despite these luxury accommodations, a subconscious concern intensifies: with readily available conveniences at my fingertips, am I truly embracing all the gems the culture and language has to offer?

Sure I have made some adjustments to better suit the Shanghai lifestyle: drinking tea without sugar; line drying my clothes; not being annoyed when people push and shove; being an assertive pedestrian; trying various cuisines…the list goes on, but I am not convinced. Have I fully developed an appreciation of what it’s really like to live in Shanghai? Probably not.

To add to the disappointment, I have officially “lived” in Shanghai for a month, and yet my listening comprehension and speaking skills may have improved by ten percent…Ugh.

This is unacceptable! I REFUSE to go back to Davidson without some type of improvement! Time for a reassessment…

To avoid being like the typical obnoxious 老外(lăo wài= foreigner) who comes more to “YOLO”[i] in Shanghai rather than to engage in the community, I’ve accepted the challenge to not only to teach, but to be taught. In this week’s learning quest, I was granted the opportunity to make a Chinese graduate friend from Fudan, and also tutor English to a shy twelve-year-old girl. The exchange was…difficult. While it was wonderful to interact with natives, after countless hours of trying to speak as eloquently as possible, my brain was exhausted. Emily (the Fudan graduate student), Angela and Mr. Yan (the twelve year old girl and her father) took sincere interest in my learning, but I am sure they found the encounter just as incomprehensible as I did. And yet, even with the struggle of breaking down the language barrier, an implicit ladder of appreciation had developed.

Although spoken language may sustain temporary barriers, the sheer interaction with natives will gradually open up the realms to the real Shanghai experience. So make the effort! They see you trying. This might explain why whenever I go to Jiangxi’s restaurant (I am a adoring weekly customer), the waitresses greet with me “Hello!” or a “Thank you!” while I speak to them in Chinese. Even my tutoring sessions with Angela are more of a simultaneous learning experience than a student-teacher atmosphere. These types of repeated, purposefully encounters are necessary to cultivate cross-cultural understanding. So again, make the effort!

If you teach me, I’ll teach you!


[i] For the older generation: “YOLO” –Idiomatic Phrase: You Only Live Once

Disclaimer: this is not a reference to those trying new things, but rather to the despicable “students” who take advantage of the availability of alcohol and party Monday thru Saturday