Heaven on Earth

During childhood visits to Taiwan, my mom would joke to friends that we were going on vacation to eat and then see family. If there’s one thing that I wish little Yangpu Qu had, it would be better food. Taiwanese food is great, but what’s best about it is to food culture. Nearly neighborhood has a nightmarket-like area filled with food vendors that are hoping from dawn to early morning. The locales value every meal of the day and the options reflect that. Visiting for a month last year with a friend traveling to Taiwan for the first time, we tried something new everyday for over a week. It started with my favorites, which I try to get my fix of as soon as I hop off the plane. Often after being picked up from the airport, we’ll head straight for some面线(oyster vermicelli) or a quick 红豆牛奶冰 (red bean milk shaved ice) before heading home to see the relatives. After my personal cravings were taken care of, some of which Bennett wasn’t very fond of, we explored the unknown.

Taiwan has gained a reputation internationally, especially among Asian countries, for having delicious food and it has spurred the evolution of an immense food culture. Returning nearly every year, I seem to stumble upon a new food stand or my uncle will divert us from our usual watering holes to new places closer to home. The Taiwanese have embraced their reputation and have a strong drive to maintain it. The food therefore has only gotten better. Night markets have begun to focus more and more on small eats and Taiwanese delicacies and less on clothes and tourist goods. I honestly cannot remember the last time I spent money at a night market aside from food.

This is not to say Shanghai’s food has been less than adequate. I’ve been pleased, but there is definitely a discrepancy in culture. Street lined food vendors are simply hard to come by and the few that exist are great. Jianbing, the crepe-egg-fried dough breakfast sandwich is a great start to my day and nowhere has the ubiquitous xiaolongbao restaurants with countless “longs” ready for take out in minutes. While there are many things that the two cities can learn from each other, food is one aspect of culture that Shanghai could use a few pointers from Taipei.

Traditional Pride

After telling my family in Taiwan that I was studying at Fudan University in Shanghai for a semester, the first question I was asked was “Why are you going to the Mainland?”. When I told them I was going to improve my Chinese, they were ecstatic, especially after my 17 years growing up with the proficiency of a 6 year old. However, it wasn’t before long before one relative lets out a loud and nasally, yet classic Taiwanese interjection, “ayennn, so are you learning to write too? But wait, they use simplified don’t they? So sad”. This is the usual dialogue I have with each of my Taiwanese relatives since I’ve been “home”.  I’ll almost certainly receive a few comments if they catch me practicing characters around the house. Often times, they’ll sit down with me and show me characters that don’t make sense, have lost their true meaning, or are too simply confused with others. Then they’ll explain to me that they still use Zhuyin or “bo, po, mo, fo” that was also phased out of the PRC when the language was simplified. At first, I merely regarded their comments as chauvinistic Taiwanese pride, but as they confront me more and more, I’m slowly beginning to regret my year and a half learning simplified. Since being in Taiwan, I’ve been able to decode various traditional characters and many of the transitions are quite seamless, logical. I can begin to understand that living in Taiwan next summer won’t be quite the challenge I had imagined, however it’s the entire learning process that I resent the most.

As I do my homework at the dinner table with my cousin who’s 8 years old, I glance over at her Chinese workbook and see the beautiful pictures, bright colors, and playful stories. Then, I go back to reading The New Chinese Practical Reader and about 王小云 picking up her uncle at the train station as boredom consumes me. Examining her book more closely, I notice the Zhuyin next to each character. I then learn there are entire children’s books written with Zhuyin next to it and more importantly, during my grandfather’s worship, she was able to read scriptures while I was left in the dust. Perhaps, my frustration is with consistency, but it goes a little beyond that. Zhuyin does not have the adverse effects that I’ve noticed with Pinyin. As a native English speaker, I often rely too heavily on the pronunciation of my native tongue rather than learning the new pronunciation sounds that come with a new language. Zhuyin doesn’t allow this. An entirely foreign set of symbols, each paired with a sound, forcing a new learner to memorize these sounds. Although inapplicable to a person without experience with the romantic alphabet, I find that there would be a “two birds with one stone” scenario in learning Zhuyin first and allowing Pinyin to come naturally. In text, I find my lazy eyes more drawn to the pinyin written under the characters than the characters themselves. Zhuyin is written directly to the right of a character, forcing the reader to first recognize the character before it.

Traditional characters are another story. With a year and a half of study, I understand a tiny percentage of the etymology behind characters and the differences between Traditional and Simplified script. However, from what I’ve learned from my peers and family, Traditional characters just make more sense. I’ve noticed that the Chinese language has inherently more depth than English. Seldom are we taught in schools the roots and etymology of English words. We simply learn to spell it and memorize a definition. However, the key to memorizing thousands of characters is to understand them and be able to conceptualize how they are formed. A memorization technique, meaning, and sound bundled into one. Then when my aunt shows me words that were simplified because they sounded the same at the cost of the radicals that differentiated them, it turns learning some simplified characters into pure memorization. I also can’t help but feel inadequate when my young cousin can breeze through my text, while I can read 50% of hers just because the transition from traditional to simplified is more fluid than vice versa.

Perhaps I’ve been easily brainwashed by my Taiwanese heritage, perhaps I’m lazy and need a more fool proof method of learning so I don’t distract myself from learning characters, perhaps I just need to suck it up because there are millions of people learning pinyin and simplified characters just fine and without complaint. Still, I can’t help but have a subtle urge to be taught the way my family was; to retain the fullest meaning of a language without shortcuts.



Picture 1: http://www.inews.com.tw/images/mempic/news/1304666418.jpg,

Picture 2: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2009-07/17/content_8439397.htm


Shanghai Rolex Masters

Today marks the final day of the Shanghai Rolex Masters, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament. Shanghai has been hosting this tournament since 2009 and is one of nine Masters 1000 tournaments during the tennis season. These high level tournaments are ranked 3rd in prestige after the 4 Grand Slam tournaments and the ATP World Finals at the end of the year. Shanghai’s tournament has won tournament of the year for 3 years running and this year was able to draw the numbers 1, 2, and 3 players in the world, an impressive feat for any tournament aside from the slams. 

I couldn’t have picked a better year to catch the tournament. This year was special in tennis. Each of the top 4 ranked players won a grand slam, and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are in a dead-even race for the number 1 ranking. The Shanghai Masters is the last tournament of the year before the finals in which only the top 8 players qualify. This resulted in an incredible draw and a great opportunity for me to attend my first tennis tournament.

Saturday, the first day, was filled with qualifying matches and was free to the public. My tennis partner Zhaoxin accompanied me along the long journey from Tonghe into Minhang District where the beautifully architected Qi Zhong Stadium. Our 2 hour journey consisted of riding the MTR to Xinzhuang Station at the end of line 1 and then taking one of the tournament’s FedEx sponsored shuttles another 30 minutes to the isolated tennis complex. My only complaint of the tournament, with the last matches of the day beginning no earlier than 8pm, leaving early still resulted in returning home past 11:30pm.

Arriving in this tennis wonderland the first day was everything I had hoepd for from a tennis tournament. There are 21 courts in the whole park with center court housed in Qi Zhong stadium perhaps the second most beautiful stadium I’ve ever seen to Lambeau Field. The stadium has 8 rotating pedals resembling a blooming magnolia flower that also rotate as retractable roofs. Aimlessly walking towards a court, I stumbled upon American John Isner just after a practice. Finding some of my favorite players from a little wandering became a common practice during my 5 days attending the tournament. In total, I was able to see 17 of the top 20 players in the world practice and/or play and for a few of those players, perhaps my last opportunity to ever see them compete.

A truly international sport, Shanghai acts a perfect backdrop for a tennis tournament. Although the universal language for the tournament is English, many of the chair umpires from all over the world brushed up on a few key phrases. At every match, I had the pleasure of listening to Germans, French, and Americans asking the ball people for qiu (balls) and maojin (towel) and the crowd to qing zuo xia (please sit down) and qing guan shou ji (please turn off cell phones) in very thick accents. Appreciative snickers from the Chinese audience always followed their valiant attempts. My favorite Chinese influence of the whole tournament however is Qi Zhong’s way of honoring their former tournament winners, dating back to 2005. Each winner is enshrined with a personalized statue clothed Chinese warrior garb creating an unique clashing of cultures.

As I write this post, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Andy Murray of England are in the midst of a great finals match that has been receiving praise as one of the greatest matches of the year in live comments by those in the tennis world. Shanghai is deserving of such a great tournament and they have responded to the responsibility in unprecedented fashion. The fans are respectful, yet enthusiastic and the venues are clean and elegant. Players have continually cited the Shanghai Masters as one of their favorite and most respected tournaments of the year and I couldn’t have been more spoiled by my first tennis tournament.

A Brew of Surprises

A couple weeks ago, Lincoln and I ventured into Pudong to attend the Kerry Beer Festival. We left Tonghe and took the hour-long subway trip across the river, arriving in another new part of the city for us to explore. The subway station at Huamu Road opens directly into a large, modern shopping mall. We followed the echoing music through the mall into a spacious courtyard in the center. Bright orange umbrellas and tents covered small bar tables and about 12 different stands from a large variety of locations. We made a quick lap browsing the different brews available and settled on a microbrewery cleverly called THE BREW which is located at the festival’s title sponsor’s first floor, the five star Kerry Hotel. I had a glass of the White Ant, a refreshing ale with a subtle, light citrusy after taste. Lincoln tried the Pilsner to which he gave favorable reviews. Unbeknownst to both of us at the time, both of these beers, as well as many others at this festival, had just won awards at the 2012 Beerfest Asia Awards in Singapore, a reflection of the high quality microbrews located right here in Shanghai. It didn’t take long for us to succumb to the delicious aroma surrounding the entire festival and grab a pulled pork sandwich from the grill. Though nowhere near BBQ experts after spending a year in North Carolina, we had low expectations for the pulled pork, Shanghai style. Much to our surprise, we found that there was an entire pig roast and we had arrived just in time to grab a couple sandwich’s worth. The sandwiches were great, but even better was the company with which we shared a table while eating.

We began talking with an old retired couple from suburban Philadelphia and her visiting granddaughter. We learned that they had both worked in education and after retiring and having never before lived abroad, decided to begin another phase of their lives in Pudong. This opened my eyes to a whole other demographic. The beauty of Shanghai, and even more so, Pudong, is the ability for expats to integrate into Chinese culture at their leisure. Surely there are hundreds of businessmen living here, speaking only very elementary Chinese, but for every one of them there is an expat fully immersed in Shanghai culture. In Pudong, perhaps a city almost too western and cookie-cutter designed, one only sees what they choose too. It’s likely that the folks we met don’t have to walk past the “pee corner” on Wudong Lu, but in turn, they also most likely don’t get to experience the 6 Yuan fried rice by north gate of 5 Yuan xiaolongbaos by the hospital. Each area of Shanghai seems to cater to a different type of person.


As I meet more and more people and their stories, Shanghai’s diversity becomes increasingly apparent. More shocking than our satisfaction with our barbequed pork was the whole expat community that has been completely “foreign” living in Pudong’s shadow all the way in Yangpu District. As two Americans, we felt almost as if we were outsiders in a place that should have felt more like home than anywhere in the city, old American punk and funk blaring throughout the festival. Everyone seemed to know each other and small groups came and congregated with other old friends they probably hung out with after work a few days before.

Removed from the location in eastern China, this small western bubble could have been mistaken for a beer festival from London to San Francisco. We thought we hopped off the train on another continent. Despite this sentiment however, it is almost naïve of us not to expect what we experienced that day given how international and multicultural Shanghai has become. As we continue to explore the endless limits of this amazing city, we can only hope to continue to be pleasantly surprised.

Fragmented Religion

When my mother moved to the US from Taiwan in 1992, she left behind nearly all of her religious practices. Adapting to a new culture, learning a new language, and working 60 hours a week made it difficult for her to maintain her old lifestyle and customs, religion included. As I grew up, my only glimpses of any type of religion were coloring books in the pews of our local church that my mom forced me to attend and visiting miaos during our annual trips back to Taiwan. I would simply go through the motions, copying the way my mom prayed to Guanyin and Guangong while burning incenses and dropping the red blocks pretending to be looking for answers. I would aimlessly travel with her to dozens of temples all around Taiwan and we would visit my late ancestors high in the hills of Beitou to pay respects. Many of my memories of Taiwan consist of a wide variety of different religious practices that included extravagant feasts offered to our ancestors and burning paper money in the streets. However, despite my participation in these events, they’re meanings were crafted from my own reflection and perceptions of the actions. I had little direction or explanation from my elders around me. They were merely parts of life that blended into staples of my Taiwanese vacations. They didn’t feel “religious” per se, it was just something we did every year. Back in the states, my house has a large milefo near the doorway, and for much of my childhood, I wore an amber jade Guangong around my neck. In America, religion stopped there.

My confusion reached its peak last summer during a solo trip to Taiwan. My Da Jiu Jiu (Pictured above in the green polo) took me to a large religious procession in which we followed an extravagant parade which I deduced was the birthday celebration of a local deity. During this 5 hour long event, we marched along, banged drums, set off fireworks, prayed, sang, and danced. It culminated in the foothills of some mountains when I was able to witness a man possessed by the god. This man, or a “spirit medium” which I now learned, became the center of attention as small children would do a dance of offering to him as he then proceeded to torture his body. This involved burning his shoulders, face, and back with burning embers and slicing his tongue with a large sword. The feeling was indescribable and I can’t wait to ask my uncle more about it when we visit later this month.

Now after living in Shanghai and reading about Chinese folk religion, my blurred lines of Chinese customs and Chinese religion are beginning to become more defined. Yet, at the same time, the gray area that I’ve grown up in has also become further reinforced. It seems there’s a constant interweaving of Chinese culture’s customs and their folk religion. Whether it’s praying and celebrating the opening of a new store or having a small shrine in the kitchen of a restaurant, the constant overlap is ubiquitous. It’s enlightening to finally give meaning to the things I’ve done since I was a kid. My yearning to study abroad here was driven by a need to learn the language of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and mom and dad. But what I didn’t think about was how language was the barrier keeping me from “my” religion. Richard Madsen and Elijah Siegler define this sentiment clearly, writing that many first generation Americans such as myself have lost religion during our parent’s immigration. The “disconnect” they write of seems all too real as I slowly piece together my memories and give them meaning.