A Travellerspoint blog

Spring Showers

overcast 17 °C

Hello everyone! We hope that you all are having a good spring! Although I must take a moment to rub in the fact that we have not had snow since February and the temperature has not dipped below 50 since the beginning of March, sorry for all you in Michigan who are still getting occasional snow showers! Spring has always been a marker for new life and opportunity and so it seems here in Shanghai as well. The streets have been bustling with people and Nate and I have felt a re-surging energy and excitement about our time here as well. We have had more opportunities to go out on the streets and experience the culture and also do some sightseeing.

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In the past few months our street has slowly been getting busier and busier with street vendors and outside restaurants. I would estimate that there were over 100 small shops set up on the sidewalk. By shops I mean people with small blankets and a small selection or clothes or trinkets that they are trying to sell (see below). There was even a carnival game set up and you could win a giant stuffed animal! The outdoor restaurants are just small kitchens on a cart with wheels, people set up maybe half a dozen tables and you can choose from a variety of prepared dishes. The service is always fast and very convenient.

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All of these types of vendors, food and clothes vendors, are technically illegal. Like in the states, there are rules about health codes (don't act so surprised) and selling stolen or pirated goods. Mostly, these shops are overlooked by the police but occasionally, the government will remind everyone that what they are doing is illegal. That was the case on our street last week Monday. On Sunday night, the streets were bustling as usual but on Monday when we went for a walk there was not even one vendor on the street! Instead there are huge red banners talking about "food safety for all". We were quite disappointed, especially Nate, he often would walk down that street and have small conversations with the vendors and its overall carnival feel was really energizing. Luckily, we have noticed some vendors slowly setting up shop over the weekend, I counted 10 last night. These vendors are still being cautious though, they mostly were selling things from the back of their bikes in case there was a need for a quick get away! We are hopeful everyone else will come back soon.
Also, we have bought a Nintendo Wii. The only Wiis available over here are all the Japanese version so all the menus are in Japanese which was a little tricky at first but I think we have figured out what we need to now. The game system itself is about the same price as what you can buy one for in the States but it came with a mod chip that allows us to play games from any country. Although the system was kind of pricey, the games only cost about 70 cents! We have already bought like 20 games. It has been a nice party game and have had friends over a couple times to play some boxing and bowling, its a pretty big hit and we are really glad that we decided to get it.

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Nate also started doing some Kung Fu again. Our friend Mark and him are going 2 times a week to practice Wing Chun, a different kind of Kung Fu than Nate was doing before but he is really enjoying. Although, after a couple nights of punching the bag, he has some pretty beat up knuckles and I'm hoping that he'll get some gloves soon.
Work has also been good, both Nate & I have full schedules now with 7 classes each. There have been some more personnel changes at both of our centers, which has been a constant problem since we got here, but I think that we are both really happy with our teams right now which makes work much more enjoyable!
Sadly, our friend Henry's restaurant, which we used to go to several times a week, has closed down. They ran into several problems and discovered that it was much more work than they anticipated, we were really sad to see it close as it was a place to meet with friends, it was like "Cheers" and a really nice place to relax. Below is a picture on closing night from left to right is Nana (a co-owner with Henry), Amara, Erik, Nate, Heidi, Mark, Cheng Jia and Li Jun.

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In the next few weeks, we are hoping to do some more traveling. There is yet another holiday coming up the first week of May which means that we have about 2 weeks off of work. We haven't really traveled to the center of China yet and we are hoping to head to Sichuan for about a week (thats the spicy food province of China, I think thats secretly why Nate is interested in going there, haha). After some time in Sichuan, we are looking into taking a Yangtze River Cruise back towards Shanghai. The cruises start on the east side of Sichuan and travel all the way to Shanghai, although we will probably not take the boat that far as it takes too much time. We are hoping to go through the Three Gorges area and see some beautiful scenery (although we will NOT be doing any swimming!).
So thats whats happening over here! We can't really believe that it has been nine months since we left home, in some ways it seems to have gone by so fast and in other ways it seems like a lifetime since we have seen any of you guys! We love and miss you all and love to hear from you, let us know whats going on in your lives if you have the time!
Love, Nate & Heidi

Posted by heidigras 04:01 Archived in China Comments (0)

A Visit from Family!

sunny 14 °C

Well, the time finally arrived! My dad & Laurie came for a highly anticipated visit and we had a great time! I picked them up from the airport on February 22 and when I first saw them, I thought that maybe they had decided to Move to China, I think they brought as much luggage as Nate and I did last summer! (That said, one suitcase was for food items that we had requested such as cheese, cheetos and fixin's for tacos.) We took the bus and then a taxi (that we barely fit in) to their hotel which was located on Nanjing Road, the most famous shopping street in Shanghai. It was a nice place for them to begin their journey as it wasn't "too Chinese", it was a little China and a little NYC so it was a good transition place for them to stay. The first weekend they were here was pretty uneventful, Nate & I worked on Saturday and Dad & Laurie were pretty pooped from traveling. We had some Chinese food but didn't do much touring around. We walked around our neighborhood which gave Dad a great opportunity to use his camera, he has a great point and shoot method of taking pictures that is so secretive that nobody knows he's taking their picture (although it didn't turn out to matter much, everyone he took a picture of was more than willing to pose for him!)

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Sunday night we took the overnight train to Beijing, the cabin was really hot and as a result we didn't get much sleep. When we arrived in Beijing we decided to get some breakfast at the hotel and take a nap until about noon. In Beijing we did the standard tourist stuff; The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Wangfujing pedestrian mall, street food and of course, the Great Wall. The day of the Great Wall we all got up early, we rented a car for the day to drive us to a less restored part of the wall and the drive took about 2 hours. When we got to the wall, Laurie was a little surprised about the terrain, she was expecting a nice stroll on a big wall, but the section we went to actually required some major hiking, basically we climbed a mountain with really old stairs! When we started up the mountain, there were several farmers who started tagging along with us, we all thought "great, people to bother us the whole way up!" but they actually ended up being really helpful. The climb was really steep and sometimes the steps were in sorry shape, the farmers quickly befriended Dad & Laurie and helped them carry coats and held their arms for the more "dangerous" parts (see below). It was quite a work out for all of us (except Nate & the farmers). We couldn't have asked for a better day weather-wise, it was in the 50s, perfectly clear. Nate and I have never been on the Wall on such a perfect day, usually it is smoggy or hazy which really limits your view, but this day, the only limits we had on our view was the horizon. We hiked up for a couple hours and then set up camp, meaning dad hauled his camera and tripod out and went crazy! On the way down, the farmers started to try and cash in on their "help" by selling us overpriced trinkets. Since they were so helpful, we gave in and instead of giving them tips, we paid too much for books, t-shirts and wall decorations. Overall Beijing was a great trip, we did too much for me to list here. It was interesting to see Beijing just 5 months before they host the Olympics, there is still alot of construction going on and it isn't as "English friendly" as I had anticipated, I think the Olympics will be an interesting experience for all involved!

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We headed back to Shanghai on Thursday night and arrived on Friday morning. Nate & I sent them to their hotel and decided to meet again at noon. After a long week of exploring and experiencing Chinese culture, we decided it was time for a break and went out for some good ole hamburgers and french fries, which I think was a relief for everyone! On Saturday, Nate & I worked and then we all went out for dinner at Banana Leaf, one of our favorite restaurants. As usually it was delicious Southeast Asian food and both Dad & Laurie really enjoyed it. As a night cap, we went to the Jin Mao tower and had drinks on the 89th floor, it was really swank and relaxing, a nice end to the night!

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Nate had to work on Sunday so I took Dad & Laurie around town, that was a bit of an experience for me, I usually have someone around who speaks Chinese, but I muddled my way through it without too many problems. We went to the Yu Gardens & Old Town, a historic district of Shanghai with a 700 year old garden and traditional architecture. It was a zoo there but we had a good time anyway and were able to get some nice pictures of the flowers blooming in the garden. We did alot of walking that day and ended up at our friend Henry's restaurant to relax for the rest of the night. The rest of the week was spent doing alot of tourist stuff and even more eating. Nate & I managed to cram all of our favorite restaurants in just 2 short weeks and so we ate frequently and ate alot! We did some shopping at the copy market which was dad's favorite part of the trip (JK!). "Hey lady have a looka looka" was echoing through our heads for days afterwards!
On our final full day, we went to Wuzhen, a water village a couple hours outside of Shanghai. Water villages remind me of what Venice must look like, with canals spreading through the city and people using boats to get around. Although this was a miserable day weather-wise, it was also one of the most interesting. We were able to see a side of China that you don't get a glimpse of Shanghai or Beijing. The people in this city, especially those outside of the "tourist zone" are very poor, live in shacks and wash their clothes in the dirty river. It was quite a contrast from what we see day to day, it is hard to remember that 80% of the Chinese people live this way. The contrast between the wealthy and poor is a big issue that we will address in a later blog (or ask Dad & Laurie) but that was the most striking observation of our last day of family vacation.

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Overall, we had an awesome time! We really enjoyed being able to show them what our life is like around here. It was a busy two weeks but we enjoyed every minute of it and were really sad to see them go. Both Dad & Laurie were real troopers over here! They were willing to try a lot of new things and also were pretty independent with traveling which was great, we didn't have to go pick them up, we could just meet them at various metro stops everyday, they really got the hang of the subway system fast (see picture above)! Although we didn't eat any insects or animal organs over here, they tried some food that was made in we'll just say "less than clean" restaurants and they even ate some food that we bought right off the street (squid on a stick anyone? Dad tried it!). Outside of the "China stuff" it was nice to see family again and catch up on day to day things. We would love to host any of you if you are looking for a vacation spot yet this year!

Check out some of our pictures on our web album: http://picasaweb.google.com/heidigras. I update the webalbum more often than the blog, you can subscribe if you want and it will send you an email when I add pictures. Until next time, we love and miss you all!!

Nate & Heidi

Posted by heidigras 03:00 Archived in China Comments (0)

Happy New Year!

sunny 12 °C

Ni hao everyone and Happy New Year! The last three weeks or so have been pretty busy for us, a good busy but busy none the less. The beginning of February marked the beginning of the Chinese Spring Festival, which meant that everyone had a full week off of work and also the Chinese New Year was celebrated. This was a holiday that we were highly anticipating and I must say that it really lived up to and maybe exceeded our expectations!

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We started out the week with a company party, not just the Lolokids company but the parent company, Longre, as well. So they took us to a nice hotel and treated everyone, all 300 of us, to a nice Chinese dinner. There was some entertainment during dinner, the big wigs of the company made some speeches and jokes and then the eating and drinking began. The president of the company was required (by tradition) to go to each table and wish in the new year with a toast. So at each table, all 30 of them, he was given a glass of wine. Needless to say that by the end of this process, he was pretty drunk! He ended up going on stage and mock pole dancing and some of the upper management guys who were also drunk did a Backstreet Boys song! It was really fun. The drinking culture here is really interesting, although this guy was totally drunk, nobody looked down on him or thought badly of him. The general attitude was that it was the New Year and everyone is supposed to get a little crazy! As a result of the over drinking, we got alot of hugs and thank-yous throughout the night and a night that we expected to be kind of boring turned out to be a ton of fun.

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On New Years Eve, we were invited to Xiang Zhenyu and Yao Yao's house. They cooked us a HUGE meal and again we did some drinking, good ole green tea mixed with whiskey. We sat around and visited with our friends for a while and then just before midnight we went outside with an arsenal of fireworks (see above)and the real fun began. We had heard rumors of what the fireworks where like here but words cannot even describe how crazy it actually was. It sounded like a war zone and every where you looked, the sky was lit up with fireworks. It was difficult to find a safe place to stand because the street was so crowded with people lighting off firecrackers and fireworks.

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The intense craziness lasted about 30 minutes but there were fireworks going off pretty consistently for the next 24 hours! It is also tradition for Chinese people to go to the temple on New Years to wish for good luck. So at 2am we headed to the Jade Buddha Temple and we were surprised to see hundreds of people waiting in line to get in. When we finally managed to enter the temple we were overwhelmed with the crowd. Everyone was lighting incense and going to different Buddha statues wishing for good health or good fortune, it was actually a bit difficult to walk around without getting burned since every single person was walking around with lit incense. We went with Chinese friends so they participated in the wishing so we were there for an hour or so. When we left, we were shocked to see that there were still hundreds of people waiting to get in despite the fact that it was after 3am! It really was a super interesting experience.

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The rest of the week was spent sharing meals with friends. Sunday night we stayed in with our friend Tony and were watching some movies, around midnight the fireworks started again. In ancient Chinese tradition, this was the Night of Fortune. In hopes of attracting the god of fortune, people would try to light off the biggest and loudest fireworks hoping to gain his favor. Although the meaning has faded over the years, the tradition has not. Since we were at home, we had an awesome view of the city from our 29th floor balcony. The entire city was again lit up with fireworks, some went off so close to the buildings that they were ricocheting off the buildings! The view was awesome and the whole experience made the 4th of July seem really lame, haha!

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So, Chinese New Year was awesome! Although, it was kinda nice when the fireworks died down and we were able to sleep in past 7am! The following week I started up winter camp again, which went really well and really quickly. We had a bunch of friends passing through Shanghai so our couch was full the whole week, which is always busy but alot of fun. The week ended with a "Beyond English" ceremony for our school. I was the hostess along with a Chinese host. Despite the fact that there were over 400 people there, I didn't really get nervous and actually had a lot of fun with it. The Chinese host threw me off a bit at first when he tried getting me to speak Chinese in front of everyone, a little intimidating to do in front of all those people, also, the sentence he wanted me to repeat was like 20 words long! He helped me through it and everyone in the audience thought it was hilarious, especially my students! The kids performed little talents and they were all adorable. One group of 4 year olds all dressed up like little stars and sang "Twinkle Twinkle" it was so cute!

So, that is that! This week we have been getting ready for my dad & Laurie to come. They arrive tomorrow and I am really excited! We will spend the weekend in Shanghai and then head to Beijing for a few days to see the Great Wall. Luckily the weather has warmed considerably the past week or so and it is supposed to be 60 tomorrow! So we will be busy for the next couple weeks and then should have a lot to report when they leave. I hope everyone is good over on that side of the world. We miss you all!
Nate & Heidi

Posted by heidigras 00:57 Archived in China Comments (0)

Winter Wonderland

-1 °C

Hello All! Hope things are going well in the states, from the looks of the weather reports, you guys have been pretty much buried in snow and cold weather for the past couple weeks! Sounds pretty typical and I have to say I don't miss it. Mostly I don't miss it because we are also having quite the little winter over here! In the past week or so, it has snowed almost everyday, right now we have a few inches on the ground and most of it is covered in ice since it keeps drizzling in the afternoon and then freezing after dark.

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Actually, the Shanghai Daily (Shanghai's English newspaper) reported that this is the worst winter in over 5 decades! Chinese people continually tell us that we are so lucky to be in Shanghai during such a special year, we are not so convinced! However, it has been really fun to see our student's reactions to the snow, most of them have never seem the snow before and they get really excited. It is also pretty interesting to see how unprepared people here are for the snow, nobody has snow shovels or snow boots so there is alot of improvising. Shovels are made out of cardboard or scrap pieces of wood. Snow shoes consist of regular shoes with plastic grocery bags tied around them. One hotel decided that the best way to remove snow from their sidewalk was to spray it off with a hose, which seemed a bit short-sighted to me since I am sure that sidewalk turned into a skating rink later in the day. I am also pretty sure that no one has discovered the wonders of salt on the sidewalk on cold icy days!

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Right now is also peak travel season for everyone in China, they say that it is the biggest single migration of people in the entire world and I certainly believe it. The train ticket offices have had lines with several hundred people in it, some people waiting 12 hours to get a ticket to go home. Shanghai is especially hard hit because there are so many people who have moved here from other areas in China. During the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) it is customary to go back to your home town and most people follow that tradition. Already you can notice that the streets are less busy and many street vendors are gone. Its actually a bit eerie to get onto empty buses and subway cars, we have really gotten used to the hustle and bustle of the city.

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The combination of Spring Festival and snowy weather has not been a good one. To the south and west, even more snow has fallen causing trains and buses to cancel their trips. There were over 50,000 people stranded at Shanghai railway station this week. The government set up shelters and food banks. Luckily the weather was a bit better yesterday and today so trains and buses were able to leave, but they aren't able to make up for all the lost time and it looks like lots of people with be stuck in Shanghai for the duration of the holiday. It looks especially bleak as the forecast is calling for more snow this weekend. The government is setting up more stable shelter for migrant workers who will be stranded in Shanghai, many migrant workers don't have their own housing in Shanghai and would otherwise be stuck living on the streets. The government actually does a really good job of helping its people during "disasters" (at least according the the newspaper).
Work has been pretty busy this week, at least for me. The winter camp that I mentioned last time ended up being a go at my center (not Nate's) so I had to teach everyday this week for 4 hours. My class has 6 kids in it and I thought it was really going to suck but it ended up not being too bad. However, I am exhausted and really glad its Friday. I have played more games and sang more songs this week than I have in the past 20 years of my life! I was pretty happy today though, when I asked my kids if they were ready to go home, they all said "No!" which made me feel pretty good about the week. We have one more week of camp after the holiday and then it all ends with a "closing ceremony" which I agreed to host, to wish me luck on that one! A year ago, I don't think I could have imagined myself hosting a children's ceremony in China, yet, here I am!
So that about it over here, the holiday begins on Sunday and we are looking forward to a week of rest, dinner with friends and fireworks. We will have some more free time next week so feel free to send us an email or something, we will be able to get back to you right away. And maybe, MAYBE Nate will get around to writing a blog one of these days! In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Posted by heidigras 00:59 Archived in China Comments (0)

Brrrrrr...

rain 2 °C

Hey everyone! Its been a while, I know. We hope that everyone had a great holiday season, we missed you all a bunch! Although we weren't able to spend time with friends and family over the holidays, we did manage to have a pretty good Christmas and New Years. For Christmas we traveled to Hainan, a small island in the South China Sea. It was the first tropical vacation that we have ever taken together and it was amazing! The weather was perfect, 80s everyday. We stayed in a nice hotel with a great view of the ocean and the nearby mountains. Mainly we just laid out on the beach everyday reading, drinking some beer and people watching. On Christmas Day we rented a motor bike and toured around the island and then up a mountain to see the sunset. Although we did not have the traditional ham for Christmas dinner, we were very satisfied with our Russian meal of pork covered with melted cheese, meat stuffed peppers and "beef on fire"(Hainan is like the "Russian Hawaii". probably half the tourists there were Russian thus 70% of the restaurants server Russian food). Of course Nate burned to a crisp while we were there, we bought sunscreen but are a bit suspicious of its true SPF value. We just spent 4 nights there and could have stayed much longer but, of course, we had to get back to the real world eventually!

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New Years was also very enjoyable. This is a holiday that, while observed, is not really celebrated too much in China since their celebration comes during the Chinese New Year in February. Despite this, many bars and clubs were hosting New Years parties. We headed to a Chinese club with about 10 friends and reserved a table and couches for the evening. Instead of champagne we drank green tea mixed with whiskey (surprisingly tasty!) and watched the fire jugglers and fire breathers perform. For the countdown we all counted back in Chinese and at midnight, there was an impressive pyrotechnic show. All in all it was a pretty good celebration and it was really fun to spend time with our new Shanghai friends.

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Work has been going quite well for the both of us, Nate is now teaching 5 classes and they are all going fairly well. I am still hanging on with 3 but there has been some management changes at my center and it looks like the new director may do a better job getting classes up and running. We are supposed to have a winter camp coming up around the spring festival. Kids have about 1 month off of school and our centers plan to have a "camp" 5 days a week for 2 weeks to occupy their free time. This would mean quite a bit more work for the both of us, requiring us to work 7 days a week for a couple weeks. Right now, however, it looks like we might not have a camp after all because so far only 1 kid has signed up at my center and 2 at Nate's. We will know next week whether this thing is a go or not. If it is a go, I have been asked to host a "closing ceremony" at the end of the 2 weeks, I haven't decided whether I will do it or not, you all know how I love that sort of thing, but maybe it would be good for me, we'll see!

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For fun- well, we have a lot of free time these days, 4 days every week, so we have plenty of time to have fun. Unfortunately it has been super cold over here lately and wandering around outside has not sounded too appealing. I know we're not gonna get much sympathy from you Michiganders, it hasn't even officially been "freezing" here, but we spend alot more time outside here than in Michigan since we walk everywhere rather than drive. Also we have had some pretty crazy fog lately (see below) that has made traveling by bus or taxi a really slow process. So in our free time, we have been doing inside activities: shopping, hanging out with friends at restaurants and studying Chinese (at least Nate has). Our new hot spot to hang out is our friend Henry's restaurant, Petisco's. They serve Brazilian food and what we like about it most is that there is always a familiar face there, we can just show up and we never know who we might run into, we often end up closing the place down!

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As far as Chinese goes, Nate has been studying pretty hard. He has a tutor come 2 times a week for a couple hours and he has been trying really hard to put his knowledge to practice with the locals. There has been a significant improvement in the last month or so both in his ability and in his confidence. A new college semester begins here in a month or so and Nate is tossing around the idea of taking classes which would give him exposure to the language everyday, there are pros and cons to doing this (I think the early mornings are a pretty big con for him!) so he is still thinking about it. Another option he is considering is hiring a new tutor that can come more frequently and in during the day, hoping to free up some of our evenings. This would allow him to learn more at his own pace and also to decide what he feels is important to learn. He's gotta make a decision in the next couple weeks so we will let you know what he decides...
Chinese New Year is just around the corner and we are super excited! Not only will it give us some time off of work, but this holiday is a really big deal in Chinese culture. Most people will travel to their hometowns to spend time with family (everyone gets a week off). There are tales of smoky streets from the constant fireworks and lots of food shared with friends, this year is the year of the rat, which doesn't sound to glamorous, but it seems that here rat is more of a mouse, cute ones like in Cinderella. I really would have liked to have been here during the year of the dragon or something, but instead we are here for the year of the pig (now) and soon the year of the rat!
Soon after New Years, my Dad and Laurie will be coming for a visit! We are really looking forward to this, we really didn't expect anyone to come and visit but are super excited to show off the sites and sounds of our city! Remember you are all welcomed to come visit, we love playing host!
So for now, Zai Jian (Good bye)! Nate has promised to write a blog sometime in the next week so stay tuned!!

Posted by heidigras 01:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

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