Monday, 6 July 2015


My previous blog-post was a very self-indulgent nostalgia-laden reflective piece of writing, and as some months have passed, I realised that I did very little explanation of what I actually did while I was there! So, in the hopes of providing a more descriptive and educational account of my visit which may be of use to tourists or other expats currently living there, I thought I might write a further post on my last visit (that, and I just can't stop talking about Shanghai).

1. Trip to Nanjing

Due to a slightly restrictive set of circumstances with funding, visa and university timetabling issues, I was pretty much forced to have my visit during a brief week in June. If you can, avoid visiting Shanghai or most of the South Eastern regions of China during this month, because it is known as the rainy month (and can last until early July too), and quite rightly so. During these few weeks, rainfall often equals 25% of the city's annual total! And it's not just drizzle, like you'd expect on most days in the UK, it is a very heavy, drenching kind of rain. Nevertheless, my love for this city wasn't going to let that put me off.
However, after much debating about whether or not to spend one of my precious days visiting Nanjing, a major city and former capital of China to the North of Shanghai, the weather forecast finally sealed it. As rain in Shanghai promised to put a stop to many of my plans there, when we saw the sky was clear for Nanjing and the fact that it also meant a chance to visit an old expat friend who had moved there meant that the balance went in its favour.
I didn't know much about Nanjing prior to my visit, save for a Christian Bale-starring semi-historical dramatization of certain events prior to WWII, Flowers of War (more on this later). I knew it was a historical city, and with roughly 8 million inhabitants today, it was still a significant metropolis with well-respected universities and a metro (which for some reason used weird plastic coins as tickets, much like childhood dodgems).
First stop, Nanjing Museum, which my Chinese friend assured me was a must-see while in Nanjing - one of the largest museums in China. It houses a vast quantity of paintings, sculptures and ceramics.
Nanjing Museum Entrance
Outside the Nanjing Museum
Next stop, lunch with an old SJTU dorm pal Daniel, whose Chinese was renowned as the best in our dormitory, and had only continued to improve in the two years since I left. He now had the distinguished position of being the only non-Chinese student enrolled on his master course at a Nanjing University, which caused much ensuing hilarity as his teachers would turn up to the class confused as to whether they or he were in the wrong class. After much meandering through several multi-storey shopping centres, we finally found a delicious restaurant in which to have lunch, and had yet another satisfyingly tasty meal (Cantonese of course). Our meal included these upside down dumplings covered with hair-like pastry, don't know why, but they were delicious nonetheless!

After that, we were on our way to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, commemorating the tragic events during the Japanese occupation just before WWII, during which many atrocities were committed. 

Statue at Entrance to Nanjing Massacra Memorial Hall
Entrance to Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall
The terrible fate that befell many of Nanjing's inhabitants during the occupation is dramatised in Flowers of War, which paints a very graphic, if somewhat idealised portrayal of some of the events during that time, but its gravity, impact and passion helped it to become a huge blockbuster in China and was released in several Western countries. The events that took place during the occupation left a huge scar on both the city and Chinese national identity, which is only fuelled by the Japanese denial (paralleling Holocause denial). Visiting the museum, I couldn't help but draw comparisons with the House of Terror in Budapest, which documents the occupation of Hungary and quashing of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Communists. The same dark atmosphere, faded photographs and belongings of victims as well as tragic stories illuminated a time of extreme suffering that we as a subsequent generation should feel grateful not to have known.
Display of regimental badges of fallen soldiers at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall
Next stop was a long bus trip to the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. I was unsure about how a bridge could merit a journey of roughly 1 and a half hour round trip on a bus. However, I put my trust in my Chinese companion, who seemed to speak of this bridge with great nationalistic pride and assured me it was an essential tourist stopping point in Nanjing. The journey on the bus from the city centre was hot, sticky and crowded (of course), but when my travelling friend decided to give up his seat for an older gentleman, he ended up striking up a lovely conversation with us. Of course as the only westerner on the bus, he asked questions about me curiously, and although I still needed help in translation from my friend, I was pleased with how many words I actually understood. Moreover, when he asked where I was from, I carefully rolled off 我是匈牙利人 (Wǒ shì xiōngyálì rén), his face was almost aghast with surprise, commenting how impressed he was that I could accurately say words which are quite difficult to pronounce. Sadly my conversational Chinese doesn't go much beyond these stock phrases, nevertheless, he he invited me to guess his age. His face clearly showed many years of experience, and although I correctly guessed roughly 75 - 80, I took away 5 years in my answer out of politeness. I later learned that this actually a mistake in China - with age comes wisdom, so older people generally very proudly boast about an age they have reached.
The old man got off the bus and the rest of the seats thinned out as we got closer to the bridge (it was almost the end stop for the bus' journey). Upon seeing the bridge, it was definitely an impressively sized construction, spanning across China's largest river (and also third largest in the world). But the truly impressive feature of this bridge is that it was the first bridge built by the Chinese without outside help. The construction was instigated and completed under Mao's rule, so there are plenty of markers of his influence on this bridge:
Elaborate statue of Mao at one end of the bridge - possibly the only part of the bridge that isn't looking quite dilapidated now
Communist Comrades - each holding a copy of Mao's Little Red Book at Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge
Communist Comrades - each holding a copy of Mao's Little Red Book
Quite why there's an entrance fee (roughly 15 RMB) to see a bridge which clearly has none of the money ploughed back into it, I'm not entirely sure. However, it made my Chinese companion very happy, so for that alone, the bus trip was worth it.
View over the Yangtze
After returning back into the city, we stopped off at the old (but touristy) part of town by the Qinhuai River, to grab something to eat before our train home. This has to have been my favourite part of the trip. Although there were plenty of tacky tourist shops, I love the hustle and bustle of all the sellers trying to flog their vast array of nick nacks or snacks to tourists and visitors. The riverside is decorated with many lights which I'm sure look very beautiful at night, and there are also boat rides along the river to take in the sights, although we couldn't stay because we had to grab dinner and then head for our train.
Chinese Gate by Qinhuai riverside, Nanjing
Gate by Qinhuai riverside, Nanjing
View by Qinhuai River, Nanjing
What I didn't know was that dinner was going to be trialling some new elements to my diet that I hadn't tried before - duck black pudding and duck tripe soup! My companion was very vague about where we were going to dinner, but that he knew a really great place that specialised in a "duck soup" - and he gave no more details until I actually started eating. Admittedly, it wasn't too bad, I actually enjoyed the black pudding part, and ate some of the liver that was also in there too, but I just wasn't a fan of the tripe texture, so when I could see the glee in his eyes as I proffered my pieces, I could see that they would be wasted on me anyway ("This is the best and most expensive part!" apparently).
At only 270 RMB in total for a return ticket on the bullet train from Shanghai, I'd say the trip is definitely worth it.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Shanghai Reunion

When I recently got the opportunity to go back to Shanghai and visit my friends in the SJTU lab, of course I jumped at the chance! I had the chance to not only go back to all my old familiar places that I used to know and love as well as cross off a few things on my list that I didn't get to do last time. 
I also realised several things. Things I missed (apart from my friends of course!):
1) The smell! It's hard to describe, but the smell of the streets, of the lab, of the metro, everything. It's funny how smells really link back to memories, and I don't know what it is, whether its the aromatic mix of smog, gutter oil and street food that's so quintessential to China, or just the fact that there's nothing quite like it back in the UK, but they really cause memories to flood back, because there's nothing like it back home
2) Hearing Chinese everywhere again! Since last time, when I knew next to no Chinese, I've now passed HSK2, and even this low level of Chinese was enough to mean that I had a much better idea of what was going on around me on some rudimentary level. People were very impressed with my new vocabulary and even my pronunciation. It also meant that I could order food by myself a couple of times. If there's one thing I can definitely, definitely recommend prior to going to China, it's to learn some Chinese, any level at all will go some way to helping you get by in China and impress some of your Chinese friends.
3) Chinese hospitality! It was great to be spoiled by the renowned Chinese hospitality, and my friends spared no effort in spending time with me and making sure that I had a great time. I also left with approximately twice the volume of presents that I brought with me, making it very difficult for me to close my suitcase for the way home! 
I was surprised that on this occasion much fewer people asked to take photos with me, which is probably an indication of how much Western culture has infiltrated China now. We did draw some attention from a few strangers in Nanjing, but actually they were very polite, and tried to speak to me in English, or at least attempted to have a conversation via a translating friend. Which goes to show that a lot of progress has been made with regards to China's attitudes to Westerners. And just in case anybody is disappointed by lack of celebrity status, you can still go to tourist hot spots such as the viewing platform of any of the skyscrapers to get your hit of photos-with-strangers and a plethora of new WeChat friends!
On the transparent glass viewing platform of the Oriental Pearl Tower
(Incidentally, I met a lovely girl with excellent English at the Oriental Pearl, who helped me out of the labyrinthine building designed to make you stay in it as long as possible so that you spend as much money as possible, but she didn't write down my WeChat name properly I think, so I don't have any way to contact her! If you're reading this now, please add me! ~ UPDATE - she had added me correctly, I'd just gotten her confused amongst the numerous people who'd added me that day).

Things I didn't miss:
1) The cough/spitting. It happened as soon as I got my connection from Dubai. Yes, really. A middle-aged Chinese man started that horrible retching-like sound of clearing his throat and then spat in a sick bag during the flight. Quite a wake-up call to remind me of the negative aspects of China that my memory had conveniently erased.
2) The traffic/queueing. I actually don't mind the hustle and bustle of a busy city with lots of people, but it does get annoying when sometimes you're going at snail's pace on the hectic Chinese roads, taking 2 - 3 times as long for a journey, which of course is just a recipe to get everyone mad at each other.
3) Not realising the true significance of the fact that since I left, Google has been blocked. I thought this meant that it meant that you could no longer do Google searches. But oh no, it didn't end there. Not only the search page blocked, but also ALL other apps and pages owned by Google in any shape or form. This includes Google Translate and Google Maps, which I pretty much lived out of the last time I was in China. This new development meant that the Samsung phone I brought to use in China was now effectively useless, except for text, calls and WeChat. Hooray for VPNs when they worked!

And lastly, I felt like that even through the medium of blogs and the thousands of photos I made, it still wasn't enough to really give an accurate representation of the general "vibe" of China. I still feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about China, about the food, about the people, so I made this video of my visit, to help show people the awesome side of China and spread the Sinophile love :)

Hope I get to visit you again soon!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Zhujiajiao (朱家角) - Chinese Venice

Zhujiajiao (朱家角 - "Zhu Family Settlement") is one of the best-preserved Chinese "water towns", which became prominent cities in history through trading on rivers and canals. I'd never heard of these water towns before my friends suddenly decided to make a day trip there, but it was definitely worth it! Comparisons with Venice are obvious when you see pictures or visit - the dreamy gondola rides, the houses built precipitously close to the water's edge, and the breath-taking stone bridges - all with China's unique oriental twist. Zhujiajiao is also steeped rich in history, having originally been founded 1700 years ago, and then rose to prominence for its trade and markets. It is clearly a town that since slipped into a sleepy state, as it became overtaken by the bigger cities in China's industrial revolution, but is now coming into a new era, turning its attention to tourists and bohemians alike. Although during peak times it can get a little busy because of this, it still makes a pleasant relief for a day away from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Shanghai.

Initially, to get in to the old part of town, there is supposed to be an entrance fee, but we were stopped by a fellow on our way in, who promised us an alternative route into the city to avoid this fee, and a place where we could park our car, for another, but slightly lower fee, of course. I struggled to believe how my friends could buy this guy's story, but they assured me that this is quite normal in China, so we paid him some nominal sum and we did actually end up at a convenient parking spot. I've since found out that there is supposed to be a 10 yuan fee to get into the old part of town, but with so many entrances, it is difficult to patrol, and so it is almost never enforced.
The little alleyways and side streets offer up an immense number of street stalls and shacks selling everything from sweets, snacks and little trinkets to take home for tourists. I bought several things, including crispy fried beans, some sweets that I had no idea what they were but were delicious, some stinky tofu (Chòu dòufu 臭豆腐) and also some folded leaf figurines as gifts for family. There were also a vast array of other items available to buy, and since it was nearing the Dragonboat festival time, there were plenty of making and selling zongzi (粽子) which are packets of glutinous rice filled with different things and all wrapped up in a pyramid shape by a big bamboo leaf.
With my visit being so short, we were limited for time, which meant that we ended up going on a cloudy afternoon. This actually worked out quite well since it was less busy, and we saw some beautiful sights that I imagine must be breath-taking on a beautiful sunny day:

The town has no fewer than 36 stone bridges intact, yet somehow, I only managed to take a picture of this one during the trip!

The most iconic bridge is the 70-meter long Fangsheng bridge (which I'm really disappointed about, because I only took pictures from its summit, not OF it), that carries the grandeur of the Rialto bridge, as a clear focal point of the town. It provides a wonderful view of the city down the river, and is also a point where I saw locals buying strange tortoises and other sea creatures. I assumed they were being bought to eat, since the Chinese know seemingly no bounds for what could make it onto their platter. But my friends explained that the creatures were being sold to be re-released into the river, as part of an ancient Buddhist "life release" ceremony - or "Fangsheng" (放生) - the very name of the bridge. The ceremony of saving an animal in this way is a means of bringing good karma for oneself or one’s relatives, living or dead (although I don't quite get how this works out if you have to catch the animal in the first place). 

Red-eared slider turtles, waiting to be bought so that they can be released into the river, as part of Fangsheng or "life-release" ceremony are non-native, invasive and can damage the local ecology
Traditionally, the practice involves buying an animal that was previously destined to be killed, such as a fish from a market, or a cow from a slaughterhouse, and then setting it free. But since this practice seems to be having a bit of a resurgence at the moment, this is a growing business, so the obtaining of animals is now somewhat dubious, and the release of non-native species having some potentially negative consequences for the environment, out-competing native species. This means that fangsheng has become a contentious topic, and a very good discussion on this can be found here. 
Similarly, alligator snapping turtles are also not native in China, hailing from North America, and has similarly devastating effects on local ecology
The sounds of the alleyways mingle with calls from the street-sellers,  freshly frying food but also music. We came across a lady practicing her Guqin (古琴), an ancient Chinese instrument known in English as a type of "zither" , which is kind of like if you took out the strings of the piano and plucked them yourself. It makes a beautiful harp-like sound, and is an integral part of traditional Chinese music. I initially mistakenly thought that this was a guzheng (古箏), a more commonly seen instrument in modern day China, which is brilliantly showcased in this popular cover of "See You Again" by Whiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth. 

The guqin however is a predecessor to the guzheng, and in ancient times was considered integral to Chinese cultural skills, alongside calligraphy and painting. However, nowadays, there are very few people still able to play it.
Not only was this lady very gifted in playing the guqin, as we approached closer, I realised that she was not an instrument seller but a painter. She had many beautiful paintings to which we were drawn, and my friends decided there and then that they would buy me a painting as a 30th birthday gift, with which I can always remember them (despite having completely spoiled me already, as Chinese hosts are wont to do). 
My friend's husband Hang (航) perusing through the choice of paintings
It was hard enough to choose from between the beautiful designs, but I didn't realise until the lady got out a clean scroll that they had asked her to paint a new picture especially for me! I was somewhat taken aback by this (and even more surprised at the low price for such a service - roughly 120 yuan), so I filmed the whole process from start to finish, which ended up being the most talked about part of my video that I made from this trip. It all became very soppy towards the end, as they asked the painter to write "A gift from Hang and Lu to Eva" with the date added. Now I have the painting hanging up on the wall of my bedroom and I see it every day.
This painting was certainly a special memento from my trip, and definitely a memorable one of this beautiful village. If you do get a chance to go, I definitely recommend a visit to Zhujiajiao, and catch its charm before it is completely overwhelmed by tourism. 

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Re-entry culture shock

I've been home for over a week now, having had a bit of time to adjust back into UK life. Three months isn't a long time, but I got very settled in Shanghai and made some friends who I'll miss very much.
I left very early on a Sunday morning (again!), and in accordance with Chinese hospitality rules, my Professor offered to drive me to the airport, which meant that this was the second time he had to wake up ridiculously early for me! Furthermore, a few people in the lab had grown accustomed to my presence, so three additional lab members woke up at 5:30 am, just to join our ride to the airport and say goodbye. I was really touched and it was a very emotional goodbye. 
With Lu, who was a great friend to me during my time in China that I'll miss very much. She was one of the people who kindly woke up at 5:30 am to come and accompany me to the airport
While settling in to the first, 12 hour leg of my journey home, I discovered that the chap sitting next to me was a Spanish business man from Barcelona, who was importing Spanish wines like Rioja into the big cities in China (Western wines have become very fashionable in China, and they are big business at the moment). However, his English wasn't that good, and my Spanish is pretty terrible (Italian words just kept flooding my brain), which meant that we had a great half an hour communicating via the Google Translate app for the 30 minutes while we waited for a space on the runway (just when I thought I would finally stop living from that translate app!) It dawned on me during that conversation that my Chinese was now better than my Spanish, and I would have been better able to communicate with him through that language if he had known some Chinese. I didn't really expect to ever get to this stage, but it was a pleasant surprise at the end of my journey that I'd managed to absorb some of a language that was completely different to the other European languages which I know. I guess I owe more to Michael, my language exchange partner than I previously gave him credit for!
Despite only being able to communicate via pointing and simple words for the rest of the flight, I didn't really sleep much, on account of being a bit emotional about leaving behind this part of my life. But upon landing, I was glad to see my mother and husband, who came to greet me at Heathrow airport. 

Being back in the UK, obviously I was greeted with drizzly weather, but it was that familiar British rain. However, the joy of being able to go indoors where it's warm was just bliss. Not having to run down and back a freezing corridor just to go to the bathroom was great. I got so used to layering up that during the first few days I just automatically kept my coat on instead of giving the heating a boost, which lead some people on Skype to ask me "Where are you going? Or have you just got back?". Having a thick goose down duvet was also a welcome relief, since I wasn't staying in Shanghai for long enough to merit investing in one, I'd been using a summer duvet and a blanket only. 

Of course, now I'm no longer stared at in the street, since I'm now not a wàiguó rén (外国人), and it was a little weird doing some Christmas shopping and being completely ignored, but to some extents, it was a relief - at least people don't watch me for several minutes to see what I do like a zoo animal! The biggest relief is being able to understand everything I see and hear around me, although my ear still picks up whenever I hear Mandarin from the Chinese exchange students around Leicester, and I try and figure out what they might be talking about. I will certainly never look at exchange students the same way again!

Food-wise, there was a brief moment of weirdness getting used to a knife and fork again after three months (why are their no sticks? Using both hands at the same time for utensils?!). I am also surprised as a Hungarian, that I actually got used to the absence of dairy in the diet. At home, I would think nothing of having full fat milk porridge every morning for breakfast, but I got used to the steamed bread rolls (bāozi, 包子) so now it just seems far too rich. Also, I looked forward to cheese, but I'm having trouble dousing my food in it as much as I used to! And bizzarely, I'm getting cravings for white rice/sauce combos, which I never thought I would, and I'm actually missing some of the flavours, like the red bean paste (Dòushā 豆沙), which I may just have to fork out for at the local Chinese supermarket soon.

I realise I've been writing a lot online, and I appreciate everyone who has looked at my blog, but I don't expect many to have read a lot of my posts thoroughly, as they are far too long! I have treated this blog more as an open diary, to write down all of my thoughts and experiences. And in addition, I thought that letting everything all out here would help prevent me from talking about China too much when I get back. I watched one of the Halloween episodes of the Big Bang Theory on the plane home, where Howard just got back from space and he finds a way of incorporating his trip into every conversation, regardless of the topic. I think I'm pretty much the same, and I can link anything to China, so please don't hesitate to tell me off if I'm talking too much about my trip, and I'll try not to go too crazy like Howard and just start shouting "China! China! China!" when I don't get to talk about it!

But seriously, it's been a great journey, and I've definitely fallen in love with what I've seen of the country. It's a weird collection of contradictions that somehow charms its way into people's hearts. 
1) It's technically still developing, yet their technology, gadgets and infrastructure are way ahead of ours.
2) It has a reputation for rudeness, and people don't hesitate to push you out of the way in the street or metro if you're a stranger, but if you are a friend or a guest, then people will treat you like the most special person in the world, far above what people would do in the UK.
3) People are very concerned with relationships and guānxì (关系) and about saving face, yet they think nothing of getting up in front of their friends to sing a song, approaching strangers for photos or dancing in the park uninhibited.
4) Poverty is still quite a problem, which means that status is everything. This means that people are happy to pay through the nose for esteem goods (hence the popularity of the iPhone). I've never seen so many large, expensive cars driving around broken, potholed roads.
5) The government has a ridiculous level of control over people, and hires so many to keep its large population in check, yet it can't regulate the hygiene standards of any of its restaurants. There is no guarantee that anywhere you go you will not get ill. In general, there is this same theme running through everything, where some rules are adhered to far too rigidly, whereas others are just disregarded so easily.
6) Tied into the last comment, the governments thinks its controlling everyone, but the excessive control has turned everyone into criminals: as far as I could tell, nearly everyone I met was downloading TV shows online, watching Breaking Bad, House of Cards or other American TV shows with Chinese subtitles. Also, nearly everyone can access Facebook if they really want, but since none of their friends are on there, they don't see much point.
7) It's supposed to be a communist country, but it's a country where you have to pay to have extra children (as opposed to getting money from the government, like in the UK) and where healthcare is very expensive, and not provided automatically, and where competition for jobs has never been more rife.

Despite being full of surprises and strange things to the Western eye, it's a safe and friendly place, with such a wide variety of things to offer, that it's hard not to fall in love with this country and the people's determination and enthusiasm. I hope that my blog has given it justice, and inspired people to go there, or reminded them of good memories from their time in China. 

Thanks for reading, and hopefully there'll be another blog in future about another country! 

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

An incredible experience - where to next?

So, I'm back in the UK now, getting used to the time zone and food again. To say goodbye to my time in China, I wanted to show a collection of pictures from my favourite times, or from stories that didn't make it to a blog post.
Thanks for reading about my adventures, we'll see where I'll go next!
Merry Christmas
Wu kang lu
At Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre
At Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre
Sundial at Century Avenue
Cooked pumpkin stuffed with sweet rice
A street seller blowing sugar figurines - talk about asbestos hands!
Korean potato swirl on a stick
Pouring sugar shapes of Zodiac animals
Sugar dragon
A snail I found in my dish at the campus canteen!
Carving a pumpkin for Halloween in the lab
The Bund on our pumpkin - which won us the Halloween competition on Zai Shanghai!
Let's see how much fun we can have with dry ice
Lights at Nanjing Road West

My Hungarian friend Kálmán from my dorms discovered this bust of Petőfi Sándor, a famous Hungarian poet (whom incidentally, we had a reading of at my wedding!) Check out Kálmán's Hungarian expat blog here
Lotus pond at Renmin Park
Plate spinning
Sweet potatoes with melted sugar!
Cathedral at Xujiahui
Crying with laughter at KTV
Smoggy days
Fresh hot pot ingredients ready for cooking!
Ridiculously long sheet of tofu
Ice sculptures of polar bears at Xujiahui
My favourite little guy at the orphanage - I wish I could have adopted him!
So cute! I miss him so much
My friend Michael who taught me some Chinese, with his room mates (L -R Constantine, Chris, robot, Michael and Eric)
Blizzard thick ice cream milkshakes, so thick, they're served upside down!
Blizzard thick ice cream milkshakes!
Jin Mao Tower from the ground up
Looking down all 88 floors at Jin Mao Tower
Shanghai World Financial Centre (or the "bottle opener")
So that's China done. Where to next?