Backstreets Back

June 26, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Backstreet BoysGrowing up, like many people, I had an unrelenting crush for a boy band: The Backstreet Boys. They made my world go round! Nick’s golden locks, they way they fell over his eyes and made my heart swoon. Brian’s perfect melody and how it echoed through my ears and into my heart… The five boy band-ers made everything about adolescents worth it. I was obsessed! And although it is no longer acceptable for me release high pitched shrieks of joy at the sight of them, a small piece in my heart will always be reserved for the guys that let me know I was Larger Than Life.

Now you can imagine my surprise when my favorite boy band circa 1999 is still alive and well in the People’s Republic.

It started one early Saturday morning when Garrett and I headed to my favorite bakery for some sustenance. Minna, is a delicious bakery a block away from our apartment that provides us with amazing Chinese desserts, breads, and pastries. As we perused the clear plastic windows with the delicious treats housed inside and decided on which of the delectable food particles would replenish us that morning I heard the soft unmistakable voices of the boys who never broke my heart. Thrilled, I pointed out the melody to Garrett and exclaimed with excitement.

It didn’t end there.

As Garrett and I sat down to breakfast the soft melodies of five charming voices continued. All of the Backstreet Boys greatest hits raged on. It was as if they had been expecting me.

Later, during an afternoon shopping trip with some friends I heard it again. This time Gina, who shares my passion, witnessed it and reveled in the excitement with me as we perused the shoe racks.

A few days later I heard my boys through the crackly speakers of a taxi car, then again in the tiny boutiques of Hengshan Lu. I even heard then through the blaring headphones of a subway passenger.

It’s as if they have returned.

Is Backstreet Back?

Shanghai Pride!

June 18, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Shanghai Pride at Cotton's It was the closet door creak heard round the world! In a place where so many things are forbidden and blocked, one might think that social revolution wouldn’t be possible. But Shanghai has proved otherwise! Kinda.

Shanghai recently experienced it’s first ever Shanghai Pride!

(Tell the girls in San Francisco to move over because Shanghai heard I was coming and left the closet door wide open!)

Now this wasn’t my normal Pride celebration with big Pink parties blocking off Castro Street and a feather filled parade down Market but it was good enough! It provided Shanghai with a small taste of what openness and acceptance is and can be. There was no parade because of the many issues that one would expect to come with putting together a first time ever Pride event! (But after celebrating the night before on Castro Street who ever wakes up early enough to fight the crowds and watch the parade anyway?) Shanghai made up for it with an ENTIRE WEEK of events!

The weeklong celebration consisted of film screenings, wine tasting, and barbeques at some of Shanghai’s hottest and most exclusive spots! An all day barbeque at Cotton’s had amazing entertainment! Everything from Drag Queens to Weddings and of course scantily clad men!

China still has its reservation about the LGBT community and there is still an incredible amount of progress that should occur [click here to read an article from NPR] but the events that DID happen were fun, exciting and everyone was just having a good time! (Government officials canceled some of the events because of the reason de jour but nothing seemed to stop the force behind Shanghai Pride!)

It was just what the doctor ordered for my homesickness.

Summer smells

June 10, 2009

By Elena Garcia

As summer comes upon us, the heat does too! The Shanghai heat is infamous for its high temperatures, raging humidity, and killer mosquitoes. All of which I thought I could deal with. I love the heat, I don’t have temperamental hair, and I will always be prone to mosquitoes biting me… it’s time to get over it. But it was during a typical commute home from work that the one thing that I couldn’t deal with hit me.

The smell of summer.
As I should have expected Shanghai people sweat and it doesn’t smell pretty. On the train packed in like sardines, with arms up grabbing the plastic handrails the summer heat gets the best of everyone.

It’s worse than anything I’ve ever smelled. The smell of BO is pungent, like dead animals are rotting under the seats of the train. You can even taste it in your mouth. The humid air had taken the reaping smell and turned into a wet paste that entered through your nose and landed on your tongue. A sour taste of spoiled chicken noodle soup and moldy orange juice.

One often expects the smell of summer to consist of flowers, barbeques and haystacks. For some those smells are bad because their allergies get the best of them but for most these reassuring smells remind them of the carefree days of childhood. In Shanghai, the smells of summer aren’t so grand!

Maybe the city should provide coupons for extra deodorant during the summer time!

By Elena Garcia

On our recent trip to Beijing I came across something that I hadn’t realized I’d missed. Something one often over looks until it’s too late and that I hadn’t received since my move to Shanghai. Something so thin and inconspicuous but utterly amazing and necessary that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since…

…. the toilet seat cover.

You know that thin, disposable, oddly shaped piece of tissue paper that protects your bottom from the bacteria’s of the toilet; the one thing that provides you some peace of mind when using a public facility.

Toilet seat covers were probably my favorite part of any experience when I used a public restroom at home. The struggle when I would try taking them out of their wall mounts, the way they were oddly cut in the center, the crunch sound they made when I sat down. They provided me absolute solace. But, as a testament that I have been in Shanghai too long, I had forgotten all about them.

China doesn’t provide them in any bathroom, making me the master of the squat! At first I was outraged, thinking, even more so, that China was filthy and how dare they present me with such conditions! But as my battle against public restrooms raged on I came to the conclusion that I could not win this war. I couldn’t avoid using the lu forever and my tiny can of travel sized Lysol was out.

So through time, I have given in to the nuances of public Chinese facilities. I have grown accustomed to never having a seat cover in any restroom. Not in the office buildings, malls, government buildings, nowhere.

Or so I thought.

When we went to Beijing and I came across restroom after restroom with a securely displayed plastic holders for none other then the toilet seat cover, I was shocked. Comforted really, often using more then one sheet at a time. But then, like the different stages of loss go, I became infuriated. Why was Shanghai not providing these same crispy sheets to protect me? Every excuse I had made for their lack of sanitary conditions went out the window, if Beijing could do it why can’t Shanghai?!

By Elena Garcia

SuzhouAs an avid visitor to sites like Perez Hilton and a subscriber to US Weekly, I have come to rely on my favorite Paparazzi shots. Nothing is more uplifting than a crazy Britney photo or a Lindsay crotch shot! I always figured that when celebs when nutzo on the Paps it was because they were just jerks. I often thought how great it would be if I were famous and the paparazzi followed me around! I even practiced my “I’m hungry face” in the mirror to be prepared in the event of sudden flashing. I thought it would be so cool! Until of course I sat on the other side.

Don’t get me wrong, the Paparazzi always seemed crazy and a little over the top but there was just always something so fascinating about their bright metal flashes, their gigantic cameras shielding their faces from recognition and their encyclopedic knowledge of one’s name and life. I imagined them like the photographers out of a vintage black and white film, wearing a suit, a hat and a funny accent. I was fascinated.

But on a trip Suzhou I realized the glitzy dreams of fame and Paparazzi are just that… dreams. Suzhou is a small town about an hour and half out of Shanghai famous for it’s old temples, pagodas and tourist. Garrett, his parents and I went their on a weekend trip during their visit to Shanghai. Walking along crowded streets, I experienced the attention most celebs get everyday.

As I walked in the midst of the crowd, I was approached by a 20 something girl who spoke broken English. Immediately, I assumed she was trying to pick pocket me. (I had heard stories of locals getting near and trying their best to get their hands down your purse, so I quickly grabbed onto it making sure it was secure, hidden beneath my armpit and hugged by my chest and arm.) With my purse secured I continued listening to her attempts at talking to me.

Garrett looked over and saw my paranoid face in conversation with a stranger and quickly came to my side to find out what was happening. Although I was prepared to battle it out with her over my belongings (she was tiny, I could of totally taken her) I didn’t have to. And Garrett didn’t have to either. The girl approached me to see if I would take a photo with her. Assuming this was a ploy, to pick pocket or con me, I shrugged her off by saying sorry but no.

I thought the girl had been mistaken or a thief but sooner rather then later another person approached, and another and people approached Garrett and soon it occurred to me that they weren’t trying to pick pocket us, and they didn’t think we were famous.

They’d never seen white people before.

People in China stare… they stare at us, they stare at each other, they stare at random objects, they just stare. It’s not rude, it’s not polite, and it’s not anything, they just stare! Garrett and I had gotten use to this. We’d gotten use to people looking, and never thought it was us… it was them.

Occasionally in Shanghai, we’d gotten stares from tourists visiting the metropolis who hadn’t encountered our white faces in their small towns but never often enough to remind us of the oddities of white people in China.

In other words, we knew a lot of Chinese people had never seen a foreigner but in Shanghai we’d only experienced it a tiny bit because Shanghai is filled with foreigners!

On this particular trip we were reminded of the oddities of our foreign faces and I didn’t like it.

My entire life I have craved the attention, to stand under a single spot light, on a center stage, with all eyes on me, every elementary teacher I ever had would tell you that! But when all of a sudden I had to perform, I froze!

Throughout the remainder of the trip people snapped photos of the temples, of the rock gardens, of us and for the first time I understood why celebrities flip out on people. I wanted nothing more then to scream at them and shake them into the realization that I wasn’t anything special or different.

Now, there are plenty of people who think this kind of attention is charming and cute. Garrett had a great time with it, taking pictures with anyone who asked and even asking to take pictures with his camera. Garrett’s Parents were also quite popular with the locals and often posed for group shots!

But for some reason it really got under my skin. I’ve settled so much already during my stay here. I mean I put up with the spitting, the staring, the pushing and shoving, I feel like I have reached my limit. Any more unwarranted attention, disrespect or cultural nuances and I might lose it. So I continued to refuse and hoped I wasn’t offending anyone.

Nevertheless, LaLohan, I totally get it.


June 4, 2009

By Elena Garcia

TaxisAs to be expected the driving here in Shanghai is … bad. People drive like maniacs escaping from prison.

This isn’t anything new either, the drivers here in Shanghai didn’t magically decide to put on their racing helmets and join the cast of Mario Kart. But it was a particular taxicab ride here that reminded me just how crazy they could be.

Garrett and I were heading to the airport for our trip to Hong Kong (we were going there to renew our visas) as typical we hailed a cab and asked him to take us the Pudong airport. From our house, this destination was about an hour and half away, so it would be a long journey. Expecting this we left plenty of time for traveling and traffic.

I don’t think our driver realized this.

No sooner had we cleared the off freeway traffic, when the taxi cab driver exploded onto the lanes of the highway. Like a bullet we flew through the lanes, swerving past the other drivers. I was horrified. He was soaring.

The way it works in Shanghai, with the taxi’s is that the fare goes up 1 RMB (about 10 cents) every Kilometer on average this takes about one minute, now if the cab is stuck in traffic it takes 2 minutes of no or slow movement to go up those 1 RMB. The meter works in conjunction with speedometer in order to tell how far you’ve gone and how quickly you’re going.

Providing you with this knowledge, now imagine how quickly we were going when our meter went up the 1 RMB every 20 seconds (I counted). We were going 3 Kilometers a minute!! That’s three times the normal, allowed speed limit. This was not a fun ride.

Garrett and I shared glances every couple seconds as we jetted through  the other cars. Nervous, scared and unsure what to do, Garrett finally asked the guy to slow down. He shrugged and slowed down for about 3 minutes and then put his lead foot right back on the pedal.

What amazed me was how calm he was, as if this ridiculous speed was a norm for him. He’d put his head back on the headrest, extend his scrawny arm into the empty passenger seat next to him , tapping the dirty white polyester seat cover with his grimy un manicured hand. As if bored with the amount of time required to get us to our destination.

Finally after a 30 minute light speed journey we arrived to our terminal sprang out of the car and mounted our feet onto the hard still ground. Catching our breath as if we had just gotten off an amusement ride from hell.

Garrett and I have become accustomed to the swerving of lanes, the creation of imaginary lanes to pass traffic and the total disregard for pedestrians crossing the road but this blew us away. Made us angry! This jerk put us in danger and acted as if we were crazy.

Never seizes to amaze me how incredibly unaware and self absorbed some Chinese people are. (Not all!!) If you’re in their way, they’ll knock you down. If you leave space in a line so you’re not molesting the person in front of you, they’ll cut in. There are just no manners.

Another example of this, via the road, are pedestrians. We have no rights here. In Shanghai, if you are a pedestrian you DO NOT have the right away. If you see a car coming, even if you have the green, DO NOT go. You will get hit and die. With that warning I think it’s important to point out that for native and more experienced people this isn’t a problem. The rules of the road are conducted like a well-choreographed dance. Everyone has his or her role and everyone moves with the music, or in this instance the traffic. It’s when you hesitate that people get in trouble. DO NOT hesitate.

You see, cars plan their movements on your current move, if  they see you crossing they expect you to finish according to the pace you’re currently at, they manage their speed based on you. They slow down just enough to make sure you get by and they get by without any serious delay. It’s when you hesitate that everything is messed up. You see the car coming, you get scared, you stop, slow down, and they no longer can predict your movements. If you commit to crossing the street, commit! Don’t change your mind and don’t look back.

By Elena Garcia

On the phone!When Garrett and I moved to China we got Chinese cell phones. Garrett got the cheapest one he could find (typical) and I got a pink one (also typical)! We knew our phones would be different than the ones at home but we had no idea how different!

First, all the talking time is pre purchased. Garrett and I buy 100rmb (about 15 dollars) at a time and that buys us about 2 months of use. Which is a huge break from our normal 200-dollar phone bills back in the states. When we first purchased our phones we also bought our first cell phone minutes and our phone numbers. (That’s right; cell phone numbers come at a cost here!)

It’s important to remember this… especially if you lose your phone, as Garrett has recently learned. In our adventures through Beijing Garrett misplaced (lost) his phone and our quest to reclaim his unused minutes and phone number is just beginning. At home you have the security of at least retaining your phone number and minutes if you ever lose your phone, here you’re not so lucky. You have to buy a new phone, new minutes and a new phone number. Everyone who you’ve given your cell phone number out too is going to have to get a new number! Awesome.

It’s already such a pain to lose your phone but to have to get a whole new phone number too! And although we only pay about 15 dollars every couple months to talk on our Chinese mobile devices, now that we’ve lost one we are going to have to pay for it; minutes, phone number, cell phone. Not to mention the inconvenience of giving everyone the new number. Garrett uses his phone at work, to call from office to office… which means now he is going to have to give everyone a new number. And it’s not like he can use his voicemail greeting to relay the message, like many people do.

Why? Because there is no voicemail. That’s right NO voicemail. Screening calls are a thing of the past; if you don’t answer you don’t get the call. Well unless of course the person calls 3 or 4 times, in a row, back to back, until you answer! That is also typical phone etiquette here. You know those annoying people who call you a bunch until you finally stop screening their call and pick up (my mother)… that is what everyone in China is like!! Awesome.

Because of the lack of voicemail, Chinese people have taken very kindly to multiple calling and the text message. Just because they can’t speak to you doesn’t mean they wont write! Text messages or SMS are huge here. Maybe its huge everywhere but it seems even bigger here. People set up meetings, negotiate contracts and text message their bosses in order to communicate effectively. I would never text message anyone, anything business related at home… it would be considered unprofessional. But alas, the Chinese people are much more practical or they just don’t care enough.

China has recently introduced the 3G networks here that bring the Internet to your phone, much like I use with my IPhone at home. But in order to get it you have to buy a contract, which as I recently learned can also include a voicemail system. How you set up that contract is beyond me. Every mobile device store we encountered sold you the minutes; there was never a mention of any kind of contract… it’s another one of those things that if you don’t speak Chinese, there is no way of helping you.

Voicemail and 3G are a luxury we non-Chinese speaking Expats will live without. In the meantime I’ll have to go arm wrestle the Chinese guy in the 2by2 cell phone refilling booth to try to claim Garrett’s phone number back.