Working from an iPad

Julie and I just got back from vacation in China. Amongst many other things, we saw baby pandas.

This was the only place where they had a line and kept us moving

On the trip, I wasn’t carrying my MacBook Air, but I did have my iPad and iPhone, and I learned a few things about trying to do work on my mobile devices. Continue reading “Working from an iPad”

Recap on Shanghai

I flew back in at around 1:00 AM, just after New Year’s. We were supposed to come in around 8:00 PM earlier that night, but a luggage mis-arrangement and snowstorm later, we were still on a plane as the year turned. At least we had a good view of the whole city’s firework.

The flights to China are always interesting. After a 2 1/2 hour jump to Chicago, it’s at least another 11 hours. My strategy is sleep: I don’t sleep the night before, then set my watch to the destination time zone and sleep appropriately on the plane. It’s a jump on jet lag.

Sleeping on a plane is itself something of a challenge. In the air, I never feel quite right. A minor stomachache, not helped by the unpalatable food, makes me slightly uncomfortable. And the butt fatigue from sitting too long builds as the flight goes on. Fortunately, I don’t need to sleep to reduce tiredness. I need to be unconscious.

The waking hours, however, aren’t always bad. I’ve learned strangers can be both nice and interesting when you prompt them. Flying to Shanghai, I met a grad student at Mizzou studying textile management. I found him fascinating, as he was a Chinese guy raised in China and now exposed to western culture. He found the opposite in me, a Chinese kid raised in western culture, but with a nagging ethnicity and only recent look seriously into it. How ironic that perhaps the best perspective I got on China was soaring miles high over the Pacific Ocean.

What I found most interesting was how uninvolved he seemed with China’s political situation, especially having been to the U.S. Nowadays, any discussion of modern-day China brings up the communism that westerners seem to disapprove of and ridicule. I found it ridiculous that I couldn’t access Wikipedia in China behind the “Great Firewall of China.” I couldn’t even read my own blog, or anything in the domain (though I could reach to write).

I guess it’s just what we know, what we’re raised with. I found it quite annoying that the water I drank or even brushed my teeth with had to be boiled first. Cold water at a restaurant was risky. Water machines, not water fountains in public places. Boy am I glad to be home.

More on Shanghai

Rocking out to one very awesome Christmas music playlist right now. There’s a surprising amount of history behind the various recordings of pieces, but I’ve managed to find most the “classic” recordings. Of the ones I’ve found, of course; there are a lot of great Christmas songs, and I’m only about half-way to getting a complete list.

Anyways, there have been some nice adventures these past 3 days. Two days ago was the Pearl Tower and Shanghai History Museum. Yesterday was largely the Yu Gardens, and today was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center and the Shanghai Museum.

While we were walking around Yu Gardens yesterday, my dad offhandedly said, “There are two big tourist traps in Shanghai. Number one is the Pearl Tower. Number two is Yu Gardens.” For a moment, it felt like a far-shoulder tap, since we had seen both. Every tourist sees him or herself (is that “him or herself” or “himself or herself?”) as the one tourist who knows the hot spots, who only surreptitiously takes pictures, who blends into the natives. But that can’t be everyone.

Tourist traps aren’t just popular sites; they’re the generic ones. They’re built up as modern wonders, yet the only wonder is in the visitors of where the time went. We travel the world to see something new, but not everything is new. Not every park is spectacular. Not every shopping center is new. Not every palace strikes awe.

The Pearl Tower was just another high point. I’ve been to the top of the Tokyo Tower, the Empire State Building, and Victoria Peak (thought not the CN Tower). Sure, the view can be pretty cool, especially at sunsets. Unfortunately, the tops of buildings usually aren’t well-decorated. And I think the postcard makers have ruined the charm of it. Algother, the Pearl Tower was just a trap.

Yu Gardens was only somewhat better. Filled with ponds, classic Chinese architecture, and much greenery, it was very nice. Throw in running water and electricity, it would be a great place to live. It, however, wasn’t new. Kind of a combination of the Huaqian Hot Springs and the Forbidden City.

They were traps, absolutely. Neither were the paramount example of their class, and certainly were well-within their classes. But I’ve still managed to convince myself that it was for the best that I saw them. Very well-made traps.

Today’s trip was somewhat different. It’s been somewhat yucky around Shanghai for the past couple days. Falling water tends to discourage outdoor activities. With all the rain today, we decided to make the museum run. The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center was added at the recommendation of a friend, and ended up being an interesting addition.

It is what it sounds like: a big show of what Shanghai is planning for city development. With the World Expo arriving in 2010, Shanghai is another place for China to show off its new face (Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics being the first). In their 9th five-year plan, Shanghai has many environmental, technological, and societal targets, such as 40% green coverage of land and increased area of internet infrastructure. A large model of the Shanghai-Pudong area almost covered a whole floor with detailed reproductions of the whole area, including future development.

The Shanghai Museum was largely what I expected: artifacts of Chinese culture, including pottery, sculptures, seals, coins, calligraphy, and paintings. What was unusual was an exhibit on Rembrandt and Dutch Humanist art. This, too, was probably blunted by the “Dali’s Dreams” exhibit in the Urban Planning Center on Salvador Dali’s work.

One goes to China and expects to see Chinese culture. Instead, parts of it are just like home. It’s fair for the exhibits to be there. Collections move around the world so everyonce can see them. I remember going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see an exhibit on Kremlin Gold and Russian treasures. That’s no different than Rembradt in Shanghai. (I would provide a good insightful comment here, but I’m drawing a blank. Is blogging different in this respect than normal writing (with no editing)?)

Be patient on pictures, too. I’d upload to Facebook, but internet is a little slow here. But don’t get too anxious. I have the feeling I’m just going to pick the ones that I have quips for you, and you know how much funnier I think I am than I actually am.


Shanghai isn’t just like Houston. It isn’t just like San Francisco. It isn’t just like Toronto. But it is a big city, and it does have the feel of Western influence.

Yesterday, my family took a bus out to the Super Brand Mall, directly across from the Pearl Tower (which I think is our target for today. You’ll find out tomorrow, or tonight). Eight floors above and two below ground, the mall is big. I have the feeling its more for the tourists, as it’s very pricey and filled with foreign retailers, but it is what Shanghai is showing to the world.

The thing that triggered this blog topic were the models. The walls were plastered with them in the shops, just like in any clothing store in the U.S. Just like it, in that a lot of them weren’t Chinese models. Is that the spectre of the west? Maybe. The styles seem so influenced by western culture.

The incursion is more explicit in other ways. By suggestion from my airplane seat neighbor, I tried the McDonalds here, order a 6 RMB (just under 1 USD) cheeseburger. It was kind of pitiful looking, actually. The patty was kind of thin, and I think it went bun-patty-pickles-cheese-bun. On the other hand, I really don’t remember what a McDonalds burger in the U.S. tastes like, and the last burger I’ve had was an In-N-Out burger (read the last post). So I was a little disappointed. Even so, I didn’t feel it was much different. The menu was even familiar, with a “spicy chicken wrap” that hearkened to diet fads. The one oddity was that instead of fries, the other side was a cup of corn. Is that on the U.S. menu?

I guess the last significant stop (for me; the first 4 floors of clothes shopping are something of a blur to me) was the Chinese bookstore on the top floor. Of course, it had a wide variety of Chinese and non-Chinese books. The section that caught us, however, was the kids section book. Particularly, the Dr. Seuss books. How sad is it that after 10 weeks of Chinese at college, I can’t even read Dr. Seuss? Oh well. Looking around the kids books, it seemed like many of them were also from western sources, like Dr. Seuss. That’s even bigger, if kids are reaised on that culture.

Oh, and in the grocery store, we found Chinese twinkies: a synthetic cream surrounded by a maybe sponge cake-ish bread. Not bad.

Shopping in China

I’m sure you’ve all heard about markets, whether from people (like me) who have shown you the DVDs, or 1st-hand on the streets of New York Chinatown. Lemme break it down for you:
Homogeneous products: everyone is selling the same thing. The branding isn’t distinguished between the sellers. Somehow, someone has a massive factory churning out folexes, t-shirts, and jewelry, from which all of the vendors buy their merchandise. I wish I was smart enough to be that person.
Large number of buyers and sellers: Boy, are those places crowded. Thankfully, most are smart enough to learn English to converse with the (dumb) westerners who come by, often in large numbers. Bustling place, especially now that they’ve moved inside (if I don’t comment on this at some post later in the week, comment if you care, and I’ll get to it). The shops are all very close to each other, so if you don’t like one, take two steps forward and try again.
Imperfect Information: Oh boy, is this one. It’s a market. You vs. them. Prices are usually inflated at least 200%. About 700% on some t-shirts, today. If you don’t know how much the items are worth, you’re going to pay too much, of which the sellers have absolutely no problem allowing you to do. Best hope you’ve improved your appraise and persuade skills before you come (at least 10 ranks =D). And remember: the best thing you can do is walk away.
Sellers are price-takers: This one I’m not perfectly sure about in my head, but I think I’m right. As mentioned above, the sellers are trying to get you to pay too much, but in the end, if you can get them down to what it’s worth, they know what it’s worth. And they’re going to stick to that value. If it’s too little, those are losses. If it’s too much, then the (smart) customer can walk on to the next shop.
So I ended up picking up t-shirts (not for me) and DVDs, though by no means splurging. Not like you can really splurge, with prices as they are. Back in NY, I ‘member people getting DVDs for $3-4 on the street. Definitely overpaying. Of course, the plane ticket is expensive, but when you move past that, you’re talking about much cheaper merchandise. 2 things make stuff really cheap:
1) Standard of Living: It’s just cheaper to live here. If you were here, you’d know why.
2) Exchange Rates: China had pegged the value of the RMB for quite a few years, since it’s good for international trade (mostly, I think). Ask any good econ student to explain if you don’t get it. Anyways, the exchange rate means that stuff is ridiculously cheap for us.
Here in China, it’s fair to pay about $.50 for a DVD, $1.25 if you’re looking for the real deal (as real as it gets around here ‘neways). Not bad at all.

Xi’an gets a lot juicier

So I think I’ll blame the fact that my eyes are constantly a little sore on the air ’round these parts. Didn’t even bring my contacts, and even when not tired, it’s been less than optimal.
By North American standards, China is a dirty place. The air is a nightmare for asthmatics, especially during the summer. No big surprise, of course. Developing countries (so termed by whatever higher-up international organization, whether you agree or not) tend to have a high energy usage, especially in the less friendly kinds. In China, I think coal is still pretty much all the rage. ‘Neways, the air isn’t so great. Apparently, the misty look outside is just fog, but even so, it’s not the happiest looking fog. Visibility, of course, is way down (as you’ll see in the pictures when I get them uploaded to wherever sometime later), though probably not as bad as Heathrow, according to CNN.
The water isn’t so great, either. Tip: don’t… drink… the water… good for washing your hands, taking a shower, and whatever else. Really bad for drinking and brushing your teeth. It struck me as a little surprising, since I had never left NA except for to China, though from reports, Mexico and other places are similar. Then again, even in the US, bottled water is a lot more popular than I can possibly understand, so apparently some have adapted towards not drinking tap water.

Enough on that. About the day:
Batman and Robin came to pick us up in the morning. I must give them a lot of credit: as soon as we’d leave somewhere, they’d have pulled up and gotten the door open before we had even seen them. I can’t imagine that waiting is the most amusing, and if they’re waiting, watching, that’s pretty hard-core. But the rant about the job market was in the last post.
Our first stop was a statue thingie dedicated to the monk from the story “Journey to the West”. If you don’t know about it, wiki it. It’s fairly well-known outside of China, with a lot of adaptations and such. Synopsis: a monk starts in Xi’an, goes to India to get some Buddhist texts, is protected by some dudes, most importantly the Monkey King, and comes back. Exciting, eh? Well, it’s a lot better in its non-abridged version. Regardless, they had a nice statue of him, and the pagoda supposedly built when he came back, the latter of which we didn’t visit due to the entrance fee (we’ve seen quite a few pagodas; seen one…) Short diversion, with content to match.
The next stop was a veritable mother lode for AD stuff for me. We happened to the Shaanxi Historical Museum, where I got a look and some of the stuff going back to the Neolithic times. For most of you, it probably means nothing, but a surprisingly high amount of stuff actually directly corresponded to stuff we’re doing in AD, so some nice photos and remarks will make their way into the ppt. Unfortunately, it was a history museum, not the art museum (which we passed), so it really only hit on the burial stuff and the functional art, and not as much the painting and calligraphy. Well, can’t be perfect.
Next came the Xi’an city wall, which they apparently make you pay to stand up on. Not really that exciting, but a nice sight-seeing diversion. My family managed to prove its brilliance as we couldn’t figure out which side was inside and outside of the city (they’ve built a lot on either side), though honestly, I ended up being wrong. Go me and not actually looking at the wall for the crenellation, or using any good logic.
After that the tomb for the Western Han emperor, Liu Qi. Apparently one of the other big attractions, the museum part was kind of lame, and built it up to suck. The actual dig itself, though, was pretty incredible. If you remember (or care to scroll), I mentioned that the terracotta site wasn’t particularly attractive to tourists, being out in the open air and not designed for optimal viewing. Well, this one is totally different. Going to the site, first, it’s “underground”. From what I got, they basically buried him and put him in a giant mound of dirt (almost hill-like, though a bit more pyramid than natural) with all of his stuff. Instead of terracotta soldiers, though, he had little guys, who didn’t have any clothes or armor. Or arms. Apparently they made the first two out of rotted-away textiles, and the last out of wood. Beats me. Though it’s kind of funny to see sub-50 cm soldiers with no arms. I guess they were the forerunners of fly-weight kick boxing.
Well, this one was nicely fitted with a full museum-like design. They even made us put on shoe-coverings to maintain the pristine state of it. Well, everything real was encased in glass (unlike the just open-air terracotta one), but the entire dig site was there. Behind glass. Temperature was regulated, which was cool, but it gets better. Not only could you see it, you could walk over it. They had one of those glass floors, so you could walk right over the stuff and look down into the tomb. Kinda scary, but really awesome. After that, they had dug down to the same level as the stuff, so you could look across at the dig stuff, right behind the glass. Really nifty. But you can really only see the midget army so many times before it gets old.
After that, we went back to the airport, from where we flew back to Beijing. Not bad for 2 1/2 days of sight-seeing.
It’s late, I’m kind of tired, so that’s pretty much it. More later, I guess.

Day 1… or 2…

(read the previous entry if you want to keep things in order)

So the plane got into Beijing yesterday in the afternoon, and we didn’t have too much of a problem. Thankfully, they aren’t nearly as much of a pain here as they are in the US. Security has become quite the thing, apparently. Good to know that the whole world isn’t paranoid.
Got back into the feel of Chinese traffic, again. I’ve pretty much determined that the drivers here are some of the most skilled drivers in the world. In North America, people respect traffic laws and drive safely. For the most part, no hitches, just when people are talking on their cell phones, eating, fixing the radio, putting on make-up, drinking, or dropping well-labeled hot coffee on their lap. China traffic is pretty much whatever goes. The lines don’t mean much. Pedestrians are everywhere, and their just as brave as their motorized compatriots (random note: instead of calling ppl citizens around here, they’re called “nationals”). It’s basically one giant game of chicken. Every man looking out for numero uno. From one perspective, that’s not as bad as it sounds. Yes, you’re only worried about yourself, but hitting a pedestrian or knocking bumpers is quite a pain, so they’re constantly vigilant. From another, it’s quite a nightmare. Advice: don’t try to rent a car and drive if you visit. Leave it to the taxis. They know what to do when someone cuts in front of them, or how to fit 3 cars into 2 lanes, or when the appropriate time to go is. From another, it reflects the apparent attitude of the people. That whole thing about being inconsiderate doesn’t stop after getting away from the wheel, like road rage. As far as I can tell, the only way to actually get what you want is to be a jerk, because if you’re not, no one else has any problem running all over you and taking advantage of your generosity. From trying to get off a bus to getting a table at a restaurant, being nice doesn’t really pay off.
Which is kind of sad, now that I think about it. In my romantic, hopeful view instilled by years of apparently decent moral guidance from parents and teachers, someone’s got to take a stand and do something to change things. Unfortunately, trying to change things by being the example would just totally get yourself owned. *shrugs*
Even though I had slept a lot on the plane and gotten ahead with 6 hrs of CoD, I still got ridiculously tired at about 8. Going to sleep soon after (my dad works in Beijing, so we’re camping out in his apartment when in Beijing, if you’re at all confused), I must’ve woken up at around 4, and was completely unable to get back to sleep. Not a bad thing, entirely, since we had an early flight. I’m actually typing this entry from the Hyatt in Xi’an. Plane left at 8-something, then arrived less than 2 hours later.
So pretty much the only reason why people ever come to Xi’an is to see what the self-proclaimed “eighth wonder of the world”: the terracotta soldiers. History lesson: China is known for its emperors and dynasties, stretching from 221 BC to 1911 AD, officially. The very first emperor, of the Qin dynasty, managed to unify a good chunk of China, declared a dynasty, and did stuff like connecting up chunks of fortification to create the Great Wall of China, unifying weights, language, and such, and being pretty much a dictator. His tomb, however, has garnered more attention than most of his historical accomplishments. Some time during the 20th century, some farmers dug and hit his tomb, which is filled with thousands of clay (fired clay) soldiers. Now that I think about it, I really can’t do it justice, so just go and read the wiki article on it or something.
Anyways, the next part of this entry goes onto another tangent. So after getting off the plane, we got on a bus to take us to our hotel (the Hyatt) since we had been told that it’s a lot cheaper than the taxi. After doing that, we actually ended up getting dropped off at their (tour company) HQ, from which we were expected to get a taxi over to our hotel. Rolling with the punches, we ended up picking up something of a deal: some guys on the street outside the HQ were offering something of a taxi-tour service: basically, they’d drive us anywhere, wait on us, and drive on for the day (the tour part comes that one of the two guys could give such insights. Unfortunately, only my dad is fluent in Mandarin). While a bit shady, it ended up working out quite well for a decent price.
Now the tangent: so just about everywhere you go, people are trying to sell you stuff. In the restaurants, they push the most expensive items on the menu, possibly even withholding the full menu as experienced last night (didn’t stop it from being a really good, really cheap meal anyways). At the tourist sites, just about everyone wants to give you a tour for varying prices. Even here at the up-scale, western run hotel, we had a bit of a hassle getting our rooms as they tried to get us to upgrade. Kind of interesting, though, since it really does seem to represent a bigger issue: China has a lot of people. Surprise. About 1.3 billion people have first-hand experience with it. It just starts getting ridiculous when you look at the jobs people have. Not only is there the doorman that does nothing. There’s the revolving-door pusher next to him to make sure that goes. Service in restaurants seems less than stellar at times, with a lot of people just standing around. And the army of salespeople hanging out on the streets. Maybe it doesn’t surprise you, and it doesn’t surprise me, but actually seeing the consequences of it is just something. Kinda like the difference between being told about starving children and actually seeing it (though not nearly as extreme. And I really can’t tell you about that one. Just how I imagine it goes)
So, less rambling, more story. Uh, we dropped by a bakery for lunch, which was quite good. Among the food you should try in China, you absolutely cannot miss the bakeries. Yes, dumplings, noodles, and such are all the rage, but the bakeries are pretty much to die for. Anyways, that was great, and we moved on. After a stop at some shop (our driver was on commission), we went to some hot springs emperor retreat. It, uh, had a hot spring, and the water passed through. The Xi’an incident happened there, which pretty much only matters if you’re studying for AD, and the waters supposedly have therapeutic effects. Maybe a 4/10 as far as tourist traps go. After a look around there, we got to the juicy stuff: the soldiers. If you really don’t know about it, then it’s a big deal. If you do, it was a mixed experience. Right now, it’s pretty cold around these parts, hovering right around freezing. Yes, the Canadian in me makes it tolerable, but I’m more comfortable at room temperature. Well, they don’t really bother heating any of the buildings, so pretty much constantly out in the cold. And well, after you see it, there’s not much to it. It really isn’t built up like a museum, just a site: you can’t walk around, looking at exhibits, reading the explanations, moving from the various parts. It’s all about the same, actually, but worth seeing just once in a lifetime. At the suggestion of my family, I think I’ll throw together a more in-depth powerpoint on the experience (already prepping my jokes for it), particularly for AD, but open for others, I guess. Just don’t want to bore the rest of you with something that really might not be that exciting to you.
Uh, this is pretty long, so I think that’ll be about it. I’ll try to keep this up on something of a daily basis on my experiences here, since we did carry the laptop for computer access, and getting internet is becoming less and less of a problem in today’s world.