Thursday, April 4, 2013

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Overdue Blog Post

Clearly I’m failing at maintaining my blog. It’s been about a month and I can’t honestly say that I’ve been too busy to share an update. In fact I fill many of my days with movies and downloaded television as Shanghai is limiting to those without school, a job or income. With that said, I think it’s about time to share what I’ve been up to. And why not write as I sit in seat 76L from Shanghai to Beijing? In just over an hour I will meet my dad and my sister Martha!! Plus, I’ll take any excuse to focus my eyes away from the ghastly pollution to which I’m currently contributing.

For now, I’ll do my best to catch you up on some adventures.

Hong Kong: This four-day jaunt was enough to add Hong Kong to the “would live there,” list of places. I can’t tell you how long that list is but San Francisco is way ahead of the rest. Hong Kong also got a little bit of a boost by being the first place I visited after two months of the cold, gray, crowded cacophony of Shanghai.
Still, blue water, clear skies and rolling green hills will get me any time. I never would have guessed that hiking would fill nearly two full days, but Hong Kong offers gorgeous natural views that rival the famous skyline. Traveling with four UNC MBAs and a fellow Rosser, I managed to have a few adventures. Some of those adventures were fueled by our over-exuberance at Hong Kong duty free. Tired of overpriced Shanghai drinks, three of us each bought a bottle of scotch. Night one found our crew pre-gaming for a pub-crawl and my waking up alone in our Air Bnb apartment. I had our one key while not having either of the local sim cards. Leaving the crowd at 3am and getting a bit lost on the way home, I still arrived first. An hour-long nap on the front stoop wasn’t enough so I went to bed. I woke up in a panic a few hours later to a still-empty apartment and some panic-stricken emails.
We were all reunited a few hours later with smiles, stories and piece-meal memories…

Uh-oh it’s meal time and the massive man next to me is really getting into the beef noodles. I’ll close up shop and be back momentarily…

…In closing my laptop, I allowed my entire meal tray to slide between my armrest and the wall. After a little go-go gadget arm, I got to enjoy listening to my neighbor burp, slurp, snort and cough his way through lunch.

I’ll have to let some pictures sum up the rest of Hong Kong. There was a lot of walking, eating and on-street drinking enjoyed. Sadly, my departure may have been the most eventful part of the Hong Kong travel leg. On two hours sleep, I arrived for an 8am flight. Despite my confirmation code, my flight was not on the books and as it turned out, would not have been honored anyway. In order to fly to the Philippines, one must also have a departure ticket. With my Philippine disappearance act foiled, my hung-over, exhausted self had to navigate budget airline websites on spotty smartphone wifi. Many wasted dollars and hours later, I arrived in Manila in my jeans, fake vans and t-shirt (I didn’t anticipate Manila when packing a suitcase in January Ann Arbor).

Philippines: Roughly $15 got me shorts, sandals, sunglasses and two meals (I snagged a free hostel shower) as I waited for our final companion. Finally, with our four remaining travelers (myself and the three UNC dudes), reunited, it was time to keep moving. Rather than waste time and money on lodging, we hopped on an overnight bus to Banaue and the rice terraces.
We arrived the following morning and after a quick breakfast, our trek began. Sharing a jeepney with six other travelers, we got a few kilometers before delays began. Narrow roads, mud and heavy jeepneys gave us an extra hour to chat and enjoy the scenery before reaching the start of our hike. My quadriceps did not know what I was getting into.
The hike started with 432 stairs downward. We continued downward for another hour or two, meandering through mind-bogglingly beautiful rice terraces to our oasis, frigid water at the base of a 40-meter waterfall. 90-degree heat, equatorial humidity, fake vans and polyester shorts (already torn in the crotch) make a cold swim feel REALLY nice. As I’m sure many of you have realized, a long downhill hike in oppressive heat makes for a much slower return. The ascent was filled with wobbly legs and blank stares as we trudged along. Some fellow travelers sported shower shoes, sweat pants or blue jeans, making my counterfeit outfit seem wise. Needless to say, the final 432 stairs were absolutely torturous. Dehydrated and exhausted, I was greeted by a coconut seller with $1 electrolyte-rich goodness. An hour jeepney ride, a rushed shower and 20 agonizing stairs later and the four of us were back on an overnight bus to Manila. Though the budget traveler in me always prefers to combine travel with lodging, this was pushing it. My seat partner and I were each at least 20% wider than our respective seats and my knees jabbed painfully into the metal seat in front of me. Still, with a shirt tied around my face, I managed to sleep much of the way to Manila.

In Beijing now…

Friday, February 22, 2013

Out of China

I'll do my best to make up for lost time. I'm a bit braindead at the moment but have both free internet and time to kill so will do my best with what I have. At 4:30am yesterday, I woke up in Bohol, Philippines. A bit past 5am, a fellow traveler and I joined a 3 hour, very SLOW boat ride to Oslob, the place we'd been trying to locate for several days.

We knew that we were in whaleshark migration season and through some research determined that Bohol would be a good place to get some beach time and whaleshark swimming. Upon arrival in Oslob, we were helped ashore and ushered to a payment table. Naturally, we thought that we HAD paid. The payment we made for "whaleshark tour," was just for the ride across the water. We paid again for the actual swim, a bit more for some fins/masks, some more safe storage of our things and we were ready to go.

A small outrigger canoe-type (similar in stlye, smaller in size to the one we took across the water) picked us up an took us 40 meters to shore where we saw the first of many whalesharks. Abiding be the rules not to touch, ride or otherwise contact the beasts, we got the experience we'd paid for. Roughly a dozen swimmers twisted, turned and photographed all around the baby (ONLY about 25 feet long) whalesharks as locals fed buckets of krill directly into the gaping mouths of the animals. Underwater, one could hear the faint sound of bells and clicks as the handlers maintained the Pavlovian relationship that helped to build the attraction.

By later morning, the whalesharks would go to deeper water to live their normal lives, only to return for their breakfast with tourists. For some reason, I had the impression that we would take boats into the natural migratory path of whale sharks. We would put our faith in the skills of whaleshark trackers who would locate and follow them. At the right moment, we would be allowed to jump in and swim alongside the majestic animals as they continued toward their next home. Either way, it was pretty cool to swim with a giant whaleshark; seeing the suction created as it inhaled bucket after bucket while simultaneously spewing any excess via undulating gills the schools of tropical fish that surrounded. I also can't help to be a bit happy that each step along the tourist trap trail got a bit of the take. While I like to place myself more on the traveler side of the traveler-tourist spetrum, there is no doubt that certain events or activities will appeal to me.

An example of my traveler side is the bus ride that I took immediately following my snorkeling adventure. Slowly drying off, I sat in a bamboo bus terminal with three men as they chatted away. I was nearly dry when the bus arrived and paid the equivalent of $3.50 for a 3-hour, 150km coastal ride. Thirty minutes in, I was joined by a friendly man who quickly sparked up a conversation. The man was 82-years old and spoke at length about his experiences in the US. Having noticed my favorite moringa trees in the yard of nearly every home we passed, I couldn't help but ask what it was called and how it was used in the area. Muringue (best guess at spelling), was recommended by health experts and helps supplement the diets of communities on Cebu. We asked each other questions, talked politics a bit and eventually fell asleep. I learned that a daily wage on Cebu (one of the southern islands of the Philippines) for basic work is roughly 250 pesos per day (40 pesos to the dollar). Many families have 4-5 children and support themselves by fishing or unskilled jobs.

The man told me about the growing drug problem in Cebu. After asking me if the US had legalized drugs, he said that youth are spending 150 pesos to buy one (insert snorting action he made) for a drug that makes them feel like they're in heaven. He talked about how the drug came from China and is causing increased violence (I think heroin?). We talked about the common practice of western men moving to the Philippines, marrying young, uneducated filipinas and living like kings. Neither of us like the idea much, though we can see the appeal for each party. He pointed out several cliffside mansions owned by Americans, asking if I thought Obama would be re-elected. I let him in on the news update and listened as he proudly played a few 50s songs from his wireless Mp3 speaker. We both complained about body pains after napping (I felt way too much kinship with a man more than 50 years my senior) and he went on his way.

My day continued through horrendous Cebu City traffic to the airport. A delayed one-hour flight to Manila, a 3-hour layover and a 3.5 hour flight to Singapore got me here at 1am. Some 2am McDonalds and a decent floor sleep have brought me to this 7:30am post. I'm still salty (physically) from my swim with the whalesharks nearly 24 hours ago and won't be in Bangkok for another 7 hours (sorry plane neighbors). Though these days stress me out at times, a free blood pressure test in Cebu City confirmed that I'm solidly at 110/80. I'll update on Hong Kong, other Philippine adventures and my next plans soon. Perhaps within an hour or so as I have plenty of time to kill.

Photos will be added at some point.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

School days wrapped up

Today is my last day of class!! I’ve exclaimed, “Last class ever!” multiple times in the past and been wrong so I’ll avoid saying it again. Funny enough, my last class is going on right now and I’m at home getting ready for the same class.

Maybe it’s fitting that I’ve accidentally missed my last class of business school. I stopped updating this blog when I started business school in 2010 after three years abroad. There is little doubt in my mind that I was among the least prepared people among my classmates.

I had only used Powerpoint once, when I got a C in a biology assignment my sophomore year in high school. Excel was a tool I had only used to analyze baseball statistics. The first time a classmate said “P&L,” I asked what it meant. Now I’m on the verge of having two masters’ degrees and preparing to start an amazing job. It’s safe to say that the past three years have changed me as much as the previous three. In addition to gaining 50 lbs., losing any semblance of a tan and shedding most of my shaggy blonde hair, I’ve gained a great group of friends and some serious knowledge and skills!! And some debt…

Last week I got an opportunity to pay it forward a bit. Ross admissions were in Shanghai, interviewing some prospective students. As a way to gauge how well prospective students will fit the Ross culture, several alumni and students helped to facilitate a sort of group interview. My first thought was how happy I was to be on my side of the equation. The application/interview/wait-list experience I had was really rough and I can’t imagine going through it again. The group of applicants was incredibly impressive, and nervous. As facilitators, we got to chat with Ross admissions director about the process and the business school landscape in general. I am happy to say that the past three years have transformed Soojin from the terrifying figurehead that would decide my fate into the impressive woman that shapes Ross into the great program it is.

The last week and a half has been filled with group projects, case preparation and presentations so I don’t have much from the China front. I’m excited for the weekend though (for very American reasons) as the #1 Michigan Wolverines play at the #3 Hoosiers on Sunday and the 49ers play on Super Bowl Monday morning. Clearly the timing is off but those should be some great games!! This is a great time to be a San Francisco sports fan that went to U of M with regard to sports.

That’s it for now. My free time will surely provide some great experiences soon.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mandarin, night life and the 49ers

It’s been a while since I last posted and for a while I thought I had nothing to report. My school commute has become routine, I’ve more or less figured out how to feed myself and my classes are far from demanding.

I have been out on the town a few nights and can say that I set myself up for disappointment. My first night out started at a CEIBS party. The party was Spanish themed and included bingo, hangover flavored sangria and a completely empty dance floor. It was nice to see some of the full-time students outside of class but the party was not riveting.

Among my fellow exchange students were a few with plans to go to a club called Mint. Shortly thereafter, I was taking a cab home at 5am after having bottle service at one of Shanghai’s hottest clubs. Mint included an amazing view, a massive shark tank and many, many drinks. It turned out to  a great venue for getting to know some of the guys in my program but the cab ride home reminded me of being four-years old.

Being named Ira and unable to say the letter “r” makes introductions tough. In my mind, I would say my name correctly, the respondent would butcher it, I would spell it for them, they would butcher the spelling and I would be unable to fix the situation.

Giving directions at 5am in Shanghai after bottle service feels like being a four year-old who can’t say the only consonant in his name.  I say Zhenping Lu, you take me to Yenping Lu. I write Zhenping Lu on a piece of paper, you respond in exasperated mandarin.  Eventually I drew the logo for the Shanghai Metro and the corresponding train lines that stop at the Zhenping Lu station and I was saved. Thankfully, taxi prices in Shanghai aren’t too expensive and the whole charade only cost about $10.

Two subsequent nights out have allowed me to make a few broad generalizations. 1) I love that smoking is banned in US bars
2) A ton of people in Shanghai smoke… a lot
3) Shanghai is full of prostitutes
4) Shark tanks connote status in clubs
5) Local liquor tastes like gasoline
6) Local people can’t handle their local liquor

The other night I saw at least four young women carried from a club virtually unconscious. I saw several men attempt to stand up from booths and fall flat on their faces. After talking to my roommate Louise, I learned that as we approach Chinese New Year, drinking will increase while alcohol tolerance stays the same. I was told to expect red faces, loud voices and possibly vomiting on the metro. I’ll report how it actually turns out.

On another note, I completed one week of intensive mandarin lessons and can now tell taxi drivers where I need to go. I can order food and drink and even ask for no MSG. Apparently, MSG is applied very generously to all street food, including the tasty lamb wraps upon which I subsisted for weeks. I’ll ask for no wenjing from now on.

Finally, a Falcons fan, a Niners fan and a Zambian prostitute walk into a bar at 4am. I guess that’s not accurate. I woke up at 3am this morning so I could make it to the expat bar The Big Bamboo before kickoff. I got a small two-top to myself and sat next to a larger table of Falcons fans. Within ten minutes, a Zambian prostitute took the other seat at my table. It didn’t take long for her three friends to join, cover my table (I was facing away form the table, toward the largest television) with jackets and purses. Long morning short, the Zambians left at halftime, the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl and I’m exhausted.

Miss you guys!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

First Day of Class

Today was the first day of class. One class lasted three hours and fifteen minutes. It’s a bit brutal but perhaps it’s the only way to fit a full term in less than a month. Day one was quite straightforward and gave a nice sense of the diversity of the class (mixed first year, second year and exchange students).

Over the past week, I’ve explored a bit. I went to an ex-pat bar to watch what was scheduled to be the BCS national championship game. Though #1 played #2, I think it’s safe to say that the top two teams in the nation were not playing one another that day. I’ll allow other bloggers to dissect the BCS though. The bar was packed with expats and though it was expensive by what I’ve set as my Shanghai standards, I got a nice meal and a few beers for just over twenty bucks. I’ll admit that I needed a full meal as I’d been living off of clementines, toast and lamb pitas from my favorite street food guy.  While my neighborhood is full of great looking restaurants, I don’t think saying hello and thank you in mandarin will necessarily get me what I want. I’ll get there though.

The highlight of my week was a visit to the newly opened Power Station of Art. Formerly a functioning electric power station, the place had a great layout, incredibly eclectic exhibits (some not to my liking) and a nice view of the Shanghai Expo. My absolute favorite exhibit was a video called “The Way Things Go.” A thirty-minute Rube Goldberg style sequence using water, fire and various other chemical reactions, the video was mesmerizing. I found a shorter version online and definitely recommend you take a look if you like that sort of thing. The artists are Peter Fischli and David Weiss of Switzerland.

Still, my favorite spectacle of Shanghai (better than the massive grocery store selling pig snouts and cleaned by mini floor Zambonis) is the metro. While I’m not fond of the nail clipping, spitting, nose picking and snot rocketing I’ve observed, the efficiency amazes me. Boarding an empty train at rush hour is like a professional musical chairs match. Once the doors open, all seats are filled within a second and dismayed slowpokes skid to a halt in front of the seats they didn’t quite claim. Just yesterday I witnessed a brief but serious footrace between two old ladies when a seat opened up. Nobody vacated a seat for the loser but maybe that’s a cultural thing I’ll learn sooner or later.

That’s all for now. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Shanghai there

It's been a while but I'm back on the road so here we go: 

Keep in mind that I haven't figured out how to blog directly from China and that this post is being posted from the US. Any comments won't be read by me until I access it from here. Any recommendations on circumventing the firewall would be greatly appreciated.

It's the start of day three here. There were some shenanigans involved with my initial travel. I had trouble getting yuan out of an ATM so lacked the $1 fare I needed to get on a subway. After walking back and forth through the station 6 or 7 times trying to see or think of a solution, I saw a young woman getting change at a market and asked if she spoke english. She traded me 6 yuan for 2 bucks. A screaming deal for her if she's ever able to exchange it back. Once on the train, I followed the directions Louise (my Irish housemate) provided and arrived at her building with no problem. I did not, however, know what unit of the building she lived in. A few attempted conversations with people who spoke zero words of english got me to the front desk. A few phone calls later and I was in business. 

My first full day included a trip to CEIBS. I am getting the hang of the metro system but took forever to get there. I walked the wrong direction for a while, righted myself and walked forever again. It turns out the walk from the metro to CEIBS can take up to 45 minutes so I'll be spending an extra 15 cents on a bus from now on. 

My day yesterday was only slightly adventurous. I woke up early and laid around in bed for a few hours. It turns out that bed is the only warm place in China because apartments aren't heated and it's freaking cold outside. Early morning for me is also the best time to find people online, when the internet is fast enough for skype or gchat. 

I did end up venturing out to the grocery store. It's only a few blocks from the apartment building but everything I do here feels like a serious undertaking. Even when it's time to cross the street, one has to beware cars and motorcycles turning right. Apparently right on red means don't slow down on red, just turn right. There is no sense of waiting for one another here. I noticed pretty quickly when getting on and off of the subway. When the door opens, people mash into the doorway, both on and off at the same time. When getting into a line or on an escalator, if there is a way to go ahead of people, go for it. Very strange but at least I'm bigger. 

The grocery store was NO JOKE. I entered and immediately stepped onto an airport style people mover that brought me up one floor. The people mover and the floor it brought me to were absolutely packed. Literally hundreds of people at the grocery store. There seemed to be different music playing in different aisles, the products were weird as shit (including all sorts of chicken feet, little birds and other weird looking stuff). I walked around the whole floor so I could get a feel for what food is available. With oats, clementines and apples, I went to the pushy line at which products are weighed, priced and stickered for later checkout. The lady looked at the oats and shook her head. I assumed that meant that I didn't need a sticker but she and I shared zero common words so I went about my business. When I checked out, in the 47th checkout aisle. No shit, there were 50 checkout counters. The woman shook her head about the oats having no sticker so no oats for me. 

Outside, I stopped at a street food cart where a guy was making fried rice and nice looking noodle dishes. Again, I arrived with one person ahead of me but saw no fewer than seven dishes made before I got mine. Among those seven dishes were two fried rice orders for people who walked up well after I got there. Those orders helped to finish the rice so I got noodles instead. Only a dollar but it tasted kinda like fish paste. Slowly but surely I'm learning. Some language abilities will go a long way so I'll spend some time on that. 

Other than that outing, I went to the gym briefly. Really weak gym but it's convenient and will help me to get back in shape. Louise suggested that we would go to some art exhibit around 2:30 but then texted that she'd be back around 5 (she let me borrow a little nokia for now) and arrived about an hour ago, at 7ish. Maybe we'll venture out today.