This is the End.

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So I guess this it it. This is the end.

On July 7th, I woke up at 5:00 am with a heavy heart. I heated in the microwave my breakfast, a meat Baozi from the restaurant at the corner of Da Xue Lu, my last authentic Chinese meal. I checked again my two heavy luggages full of souvenirs, a bit worried about their weight. Then I looked one last time at my first ever student apartment. My roommate woke up to say goodbye. It was an awkward goodbye. She knows I am bad at saying goodbye. My goodbyes are casual and cold. It’s not that I don’t care. Actually, I care too much. I just play like I am going to see the person the next morning.

It helps cure the sadness.

I arrived at JFK the same day at 8:00 pm. My dad picked me up at the airport, and we got home together. As I looked through the car windows toward the glowing Manhattan, I got this strange impression that Shanghai was just a long and nice dream.

People talk a lot about their semester, but they do not about how it feels to go home. Home is weird. Home does not come naturally immediately. It’s like you are new to it. You have to tame it again. You have warm welcome back at home with your family. Then you have to reintegrate the daily routine. You go see your friends, and they tell you everything you missed during the semester. And it was a lot. You need to get back in the group again and go with the flow. You have to learn again how to behave in the big city. It does not take long, you have been doing that for years, but it asks for a few tries. Finally, you have to deal with the mixed feelings, the incredible excitement to be back and see all your loved ones again, and on the other hand, the guilt of secretly missing abroad.

You are intensely loving two different stories at the same time.

People ask me what I learned from my experience in Shanghai, or the things I preferred. I would say it is too early to tell. So many things happened this semester. I encountered a new culture, lived on my own for the first time, discovered exotic unknown places and met unique individuals. Bright souvenirs have been flowing through my mind ever since I am back. With time, I understand some will last longer than others. These one will be the answer to what I really did learn from Shanghai.

For the moment, all I know is that this trip made me different. I am different. I have grown. China is a wonderful country. It makes you think. It makes you examine and wonder. It makes you understand. I now have tons of atypic stories to tell, some silly, some joyous, some sad, but all mind opening.

I started this blog in order to tell you a story. The story of my semester in Shanghai.I wanted to share with you my honest feelings about my life there. I hope you enjoyed reading through it. I personally enjoyed a lot writing about my experience. Writing was a nice way to get critical about the things I encountered, and to put some orders into the tsunami of emotions that flooded my mind..

I would love to think that maybe my writings made you dream a little, or even made you think about traveling too some day. There are places there to be discovered, they are just waiting for you to come.

Personally, I know about one that melted my heart.

Yes, China made me feel alive.

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Beijinger

My Dear Readers,

As you may have noticed, I have not posted new articles in quite a while (sigh). Please, don’t think that I am giving up on this blog!

Actually, I have been quite busy during this past month. Classes are getting harder, and the idea of composing an interesting post does not seem as relaxing now that I spend most of my time drafting and correcting research papers.

But, for real, I have actually been thinking in length and breadth across about how to write the present article, but could not actually start putting my words down. I preferred to wait for inspiration to come. I am sorry I was so late!

 Actually, this blogpost was supposed to be about my 3 days weekend in Beijing. I soon as I got back home, I started to review all my photos, and what I actually did during these three days.

But then I thought: how many people in the world wrote about visiting the Forbidden City, or climbing the Great Wall? Well, probably a lot.

(and yes, it took me two weeks to arrive to this conclusion. Don’t question the ways of inspiration…)

So today, I am just going to talk about a personal Beijing favorite, a surprising place that stands out from the traditional Beijing: the 798 Art Zone .

But don’t worry fellow Chinese enthusiasts, I posted all my Beijing photos under the “Photo Gallery” section of this blog. You will be able to admire: a smoggy Tiananmen Square, how I almost died of a rickshaw accident in the Hutong district, some serious roasted Beijing duck, crowded Forbidden City, a plethora of panoramic photos of the Great Wall at the sunrise, and some bonus “local snaps”.

Again, I am sorry for the delay…but please, ENJOY!

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It’s Saturday afternoon, second day of our three days trip to Beijing. I have been looking for this moment since the day I red on the program handed by our guide that we would go to Beijing 798 Art Zone, “regularly compared to Soho”.

Soho, like “my” Soho? This oh-so-loved place of wonders, mix of artistic, boho-chic style in my home city? For some reasons, I have been receiving tons of articles about New York these past few weeks, and it’s true that a taste of home seemed refreshing to me, and more than welcomed!

After a long bus ride which exponentially increased my curiosity, we arrived in front of the “798” sign, and the group broke in order to visit the place.

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At first skeptical, I soon started to see how this place could remind visitors of Soho. It was the same “old-industry” ambiance, with worn out or copper pipes and bricks everywhere. The same little streets that do not follow a straight way. The same tiny hidden shops, where artist would display their own personal world.

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There were also many graffitis on the walls, another New-York based kind of art. If you were attentive, you could notice patterns, or drawings from the same artists, disseminated all over the art zone, representing a particular theme.

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Of course, there were also other kind of creations, including a lot of statuses. Some were very smart, some made me wonder what was going on here, some were fascinating (or scary in some ways), some I just wanted to know more about it, and some made me feel uncomfortable.

This was the case of this flashy bloody red statue of a man, standing straight, arms along his body, head up and mouth open. The  rough texture of his skin reminded me of this recent articles I red about the horrible treatment of prisoners in South Korea.

This statue displayed so many emotions that I think these people may have felt… distress, submission, pain, anger, sadness… I think it was the most powerful artwork I saw that day.

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Thankfully, there were also funnier things to discover. I decided to actually check out the shops. They were more Asian-like, selling very cute art craft, from China, Korea or Japan. Most of them were calligraphies, but you could also enjoy designer shoes, silly postcards, eccentric clothes or original ornaments.

At some point I ended up in this “all panda” cafe, with photos, stuffed animals, paintings, sofas, tables everywhere!

I also enjoyed a very americanized coffee, a true camarel machiatto, which is a personal must at 4:00 in the afternoon!

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It was a marriage of all senses as there was also an enjoyable soft and surprising background music, played by different stands. There was some American classics, an elegant mix of “fake” vintage french songs, and this chilly indie-pop that I personally enjoy!

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I had not visited everything yet when our guide called us to go back to the bus. Oh well, I think I enjoyed quite a lot already!

798 definitely tasted like home. Besides, I am pretty proud to say that I quite blended into the decor, probably the purple hair effect!

The only thing I regret is not taking shots of the very extravagant outfit worn by some local “hipsters“.

Maybe next time?

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The Monk, the Old Lady, and the Laowais

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As promised, here is the account of my temple stay :)! It was a great experience, but definitely not what I was expecting.

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7:00 am.  Saturday, April 5th: I wake up from a short night, genuinely excited to go out of Shanghai “by myself” for the first time!

I check one last time my bag, wondering if I really needed to bring with me Morocan oil for my hair, or this mascara, “just in case”. I decide to go with my glamorous needs, but  remove my laptop, and my Ipod: guess I can at least get technology-free for a few days!

I meet my friends, and we get a cab to the railway station.

Then things start to get a bit more complicated.

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I was actually not the mastermind behind the project. The guys invited me to join them, sent me some information about the temple over email, and just asked me to give them the money for the tickets. What I did not know is that they did not book a train directly to the temple village. They booked only a bus to the nearby city of Hangzou…

Here starts the nightmare.

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After 5 hours of bus, instead of normally 3, we arrived at Hangzou. Hopefully we had a native Chinese speaker in our group, who managed to understand that the bus station to the village of Lin’An is in the opposite part of the city. Honestly, I don’t know how we would have done without him!

We then had to unearth cab drivers who were willing to take us there, because apparently there was too much traffic in town, and they did not want to get stuck for hours.

The thing is that, it was already 2 in the afternoon, and the temple only admits visitors until 6pm. We had to make it on time, or we would have to sleep on the streets as there is no hostel in Lin’an.

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We finally made it to the bus, and one hour after, arrive at Lin’An. Relieved to see that we will indeed definitely make it on time, we go for a snack at a local noodle place…before finding that the establishment is only “C Rated” for food sanity….Fortunately, we did not catch anything!

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We then tried to take a cab to the temple…but problem, we could not find any taxi driver who knew how to go there. A group of about 15 men discussed where the temple could possibly be, and after quite a long lapse of time, found one man who was willing to go there…for a little bit more than the normal taxi fare. Well, guess those Chinese men knew how to do business!

We finally arrived at the temple after 8 hours of traveling…hourray!

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The monastery was very silent. It was composed of three little temples, two comfortable dormitories, men and women bathrooms, an obsolete kitchen and a dining room.

I was quite astonished to discover that there was only one monk leaving there! However, he was the exact stereotype of how I pictured a monk: a smiling, patient, sweet man.  I was amused anytime he would talk to me in Chinese, and I would look at him wide-eyed open not having any idea of what he was saying…

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(Yes, one of the meals in these photos was our “breakfast”. It is pretty different from the Western ones!)

Another great surprise was definitely the meals. Since the food is provided by the temple, I was waiting for something very modest, like a soup and some rice. The meals at the temple stay were in fact truly authentic and delicious!

It is an old lady who spends her days preparing the vegetables, which all come from the temple’s garden. We had Peking bolchoi, fresh cucumber, stir fried eggplants, roasted tofu, soy marinated bamboo, spicy peanuts…A true delight!

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After filling our bellies with a forest of soy stir fried bamboos, we decided to take a look at the neighboring village. On our way, we enjoyed the view, the fields of golden flowers, the verdant mountains…and real wild bamboos. I never saw that before!

If the nature itself was picturesque, it was however highly polluted. The river was flooded with plastic waste. It was even more worrying as some women would wash their clothes in the aforesaid river.

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Darkness felt, and we agreed to celebrate what promised to be an unforgettable weekend by buying some fireworks. Chinese fireworks  are not as colorful as the Western ones. They are made principally to “scare demons”, and thus, just make a few sparks but a lot of noise!

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After a relieving night, we woke up at 6 and gobbled some noodles before taking a shuttle to another temple. Situated in the heights of the nearby mountains, I found this temple even more impressing that the Jade Buddha one!

It was sunny outside, which accentuated the sumptuous colors of the edifice.

In the tower that you can see in the photos, the floor and the walls were covered of a white carpet-like material. There was a repetitive music playing from a radio near a Buddha statue. The structure of the building was that of a spiral, which ended in the center of the room. In each spiral were thousands and thousands of funeral urns!

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After the visit, we went back to the village and wandered around. Some kids were chasing us, trying to get the attention of the “laowais” or foreigners! Some of them looked more scared than really curious, which made me laugh hard.

We just ate, but I could not help but to buy a truck of pastries at a local shop. I particularly liked a twisted egg roll, which apparently is one of Chinese’s favorite snack!

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We were walking back home when we saw our neighbors, playing with their kids outside. And, out of nowhere…they invited us over to have lunch and tea! I was extremely surprised as they received us as if we were kings.

One of the women offered us some cold vegetable dumplings, wrapped in a green dough that I have never seen before. We also enjoyed a Dragoon leaf tea. I got to discovered two new meals!

Then, they suddenly told us to clear up the table, lifted the wooden plank on which were laying our meals…and under was a Mahjong table!

They thought us how to play this Chinese game which is totally addictive. I loved it. We played for hours, before we had to go back to the temple for diner. I will never forget how welcoming and hearty this family was to us!

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I woke the next morning and looked at the temple one last time. I discovered this old photos of the monk, and the lady when they were young. They were laying on this table, in the dark.

The monk then got into the temple. As I was asking if it was really him on the photos, he nodded. He took a red ceremonial sheets and wrapped it around my neck. We then prayed together in front of every statues of the monastery.

Time flew by so quickly this weekend…

 

A Shanghainese St Patrick’s Day!

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Yesterday it was St Patrick’s Day, and, as a “New Yorker”, I knew it would not be possible for me to stay home. I searched on Shanghai’s popular websites for some events and was happy to see that some party goers were not planning on staying home either this night.

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After reading reviews and implementing a very strict system of research (there’s only one St Patrick’s day per year right?!), I decided to check the “oldest Irish pub of Shanghai” located near the French Concession.

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The Blarney Stone was a very hearty bar, with an impressing community of many international people. We met three American students who were spending their week in Shanghai and invited them at our table.

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We ordered some Irish traditional stews and Guinness. At first, I  was a bit disappointed that people were not wearing green at all, or that there was no Irish music playing on. However, the ambiance was still great, and it was really pleasurable to be able to grab a drink on the terrace outside.

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After, we decided to go down the street which was pretty lively for a Monday night. It is a very nice area with many original bars, and people dressing fancy.

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We chose to go to the “Revolution Cocktail bar”. We found out that although it was designed and decorated in a very Cuban fashion, it happened to belong to a French man!

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I loved that the bar was very small, with an intimate ambiance, enhanced by the colorful ceiling, the wooden beams and the profusion of framed vintage photos on the walls. The bartender was very nice and offered us to taste one of his Asian mojito!

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It was definitely a great St Patrick’s Day, and I am already planning on coming back to this little street soon 😉

P.S.: I started a tumblr photo challenge (posting photos everyday until I leave Shanghai). You might want to check it if you want to see more daily photos, as I don’t post everything since it would not be relevant in all articles! 🙂

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The Woman Who Lived on the Rooftop of my Gym

Today was the warmest day I had in China. The sun was up, people were enjoying drinks outside of the restaurants, children were playing at the square, students were working in the grass, and it really felt like a nice spring day.

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I noticed that even though it is around 75F outside, people are still wearing huge coats, thick jeans and winter boots. My Chinese roomie explained me that apparently it is quite obscene to get undressed that early in the year. She also told me about this diction that reminded the French one “En Avril, ne te decouvre pas d’un fil”, which means that you should not undress in April or you will get sick.

In the meantime, I wish I could go out in a little sundress.

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At the end of the day, I went to the gym to have a relieving run. While I was stretching, I noticed a strange noise coming from outside. When I looked, I saw a woman, sitting on the ground of the rooftop. She was playing harmonica, while reading through some papers. She had a tent with her.

I wonder how she arrived there, and why. 

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The Lives of Others

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Today my post is not going to be as flighty as usual. I would like to tell you about this particular anecdote that came to my mind while I was randomly talking to an acquaintance about my nightlife.

Not long ago, my friends and I were hanging out in a very fancy Shanghainese club. It was late, there was a great ambiance, the party was in full swing.

We met this group of international students who were in exchange at Fudan too. They were enjoying their night at a table where were standing a multitude of bottles and two creamy cakes.

It was a lot. I would say too much for the number of people they were.

What you need to know is that, in Shanghai, Western people always get free entrance to nightclubs. It is not rare at all to even get free drinks, a table, or bottles of champagne offered by the club. Some friends told me it is because international kids attracts local Chinese partygoers.

So, these people were enjoying all these goodies that they got for free. They did not even order those cakes at all (I mean, who would eat two American style cakes at 2 AM in a crowded club?).

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One of the student started to carry the huge cake around, but he was already pretty tipsy so it seemed like a harsh task for him. Not surprisingly, it ended up falling on a stranger’s suit and felt on the floor, not even started yet.

That could have been a pretty funny anecdote to tell others without what happened next. A Chinese cleaning lady appeared from nowhere and started to wipe the disaster. Her clothes were teared up, her hair was greasy and she seemed exhausted.

In China, I can see on a daily basis poor people liker her. They are street vendors. They are street cleaners. They play instruments or make bamboo baskets to subsist. Most of them don’t speak Mandarin or are illiterate. They are sometimes not homeless, having a family and a home, but live in extremely terrible conditions, in shanty town, with a few dollars per day.

As I watched this lady cleaning up this cake, that I know was probably from one of the many expensive Western bakeries in town, I thought, how many times in her life did she get to eat this? I don’t think I am wrong when I say hardly ever. And now, she is just putting in the trash an entire wasted cake.

I am not saying that the students were wrong for accepting the club gifts and enjoying their time.

I just wish sometimes people, who live everyday being confronted to high poverty, could appreciate and respect what they have, and what others don’t.

Photo sources: edition.cnn.com, mrwallpaper.com 

The mysterious graffitis

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Today, I went to a restaurant near my campus with my roomie. Even though “Snoodles” is mostly known for its noodles, I ordered some wonton dumplings (餛飩) as well as a hot dates juice.

The wontons looked like Chinese “Italian” pastas and were so great! It was filled with pork, and the sauce was made of little peanuts and red peppers. Unfortunately it was also extremely spicy. It was probably the spiciest meal I had here (and it had only one pepper on the menu…).

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So, after we ate, and because it was an awesome sunny day, I decided to take a digestive walk around my apartment.

I am leaving in a great residential area, with western restaurants on the main avenue, and many local Chinese ones a few blocks away. The sidewalks are large and verdant, and the students meet there when they want to talk around a hazelnut latte. There is a charming ambiance.

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While walking, I passed by this long wall right next to my university with many graffitis on it. In fact, I walk past it every single day. It is very artsy and colorful. I did not notice that many street art in Shanghai, so I like this passage. It reminds me of my city, New York, where graffitis were born.

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But, as I was wandering around, I discovered that this wall was not the only painted one. There are actually “secret” graffitis disseminated all over my street! You need to get off the main avenue and explore to find them, sometimes half hidden behind construction work, cars, or just in weird places.

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But the ones that interested me the most, were these childish series which, to me, seemed like they were made by the same artist. All of his/her murals are very colorful, with cute characters and scenery.  It looks like it just came off a child tale. It is basically the kind of drawings I love!

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Unfortunately, the artist did not sign! I would have loved to check out others of his/her work…

I think I am going to ask my Chinese teacher how to say “Who did this?” and ask the local stores and restaurant. This will be my little investigation of the week, and a great way to talk to locals 😉

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I have to solve this mystery!