Week 2 in China: Seeing the Sights

Hello everyone! Here’s my post on my second week in China, and this time, I went exploring with my friends to different restaurants and new parts of the city that I hadn’t seen before.

Exploring Puxi

This week, my friends and I took to Puxi (浦西 – Pŭxī), which is the area located to the west of the 黃浦江 (Huángpŭ Jiāng), the Huangpu River. You can either take Line 2 on the metro for about 6-10 RMB each way, or take a taxi for 40-60 RMB, depending on how far you’re going.

We first visited the fake market at AP Xinyang Market, also known as AP Plaza, which is located inside the train station underneath the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. A “fake market” is a massive marketplace of imitation goods of popular brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as well as silk items and various souvenirs. A lot of the items here are of potentially dubious quality, such as leather goods not being real leather, but you do find very good imitations of luxury brands, which are often more durable than the real thing. If you’re OK with not having the genuine article, this is the place for you.

AP Plaza Fake Market

If you’re not into clothing, there’s plenty of other items to buy, like mahjong sets (~200 RMB), calligraphy items, decorative chopsticks, tea sets, and even jewelry. The Yada Pearl Market does boast genuine pearls, but they may not be of the best quality, especially considering that you can haggle with the shopkeepers. Tip from my friends: never settle for more than 30-40% of the original price. That said, there is at least one stall that sells calligraphy display pieces, which are mass produced ink prints made by a real artist, and the shopkeeper will write a name in Chinese for you. This is probably the only “real” shop in the entire market!

Beware that the calligraphy items like name stamps are not durable, and will scuff and break fairly easily (I was forced to buy one because the edge of my raincoat knocked it off the shelf)! They’re often made from low-quality stones, unlike the genuine carved stamps, which are often made of jade or marble. That said, they work just as well, so long as you take care not to damage them.

We then moved on to the People’s Square, and then Nanjing Walking Street, which is just beyond the square (which is pretty small, and is essentially just the entrance to the metro station).

人民广场/人民廣場 (Rénmín Guăngchăng) – People’s Square (during the day)

There’s a lot to see here, since it’s lined with all sorts of shops, ranging from Chinese sweets shops that sell 蛋挞/蛋撻 (dàn tă), or egg tarts, which are flaky pastries with egg custard brought by the Portuguese to Macau and Hong Kong, and now popular all over China, especially in southern China. I didn’t get an egg tart there yet, but I did buy a yogurt drink called 酸奶 (suān năi), which is essentially just yogurt. It comes cold, but apparently can be heated on request. I personally didn’t think it was anything special; it’s tart and a little sweet, and if I wasn’t told, I would have said it’s just sweet lassi, a similar drink made from buttermilk from the Punjab in India.

Visiting Lujiazui

On Thursday, my friend and I went to 陆家嘴/陸家嘴 (Lùjiāzuĭ – Lujiazui), a part of  town just near the river, and across from the Bund. I saw the Pearl Tower from up close during the day, which is pretty cool. 

Lujiazui is on Line 2 as well, and very accessible via the Century Avenue station. The IFC Mall is also located near the Lujiazui Station, a massive luxury mall with brands such as Dior, Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, and many more (it’s a ridiculously huge mall). I didn’t think to take pictures, mostly because my friend and I needed to go to the Muji that’s also in the mall to get some stationery, which seems to not be the focus of this particular location. The Muji in New York, just off Astor Place, is primarily stocked with stationery, and I didn’t know there was a significant home goods and clothing line until I went here.

A temple amidst consumerism

On Saturday, my friends and I continued to explore Puxi, going to 静安寺/靜安寺 (Jīng Ān Sì – Jing’an Temple), the most famous Buddhist temple in Shanghai. It’s difficult to miss, with golden roofs and massive lions at its doors. There is a train station (named Jing’an Temple) located right next to the temple, also on Line 2!  Entry is 50 RMB per person, so keep that in mind when you go.

静安寺/靜安寺 (Jīng Ān Sì) – Temple of Peace and Tranquility

The temple is beautiful, and there’s incense you can light for free (although they ask that you donate 5 yuan to the temple). There are four shrines, one with the Golden Buddha and another with a camphor wood statue of saint-goddess Guanyin, a unique feature of Chinese Buddhism. She is revered as a deity of mercy, and she is said to have guided Xuanzang, the monk who recovered copies of the Buddhist scripture to translate into Chinese, to India. Being a fairly observant Hindu, I made my own obeisances and many people do come from all over to offer their prayers to the Buddha.

It was nice to see that there were still monuments and places dedicated to Buddhism in Shanghai, and in such pristine condition. The temple was turned into a plastic factory during the Cultural Revolution, but now is a tourist attraction and a holy place for Chinese Buddhists. The temple, truthfully, is nestled in an odd place, being surrounded by high-end restaurants and clothing brands (there’s an Armani Exchange next door!). It seems to be a symbol of the cultural institutions that survived the Cultural Revolution. China changed thereafter, and continues to be in a state of flux with its current period of economic prosperity and booming consumer class. The temple truly is a space of tranquility in the middle the chaos of markets and consumer culture.

This week’s tips on food

This time on my travels as a vegetarian, I found Indian and Thai food! Along with Indian food, Thai food is one of the most reliable cuisines for vegetarians traveling in Asia, with a rich tradition of Buddhist cooking that continues today. I ordered a yellow curry, papaya salad (not pictured), and a dish called “crispy ear silk”. I know that this doesn’t sound vegetarian, and I didn’t think it was until I asked the waiter. He checked with the kitchen, and it is indeed a vegetable (if I go back at some point, I will update this article with the Chinese name).

Crispy “ear silk” and yellow vegetable curry at Hantai Restaurant on 4F 8座 (Block 8) of Jinqiao LifeHub

I also visited a very popular Indian restaurant in Shanghai, known as Bollywood, which has an interior decorated with many pictures of Bollywood stars. The restaurant is big, has performances every so often, and plays classic Bollywood music videos on a screen on the side of the restaurant. Indian food is literally a godsend for me, since it’s reliably vegetarian, and reminds me of home. Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the food, so you’ll have to settle for a picture of the entrance. The restaurant is located on Hongfeng Road, just past Biyun Road. The food is flavorful, but I suggest asking for the food to be spicy if you want it, since they may have toned down the food for my non-Indian suite mates. The vegetarian dishes I ordered were the Veg Jalfrezi, Kadhai Paneer, and Daal Makhani. The vegetarian dishes were very popular with my non-vegetarian suite mates, so that should say something about the quality of the restaurant! It was also quite nice when they told us that NYU students get 15% off, so I will definitely be back again while I’m here.

A little bit of home so far away from it

A tip for vegetarians (particularly those learning Mandarin) when perusing a Chinese menu (even if there’s English), you should look for the character for “meat”, 肉 (ròu) so as to avoid it.

However, this is more true of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dishes, since there are foreign dishes, such as spaghetti bolognese, that have meat, but may not necessarily include the character for “meat” in its Chinese name. The best thing to do is to determine what kind of dish it is based on pictures, look it up on a dictionary (such as Pleco, my preferred choice), or if your Mandarin is good enough, ask. Asking is quick and the waiter or waitress almost always knows. It’s not like the US where the waiters don’t know what it’s the food, and keep you waiting an extra 10-15 minutes while they go ask.

Handy tip: If it does have meat, the answer is often 有(肉)的 (yŏu [ròu] de), and if not, the answer is 沒有(肉) (méi yŏu [ròu]). The sounds very obvious, but it wasn’t when I first came to China, and I couldn’t understand what the answer was until I listened closely.

I also had Vietnamese food at Saigon Mama, a small Vietnamese cafe near the Portman Ritz Carlton, not far from Jing’an Temple. There are exactly two vegetarian things here, one of which is an appetizer (a tofu vegetable roll), and the other is a vegetarian bún (pictured below). At 55 RMB, this is a little pricier than usual, but given the size of the meal, I thought it was worth it. I also got a pretty little drink, called the Orange Ocean, at a bar near my dorm. My friends really wanted to get alcohol, but since I don’t drink, I was pretty pleased to see that this place made tasty non-alcoholic drinks. They’re technically for brunch and breakfast, but the staff (who are all very nice) were willing to make it for me.

I know that this post was really long, but they probably will be this long, given that I’m covering a whole week. I hope that you all enjoy these updates, and I look forward to writing next week’s post!

Do Our Language Classes Create “Uncultured Swine”? Read On and Find Out.

I have been a student of foreign language in both a formal setting in a classroom and a self-studier for the past four years. I realize that there are certain aspects of the typical foreign language class that should be addressed, particularly when it comes to culture. In my state of California, we have five levels of each foreign language, taught all the way up to either V (Five) or AP (Advanced Placement). It is usually not until the fourth or fifth level of the class that culture actually becomes a large part of the curriculum. Exceptions include when the teacher is a native from a country where the language is spoken or is particularly enthusiastic in teaching the culture, in which cases culture may be a topic of discussion earlier on.

But let’s focus on the most common scenario: culture is not discussed until the latter levels of the class. We all know that culture is a very integral part of learning a language, and that the language serves as a medium to understand that culture and its people. However, in the earlier parts of the language tracks, the focus is almost 100% on the grammar and practice of the language. This creates the impression that the target language is a reinterpretation of English. Let’s get this straight: languages are not different versions of each other. If they were, then everybody on the planet would be essentially the same, most nations wouldn’t exist, and conflict would be considerably lessened. Culture is part of what defines race and ethnicity, because it reflects not only the history of a language, but also of the people who are a part of it. As I have discussed in my This I Believe response (linked here), each language is the vessel of communication for different cultures. Each is unique, with its own vocabulary, syntax, constructions, word choice, and other properties.

So now that we’ve established that language classes often focus excessively on the grammar and practice of the language (which are still important, by the way), what does this situation do to the students? For one, it bores them out of their minds. They end up thinking that the language is just a bunch of rules and words, not an actual thing people use. Even for the students that do continue to the upper level classes, their understanding of the language is incomplete and unintegrated.

This all stands in contrast to the self-study of foreign language, which inherently implies an interest in the culture as well as in the language. The blog Learning Thai Without Studying by adamf2011 (linked here) does a great job of explaining the role of culture in learning a language, and how grammatical learning is not everything there is to a language. By purposely avoiding the use of traditional techniques, he forced himself into the culture by being in the environment without knowing any Thai whatsoever. While I prefer the analytical approach to language (it’s just easier for me), I still stress the study of cultural material by talking about it online with my Italian teachers, and reading about it online. The complete immersion method makes little sense to me (although evidently it works), so I prefer a half analytical, half cultural method. The only way one can understand a language completely is by using the language in context, and understanding how words are used by natives, in the culture that the language has cultivated, or been cultivated by.

But now, let’s answer the question in the title of this blog post. Are we, “uncultured swine,” because we don’t learn about the culture early enough? I’d wager to say yes. America in particular, while a melting pot society and one very open to different languages and cultures, makes a point of making other languages and cultures very exotic, and strange. While they are different, this view distances learners from the languages they’re studying. In addition, the relegation of these languages to secondary status both at home and the world at large reinforces the idea that other languages are exactly like English, except in different sounds, spellings, writing systems, and sentence orders. But the fact is that each language is independent, and represents a different culture from those represented by other languages. It is for this reason that I advocate cultural exposure and contextualization from day one of language classes, not just in California, but also the US as whole, as well as the whole world.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope you have some comments, so that you can offer your own views on this matter. I enjoy discussing such things, so please go ahead and leave some comments!

My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!