Friday, July 29, 2016

Shanghai, China, Part 2: Chinese Glamour Shots

Heading back from Suzhou, I hit up Shanghai one last time before finally leaving the area for good (Shanghai and its surrounding areas sure got some quality time on this trip).  I spent a couple days crashing with Jade at her apartment (THANK YOU for being the sweetest hostess ever!), and, in my words, "living like a local."  With no "to-see's" on the docket, I totally took my time and did whatever I wanted (one of those days involved me sitting in a coffee shop with a giant iced coffee for hours, catching up on the blog. After so long on the road, that is sometimes the true, true luxury!).

Jade and I were talking my first night back, and she mentioned that she had been meaning to go get some photos done.  At first I assumed they were work photos or something, but then she explained that sometimes it's fun (and a fairly common activity) to just go to a photo studio, get your hair and makeup done, throw on a couple outfit changes, and get photos taken by a professional.  For (what appears to me to be) no reason; as in, they don't need a special occasion like a wedding or an engagement or a graduation to get photos done.  She asked if I'd be interested in joining her for a session, saying that they had packages specifically designed for friends, called "friendship shoots."  Seriously, this was the name of the photo package.  WELL OK.

In China, "friendship shoots" involve wearing matching clothes and posing on beds. Apparently.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • So I actually also spent a day and a half in Shanghai in between Hangzhou and Suzhou, with Jesse, before he left - but I had no idea where to put those photos because they don't exactly warrant their own post, so I'm sticking them here!

My dad had been saving his points at the Radisson for FOREVER, and he asked me to help him use them - redeemable for exactly one night at the Shanghai Radisson Blu.  I made him a montage of me using every square inch of the hotels facilities, to show him that his points were being well utilized. I'm sure the Radisson loved this.

We spent Jess' last night walking down Nanjing Road

I maybe made us ride the super fun-looking tiny trolley across town

  • The day Jess left, and the day before I left for Suzhou, Jade took me on her own (rainy) "political dissident tour". I named it myself. Jade has a lot of interest in history; and not just the history that the Chinese government teaches, but all of it.  For example, if there's a home belonging to a famous leader who was against the Communist party (you know, like Chiang Kai-Shek - the leader of the Nationalist Party who fled to Taiwan because he was against Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader)(#Chinesehistorylessons) - the government today tries to hide it. There will be no information on the home or the area or the individual at all, and it will be restricted for access and hidden behind fences.  On the other hand, if there's a home belonging to a former government official, or a famous poet that supported the Communist government, the house is proudly preserved and displayed with information plaques and presented openly to the public. You really start to see that the Chinese government just shows you what it wants you to see.  Anyhow, Jade has a deep interest in all this history. She took me to see a lot of the homes and properties of former political figures that are not marked or indicated.  In fact, many of them just look like large buildings hidden behind even larger fences.  It's super interesting that you would normally just walk right by these, and not have any idea of their historical significance.

Rainy walk through the French Concession, to see some of the old houses.
At one point, we tried to enter a park that a guard would not allow us into, telling us it was private property. Jade responded with "I've studied the history of this park, and it used to be for public use. How can the government sell public property to a private individual?? Who allowed that?  Who's the owner?" #wow.  The guard admitted it did used to be public property, but now it isn't and he wouldn't answer who owned it. And he still didn't let us in. Jade let this one go, but apparently she's picked fights before. (insert big-eyed emoji here)

This was also somewhere historic that I can't remember, someone's former property or something - and now the police occupy it, but they won't put up a sign that it's a police station so people can't question why the police get to use this super swanky fancy building (you know, benefits of being government employees).  But it's fairly obvious because there's like, 10 police cars parked in the backyard.  The way China works sometimes blows my mind.

We found an art exhibit of photos from all over China; snapshots into all the different provinces and ways of life and such. And it had this old propaganda poster.

I changed my mind; the entire photo gallery was propaganda.  Look at this caption. I could not get over it.
"It's quality is, quite obviously, superior than that of other countries, such as Iran."  WHO SAYS THAT.

This was an incredibly pretty park (I think a hefty chunk of all the parks in China are named "People's Park"), with a teahouse overlooking the fountain.

Shanghai, you look so Euro sometimes!

We ended our day (and our political dissident tour) with big bowls of personal hotpot

Slumber party at Jade's = face masks and computers!

  • The next day, we woke up bright and early for *drumroll* the "Friendship Photo Shoot!"  I don't think that needs to be capitalized, but I'm making it a proper noun.  Let me just preface these next set of photos with 
    • These are only a handful, and trust me, these are the faaaaairly normal ones. If you want weirder, I have weirder. Just ask;  
    • Jade was right! Girls do randomly just go get photos done for no reason! There were two sets of them at the photo studio when we arrived.  One was getting a set with her boyfriend done (what?? What happens if they break up!?), and one was just getting photos of herself in different outfits for no apparent reason; 
    • Please keep in mind that China loves themes. Jade chose all our themes. 
    • Girls in China are very close - like, they hold hands in the street and stuff. So getting photos done together felt kind of like an engagement shoot to me, but here it's normal; and hey, what the wife wants, the wife gets. (The wife is Jade, btw. Keep up.)

The first theme - boudoir?!? Just kidding.  But kind of not.

Yeahhh I'm not exactly sure what the difference between this and a boudoir shoot is.

Jade was barely touching my hair, but the photog instructed me to act like I was in pain, "while still keeping my face pretty."  Uh. I'm not a magician here, sir.

Next set: Chinese traditional dresses (qipaos) - we went outside for these, and it was hot as balls. That's all.

Photo shoots in China are like acting sessions.  "Walk slowly while pointing and looking over at that tree!"

The photog was way into this fan.  I was too, but only because I got to fan myself aggressively between shots in the 100 degree heat.

I love this one of Jade! The photog sent us onto the deck of a rando restaurant for these

Oh, now we're sitting on the rando restaurant's deck. Thanks, guys.

Qipaos are super racy. Jade says they are designed to be that way - to appear demure and ladylike on the surface, but then have these ridiculous sky-high slits in the legs, and have the shape be skin-tight and form-fitting to the body.  Apparently we Americans have it all wrong, what with the putting skin out there right up front. The key is you have to TRICK THE MEN into thinking you're a lady at first.

Qipaos are racy, part 2. Unless you don't think it's racy to see all my million mosquito bites.

The lady did our hair in like, 5 minutes. So impressive.

AND THE FINAL THEME. Jade was going for "cool and dangerous."  Seriously, some of these pics (which I will not post) are the most ridiculous ones of all. The photog kept instructing us to be cool (seriously, I think I heard the word "cool" 100+ times) and I was like "I DON'T KNOW HOWWWWW"

Apparently my go-to when "acting cool" is duckface

Jade is much better at being cool than I am
Omg I'm keeping this photo small

  • It was a super-fun day (SO WEIRD YET SO INTERESTING), and we had a good time at the end of it.  You know who else had a great time? Jesse. I think he could barely breathe, he was laughing so hard, when he saw these photos.  You're welcome for the day's entertainment. I hope you were entertained.  I have more, if you need.
  • After the photo shoot, we went to brunch with family friends, then headed to an area of town that has a bunch of cute cafes and afternoon tea spots and (again) looks very Euro.

I forgot what this section of town is called. I fail.

But we went and had (expensive!) afternoon tea at a place that tried so, so hard to be British.

And since we still had our makeup on, we went and took our own photos in the area (DOUBLE DUTY)

This is a beautiful former convent, which has now been turned into a swanky hotel.

  • And with that wrapped up the end of my (multiple) Shanghai adventures!  I loved having this city as a home base for two weeks, which would not have been even close to the same without Jade the superstar.  So thanks Jade, and thanks Shanghai, for being a semi-home for a little bit!  Also, thanks to the photo studio that made me feel like I was in a strange, very-interesting movie set for a day.  I now have photos that will last a lifetime, and will also be plastered across my wall in poster-size going forward.  I'm onto the rest of China!

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • After the photo shoot, Jade and I went to brunch with family friends, where my friend Catherine's aunt commented: "You know, you can put Connie in a qipao...but she still looks American."  Jade says this is because Chinese girls are taught to be more demure - not so open with their smile or gestures or emotions (oops - fail, fail, and fail).  Apparently, in the airlines (only the prettiest and most feminine girls get flight attendant jobs in Asia), they require that you only show the top 8 teeth when you smile. And this is how Jade says she was taught to smile (Jade says when I smile, the entire rack of both teeth come out). Asian girls are taught to smile with no bottom teeth. Try it in the mirror. Only show 8 teeth. It's impossible, you will see.  
  • On that note, they also measure waist sizes for flight attendants. They are supposed to be as wide as a piece of paper.  I'm going to go ahead and say that my large smile already disqualifies me as a flight attendant here.....
  • I have no idea when wearing a business suit made you cool.  You wouldn't believe the range of other options the photo studio had..

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Suzhou, China: I Make New Chinese Friends!

Jess and I hung out for a day back in Shanghai before he left for Vietnam, on his way home to Australia, again. I know he's "gone home to Australia" like, 5 times already - but this is what he claimed this time.  I spent an extra day in Shanghai hanging out with Jade, and then headed out on a solo adventure to the city of Suzhou, a couple hours away from Shanghai.

Near Shanghai are all these "water towns": think Venice, with houses and villages built along little canal-like waterways, but in Chinese form.  A lot of them are pretty historic, though many have been remodeled or "improved" (again, Chinese-style), and most of them are super touristy. But I wanted to check out at least one, and eventually settled on Suzhou.

What It's All About:
Suzhou, northwest of Shanghai, is an incredibly historic (over 2,500 years old!) city, tucked off the banks of the Yangtze River.  Its best known for its beautiful gardens that were built for personal use by the olden-day Chinese people who had more money than they knew what to do with (i.e. government officials, etc.)  They'd build these ridiculous, elaborate, huuuuge gardens for themselves - many of which have been preserved today.

These people had way too much money to be building personal gardens like this for themselves.

Suzhou also has beautiful canals and temples, and is situated very close to the water town of Tongli - which is known to be one of the most beautiful water villages.  And also one of the most touristy. But water villages and gardens, sign me up!

Tongli water village!
While pretty, I've now come to associate the phrase "water village" with "endless cesspools of mosquitoes"

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • I literally checked out of my Shanghai hostel in the morning, sat in the cafe with a coffee and did some internet research on where to go next, decided on Suzhou, and then purchased an afternoon train over there.  The internet is an amazing place. Even despite the fact that half of it is blocked in China.
  • I arrived to my hostel in Suzhou, filled with only Chinese people, and had the owner recommend some sites for me to see the next day.

And this Post-it is what he gave me. Never mind the fact that I can't really read Chinese (I had to add notes in green), but this is basically how I got around all day: showing people my Post-it, cross-checking the Chinese characters with the bus stops and signs, etc.

  • First stop was the Tiger Hill Pagoda and Scenic Area (虎丘塔).   The area houses tons of historic sights, gardens, and temples - and has served different purposes over the years, though the area has been in use since Suzhou's founding. Which means it's also over 2,500 years old.  The area is called Tiger Hill either because 1.) It's rumored an emperor buried his father here, and the next day saw a white tiger hanging out, or 2.) The mountain is shaped like a tiger. Nobody knows.

I love Chinese signs, part 100.
Such an emphasis on being civilized. You have no idea how appropriate that emphasis is.

This is one of the most famous sights in the area - called the Sword Pool, it's thought that the emperor's father that's buried here especially loved swords - and had workers dig this pool to bury his thousands of swords after he died. And then the workers were probably all killed. Also, no one can verify the authenticity of this story because the pool has never been excavated, given that it is part of the foundation of the pagoda.

And here is the main feature, the leaning Tiger Hill Pagoda! The pagoda, first built ~900AD (it's been destroyed and reconstructed many times along the way), was initially part of the Yunyan Temple, and is nicknamed the "Leaning Tower of China" because it's started to lean over the past couple hundred years, due to an uneven foundation of concrete and soil.

It is almost 48 meters tall and 7 stories high (TUCKING IN FACTS WHEREVER I CAN)

And then I walked around the scenic area, which was lovely. There were tons of winding paths and ups and downs everywhere. And some parts were totally secluded.

Walking along a forest path with a lion friend

At the top of the hill is a view over Suzhou


Good luck if you can stand your coin up in this rock. Which might work better if people weren't using only 10 cent yuan coins, which are so light they feel plastic.

If you notice that a photo has a description missing, it's most likely because I had no idea what the heck I was taking a photo of

Bamboo forest (that, I know)


Is this maybe some kind of temple? It had a bathroom off to the side that was nice and air-conditioned. Fact.

I've decided this is another temple. And with that, your tour of the Tiger Hill Scenic Area is over!

  • Next, I managed to navigate the bus system (I deserve some points for this - China makes it way too easy to hop into a cab to go somewhere because every cab ride is like, $3) to make it to my next destination - the Lingering Garden (留园).
The Lingering Garden! Built for some fancy official back in the day. 

These gardens are all World Heritage Sites, FYI.

There were also lots of interior rooms and structures left over

A pretty rock formation in the bonsai section of the garden. These gardens are so huge that you can easily get lost. There's paths everywhere. And they're all segmented into parts.

Proof that I was actually in Suzhou, doing all the things I said I was.

Pretty, but the Lingering Garden turned out to be "meh" in the grand scheme of old-school, baller-ass Chinese gardens.

Back near my hostel, people were queuing like crazy to buy $1 loaves of fresh bread stuffed with rou song (meat fuzz)

  • Later that evening, crossed the last thing off my "Post-it of advice" - Shantang Street (山塘街), a pedestrian street.  We're very familiar with these now, aren't we?  It was extra pretty though, because this street runs by the water - so all the food stands, shops, stalls, etc. look extra nice and historic.

In true Chinese form, LET'S LIGHT IT ALL UP

But it's so pretty! Five stars.

How dreamy are the canals at night!?!

I'm sure these lanterns are all for the sake of the tourists, but I loved it.

Ended the night with a delish skewer-filled dinner by the river (MOSQUITO CESSPOOL #10). 

  • That evening, arriving back at my hostel, I was accosted by the three other Chinese girls staying in my room (all solo).  Confession, I get nervous hanging out for long periods of time with young Chinese people. I don't think my Chinese is good enough to adapt to all the slang and references they make and things they choose to discuss (a popular conversation topic is the differences between all the provinces in China, which always inevitably comes up when people are talking about where in China they're from - I have zero to contribute to this topic except for what I hope is a look of mild interest).  But Chinese people have no hesitation to jump right on in with the questions, particularly with strangers. They wanted to hang out the next day.  And that is how I made new Chinese friends. 

My new Chinese friends and I went to the Suzhou Museum the next day, which always has a very long line to enter because it is free.

Some very old pottery.

One of my new Chinese friends is super-interested and versed in Chinese history, so she took it upon herself to explain everything in the museum to me. To be honest, I maybe understood 20% of what she was saying (old, ancient Chinese historical vocabulary is not my forte), but bless her heart for trying. I simply just nodded along vigorously and added in an "oh really" here and there, and I think she was satisfied.

I like this because it looks pretty.


The Suzhou Museum is very pretty. And air-conditioned.

I took a stealth photo of my legs next to my new friend's legs while no one was looking, just to give you a sense of why everyone in China looks at me like I'm some kind of horrific beast when they see my skin color.

One of the girls bought all the rest of us fans (she also bought us our morning yogurts!) and insisted we take photos with them.


  • After the museum, two of the girls had to leave - one to catch a train back home, and the other one had to go for a job interview. So the last girl, who told me to call her "m" (lowercase, just one letter) (JUST LIKE JAMES BOND), and I continued our day of sightseeing by heading to the "Humble Administrator's Garden."  Favorite name for a garden, ever.

Welcome to the Humble Administrator's Garden!
Obviously, this was a former administrator/high-ranking official's fancy-ass personal garden

The humble administrator sure liked lilypads

And bonsai. He had an entire section devoted to bonsai.

These windowpanes were imported from the Netherlands! (overheard from another group that had actually paid for a guide)

This is m!  I'm unclear why she insisted her letter was lowercase, but I like her style

This dude doesn't seem all that humble to me

I love how Chinese people pose for photos, Part 4.  There are still so many things for me to learn in this world

Later that evening, we went to watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 movie in 3-D (...there was a 1st???)
Has anyone seen it?! Why is Raphael so grumpy and meathead?! He used to be my favorite. Dislike.

I had to leave my new Chinese friends the next day to head to Tongli, but they all added me on WeChat (think China's version of Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp/Venmo all in one). And m (WHY IS HER NAME CAPITALIZED ON HER WECHAT) posted the sweetest message to her WeChat Moments (i.e. Facebook wall)!
Aaaaah I loved getting to meet these girls! Such a different world.

  • From Suzhou, I took less than an hour-long bus to the water village of Tongli.

Tongli is over 1,000 years old!

Another China fact: they will make you purchase tickets to anything they can.  So you have to buy a ticket to enter the village of Tongli.  

Oh my gahhh I loved the tiny little charming streets

And here are the canals!

This man and his cormorants were only there for the tourists, but still beautiful.

Restaurants and cafes line the entire waterfront

I think it's aggressive to call this Venice, but it definitely has its own charm

Included in the entrance fee to Tongli was a bunch of famous gardens and sights. I was slightly over gardens by this point, but this garden was pretty enough.

Fine, garden, you're pretty too

  • And with that came the end of my solo foray into a random Chinese city!  I took a bus/train combo back to Shanghai that evening.

The result of traipsing around gardens/canals/rivers/ponds (MOSQUITO CESSPOOLS) for the week. It doesn't look like much, but I think I must have had a hundred of these all over my legs

And just so I don't end this post with an unflattering mosquito-covered leg shot, here is an updated shot of the bracelets!

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • In China, they have a second way of accounting for age (I learned this from my new Chinese friends) - they consider you to be a year old when you're born, and then they calculate your age based on the year you're born. So even though I haven't had my birthday yet this year, they'd already count me a year older because all they do is subtract your birth year from the current year, irregardless of month. And then they add an additional year because you're a year old when you're born. So apparently I'm actually two years older than I've been saying.  Yeah, I'll take a hard pass.
  • It's apparently not ok to leave your hair wet after showering, or so the Chinese believe. The girls were horrified when I tried to get into bed after showering without blowing my hair dry - they regaled me with stories of various horrendous ailments that could befall me as a result of going to sleep with wet hair (it's definitely a huge superstition here). And then one of them insisted I go over to her and she blew my hair dry for me.  I declined to mention to them how many times in my life I've gone to bed with my hair wet in the past.
  • In China, the only people who had money back in the day were government officials.