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This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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China–The French Concession

Posted by gck Sunday, April 29, 2012 0 comments

I meant to start on my series of posts about China immediately after I returned, but it seems like I’m not getting around to it until now. So many photos to sort through!

Back in the 1800s, a number of foreign countries had concessions in China, areas of cities where the foreigners lived and ruled. In Shanghai, one of these was the French Concession, an area that today retails much of its foreign influence and is a lively place for both expats and Chinese people to enjoy. I spent a morning doing a self-guided walking tour around the area and then returned at night a few days later to eat dinner.

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(left: Shanghai, China; right: Provence, France)

As you can see in the pictures above, the tree-lined streets of the French Concession make it so the neighborhood could easily be mistaken for something in France. In the early morning (thanks, jetlag!), the shops were all closed, but this area would be full of people in the afternoons and evenings.

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(Fuxing Park)

One of the first places I stopped by on the walking tour, and the place I spent the most time in, was Fuxing Park. It was created by the French over 100 years ago, and now it’s probably the city’s best public park. Walking in, all the lush greenery enfolded me in a peaceful feeling… and then I nearly got hit with a birdie. There were dozens and dozens of people playing badminton in the shadow of a rather serious-looking statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel. Ah, yes… I had stumbled into one of my favorite things to see in Asia: old people exercising in public. In some instances, it’s funny, but the real reason I like it is because it’s a cultural thing that I find very beautiful. It makes me happy to see retired people living full lives. On this Saturday morning, people were singing, dancing, shaking maracas, and more. The park itself was also very beautiful, with landscaped gardens and statues all over. I combined some of my pictures and videos into the video below:

There are many beautiful buildings left behind from the concession days. Two examples are pictured below. The first is part of the Ruijin Hotel, formerly the Morriss Estate. I brazenly walked through the gates and around the property to look at the buildings, and I noticed that an employee started walking behind me and followed me nearly to the exit. Many old mansions have found new incarnations as hotels, banks, and shops. But some of them, like the former St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, haven’t fared as well. Apparently this beautiful building was used as a warehouse for washing machines at one point after it stopped being a church!

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(left: Ruijin Hotel, right: former St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church)

Things in China these days change rapidly. Some of the French Concession remains residential, with normal people going around doing normal things like buying vegetables from a sidewalk stand. But things are rapidly going upscale. It’s hard to miss the Sinan Mansions project, a redevelopment of dozens of old mansions into upscale residences, shops, restaurants, and a super expensive hotel where you can have your own personal butler if you’re willing to pay over 5,000 USD a night for a villa. Some of the project, like the hotel, is already done, but other parts (as pictured below) are still in progress. While it’s nice to see new life come into these dilapidated structures, it’s unfortunate that their replacements are things that normal people will be unable to enjoy.

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(left: vegetable stand, right: Sinan Mansions project)

One very popular area of the French Concession is called Xintiandi, which translates to “New Heaven and Earth.” It is perhaps the redevelopment that spurred the other projects. The old shikumen houses have been converted into expensive shops and restaurants. This area was full of people at night, especially foreigners. Sadly, one of the most photographed angles of Xintiandi prominently features a Starbucks.

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(left: Xintiandi, photo credit: Time Out Shanghai,
right: wealth is not subtle in China

There are many restaurants and bars that are popular with the expat crowd in this area, but I didn’t try any of them. Instead, I went for the Shanghainese favorite, Xinjishi, which I’ll probably mention if/when I get around to making a food post. On the way back to my hostel, I sighed at the giant, garishly-lit Gap store and the line of drunk foreigners waiting for cabs (pictured below).

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(left: this is China, right: line of people waiting for cabs)

One neighborhood, many faces. It’s not what I expected when I thought of Shanghai before I visited. It’s interesting to see a neighborhood that has had various cultural influences over time and how it has evolved. Hopefully not all of the past will be lost as things move forward. I’ll have to come back in ten years and see!

Book Review: The Foremost Good Fortune

Posted by gck Sunday, April 22, 2012 1 comments

foremostgoodfortuneThe Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley

Genre: Memoir
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: light summer reading, people curious about China from a foreigner’s perspective
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons say good-bye to their friends, family, and house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, prepared to embrace the inevitable onslaught of new experiences that such a move entails. But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.

While her husband is consumed with his job, Susan works on finishing her novel and confronting the challenges of day-to-day life in an utterly foreign country: determining the proper way to buy apples at a Chinese megamarket; bribing her little boys to ride the school bus; fielding invitations to mysterious “sweater parties” and tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in an elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.

Despite the distractions, there are many occasions for joy.  From road trips to the Great Wall and bartering for a “starter Buddha” at the raucous flea market to lighting fireworks in the streets for the Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants, they gradually turn their unfamiliar environs into a true home.

Then Susan learns she has cancer.  After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner—but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger.  Set against the eternally fascinating backdrop of modern China and full of insight into the trickiest questions of motherhood—How do you talk to children about death?  When is it okay to lie?—this wry and poignant memoir is a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.

My review:
This book focuses on two major events in Susan Conley’s life: moving to China and dealing with cancer. They’re supposed to mirror one another: first Susan is a stranger in a new country, and then she becomes a stranger to her own body. It sounds cleverly put together with the promise of some sort of deep, inspired conclusion. Unfortunately, it never quite works. The connection never fully materialized for me.

The parts dealing with Conley’s cancer are my least favorite in the book. I think perhaps it is difficult to articulate this experience because it was so internal. Unlike being a foreigner a country, where there are constant anecdotes about culture shocks and language difficulties to illustrate the strangeness to the reader, the cancer is just cancer. So instead, we get stories about how her children react to the cancer. Mildly interesting, but for me, not relatable. I read this book at the same time as I read The Replacement Wife, another book about a woman dealing with cancer. Emotionally, this book fell so flat in comparison.

However, I did enjoy all of Conley’s stories about China, and I would have happily read more. Having returned from a trip to China not long before starting this book, I happily found myself transported back through the writing. Some might find her narration arrogant or irritating, but it didn’t strike me as such. I felt like she wrote honestly and had more tolerance and openness than most Americans would have if they suddenly moved to China. Of course, there are the obligatory complains about smog, toilets, and the language barrier, but this doesn’t prevent her from exploring and enjoying Beijing.

We get additional insight into the culture through characters she describes, such as Mao Ayi (her housekeeper/nanny), Rose (her English teacher), and Lao Wu (her driver). We learn that there are many “Mao Ayi”s in China because people would prove their patriotism with their choice of children’s names. We get a glimpse of the pressures put on young people in China through Rose’s struggle over her boyfriend and career choices.

If the whole book had focused on Conley’s experiences in China (and perhaps more about her husband’s previous adventures in rural areas of the country), it would have been a stronger, more interesting memoir.

Book Review: The Replacement Wife

Posted by gck Tuesday, April 10, 2012 1 comments

replacementwifeThe Replacement Wife by Eileen Goudge

Genre: Chick Lit, Contemporary Fiction
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Fans of Emily Giffin, people who like more serious chick lit
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Back-cover summary:
Camille Hart, one of Manhattan’s most sought-after matchmakers, has survived more than her fair share of hardships. Her mother died when she was a young girl, leaving her and her sister with an absentee father. Now in her forties, she has already survived cancer once, though the battle revealed just how ill-equipped her husband Edward is to be a single parent. So when doctors tell Camille that her cancer is back—and this time it’s terminal—she decides to put her matchmaking expertise to the test for one final job. Seeking stability for her children and happiness for her husband, Camille sets out to find the perfect woman to replace her when she’s gone.

But what happens when a dying wish becomes a case of “be careful what you wish for”? For Edward and Camille, the stunning conclusion arrives with one last twist of fate that no one saw coming.

My review:
You’ve got a woman with cancer in a loving relationship who decides to find a replacement wife for her gorgeous, successful husband. He’s not into the idea, but once his mind opens to the thought of other women, he starts noticing other women. It’s clear pretty early on that there’s no way that this story is going to have a happy ending for everyone. And as the characters get more and more tangled into their stupid but well-meaning web, the reader can only wait for the inevitable train wreck.

This is a good book. But it’s also a tricky book. From the description and the genre, I expected it to be a mostly light, shallow read with some cheap emotional manipulation. This was not the case. Of course, in the many hundreds of pages, there are many that are easily skimmable, but I felt like it was hard-hitting and realistic in the issues that it explored. The reason why it’s tricky is because, despite being good, it’s a difficult book to like. I would compare this to Emily Giffin’s Heart of the Matter, which I actually stopped reading because I knew that there was no way the book was going to resolve itself in a manner that would make me happy. This book is the same way. I knew right away that it was going to make me mad.

As a reader of chick lit, I find myself expecting things to be a certain way. It doesn’t need to be a happy, tidy ending, but we expect to see people get what they deserve, both good and bad. In The Replacement Wife, it’s more like real life. People just get what they get. No one’s a real villain, and no one’s a real saint. It’s frustrating and sad to watch mostly well-intentioned people causing each other to suffer when it isn’t fair or for any noble purpose. Who do you cheer for, when one person’s happiness means an equally deserving person’s misery?

Viewing the novel as a whole, however, I see a theme. There are a lot of beginnings and endings that occur. Though it’s not satisfying to see good things unfairly come to an end, it’s relieving to see that bad deeds that people do aren’t punished forever, either. It seems like the whole idea is that there is no karma, that things happen randomly in life, and all we can do is hang on and make the most of it.

What can I say? How many chick lit books evoke that strong of a response? I think it speaks loudly for the strength of the author’s character development and writing. This would be an excellent book for a book club because everyone is bound to have something to say.

The premise itself is also really compelling – a matchmaker diagnosed with terminal cancer finding a replacement wife for her husband. Here’s a video of the author, Eileen Goudge, talking about the book:

Book Review: Nothing to Envy

Posted by gck Wednesday, April 4, 2012 2 comments

nothingtoenvyNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Journalism
Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to learn more about North Korea

Book 5 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
A remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens.

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance.

My review:
This is the best, most interesting book I have read for awhile. Since reading it, I have found myself looking for more information on North Korea. I have recommended this book to so many people, and so far I’ve only heard good things back. It is well-written, powerful, and relevant. I’m so glad I found out about this book, and I’m thankful for the Around the World Challenge for the motivating me to actually read it.

It wasn’t planned this way, but I’m glad I read this and book and Havana Real (about Cuba) very close together because there are noticeable parallels. Both are Communist dictatorships that have been relatively isolated from the modern world. Both experienced extreme famine and poverty following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the subsidies that allowed their countries to maintain decent economies. Both aren’t really big on their citizens escaping or expressing ideas counter to what is considered acceptable by the government. But North Korea took things to a much bigger extreme. Maybe Cuba is trying to crack down on its bloggers, but North Korea does not have any bloggers. Cubans probably don’t get a whole lot of meat, subsisting on meals like “rice and bouillon cube,” but in North Korea, white rice is considered a luxury item. A North Korean meal is more like… grass and ground up corn cob? Government hired thugs might rough you up for speaking out in Cuba, but in North Korea, they send you and three generations of your family to labor camp for, I dunno, saying Kim Jong-Il is short.

All of the hardships and cruelties are shocking, but if that’s all this book was about, I’d find it relatively average. After all, this is what we expect to hear about when we think of North Korea. The very human stories of the six North Koreans is what makes this book so strong. Of all things, it begins with a love story, a sweet, innocent relationship that could only exist in a place like North Korea, where people don’t keep track of how hours pass and night time really is about darkness because there is no electricity. Most of the characters mentioned are people who wholeheartedly believed, as most North Koreans must believe in order for this system to continue, that they lived in the best country in the world and that their Dear Leader was like a god. However, all of the characters experience a moment – sometimes it didn’t hit until after they had left the country – where they realize that their government has lied to them. One of them described this moment to be like the experience when a religious person becomes an atheist, standing among a sea of believers and realizing that he no longer believes.

One would expect that escape from North Korea, the most isolated country in the world, would be difficult. But as an outsider, one would also expect the decision to be a simple one – why not leave a country without freedom or food? Yet this was not the case. Loyalty to the country is deeply engrained, and many people who have left say that they would immediately return if the Kim dynasty was overthrown. Quite a number of people even crossed the border to China many times, but they did so only to make money, and they would continue to return to North Korea, their home. For the people who did make it out to South Korea, the escape was often bittersweet. They were ill-prepared to adapt to life in a much more modern world. Men who were abnormally short due to malnutrition had little hope of romantic prospects with the taller South Korean women. And most painful of all, since the North Korean idea that bad blood tainted three generations, they had to live with the thought that any relatives left behind might suffer or die in labor camps because of their actions. What a horrible choice to have to make. No wonder such a small number (relatively speaking) of them have left.

In the conclusion, the book mentions that for a long time, people interested in North Korea have looked on with curiosity or even amusement, wondering how this regime has lasted this long and how much longer it has to live. I guess I’m included in that group. It’s hard not to see it with a bit of humor, with so many comical references to Kim Jong-Il and the general silliness that propaganda carries for those who haven’t fallen under its spell. (My mom tells me, though, that they saw similar propaganda growing up in Taiwan and China) But the truth is that as long as the regime remains, North Koreans will continue to die. And North Koreans who have escaped will have to keep wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

Well, this has turned more into general commentary about North Korea than a book review. It definitely says something about the book that it has caused this sort of passionate interest, though. I have found myself reading more about the country and watching some of the rare video footage coming out of the country. Hopefully all of this will be a thing of the past in the near future.