Laowai in Shanghai (V): The Long March

I’ve been remiss in not sitting down to write this week, but since it’s probably been the busiest and most intense week of my job since the MBA course started–and arguably since this entire job started–I’m going to cut myself a break (and forego the Chinese section of this post since I’m dead tired from studying a unit this morning). But I’m glad I can take some time this Saturday morning to recap my week, especially before I head to Beijing tomorrow for a trip within my trip. I’ll be conducting interviews there for three days with the hopes that we’ll have a good, new case study on nonprofits in China come out of it. Sunday, however, I will be hitting up all my favorite old spots for drinks, music, and souvenir-shopping at Q Bar, Houhai, and Nanluoguxiang, respectively.
Sunday I finally made my way over to the Yu Garden, which, sadly, was too overcrowded for me to really enjoy—blame it on the holiday weekend. (That said, Dragon Boat Festival has its perks—as far as street foods go, red bean zongzi are gluten-free and delicious). But I did get a taste of the charm of the French Concession area, which would continue on Friday night with a visit to the expatriate bar, Southern Belle, and will continue today, as per my professor’s shopping recommendations.
Monday and Tuesday were sedentary in-classroom note-taking days for the conference, with the exception of a visit to Lotus Supermarket in the basement of Super Brand Mall in Pudong. Lotus is owned by the Thai-Chinese CP Group (look it up—it’s awesome), the subject of two different case studies from my professor, one more on their business model and the other more about the family business angle. I hope they keep making cavalier acquisitions so we can write a new case about them that will let me go to Thailand and hang out with their staff because they are the nicest people ever.
Wednesday was the field trip to the city of Kunshan, the subject of my first case study, and going out there was a really nice way to close the book on the case and remind myself just how far I’ve come (personally and geographically) in the last year. But the trip wasn’t so smooth the entire time. The person at Harvard who coordinated the trip to Kunshan had badly burned her foot while in the US and the foot got infected by the time she got to Shanghai, so she was doing a substantial bit of delegating for the trip. Part of this delegating left me babysitting a group of 15 Advanced Leadership Fellows, all aged 65+, and carrying the 50 pounds of gifts for select business and political leaders in Kunshan. I delegated about 15 pounds of gifts to one of the interns playing camp counselor to another group of ALI fellows, and within 5 minutes of getting off the bus to go inside Hongqiao train station, she had left this gigantic, black, suspicious-looking bag (containing the gifts) in the middle of the sidewalk—needless to say, I didn’t trust her to hold onto anything else for me for the rest of the day, and I’m glad none of us got detained. When we got inside the train station, we had about 10 minutes of hangtime, which I mostly spent having a snack and playing Moses/keeping an eye on all my sheep, making sure no ALI fellows wandered from the fold in the vast train terminal. Then, in the most miserable five minutes of my life, I had to use the bathroom and, out of practice when it came to using eastern-style toilets (every place I’ve gone in Shanghai has had western ones, including the ones I’ve used in public transit stations), ended up peeing on my foot. I left the bathroom and rejoined the group, but between the stress of gift-wielding, babysitting, the smell of the train terminal bathroom, the incident of urinating on my foot, and the hurried manner in which I ate a protein bar and downed a kiwi juice just didn’t agree with me. Aside from being the one-year anniversary of my interviewing for this job, June 12, 2013 became a milestone of its own: the first time I gotten sick to the point of vomiting in China. With protein bars, I don’t have much of a choice since they’re kind of my go-to gluten-free snack option, but I’m never drinking kiwi juice again.
Thursday morning, the conference topic was healthcare in China, so we paid a visit to the Minhang district of Shanghai to see their community health center—a highly impressive operation. If I lived in Shanghai, I’d try to live in that district just so I could have that quality of care accessible, as it beats out a few of the places I’ve been in Boston. My favorite part was seeing the wing where they take all the babies for shots and check-ups. I don’t really get excited about babies, but something about Asian babies turns me to mush. Pictures of my Korean friend’s nephew on Facebook were as compelling a “cute pictures/videos” study break in college as “hedgehog eating a carrot.” Once whole conference was over that evening, as a celebration, I went with a few of the kids and grandkids of the ALI fellows (all in their 20s-30s) to Bar Rouge on the Bund. A spectacular view of the river, I hope to see it again on a clearer night, and hopefully with a tastier drink in hand. The vodka soda essentially tasted like Shanghai smog in a glass.
I spent yesterday drafting interview questions for the trip to Beijing and meeting with my prof before meeting up with a friend who was heading to this expat locale, Southern Belle. The place was an eccentric little scene with its strange combination of a guy playing 90’s classics on acoustic guitar, the movie ‘Dirty Dancing’ on the TV screens, pennants of Wake Forest and JMU on the walls, and a full menu of Mint Juleps and bourbon cocktails. In other words, it was fantastic. It exemplified the kind of stuff that can get away in China like nowhere else in the world.
Today, I’m letting myself have a lazy morning watching subtitled ‘Breaking Bad’ and packing so I can make an afternoon expedition to either this market in Pudong and the Shanghai Aquarium or to a few nice streets in Jingan and Tianzifang. I’ll have to do some work again later, but after a week of gunning it, it’s nice to rest a bit and catch my breath (as well as one can catch one’s breath in this smoggy city)!