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Shanghai Lily


Follow our writer, Lele Chen, as she seizes an opportunity to work in Shanghai, China for six months. Lily’s a student at Duke University who has taken the semester off for an experience of a lifetime.

If it’s the little things that count, then why does everyone make such a big deal out of China’s population size, economic prowess, cultural roots and so on? I say we throw all that heavyweight stuff to the wind and have some fun in this month’s installment of my life as a Chinese-American girl in Shanghai.

Here are some choice “little” tidbits about China that are especially enjoyable (especially for those who are planning a China sojourn for the 2008 Olympics!)


In high-end restaurants in the U.S., wine is brought for you to approve before pouring. You swish, sniff and sip before nodding your acceptance. In high-end restaurants in China, a live fish is brought out for you to approve before cooking. You examine the size, color and weight before indicating approval. Freshness of seafood is of paramount importance, with the fish cooked and then served whole before your table, simmering in its multicolored sauces. Absolutely delicious.


In clothing stores in the U.S., you can evaluate the look of new clothes in the privacy of your fitting room, with minimal interaction with the sales keeper. In clothing stores in China, this is impossible unless you often have out-of-body experiences, because mirrors are located outside the fitting room. You step out amidst all the sales keepers and are guaranteed at least 2 compliments on how good those jeans look on you. You get used to it with time.


Standing in front of the beauty aisle in the U.S., you encounter rows and rows of tanning lotions, all promising to make you more bronze, more golden, more sun-kissed and beautiful. Browsing the beauty aisle in China, you encounter rows and rows of… whitening creams? Creams, lotions, facial masks, all promising to make you more translucent, more pale, more pearl-like and beautiful. And it’s not just Asian companies with the offerings; more often than not you can sample the whitening products from L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Chanel and so on.


Remember about a decade ago when TV broadcasts about China invariably showed streams of people gliding past on bicycles, all with places to go and different ways to get there? Now imagine that those bicycles have been replaced by cars, except with drivers who still feel like they can swerve and turn and glide as if they were on a bike. Sometimes it seems like traffic lanes are purely painted as street decorations in China. You can think of driving in China as being on a roller coaster ride, until you remember that your life is actually on the line. But don’t worry, there’s so many cars that rarely can anyone drive fast enough to get hurt.

This is just a peek into some of China’s idiosyncrasies. When you take a break from the news stories of toy recalls or over-inflation, you can remember that China is just a nation of people too. About the same geographic size as the United States. If there’s one thing I have learned from these past few months in Shanghai, it’s that no matter how different the political or social structure, people must deal with the same everyday struggles of family, love, work and life.

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0 0 620 15 October, 2007 Columns October 15, 2007

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