Wednesday, December 31, 2008
It has been an interesting last two weeks of the year. I've completed the Queen Charlotte track, had a smooth family Christmas, went tramping in the Waitaks and swimming at Piha with my sisters, conquered Mt Pirongia (the walk almost conquered me!), cafe-hopped with my eldest sister and then went to a bar and cafe with friends last night (going to a bar is a rarity for me). Today will bear a nice lunch with mum and a party to see in 2009. It has definitely been my most relaxing, pleasant end to the year that I can remember with any clarity.
I haven't really had a chance to really look back on 2008 with any deep consideration. It has been definitely been epochal; traumatic as well as stimulating. It redefined my future path to the extent that I'll probably let the first half of 2009 run along before setting substantial goals. 2009 is a great unknown for most aspects of my life. I cannot predict where I'll be, what I'll be doing, who I'll be with nor what I want come December 2009.
My new residence in central Auckland has been an experience in itself. I'll think long and hard if it is where I'd like to live longer than the 6 months I've promised. It has been the perfect place for me at the time I came.
Yesterday I made a disappointing discovery: my left rear brake light was smashed (with the pieces on the ground) and a black mark had appeared on the bumper. Someone in my apartment complex or a visitor had pulled out or in unskillfully and damaged my car. There was no note or anything like that. It is possible that someone in a four-wheel drive (that would fit with the damage) with the music on might not notice such a contact. It is very true though that this place is an enclave of predominantly bad drivers. I have, on more than one occasion, had to take evasive action as people reverse out of their car-parks without checking for on-coming traffic. Such is life.
The only thing that I can say with pleasure is that I'm very happily Daniel and, come what may, I'll be pretty pleased with whatever happens. I wish you all a pleasant change of calendars and hope that the time till you have to head back to the grindstone passes with exquisite slowness so that you can enjoy every moment.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Fate for me is not the predestination, but the poetry of life; it is the coincidences and harmonies that mesh the flow of time. It is indiscriminate in its benevolence and cruelty (and infinitely so!): the unlikeliest salt appearing on your recent wound; the gift when you need it most; the synchronicity of our lives; those that enter your life; those that leave; the people who act in concert with you; and those who move against you, beyond words and agreement.
One can believe in personal agency with this kind of fate; in fact, I'm more than happy to exacerbate the effect by chasing it to its conclusion. You have a choice of whether to do so or to just let the moment of coincidence slip by as just a coincidence. I've had my fair share of opportunities and while some of the fate has stabbed; some have opened into fresh fields.
On my right hand, my latest pursuit of the scent of fate ended in a composed, yet wry smile. It opened a window beyond what I knew; it let me see more of myself; but it came up empty. On my left hand, I've been followed by a seemingly inescapable fate, one that nags at me, torments me, tempts me and shadows my steps.
"Coincidence is not a kosher word..."
( a Jewish saying recorded in The Penitent, by Isaac Bashevis Singer)
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
On Sunday night I saw Rubbings of a Live Man, a creative biopic about actor Warwick Broadhead. Who is Warwick Broadhead? Well, before I saw the biopic I knew nothing. I am a fan of biopics though. Real life does tend to be stranger than fiction, and real stories are more powerful as a result of it
There are the typical ones: a straight, chronological reenactment such as: Walk the Line, Malcolm X, Ali and Ray. Malcolm X was particularly impressive to me. I saw Walk the Line on Sunday, and thought it a nice yarn but nothing special, other than Johnny Cash was a rather tortured individual. Drugs and alcohol can do all sorts to a man, and that is a story that needs to be told. I'd look forward to a Brian Wilson biopic one day.
But another kind of biopic, which I'll call a creative biopic, delivers an experience as well as the story of a life. My first encounter with one of these was American Splendor, the life story of Harvey Pekar. I knew nothing about him before I saw the film, but the movie not only engrossed but also caught the imagination. The movie jumped about; it intercut to the real Harvey Pekar talking in his real idiosyncratic way during his reconstructed life. Most importantly, the film did cut to the bone, leaving no stone in his life unturned.
Rubbings of a Live Man went a step further in that the film's subject participated in artistic reenactments of his own life (!), sometimes as himself, sometimes as another character, whether it be his own mother, a momentary lover or God himself (or, shall I say, God with an attention disorder). There were no holds barred. It cut to the bone: The human nature revealed; it brought him to tears at one point and said the words quoted in the title to the director. The reenactments were occasionally whimsical, sometimes brilliantly surreal (the first being so truly perfect, it shocks). The preparation for each scene recorded as well, showing perhaps the truest of true person: Him in his natural habitat. Incidentally, none of his seventy-plus performances have been recorded, this film being the only audiovisual impression of his accumulated craft. It is a performance like no other.
Friday, November 21, 2008
October was cruisy. October was cool. New work was on the horizon and everything was at peace.
It was peaceful until this week, when upon me fell a ton of bricks: I truly had to work harder than I have ever had during my working life; I had to endure more tiredness than I've usually have. It also sets a few new personal records too.
The next few weeks will quiet down till the new year and then hopefully it will open up afresh.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
I've spent quite some time over the last three days consoling friends and students over the election result. It was emphatic.
There is a good deal of consolation to be had for any person with left-wing sympathies with this result. This is a National party of the reddest blue since Muldoon (which was conservative rather than right-wing). Provided it sustains its centrist orientation, there isn't much difference between it and the previous administration policy-wise. Labour loyalists may be dismayed by the electorates that have been painted blue, but it is loyalty to a name or a brand.
There has been a fair bit of suspicion and invective directed towards our new Prime Minister. The suspicion would seem to be unjustified or perhaps just politically generated. John Key may be a millionaire, but not a doctrinaire. Helen Clark was an ideologue with effective political pragmatism; Key would seem to be a pragmatist without ideology. The predominant line against the result has been: 'The right wingers are what got us into this mess (i.e. the credit crisis); why did we go against the world trend and go right?'. Frankly, I'd prefer an out-and-out pragmatist in a crisis so in a way, I'm a little relieved.
Personally, this was one of the harder elections in which to choose my party vote. It has been the only election in which I could contemplate voting National. Aside from their law and order policy, I didn't find much to be offended by. Also, I would have voted for them to enhance the chance of a majority government (I voted for Labour in 2002 for that reason). With the Greens fairly assured of survival but with a high likelihood of only being in opposition, I didn't have much reason to vote for them. Instead I chose to vote Labour in memory of Noel.
For Labour, I'm glad that they have been moved into a peaceful revitalisation process. So often in our politics the losing leader has to be rolled to generate that change. With Clark and Cullen moving into the background, other leaders should can establish themselve with three years to prepare for 2011.
The conclusion of the United States' election was similarly emphatic; American voters showed 'they could' elect someone 'black' as their leader. More significantly, and this point cannot be ignored, the Democrats have continued their sweep of both houses gaining majorities. This will allow the Obama administration to be freer to pursue its goals.
So onward we go. We'll await their progress.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Two years ago, I received a tome, Ideas, for my birthday. Exceeding 1000 pages, it was heftier than most books I'd read; and it was read and appreciated in its comprehensiveness. Last year I bought Cultural Amnesia (by Clive James), upon hearing an interview with the author on the radio. (This seems to work with me; I bought my first John Gray after hearing him talk to Kim Hill.) Its main body consists of almost 900 pages and will be the bone for me to mentally chew upon until Christmas.
The book itself was a lifetime in the making, the eventual condensation of the notes in the margin that he has written during his time. The book on the surface is a collection of short biographies of persons from the last century; most of them were familiar to me prior to reading the book.
History really is a collection of biographies. When you read about any historical event though, it is often only described on a political level, or a macroscopic level, where individuals, apart from those at the heart of the affair, are not described. If I see the term Anschluss, I only know of it in those terms (i.e. Hitler wanted to create a large German-speaking Reich etc.). Several of the biographies so far have detailed German Jews in Europe prior to and after World War Two. Anschluss was a huge event changing the lives of the Jews who were part of the intellectual cafe culture of Vienna; Sigmund Freud was one of them; he escaped in time to die of cancer in London. It paints a picture of what Vienna was and the situation of the people before and after and how it changed things forever. Similarly, a Russian poet Anna Akhmatova lived in both Tsarist Russia and then into the Soviet times. What the Bolshevik revolution did to her life and career truly show the difference between the totalitarianism of a monarchy, and that of an ideology.
My general feeling so far: History is great painted with the lives of those that experience it.
Monday, October 27, 2008
The on-going financial crisis has been a pretty reliable topic in the speaking section of each lesson I run - new ructions, plans, hikes, crashes and spasms splashing the news day after day. Interest though noticeably evaporated last week. It appears the whole situation has just gone on too long. The novelty has not only worn off but is starting to bring many down.
Having a varied group of nationalities, I follow the relative damage to the countries concerned: Hungary has been tarred by association. CNN decided to put it in the same sentence as Iceland (reckless, perhaps) and said that the IMF had offered it a loan (which it declined). The market and the currency nevertheless plummeted in response from which it hasn't recovered. The Czechs and Slovaks are the happiest: their banks are safe; their economies are still unaffected; their only sadness is that with the Euro (and their currencies which move with the Euro) are appreciating, eroding their New Zealand savings. The Croatians are also fairly unaffected except for those speculating on the sharemarket as it keeps its downward trajectory ('I just keep buying the stock so I can lower my average.'/'It just keeps falling!' from two different students).
I've heard from a couple of self-employed people who are struggling a little. I haven't had any noticeable effect (it'd be a surprise if I was affected as quickly as them though). I have recently been given a project which will be a monthly money earner. I hope this will insulate any post-Christmas easing. And the boom of this year has left me with reasonable savings. Interest rates falling along with house prices appeals to the acquisitive part of me. I'm not yet into house buying mode or even in a situation where it is an ideal plan but the fact that the trend has begun that will eventually suit me is good. Lower petrol prices suit summer roadtripping too. Maybe post-crisis living won't be too bad for me after all.
Thinking of more than just myself, the scale of the crisis is starting to unnerve me. Commodity prices are crucial to New Zealand and they are simply plummeting with global demand. It'll be quite some time before they can get back to that high. And still the extent of the carnage globally is still not known. Along with 9/11 and the Boxing Day Tsunami, this is another global phenomenon that we get to experience in our adult lives. It is special.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I'm floating. No, really I am. It has been exactly a month since my anxiety faded into nothingness. All I've been left with is a general levity, not an ounce of stress in my whole entire body. I've had favourable conditions, it's true. Work is not work. It has sustained itself and, without any doing of my own, is building up and producing more opportunities. (My reality check will come this Thursday when one opportunity will actually make me put my nose to the grindstone!) I've had pleasant preoccupations, considerate friends at my side and no hick-ups.
My dermatitis has finally left its stronghold on my right hand. My back-pain (AKA Xin-pain) has completely gone. The apparent and underlying stress is draining from me slowly. I enjoy my back stretches. One I do on my back to adjust my hips: pop-pop-pop, and ohhhhhh, how nice it is to just lie on my back on the classroom floor. I could stay there for hours.
This has been a faith-builder in the power of life, the temporacy of turmoil and the joy of being. It is now that I take a breather before I dive back in.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
It is always nice when one's reading material coincides with one's conversations. As mentioned previously here, I've found a philosopher who particularly resonates with me: John Gray. His material is rather pessimistically written, making it tough-reading but incisive enough to keep you drawn in.
I started his book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, two weeks ago but I put it aside as I munched my way through two other books. I'm back into it now and loving it. Personally, I've always held rather economically liberal views in tandem with my libertarianism. The book is a nice challenge to these views; in fact, it is perfect reading just before a general election to have a book that goes against my base assumptions and creates a critical lens with which to interpret policy announcements.
I'm only 30 pages into 240, but have already felt compelled to write. To summarise his thesis so far, since the 1980s both the UK and NZ have been subject to rather extreme neo-liberal policies, privatising state assets, individual contracts, open markets and policies that are not directed at full employment but rather at economic efficiency. These policies create a society that serves the market (a market society) rather than a market that serves society's interests. The obvious signs of that are the transformations of small town New Zealand, student debt levels and social dislocation.
It stretches this to assert that these have resulted in social phenomena, such as high crime and imprisonment rates, higher divorce and solo-parentage rates and the weakening of the family (these have risen greatly since the institution of such policies). Moving with the market, people move to where work is and put a lot more emphasis on their career than family or relationships. I'd add that a market society works well with individualism and very well with materialism.
Putting aside the obvious fact that New Zealanders have always been going on OEs (I can argue that in the past there were other reasons for doing so), there has been a huge movement in people overseas for professional reasons, delaying laying roots in a community and perhaps building a stable family. On a small sample, Generation-Yers seem to be the full realisation of that mindset. From discussions recently, I know lots of people who have got the travel bug and 'need' to work elsewhere, or feel they'll have to move on soon. There is nothing wrong with travel and working abroad per se, but I'd say that there is perhaps an excessive desire in many people for both, well beyond its utility and benefit in the long-term.
My conversation hinged on just this point; that the desire to be travelling and working abroad is often harmful for not only the relationship or family but also for the welfare of nearly all involved; that the constant individualistic consideration over that of your relationship or over your family could be detrimental when everything is added up. The lack of an ability to compromise on individual goals, to delay gratification for the better of the whole is a pretty critical impediment long-term happiness.
These are just working thoughts though. Hopefully more ideas will come through while reading.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Opinion polls should technically predict election results quite accurately, but for reasons probably deep in human psychology they sometimes don't really get it right. Some bright spark in Iowa decided to create an options market to predict election results and other phenomena. This structure forces the people voicing an opinion to put their money where their mouths are and guess the result. And it is this system that is the most accurate in prediction these days. The market rules again! Naturally there are some obvious drawbacks (i.e. only those with money, access, risk-taking proclivities take part) but results are results. In New Zealand we have our own options market (https://www.ipredict.co.nz/) for the election and other issues. The tests differ in one just asks which one the respondent supports and the other, which result would you invest in.
Why should asking people what they actually feel not lead to the 'right' result though? Well, there can be wishful thinking; the person might want someone to win but not be inclined to go out and vote; the person could be tepid and go with a party that they have always gone with. Investment requires a bit more circumspection, objective considerations and reality checks (mind over heart). It eliminates those who aren't really that motivated.
This applies in real life too of course. One can profess one way, but whether they invest energy, consideration and action into things should be the prime test. The more accurate test. Actions do speak louder than words.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Now powered by a broadband connection, I've set about starting to live a cyber-life worthy of someone with my inclinations. After some hesitation, I got iTunes again and downloaded a few of those annoying songs that artists leave off all but their main albums then slip onto their greatest hits (which as you've got all their albums, you don't want to buy).
Monday morning always contains the challenge for me of thinking of random speaking topics that I can use in my lessons for the week. Inspired by recent purchases from iTunes and the beleaguered Real Groovy, I raised the topic of following and purchasing music. Some still tuned into the radio; others didn't follow music at all any more; but the greatest number did still follow music and downloaded music for their consumption. Did you pay for it? I inquired. To my surprise not a single person paid for their music downloads ever in their past (I didn't expect that there would be a high number, but I did expect at least a few to have).
Naturally, climbing onto the moral high ground with a tin opener and a can of worms, I delved deeper. You're well-paid auditors; if you aren't paying for music, who would? Why wouldn't you pay for music if you have appreciation for those who produce it?
The responses and defences were quite interesting. The most defiant stated that the number of illegal downloads showed the market itself was faulty. (It would be interesting to see the calculation of whether the market would survive if it allowed free downloads of all artists - he thought so; I did not.) Another raised the point that downloaded music might encourage people to buy the CDs hence it should be legalised (Did he buy CDs subsequent to downloading? Never). One said that many artists allowed music downloads proving it should be OK for all artists to survive doing so (I'd agree that musicians should be able to choose whether to allow such downloads but for the user to trample on this choice or to use those that do as justification is a bit unwise). A fairly common theme was also saying that the musicians tended to waste their money anyway and didn't deserve any more money (interestingly, these views came from proud capitalists from former communist countries).
I tried not to be too judgemental - but it is rather cool to have a controversial topic to discuss. So who does pay for stuff these days? On a Daniel survey of those around, I'm the lone person to pay. How can this business model work?
Friday, September 19, 2008
When I first went down to Wellington, I was surprised by the number of nameable public figures I was spotting in airports, on planes and in the city. For the last two months, I haven't noticed any until today when I spotted the now very familiar face of Mike Williams. Maybe my period of introspection has broken and I can now just rest my mind on the outside world again.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I hold a philosophical view that experiencing is the true matter of life (as the main thing to consider). This is probably not too controversial and it has had its benefits. There is no such thing as boredom and there is nothing that can be deemed negative, no matter how bad the experience is. Recent experiences have proved it (as in really tested it) and proven it to me at the same time. Going through, transiting from one phase to another is special. It can be unbearable; It can be interminable; It can be instant and immediate; It can be detached; And it can be pleasant or horrid at the time of its passing as well as in its recollection.
Up until this year, I had a good grasp of my nature - I could anticipate my feelings accurately. Recently though all that past self-knowledge has not only become invalidated in its accuracy, but generally has now been trashed. Little applies to the present. I have had to grasp things anew, in what for a while seemed like another person's mind. So I've taken to observing myself rigorously. Does observation affect the experience of life? That is impossible to know. But the sheer act of observing, of learning from it, enriches it far more than experiencing alone. Simply experiencing is fine, but accepting it as a result, a process and cause naturalises it.
Anxiety seems to be a rather constant companion of late - it has never been so before (although some elements have been there in different forms in the past). It'll be interesting to watch how it changes with time, when it intensifies, when it recedes, whether it disappears and whether it can be treated.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
During a tough week two weeks ago, I was struggling to understand the way my emotions flowed far beyond my control. I would pitch into despair without warning. I would be beyond consoling and only distraction could save me. I explained it to friends who didn't seem to have had a similar period.
This last week I've similarly been stricken again by the surge and flow of emotions, but this time positive - I haven't been this electrified in a long time. It has been simply extraordinary.
EXHIBIT A: Unsent clumsy prose
"If it makes you feel awkward that you have made me so happy, just think that you have been a catalyst rather than a source. To use an analogy of Socrates, you’ve been the midwife who has incidentally helped me give birth to a surprising amount of joy. Maybe before there was still the burden weighing down my balloon, but the weights have been released so I could ascend with ease: 自由自在"
While there is no news to tell (I've been refreshed by cold water), I'm in a very interesting place. I feel like I've ascended to a height from where I can see over what came before with some insight. But then again, I can hardly bank on another emotional rollercoaster not happening in the near future.
This winter has brought me: cruel heartbreak, depressive depths, the giddiness of being lovesick and the joys, agonies and flaws of true honesty. Could it possibly be that I'm getting more from this season than any other? Truly to all those who have been a part of this: Thank you. (And Winter isn't over for another week and a bit!)
Monday, September 01, 2008
On Saturday just past, Noel Muller passed away. Despite being handicapped both physically and verbally by a stroke, he was always a strong, engaging and kind individual and I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss things with him. I went to chat with him weekly not out of a sense of obligation or charity, but the desire to spend time with him. I will miss his company.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
My weekends haven't gone well lately; even ones with promise have taken unexpected dives. This weekend bucked that trend and is hopefully a start of something new.
I had planned to go on a road trip by myself. Before the morning of departure all I had in mind was to go to Rotorua for a hot spring and then onto Taupo to stay over at a friend's. Going down, I sighted a familiar mountain, one that I had wanted to climb but had been prevented by weather. It seduced me (I just love mountains looming over highways). So the hot springs had to take a backseat as made a sharp turn and zoomed off to the cute town of Te Aroha, and its distinctive toponymically named mountain.
I rocketed up with my usual gusto, but two-thirds of the way up I was hit by either my lack of fitness or the difficulty of the ascent. I struggled a little and eventually summitted (a quick time of 1 hour 40 minutes). The view was outstanding. Standing on the Kaimai-Mamaku ranges means you can see the whole Bay of Plenty, the East Coast and the Hauraki Plains (and if weather had been better, the central plateau mountains). I saw the most ragged possum ever, which stared at me then ran. I felt compelled to complete the loop that the summit track was but a section. I couldn't find the sign for it; perhaps it was down a metal road. I descended the road for about 10 minutes but there was still no sign. This is a fairly common walkers experience: Do I continue with the route or cut my loses to avoid complete disaster? I chose the latter, but coming out of it, retracing my steps back to the summit was horrible but then it was a simple route to the base and freedom. I saw the same ragged possum, which stared at me and ran. So back down the summit track I went. Later I heard that if I had persisted down the metal road I'd have gotten to the trackhead soon.
I thought on the way down that all of the above could be an allegory for life. But the themes will always enmesh our lives to be learnt from if we desire. Or not, perhaps to our detriment.
Now boy-racers enjoy their needs for speed and danger by hurtling themselves in metal missiles down suburban streets. The tramper version of this is superior. Running down mountain tracks is the most exhilarating experience you can have tramping. Your eyes are fixed on the path searching for the safe places for your feet. You swing on branches. You jump over obstacles and duck low hanging branches. Of course there is always a risk you'll miscalculate and it could be your end or at least a chance of serious injury - but at least it isn't like the thick-skulled boy-racers who often imperil the lives of others.
I emerged at the bottom and the dashed over to my car. Unfortunately the adrenalin was still in my veins and on the way to Taupo was usually over the speed limit. Bad Daniel. Arriving, I discussed my topic of the year: Relationships and love. Later we played board games - it has been quite some time since I had.
The next day I did some things for the first time: abseiling and rockclimbing. The former I'm yet to really accept and the latter I'm getting the hang of - mainly that my mind has trouble accepting that it has to give confidence in the physical attributes of things out of faith: The foothold will hold. My leg can go to the groove. The shoes won't slip.
One thing I had faith in that didn't live up to expectation was the crotch of my pants, which must have given up during some of the climbs I did. I only climbed up the steep face three times but I am satisfied. I might try the rocknasium sometime.
Heading back, I trusted the directions given to me by one of my rock-climbing companions. "Take the left at the next T-junction, then right at the next one. Then there will be a sharp left and then a sharp right and then you'll be in Kihikihi" To a townie like me, that sounds like a piece of cake. Like where to walk to find a shop. But of the four directions given, getting to the first junction took an hour, the second another 40 minutes, the third 30 minutes and then the fourth 1 minute. It is strange how the briefness of the directions didn't represent the distance I'd be covering. But I trusted them and I was delivered to Kihikihi, a perfect example of how a suburban town should look.
I returned home to Auckland. The joy of my new location means I can shoot up the motorway and then from off-ramp to carpark takes only a minute. This is going to suck of course when I need to get back in rush-hour, but that is for another day.
"It's warmer now." I hope this weekend is a nice marker for the beginning of Spring, even if I do generally wait for the Equinox to celestially indicate its arrival. May this winter be buried post-haste.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Well, on the good side I've landed in what seems to be a pretty good pad where I'll stay for at least the next six months. The good:
- Good location: 150 Symonds St (Unit 4), with all the conveniences of the city, an easy walk to the Domain and Newmarket Pool, Rialto, oh yeah and two clients.
- Cool flatmate and landlady: Both are chatty and positive, no psychobatch for sure. And I need to have chatty people.
- Spacy bedroom: I have the most space I've ever had in a bedroom, a huge bed (and very supportive mattress). It is dry: The rooms I have lived in for the last 8 years have had major dampness problems, which probably hasn't helped my health or the quality of my books and papers. I have afternoon sunlight coming into my room. And I have my own bathroom. The landlady provided all the furnishings; I have bookshelves galore (I was going to be choosy with my books but there is no necessity to be so now).
- Almost everything I need is here: Except for some bedding and some bathroom stuff which would be beyond what you'd expect anyway! Broadband is nice (Listening to Radiohead now).
- It has stairs (until I next sprain my ankle, this will be fun).
- It has a wonderful lounge and cute kitchen. Good for entertainment purposes.
The not ideal:
- The room is facing the road. The first night wasn't bad though and it is one of those things that you just get used to. They have soundproofing.
- The price was actually higher than my price range but the above considerations and timing were far more important to me.
So, if anyone has time in the evening, give me a text and come on over.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
'Moving on' so far has seemed something far from linear, but rather something akin to Snakes and Ladders. A misstep sends you back several lines, or potentially back to the beginning; I can say this from a place not far from square one. Snakes and Ladders is not a game of strategy, but one of luck. I'm not sure if moving on is the same - I hope not; I've tried some strategies but have been left here. I've just undertaken the most extreme strategy I can contemplate: complete isolation from the source. A ladder would be falling for someone else. That might be where the luck comes in.
I can feel great. I can believe I'm better. But it only takes three words to bring me to the brink of tears, and a poorly chosen fourth to take me down all together.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
One can get philosophical: We live in affluent countries; I have avoided a great many possible traumas in life so far. The effect of this, however, was to leave me psychologically unprepared for whatever inevitable life jolt that should arise; maybe it had even given me the fanciful thinking that I was strong and could handle with equanimity whatever could come up before me.
In the scheme of life heartbreak is apparently a common phenomenon; frankly, I've found it to be rather debilitating; all those poor people out there suffering along with me; perhaps, I wasn't as immediately sympathetic before. I know better now.
It makes me want to survey the experience of such pain. On three occasions in the last three and a half weeks, I've been reduced to an inconsolable heap and several other times it has come close to that extent. For me this process is quite regular: the latent tremor I have intensifies violently and becomes irrepressible; tears well and then the corners of my mouth do something I cannot event figure out; they kinda twist; I lose speech and strength and then the most stifled quiet screams emerge out of my mouth. The first time it happened I noticed that my mind virtually seemed to have broken in two: my rational mind was calmly thinking: 'oh bugger, that was pretty bad news; worse than I thought it would be; hey, what's up with the shakes?' while the other part shattered unable to even sustain a modicum of dignity.
The following day after it occurs I am blighted by the most hollow, sapped feeling. The first time it happened, I could actually work quite well despite the turmoil; the second time I was definitely distracted; while the day after my third (today) I was barely holding it together. Before the third time, I naively thought I was over the worst of it; and then consequently found that there was a while yet to go before I'm even remotely better.
For those I've talked to and who have sent me messages during this time, thank you. For those who I haven't told, sorry, circumstances may not have arisen or I just couldn't raise it at the time. Invite me out sometime.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Last week was probably the bumpiest of the year: I was sick with a cold from Saturday to Monday; Xin was unwell too, and preparing for an art collaboration in Wellington; later in the week, something else viral hit me pressurising my skull and causing discomfort; I parted with Xin on a cold night; I had trouble on the Wellington Airbus where I had $3.20 on my card and coinage to make up the shortfall in the fare, which for some weird reason could not be accepted by the driver; and then my plane was delayed.
But today is another day; A Saturday; Winter solstice; Saturnalia, if Ancient Rome still existed and were in the Southern Hemisphere. I spent it tidying, planting trees, walking and running around the summit of Big King skyclad (I'll claim it as a religious observance). The latter was a spontaneous decision during a nice urban stroll. As I ascended the wind gathered with a light drizzle. When I reached the top, it was positively howling and threatening to unleash something furious. Perfect: It was elemental; it was glorious. Not a soul was around. It was the night of an All Blacks' test afterall.
Descending, I felt sublimely good; a sensation that has to be enjoyed in its ephemerality.
Monday, June 16, 2008
I finally managed to download the entire virus definition update from Norton over dial-up on Saturday morning (had tried many times but it kept impatiently disconnecting me from their server). At the same time, my own biological virus definitions proved to be out-of-date to the parallel advance of microbes into my own person. How those tiny particles can torpedo the energetic flow of a life, bringing my cellular edifice to a screeching halt! I walked to the shop for milk this morning (barely 100 metres) and felt like I was dragging sandbags.
While down, I continued to read a book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia by John N. Gray (the N being rather important in distinguishing him for the writer of Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus). I realised I may have uncovered a philosopher who shares a particular facet of my beliefs, extending it far beyond the narrow idea I had, and setting out its validity with (saving me the job).
An idea I have had in the past was simply that ideologies were doomed to fail because they usually didn't factor in human nature, no matter how noble the principle. Gray's point is much more sophisticated in seeing that most modern ideologies all feature something like a utopia or 'apocalypse' (or both). He reasoned that this was a hang-over from Christianity, with a teleological understanding of time and history (i.e. focussed on an end-point).
Take the simple idea of progress. It is true that we have had scientific and medical progress; but have we progressed as a species (beyond the barbarism of previous times)? Has our very nature been improved? He'd say no. We may have at one stage eliminated slavery and eliminated torture, but the desire to use both is still with us; and if we aren't vigilant both will return (well, only Americans deny that torture hasn't returned yet to 'Western' nations).
Most ideologies would posit an ideal end-time when things reach their optimal. The ACT party would see heaven as a small government with liberal policies. Is it an article of faith that once we get there it will be all milk and honey? If we sacrifice a large proportion of the state and the institutions that have developed around it, will things continue better than currently?
Gray points the finger at the Enlightenment, where Reason was brought forth as having the power to progress and perfect society. This resulted in a range of ideals: communism, liberalism and republicanism etc. Almost all of these ideals have killed a great many in their implementation. The idea that liberal democracy has worked in Western states is seen as an example of perfection by liberals and neo-conservatives, and it follows that if applied to other countries that it should have similar results. The United States with allies have attempted to do this in Iraq and Afghanistan and are yet to really show any real signs of achieving legitimate government.
This is a very useful lens with which to look at many contemporary political actions. I may investigate his previous book, the apparently more seminal Straw Dogs.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
I recently met someone who is very presumptious of my words and actions. It is ironic because I can imagine many of the comments and thoughts I have had about other people in the past were equally presumptious.
That type of person
I generally consider myself able to communicate well with most people. But there is one kind of person that I seemingly always have trouble with. Fortunately, I have met only three of them in my life: they are all female; they seem to wait for me to say something when I am expecting them to speak; I speak just as they open their mouths to speak. In the perpetual confusion of when to speak, what to speak is frustrated to the point that nothing is said. Headaches abound and pound. Fortunately I'm teaching one: I think I've almost worked out how to.
Generally I'm not a person who gets angry or sad easily; but there is a definite sore point that can elicit a wince, a stiffled curse, an urge to strike and a clench of the teeth every single time. In some of the interactions I have with people I say something I regret, and recalling it each brings the same pang, the same pain and the same wince.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
A weaker roll in the last week allowed me the possibility of an early wake-up for Matariki. Again I was not alone with Alex and friends accompanying me. Unfortunately this was an 'early' Matariki and the eponymous constellation was still fairly low on the horizon in the pre-sunrise glare despite the perfect weather. I, with my shortsightedness, couldn't see it but some of my companions could. The following morning in Wellington also provided a clear morning but due to a lower latitude I didn't get any reward either.
Matariki is a time for introspection (as if I needed any encouragement). Here is a brief summary of where I'm at:
Work has come to a juncture of sorts. The work at my original client has wound down almost to the extent that under some circumstances I could fit it all into one day. Within the next month I'll discover whether the Wellington work will continue beyond July. I have two fresh clients in my sights but I haven't got my foot in the door yet as both key contacts are elusive.
My fitness work has been steadily improving. I can now run an hour (11 kms) without much difficulty. My stamina is not an issue; it is the fragility of my legs that I worry about. I have recurrent medial shinsplints and occasional arch pain. I will probably consult a physio and have a rest for a couple of weeks. I've found many opportunities to increase my daily walking including my last trip to Wellington where I didn't take the bus at all (there are three points when a bus is a convenient option).
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Wellington is now a state of mind. It is a little bit of a vortex which my world plummets toward every week. With strange new efficiencies, I have my lessons planned ahead and on Wednesday night go to sleep knowing that I'll be just opening my folder, pulling out a lesson plan and teaching for the Thursday in Auckland and the Friday in Wellington.
Trips to Wellington almost always mean seeing famous people: Raybon Kan (twice), Geoff Roche, Jermaine Clement, Edwin Liu, Keith Quinn, Laura Preston, James Belich, Jo Goudie and some TV faces. Trips to Wellington means seeing that kiwis can be fashionable (in an arty student kind of way). The young do not necessarily go for the urban boredom of jeans and t-shirts like up here in Auckland. Trips to Wellington forecasts great weather for Wellington as it has never been poor weather for my days down there.
The students are great; I'm enjoying it thoroughly and feel I'm progressing them well; Even 8 hours of teaching seems a breeze; and they have a TV to watch cricket on in my breaks. The theoretical 9 hour day is still floating around and may be encountered prior to ANZAC day. I look forward to it and hope I'm healthy and prepared.
There was something hidden though, a weird misunderstanding between an HR person and me that cast a shadow over the venture. But I've 'forgotten' that now and I've negotiated a deal whereby I organise and book everything (flights, parking, accommodation and food) for a fixed fee. This was how it should have always been, if I had been smart, that is. By doing so, I accept a little bit of the cream on top but also avoid the awkwardness of making my client accept the responsibility for my cancellations (which was how it had developed). It will mean that if I stay healthy and don't cancel at all, I'll be able to earn a reasonable sum of extra money to justify the loss of a day.
One bad thing about being in business for yourself though is an increasing preoccupation with money, receipts and expenses. I feel myself thinking about how much I'm earning each day; I try to work out how much prices are less GST and with the eventual tax rebate; I know my credit card number back to front (I've always despised credit cards till now).
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Flying back to Shanghai was something of a relief. My health regrettably gave way shortly after getting back. It had held its own for so long despite the skepticism of Xin's mum but after the Kunming weather 's desiccation of my throat and then the stress from those in Kunming, a cold virus was obviously a bit too much for me.
The days there were a return to a shopping frenzy. Xin in particular was caught in taking her last retail opportunities. All I really can remember is walking, buying and eating.
And then we were packing. The biggest challenge was when it became obvious that a 101 little items weigh more that 30 kilogrammes. After a lot of rearrangement, we lugged everything to the airport where we had discovered our plane had been made earlier. Our early arrival was hence even more of a mad-dash. And with the late check-in was the unexpected drawback of being seated apart. After boarding, I set about watching the end of the Bourne Ultimatum and seeing the helplessness of Control. Sleepy, I wanted to sleep. Trying to sleep, I failed to get a wink, all the way back to Auckland; Back to the warmth of the morning, back home sweet home.
Friday, March 07, 2008
Kunming was the final stop before we headed back to Shanghai. It is the capital of Yunnan the Southwesternmost province of China, a 3-hour flight. Despite being in the tropics, it is cool due to it being on a 3000 metre plateau, and neighbouring Tibet and the Himalayas. It is also the Xin's birth-city.
Her mum had warned that Kunming had been unseasonably cold; it wasn't that warm when we were last there so we packed for the worst. As we descended into Kunming, the pilot did in Chinese exactly what they did in English, explain in detail the weather of the destination. The strange thing was I could have sworn that he said 29 degrees. I asked Xin. Xin was not paying attention. As we disembarked, my ears proved to be right.
On the last trip, we went on an odyssey around the province, but this time it was to be mainly with the family. And as related earlier, we landed into a tense environment; but that didn't mean there wasn't fun. As soon as I arrived, I spied a ping-pong table and that was the beginning of me taking both the uncle and the cousin to the cleaners. I was undefeated that night. It was also the second time I had a good nightview. The uncle's home was rather cool in that it had the top floor and a huge area that was open to the sky. The Pot extended right over us but I couldn't figure out the North Star and no-one could help me.
One destination that had been etched in stone was a visit to a hotspring. Apparently it was a newly developed one and well-worth a visit. There was talk of swimwear being required so I assumed that it was a little like Waiwera or Parakai, and not Japanese-style (i.e. getting naked, washing well, and then bathing in a pool communally). So, I was anxious about purchasing togs as I hadn't brought any to China (and it would have been good to purchase a new pair anyway). But no-one was particularly interested in helping me and saw no urgency. This confusion continued until we were arriving at the little town, when I asked about a place to buy a swimsuit. Suddenly everyone treated it as a silly question. You need a swimsuit to swim in the swimming pool but we would be mainly bathing in the bathing pools. So there was a guys' pool and a girls' pool. And you don't have to wear anything. Silly Daniel. Oh. Cheers. Thanks for the explanation.
Upon entering the (primitive) facility, it revealed a long rectangular pool seemingly hewn from rock. Either side of the pool was a margin of about half a metre to change out of your clothes; at the far end was a set of five showerheads; and in the pool were about forty people all staring at yours truly. Newly developed as a tourist site yet long used by the locals, it was quite possible that I was the first European to visit it. And as was often pointed out to me, people are quite curious. They don't see foreigners everyday; and less so in the all-together. At first I took it in my stride but it was getting ridiculous. Some would stride down the middle of the pool seemingly for the showers before their heads turning downward in my direction for a gawk. Another elderly man was rubbing the back of a guy near me but his eyes were far from what he was doing. Sigh.
That night again we stared a the sky, but still I could not locate the North Star. How could the only star that was fixed not be locatable? The whole northern sky revolves neatly around it. I was profoundly disappointed.
In the morning again, the plan was to bathe, but I led a dissenting faction that wanted to go mountain-climbing. It was a good walk and we even ascended to a dog-breeding area (!) before coming down. Xin found some interesting mushrooms. After descending, we headed back to the pool and yes, it was pretty much the same. I did have a conversation although it started in a potentially dodgy way. I swam across from one side to the other with freestyle arriving near a middle-aged man. He gesticulated backstroke in my direction.
"I prefer freestyle, thanks."
He continued to gesticulate and then possibly having just realised I was using Chinese, said I should do backstroke, but I just insisted otherwise. After that, we had a proper conversation talking about springs, the curiosity of people and China in general.
I love Japanese-style hot springs and my best experience was at a spring in Wulai, Taiwan. We were there for about two hours sliding from one pool to another, moonbathed in the freshnight air and chatted with some friends. I floated out that night. This experience, however, was not good.
We returned back to Kunming to engage in another passion of mine: tea. My person mission was in fact to buy and drink a lot of tea and especially learn how to brew pu-erh tea properly. This, I succeeded in. We went to a tea market where we had a brilliant show and explanation of all things tea and even an incidental trip to an artist featured the beauty of tea preparation.
As our stay drew to an end, I found her cousin's childhood encyclopaedia, which had the method for locating the North Star. It needed two constellations, one which was high in the sky in the evening and another that was high in the sky in the morning. I needed just a few observtions and bingo! There it was. It hung low in the north. I stared out at it several times throughout the horrid last night and it was there every single time. When we woke in the morning for our flight, it was still there hanging perpetually.
And so, we left, back to the coolness of Shanghai.
Friday, February 29, 2008
After the testing of Huzhou, we headed North-East into the neighbouring Jiangsu province to its capital, Nanjing. It was going to be a brief island between the two 'family visits', but we were there to meet up with Xin's childhood friends, who coincidentally were having a mini-reunion. I had been to Nanjing twice before but it is a pleasant city to revisit.
In my first visit, I went to the Nanking Massacre Museum. Nanking is the old name for Nanjing and in 1937, the Japanese attacked it with some gusto blasting through its ancient city walls and then 'liberated' and occupied it. This involved killing 250,000 people and causing other unspeakable mayhem.
The ancient city wall remains in sections and it was that which I decided to set as a goal: Walk around the whole ancient city wall. I set off late - as it turns out, too late. It took over half an hour to find my first section and it was difficult to find a way to the top, so I walked beside it for another half hour before I came to a hill next to the wall which had a trail to the top. The top was enjoyable, with people occasionally passing by. I walked for another half hour but that is when I made an unexpected discovery - the wall ended suddenly with no way of getting down. You see, it is not designed to be walked around. So I backtracked 15 minutes, climbed down and walked about another hour in a big circle to get to the next portion. This was a better section and was on it for about an hour before I got down again and walked to the next portion. And then there was no more access to the top of the walls and I just walked along side each section I encountered.
It was obvious by about the early afternoone that even if I had more time, I wouldn't even around 3/4 of the way around the wall. So I decided to get just to the half-way mark and then head back to the room so I could prepare for the reunion. I got there with one hour to spare but on a search for a public toilet down a sideroad, I encountered a retired man who seem rather keen to chat with me in English. I eventually got him to talk mostly in English. He was once an engineer fro Sinopec (the national oil company). He had opinions on everything from Taiwan, to corruption, from the economy to the city wall. Until recently, a section of the wall was standing next to the road we were on. But someone wanted to put up a building and restaurant where that inconvenient section was. Perhaps, some money greased the wheels; perhaps not. One way or another a wall that had been contructed hundreds of years ago, that had withstood the Japanese invasion was demolished for a rather unremarkable piece of architecture. The retiree relived all of his rage and frustration at this sacrilege. He chatted with me for about half an hour before time came for me to get a move on.
After trekking back to the room, we headed off for the reunion at a cafe. It was cool - I chatted with the three who were at my end about all manner of topics ranging from language, traditional values, jobs and controversial topics like abortion and homosexuality. Most of them would regard themselves as being traditional in their attitudes to everything but accepting that others should have the freedom to not follow the traditional rules, i.e. none would live together before marriage yet would not think badly or criticise those who do.
The next day, we were off to Kunming - Xin's birth city and where her grandmother, uncle and cousin live.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Life has been busy lately. In fact up to today there was an unbroken sequence of being on the move and work. It all started with Waitangi day, which I wanted for a day out at the beach, but this plan was eventually set aside for the preparation of what seemed to be a daunting series of weeks.
The Wellington engagement would require either a Thursday evening flight (with a night of accommodation in a hotel) or an early morning Friday flight in. The first two trips down were the former, and yesterday was the latter. The first two trips also happened to coincide with Xin's 3-week art residency in Wellington so for both trips I stayed till the Sunday and flew back to Auckland then.
Going down on the Thursday warped my sense of time as I'd work a normal day, fly down to Welly and then have an evening there and sleep in a hotel. It feels like two different time zones. And the flight gives Thursday a Friday feeling. Then I would work a day (which, after it finished, would feel like a Saturday). Then two days of doing stuff in Wellington and a rush to the airport on the Sunday - a minimal Sunday in Auckland and then thrown back into work on the Monday. The overall effect was rather exhausting and disorienting.
I had my first Friday-morning-in-and-Friday-evening-out yesterday. It was prepared perfectly but was rather frustrating. I had a bad night's sleep the night before and got up at 5:30am to get a 7am flight. At the airport I used their self-service check-in where I got both my tickets for the day in just a minute. That was the good thing about not having check-in luggage. But despite this smooth entrance, the plane I was to travel on was suffering mechanical issues. Various announcements were made and eventually we changed planes and boarded almost an hour late. I was caught in a timetrap. I would be likely to come late and had to tell my 9am student. But it was too early for the reception desk and I didn't have his mobile number. Once boarding the plane of course, I wouldn't be able to use my phone and the plane might after the lesson time. And this was exactly what happened but fortunately it was only 9:05am when we touched down. With the smoothness of Wellington's traffic, I got to the building just after 9:30am and started the lesson shortly after. Ironically it would have been a record day of teaching for me if it had gone smoothly with 8 hours. But the record will have to wait till next Friday.
The work in Wellington itself is varying and challenging but I'm already in a rhythm and I believe all the students are benefitting a lot from the lessons. So far it seems to be sustainable and with my relaxing weekends returned to me, I'll be a bit more laidback than I have been lately. So all is well.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Huzhou. It was the over-cooked soggy broccoli that had to be eaten. It couldn’t be put off. It had to be done. Huzhou is the city which Xin’s father calls home. It is thus also the stomping ground of his aunt (yes, the one previously mentioned) and their extended family.
My last trip here stained its name in my mind; perhaps, irredeemably so. Objectively, it is a fairly ordinary Chinese city, with its usual urban dust, smoke and honking horns. But on my last trip here I came with a heavy cold, seeming harassment for my food choices, alienation by the use of dialect around me. I was hoping this time might be better and it was (it could only be so!). It was our duty to go. (Start the Painted Black music.)
Our departure from Hangzhou and arrival at Huzhou were farcical. Our last half day at Hangzhou was spent killing time and then a seemingly interminable struggle to get to the bus station. It seemed the taxis were avoiding us. One came directly towards us slowly; we signalled to it; it turned down a side-street. We staggered with our full complement of luggage to a bus-stop and waited for a bus that didn’t seem to be coming. It was though. And all the while people waiting for it gathered. When it arrived, there was a stampede and then the kind of squashing in that wouldn’t be even remotely legal in NZ. I was cramped into a small cavity near the driver, leaving as much of my leg-room for the bags. Still the bus stopped for a few more people to squeeze into what was left of the breathing room. The bus ride was going to be about 30 minutes, but fortunately as we got closer to the station people alighted and breathing space was regained.
The station and ride were unremarkable except for the fact that I swotted up on the family tree. What I would call each person was a tricky area. Chinese relationship names are complex and when you don’t fit into the tree, it becomes even trickier.
We arrived at Huzhou and were surrounded by all the taxi and three-wheeled vehicle drivers all wanting to take us away from the station. Xin’s mum did all the talking.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘The city centre. How much?’
So we headed off to the man’s three wheeled vehicle, piled in and took off. Xin and I were trying for photos of the inside cabin with the driver, when suddenly I became aware that Xin’s mother and the driver were seemingly arguing. I hadn’t been paying attention but the words: ‘Well, fine just let us out here then,’ wafted past my ears. It seemed that once the vehicle got moving and the details of which part of the city ‘the city centre’ became clearer, the driver had become unhappy on just ten dollars. Xin’s mum had stuck to her guns and said that ten dollars was agreed and our destination was regarded as the city centre (something Xin and I as neutral observers agreed about). Either way, the ‘fine just let us out here’ became a reality and we exited the vehicle onto a big highway. Relation with the driver and her mum became worse as the language between the two escalated. On the side of the road they traded insults that started with ‘You’re mentally sick!’ and went much worse. After a few lines, Xin and I tried to stop this childish exchange and reined Xin’s mum in, after which the driver took his chance to say some hideous insults which were unreturned, hopped back in his vehicle and went away. Now that we are in the middle of nowhere, what do we do?
Fortunately, Xin’s mother was not a stranger to the area and found us a bus to proceed in on and then came to the home. As I’ve already said, my reception by the family wasn’t warm probably because I irk them as much as they irk me. The dinner was hardly satisfying because they’d made very few things a vegetarian could eat, and their comments were hardly palatable either.
Since Xin’s mum had come, they had a little bit of an accommodation shortage. But no worries, Xin’s cousin had a friend who owned a hotel not far from the family home (a 40 minute walk). Daniel could stay there while Xin and her mother stayed at the home. When Xin’s Dad came, he could stay in the hotel with Daniel. This sounded fine on paper, and so at our first dinner I was told that the family was heading to my room to have a shower after dinner. This was because their home didn’t have a decent place to wash (nor a toilet that could flush to any great effect). It also had two fish gasping for air in the bathtub (but I say that only in passing).
So thus we head to the hotel to find the filthiest hotel I’ve ever seen. It had the saving grace of clean sheets but otherwise was a mess. You wouldn’t want to walk barefoot in the room as it was covered in ash, dirt, nut shells, an odd metal bit etc. Her aunt went for the first shower, but came out shortly after saying that the hot water was minimal and asked for her son to call reception to get them turn the water on; ‘It is on’ was the response. After this, everyone went back home, except me who got to eat walnuts watching TV about the first proper legislation allowing proper workers’ unionisation and collective bargaining. The topic was humorous. In western countries the left-wing (socialist) parties are all about the unions and the workers. The largest ‘socialist’ country however has virtually no worker protection. Xin’s mother told me about the Wolf Culture, where employers push their employees as far as they can. The programme featured interviews with workers and employers, the latter of which said the same thing you hear here: The legislation will be costly to us; We’ll go out of business; The workers will exploit it to their own ends.
Xin’s dad came and without hesitation moved the family out to a hotel of a decent star rating nearer the home (about 10 minutes’ walk). If you consider how I view my reception and treatment in Huzhou, you might be surprised to hear that they had some expectation of me doing them a favour. They aunt’s granddaughter was starting to learn English (she was about 12). And what a coincidence, I was a teacher. So many of my evenings, I taught a wee-bit of English and gave her the chance to hear English being spoken. It has been some time since I had taught a (near) absolute beginner. And she had textbook English that she had to learn and revise so there wasn’t as much freedom to use topics of interest to discuss. But it was interesting anyway. The environment they have to learn English is poor; the schools that teach it overcharge for an ineffectual service. But there is a demand for this service and so there are these schools.
Respite from Huzhou came on a trip to Guanshang. This was the small country town Xin’s grandparents lived and also where her dad spent his childhood. It was in a home that was hundreds of years old, still bearing the original carvings. It was located in the mountains and had its own tea fields and bamboo forest. On our first evening, we went for a walk in the bamboo forest (where every tree has the name of the owner) and then amongst the tea terracing.
Aunt was there too; and there were more little clashes including the one and only time I responded to her baiting (to stand up for my principles). But on the whole it was an interesting experience there. We stayed in a house, which was probably older than the state of New Zealand. I experienced the full beauty of the northern hemisphere night sky for the first time. I met her reticent grandfather and her grandmother who has been mainly bed-ridden after a stroke. There was also a possessed cat: it didn’t meow but growled words; it didn’t respond to the International Cat Name (pooosh!) and it behaved quite oddly too.
It ended rather quickly though and we headed back to Huzhou and then fled the city to Nanjing – Xin’s childhood city.
I can remember the first time I encountered a beggar; it was in Auckland. But the first time I really experienced them was in China the first time I went. The first time was the most traumatic too. Guangzhou in Southern China attracts people for work and for begging. Every time I went over the dusty overpasses there would be the deformed and the ill; the aged and the homeless; and the hungry and the exhausted. Some would just lie down with a dish to catch the coins while others would confront you with a question. Some would not leave you alone.
My education in Taiwan was an eye-opener of sorts. I was told that the gangs control the beggars, placing them around the city to gather revenue. They'd in turn look after the beggars in a basic way. This belief is prevalent in China too, as is the belief that many beggars are faking it. I choose to think this is an exaggerated theory; a reason that people give themselves to not feel any pity; a reason to tell their children to not give. Naturally, I cannot know if I, the naive foreigner, am right in this area. The Chinese would have more awareness of the real state of the people, but I have a developed cynicism of some of their justifications and arguments.
It is my inclination to give, but to do so with some judgement. I'd give a small amount (a Chinese dollar or two) if it was easily accessible to almost any beggar who approached me. I wouldn't give anything to any beggar who pursued or harassed me or was clearly putting on a show. To give would be to encourage the same sort of behaviour. It was my intention to spread the money as widely as I could to ensure that those in genuine need would get a proportion of the money, even if there was some falling into the wrong hands.
The stories are many. In Hangzhou, there was a most spectacular display. There was a whole bed with a boy's sick mother on the pavement. Along side the boy bowed non-stop in front of a bowl. I didn't give to them though.
In Huzhou, I was sitting in a restaurant when one came into the restaurant and thrust his bowl into my shoulder saying "Thank you boss" again and again. I refused. But he persisted for well over a minute. He didn't get anything.
Also in the same city, I seemed to bump into many elderly beggars whom I usually gave a dollar. But I did notice that they had the same or similar bowls and also I spotted them having a group chat or a meeting. That raises an eyebrow but shouldn't necessarily be a reason for scepticism.
In Nanjing, I was walking back from my wall-walk (more about that later). When a thin looking man, approached me and politely in Chinese explained his predicament. He had come into the city to work but hadn't found any and had run out of money. He hadn't eaten that day and was starving. I gave him some coins.
In Shanghai, I remember Xin and walking down a well-known book street when I spotted a mother and child were sitting on the side. She gave the child a push in my direction and he ran right into my path bursting into a fit of coughing, while also having the presence of mind to push a bowl into my belly. I tried to out-manoevre him but he was on me like glue for about 10 metres of walking, obstructing me all the way. He got nothing.
In Shanghai while I was with Xin's mum an elderly beggar approached me as I was about to cross the road. Luckily for her, I had money quite convenient and put it into her bowl as I was about to go across. What I didn't expect is that she'd pursue me across the road, but she got no more.
There were also a series of photos Xin took of beggars all of whom were rewarded for the usage of their image. One such one was a tremendous sight: A man slowly walking through the street in bare feet, his hair and clothes caked in grey clay and carrying a huge sack over one shoulder and a bowl in the other hand. This one was the most likely to be acting. He could have potentially been an artist. He was almost too perfect. But perhaps he was genuine... I don't know. He got a coin or two for the photo Xin took.
If ever I hesitated in giving I just had to think about how cold it was outside in China's winter.
It was my second time to Hangzhou, the first time being an unpleasant few hours in 2000. My friend Justin and I were making our way down the east coast of China. We had shared the planning responsibilities and while in Shanghai, Justin suggested that we spend a day in Hangzhou, famous for its West Lake. So we bought tickets and boarded a train. Unfortunately Justin had miscounted the days, something that came to light on the train; we'd have to leave Hangzhou straight away so we could board a long train ride to Guangzhou to make our exit from China on time. We got off in Hangzhou late at night and had to wait a few hours in the train station until the earliest departing train. Tired, we tried to sleep on the marginal train station benches. My stomach felt iffy, and suddenly nausea struck. I got up and quickly sought a plastic bag. Exhausted, I struggled to remember the word they use for plastic in Mainland China (one of the words that differ between the two countries). And what were the tones? I tried anyway and got my bag and ten seconds later my stomach put it to good use. After what seemed like forever we boarded a train and were whisked out of what is called one of the most beautiful cities of China.
This time it was well planned. I had descended my mountain and boarded a bus to be reunited with my Xinna and her mum in Hangzhou after their shopping blitz in Yiwu. There was a student sitting next to me on the bus who kept looking over my shoulder as I underlined words on a complimentary Chinese newspaper. The buses started and so did audiovisual programme. 'Please secure your seatbelts'. This would usually be hilarious. All buses have the advisory programme but usually the belts don't work, or are safely tucked under the seats. But alerted, I check and there was a working seatbelt. I almost fell out of my seat in surprise. All the more reason to put it on, I thought. A few moments later the student next to me also made it click - well foreigners can model appropriate behaviour perhaps. Which train station were we going to? I asked the student. The South station, he said. This was good as Xin and her mother were also arriving at the same station and at roughly the same time. The voyage went smoothly; we entered the city limits and proceeded onto the train station. I'm here, I texted. We're outside, Xin texted back. I went out the station and looked. Went over to the front and scanned the ragged masses. Xin wasn't here and more importantly, the word South did not feature in the bus station name. It was the West station. Argh. Fortunately after a taxi ride through rush hour, we were properly reunited at the hotel.
The next day Xin's cold was heavily weighing down on her. The mornings were the worst for her. I organised myself for a circumnavigation of the lake and visits to the National Tea Museum and a tea plantation for tea tasting. I only had two shirts: one with long sleeves and the other with short sleeves. The long sleeved one was sweaty and so I chose to have short sleeves. Her mother warned me that I should wear more, but I refused and left. This had special significance later.
It took me almost an hour to find the lake's edge; I had set off in the wrong direction due to faulty orientation. But once there, I was surprised to say it truly was a great sight. The path followed around close to the water's surface. There were hills surrounding it with the odd pagoda standing conspicuously on a summit. Mist was enveloping the mountains and floating along the water. I set out at a good pace, wanting to have time for everything but then I was assailed by my first local:
'Could I have a photo with you?' A young man asked in Chinese.
'I'd just like to have a photo with you.'
He was silenced momentarily, trying to think of a reason.
'There is no why, I'd just like a photo.'
'OK then. Why not..'
So I posed and he let me on my way.
I continued along and made an interesting discovery: the public toilets were free. This is very unusual in China where user-pays applies to lots of what we would call public amenities (like toilets, parks). This is brilliant because it actually removes disincentives from using them and reduce public urination, which is an all to common sight in China.
I walked for several hours, the scenery going from river-side traditional architecture to rural scenery, before I eventually found the Tea Museum. It was free too. I had a nice look around and had a tea-scented lunch. I walked another hour to the tea plantation where a lady upfront told me the situation (I could taste tea but I'd have to buy a canister of tea) and the price of the different qualities of tea. I was happy with this as there is nothing worse than finding out the expected obligation after enjoying a service. She identified herself in English as a peasant. I told her that she wasn't a peasant but a tea grower - peasant or farmer in Chinese, though being accurate to describe her role, carries a negative connotation. We spoke a lot about the tea and I learnt a fair bit. There was a mountain track behind the house but unfortunately time was against me.
I set off again and this started a sequence of encounters. I walked along the side of the road when a motorcyclist pulled up beside me:
'Would you like a ride?' He asked in Chinese.
'No, I like walking.'
'Where are you going?'
'Just around the bottom of the lake and then up the east side.'
'Your body is excellent.' This is a literal translation of a phrase that means your health is good, but I like the humour of the direct translation :-)
It was because of the short sleeved shirt. Only a crazy person or someone very confident in their body's physical condition would wear a short-sleeved shirt in anything less than sweltering conditions. He went on his way.
I went around the bottom of the lake. A street cleaner came from the opposite direction with a big wheelbarrow and a huge smile on his face. He said one thing:
'Your body is excellent.'
'Thank you.' I said unsure if that was appropriate.
He went on.
Light rain swept in and I made my way to a kiosk and started chatting with a man who was similiarly sheltering. He asked the usual questions and the expected comment that NZ is beautiful. We chatted for a while. He wasn't from Hangzhou, but from another province altogether, Jiangxi. I'd never met someone from there.
'Your body is excellent.'
The rain eased and I went further.
Rain swept in again and another kiosk presented itself. I ran beneath the eaves and a man who does photographs of people ran by asking me if I'd like a photo. I told him that I was fine without a photo, thank you. He chatted away how there was an American that always used to come to the park to chat with him very fluently but hadn't come for quite some time. The man wasn't a local either, coming from a city called Jiaxing.
After that I walked back to the more commercial edge of the lake, marked with a Starbucks, and then back to the hotel where a recuperated Xin was. There are some good merits to walking solo. I've never had so many random meetings with strangers.
That night we went with Xin's cousin Dongdong for dinner and snacks. I had a chance to have a debate about the shortcomings of the two education systems with Dongdong. It was a good practice of my chinese, but overall I didn't think I expressed myself clearly enough.
After going back to the hotel, our trip here was more or less over. The following day was striving to get to a bus station and head onto our next destination, Huzhou, the city where Xin's father's family live for the most part.
I now consider Hangzhou to be the most pleasant city I'd ever been in. The people were the most pleasant, openly approaching you without commercial intent, and more often than not, in Chinese. In Shanghai most people who approach you say 'War-chee! War-chee' to sell you things illegally. I would go back to Hangzhou again.
Family life in New Zealand can sometimes seem tricky, but this trip to China has given me the strongest impression yet of how much trickier it is in Chinese culture. My first trip to China was filled with unease around Xin's extended family; I was more or less a passenger or a passive spectator, regardless of which wing of the family I was in. Running back into it, I was resolved to be more active and assertive.
What I ran into was an interesting situation; I came face to face into conflict with Xin's paternal aunt. The setting was quite important: We had come in from Hangzhou. Xin was suffering with a cold, and was visibly thinner than the last time we had come to China. After dinner at the home, I reiterated that I was vegetarian, and they reiterated how unwise it was and 'The General', as I call her uncle, called me a monk.
The plan was for Xin and her mother to stay at their home, while I would stay in a small hotel 40 minutes walk from their home. After a night's rest, I walked over to their home to find Xin quite frustrated. Her aunt hadn't listened to her at all. Chinese families naturally tend to go a little OTT in the caring for 'children' and when they are sick, well, then they go even more overboard. And boy do they think they know best.
We went out but weren't told where we were going; it had already been planned. We went to a restaurant which wasn't really suitable at all for vegetarians. She tried to order something for me, and I asked whether there was meat in it: there was. I said I didn't want to it. She said it would be fine. I said it would not. And so we started on a bad foot.
Then there was a logical connection made: Xin is thinner. She has a cold. Her immunity must be weaker because she is thinner. She is with Daniel who is a vegetarian. Because she is with Daniel the vegetarian, she mustn't be eating her essential meat, which is causing her to lose weight and be sick. Much of the rest of the trip involved her lecturing either Xin or me.
She baited me too. I stood resolute on principle, but except for one time did not follow her into an argument. We were happy to finally escape the place. Xin raised the proposal of not going back.
Then after 3 hours of flying, we made our way to the other wing of the family, where there was internal strife from the start. Her maternal grandmother had long made it her mission to control the matters of the family. She resided in the home of Xin's uncle and his son (from his first marriage). After he got remarried, she found she couldn't stand his wife and said the wife couldn't stay with them. She actively blocked all efforts by her son for any compromise, and is resolute in her position. She also takes care of every aspect of her grandson's life, criticising every misstep and removing any sense of control he has over his life.
We made some politely phrased advice to her during our stay, but upon receiving the order from Xin's mum, Xin accepted the task of confronting her on our last night in their city. At the time, I was talking to the uncle and his son upstairs when I heard voices escalating. Heading downstairs, I sought to moderate the two sides but the discussion quickly went full-scale. There were tears; there were dramatics. The extended discussion went until 11pm at night (when we were meant to be packing for our trip home).
Both sides of the family had a very strong controlling matriarch. For a moment I thought maybe this might have been a common situation, but apparently not. Most of the Chinese I've talked to since has said the overbearing control of older generation has faded, especially in the coastal cities. The above described situations dominated my mind for the last half of my trip.
Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is probably the most famous mountain in China. It is a revered holy mountain and has thousands of visitors every year. 8 years ago, with a friend of mine, I climbed the second most famous mountain, Taishan, and generally enjoyed the experience. The previous time I went to China (2004) I wanted to climb Huangshan but was hampered by a cold and the cold.
Being based in Shanghai, which neighbours the province Huangshan is in, this was a golden opportunity to go. But as negotiations over our travel itinerary developed, it seemed it was getting less and less likely. The negotiations themselves were very tricky. Xin's parents had opinions about where we should and shouldn't go - and generally trashed all the places I wanted to go. Xin was reticent about where she'd like to go. In the end, the plan was to be pretty conservative: go to a commercial town Yiwu, then onto the lake town of Hangzhou and then onto Xin's father's hometown of Huzhou. I didn't want to go to Yiwu - Xin's mother had decided that she wanted to go, and hence wanted to go with us. Xin, who'd just gotten a cold, didn't mind as that would be the more restful option and she could buy stuff. So I conceded it.
We went to buy tickets to Yiwu but on route Xin piped up. I could go to Huangshan (my ideal) alone while Xin and her mother go to Yiwu and then we meet back in Hangzhou. The plan was perfect, except for recent forecasts saying Huangshan was going to be in the clouds. I was still weighing it up when we were waiting for tickets and then as Xin's mum went to the front of the queue, I decided. I was to be going to Huangshan in 24 hours' time on a night train.
The next day we went shopping for tramping food (not easy in China) and I started to pack. That evening, I got all sorts of lectures. Chinese parents are very anxious about the young going off alone. There are lots of stories about what could happen to a solo-traveller (I for the most part think they are overstated but can't really know). Her mum told me to basically lie to anyone who asked me where I was from. Saying you were teaching in Shanghai was the best lie because people would know that you know the country, customs and prices etc. and they are less likely to take advantage of you. If you said you were a tourist, that exposes you immediately. I was sceptical about this but went along with it. I packed my huge backpack and prepared to leave, but in my haste when moving around the house I slipped on a rug slamming my knee into the wooden floor. I got up and went to the kitchen to get something cold to RICE it with. What an omen!
Anyway an hour later I was getting onto the train. The sleeper carriage is something I'm now very familiar with. There are three beds bunked up on each of each partition, the bottom, middle and top. If you were on the bottom, your bed became the sitting spot for everyone during the day. If you were on the top, you'd get too hot and it was more difficult to get in and out. I managed to get the optimal middle bunk.
I was overdressed though; the train was warmly air-conditioned. My bag was huge and took up most of the bed space. And I was trying to sleep on a bumpy train which I've never been good at. Somehow I got some sleep during the night and about 6 am got up and sat around eating breakfast.
The older gentleman on the bottom bunk came around and we started to chat. He was a native to Huangshan who sold paintings in Shanghai and Beijing. Being Chinese, he asked a lot of questions about my background. I fed him the line suggested by Xin's mum. Then another chap came over. He looked about my age and said that he was going to climb Huangshan too that day. He hadn't managed to sleep at all that night apparently. He too asked me extensively about my background:
'Are you a student?'
'No, I work in Shanghai.'
'In a language school.'
'Where in Shanghai?' He was Shanghainese.
'On Minsheng road.' This was a road near where I was staying so it came to mind quickly.
'Oh, I live around there. Which school? Is it the school on the second floor above the Bank of China?' Screw! I am a terrible (and unlucky) liar. I made some more stuff up but while talking, soon found I had already contradicted some things I had said to the first chap. I think the older chap realised it.
Once the younger chap went back to his partition, I chatted a bit more with the older chap and found that the area had a few kinds of tea I should be buying. The train was almost in the city nearest Huangshan and I arranged some transport to the mount while still on the train. After disembarking I went to minibus and found the same young chap who I had lied to poorly on the train. He was asking everyone what their plans were. Most were going up the next day and they were climbing but taking the cable car. He and I were the only people actually climbing it so we pretty much decided to walk together.
The minibus dropped us off at another transport hub. It is a weird aspect of travelling in China that they make some of the tourist sites missions to get to. The remaining road to travel to get to the main gate of the mountain was the sole right of one transport company to use, so you need to change vehicles to get to the main gate. It is possible to just walk up from the transport hub to the main gate, but the walk is lacklustre and it would take over an hour. So we waited at the hum for the next bus (which cost about 5 dollars for a ten minute ride). At the hub I walked past a small group and heard the usual whispered word 'Laowai! Laowai!' (foreigner). I rotated my head The Exorcist-style with my teeth frozen in a smile. I got a laugh or two.
After the proper trip up to the gate, it was already 12 noon and we started our ascent. We chatted most of the way up when we had breath to talk with. I came clean on my background and he said he was 41 years old (he didn't look older than me!). He worked for a Dutch chemical company and was a born and bred Shanghainese. He had already climbed Huangshan once a year before but wanted to climb it again when he heard that it had snowed on top. Last time he ascended in two and a half hours but had to come down the same day because it was in peak season and all the mountain top accommodation had been booked.
The mountain itself was shrouded in thick fog and the temperature was about 5 degrees, but we were always too hot. The path up to the summit was a long stairway that just kept going up and the energy required to keep going up it meant you'd be toasty after around the first minute.
Not many people were taking the walking route it seemed. The most common were the porters. They'd be carrying ridiculously heavy amounts of things from the nearest town to the top of the mountain, getting about 4 cents per kilogram of items transported. This is much cheaper for the hotels than using the cable car to bring things up. Labour is still very cheap in most of China.
We did bump into a group of three young Shanghainese who were going to pitch a tent at the top of the mountain! My jaw dropped because in New Zealand, you don't find that many people willing to do that in winter on a cold mountain and more significantly they were Chinese. It is good to hear that some of that adventuring spirit is here.
After a little more that two hours we got to the top. The view around the mountain was compromised by the fog but the snow and ice were spectacular. The sights that make the mountain famous are the crags and shapes of rocks and the trees on top. We couldn't see much of them but what we could see was amazing. It would be wonderful to see it in spring or autumn.
My companion had booked accommodation and had bargained for a cheaper price. I hadn't had the foresight to book at all. But once we found his accommodation, he slipped into negotiation and got me the same rate as him! It was 80 yuan (NZ$15) for a night in a dorm. All the others in our room had to pay the standard 120 yuan.
At night, it was tough to sleep as there were some snorers in full cry and also, paradoxically, it was too hot. We got up early in order to have a 5% chance of seeing the sunrise from the best outlook, but as time went on it became obvious we weren't going to be lucky. But in going to the site, we went the highest accessible point. We passed the freezing level on the way up so there was a lot of surface ice and it was a little perilous. They employed people to break the ice and sweep it out of the way but they can only go so fast. The tour groups with their loud speakers were also up there and it took some time to out-manoeuvre them.
There are plenty of routes down the mountain and we took the longest. My friend was starting to have some difficulties and was sorely tempted by the cable car down but resisted with the hopes of going down on foot and then soaking in a hot spring. On the way down we were apprehended by a large monkey bearing its teeth. My friend instinctively threw some lollies in pockets to the ground, which the monkey accepted eating them wrapping and all. This was a signal for the rest of the band to suddenly appear and charge towards us to get more food! My friend panicked and while being berated by some of other walkers for feeding the wildlife, quickly grabbed the whole bag of lollies, threw it some distance and made a hasty departure. They weren't the only wild animals to be seen. I saw lots of squirrels and interesting birds too.
We finally got down to the bottom around 1pm and parted companies once back in the nearby city. It is because of him that I have any photos of the visit. I didn't have a camera and he had a swish camera/phone/PDA. I'll publish those in time.
The Chinese government and regional authorities love their slogans. Perhaps it is a latent cultural belief in the power of language or perhaps a socialist tendency to try and control the people's thoughts - I don't know - but they're written everywhere to exhort the reader to change their behaviour. Old town walls are painted with old ones telling the virtues of birth control and having one child. In the cities: Be a cute Shanghainese! Be a happy Hangzhou'er!
The more recent ones though increasingly had one particular word: civilised (wenming). The powers that be have decided that Chinese aren't civilised enough and have to clean up their act especially before things like the Olympics.
Chinese often boast of their country's civilisation (one that goes back 5,000 years as almost anyone through their education system will tell you) so it seems ironic that there is this thrust. What is uncivilised? What do you have to do to be civilised? Fortunately for those who need instruction, they often have diagrams on what is and isn't civilised. Civilised people apparently wait for those on the subway train to disembark before they board. They offer their seats to the aged, sick, pregnant and lame to sit on the bus or train. They don't honk their horns constantly. They flush the loo after use. They don't pee on the streets or into bushes in public places. They don't spit huge balls of phlegm onto the pavement and the surrounds. These are what the Government signs say.
And wouldn't it be nice if those could happen. I saw so many instances when the above were not followed. I've walked into too many toilets to see the last patron's piece of work waiting for me. I saw so many people squeezing into trains while those leaving the trains were coming out. Phlegm! Seas of phlegm! Pee'ers galore. I did see some giving up of seats for the aged though.
Slogans are slogans, and a population told what to do by slogans tends to not even see them after time. At least that's what my Shanghai friend thought.
Xin's dad thought it would be 20 years before Shanghainese were 'civilised', and 50 years for the rest of China. Most people see it as a peasant problem. Peasants and farmers are coming into the cities in search of work and with them bring their uncivilised habits. While the peasantry do have a lot to learn, those in the urban centres do break the above mentioned rules of civility.
One interesting story is from another slogan: Make it click. On the long-distance buses, they'll always have a video played to tell you to put on your seatbelt, and also roads signs reminding you to do so. Of course, being China, on most of those buses, the seatbelts are usually busted, stuck under the seats or non-existent. The taxi back-seats are the same. Nonetheless, I saw the video on my way to Hangzhou and noticed I did have a working seatbelt and made it click. To be honest, with China's traffic you'd be crazy not to. The young man next to me saw me fastening the seatbelt and after about 10 seconds followed suit. So maybe there is hope after all.
8 years ago, I arrived in Shanghai with my friend Justin and we had 24 hours to explore the place and then dash to a train station. This time Xin and I were stationed here, staying our first whole week here and the last three days. I had been told by many people, particularly Shanghainese, that Shanghai had developed hugely year upon year. When I first came, I was blown away by the modernisation; in my mind it pipped Singapore and Tokyo in the swishness stakes. Perhaps I only saw a slice of it, because this time round it seemed much less glossy.
As Xin noted, the difference between a sophisticated shopping area and dingey mucky roads can be measured in 10s of metres. Often you have to get your shoes quite dirty in the process of going around some of the shops.
The main thing to do in Shanghai is shopping, because there is not much else out there to do there. But the shopping is good. I went nuts in bookshops and was out-clothes-shopped Xin for the first portion of the trip. Books were dirt cheap; in my first splurge I spent about RMB330 on a huge stack of books, which is about NZ$100. Clothes weren't as cheap as I expected but shoes were.
Shanghai also came with the implicit advantage/challenge of having Xin's parents around. For the most part it is a huge benefit; They've dropped virtually all of the resistance to me and pretty much treat me as a son-in-law. When I first went to China with Xin, they sat us down for a discussion about us and the future and they seemed to have the starting premise that we couldn't really go on together. It is definitely not the case now. They do think rather seriously about their daughter's future and so do give me plenty of curvy questions like the financing of my future house, course of my career etc.
Her father ordered food well with consideration to my vegetarianism, which he didn't do well when we came the first time. Her mother and I get along like a house on fire, chatting non-stop on several forays out onto the streets. They also, although very cautiously, let us share a room on one of our trips.
The climate in Shanghai was pleasant with none of the chilling temperatures I experienced on my first trip, seemingly always between 5 and 10 degrees. It was though shrouded in mist for most of the days I was there. It took days before I saw the sun finally shine through the layer of cloud.
The people were generally as large city people are, which is to say that they are pretty apathetic to strangers. Despite people saying to the contrary, so called sophisticated Shanghainese still stare at foreigners despite being a fairly common sight. Actually foreigners are quite eye-catchers. Even I stare. Even Xin stares. 'Look lesbians!' she exclaimed once. The usual antidote to staring is to stare back in that direction. Usually that works, although not always. In an Aunty's Dumplings, I noticed a middle-aged lady staring over at us for a while. So I looked back at her for a good 5 seconds, before eating another dumpling and meeting her gaze again. She was still looking. She thought me looking at her was amusing so told her younger companion, who also decided to join in. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.
One odd thing about foreigners there in general is that they don't have any feeling of 'kinship' with others in China. Only one out of two or three dozen I met recognised my existence to any extent, despite some of my own attempts to break the ice.
Shanghai on the whole was not bad, definitely liveable, but I'm not sure if I would want to live there for too long.