Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Happy New Year from Shanghai, China! Tonight the city rang in the Year of the Dog at midnight. Firecracker explosions started a few days ago, increasing in frequency and intensity steadily until about 4pm this afternoon when there was a pretty constant crackle throughout the city that continues as I write. From what I hear, it'll go on like this for at least the next five days.

The loudest night is supposed to be on the eve of the fifth day of the new year, when the Chinese god of wealth, Cai Shen, makes his rounds and blesses the loudest households with great fortune for the coming year. The streets are already littered with exploded red paper so the public works department had better get sweepin' or else we'll be swimming in a sea of red by Feb. 1...

Most every doorway in the city is festooned by red lanterns and two mandarin orange trees on either side, the trees decorated with red envelopes hanging on them like Christmas ornaments. Everyone is wishing each other happy new year (Xin Nian Kuai Le in Mandarin) and restaurants and shops all have bowls of oranges displayed prominently. Most businesses will be closed for the next five days. It's just like the Christmas holiday week--it's a time for families to come together, so many people have left the city to visit their hometowns, while (likely) just as many have returned to their family homes here. And given how dark and cold it's been here, I can also see the parallels in the timing of the holidays--red lanterns and fireworks shining brightly at the gloomiest time of the year.

It's called the Spring Festival and there's nothing like it outside this country... I can say that somewhat authoritatively because I live in San Francisco, where the Chinese New Year festivities, while raucous and exuberant, pale in comparison, like lighting a couple sparklers in your backyard on the 4th of July... In a market today, I saw three little boys looking eagerly at something on the ground, their fingers firmly plugged in their ears. Within seconds, the fiery snaps exploded and their faces lit up with the cutest, happiest smiles. If Shanghai's New Year seems massive to me, it must just swallow up their little universes in one big dragon gulp. It makes me happy to imagine the joy they're experiencing on this holiday.


Hello Doggie!

Wow! I just heard my first firecrackers for Chinese New Year! I looked out my window and saw a giant rumble happening over by the river. They are not like the ones we see on 4th of July, though. You know those bricks that they light in Chinatown, the ones filled with about 200 little popcorn-crackling firecrackers? Well, imagine the brick is about 10 times the size, and someone threw about 100 of those bricks up into the sky all at once. Then imagine each of the firecrackers emits its own little colorful burst--that you can see from a mile away. That's what this looks and sounds like. And it's not even New Year's Eve yet!


The Great Firewall

It was with some melancholy that I bid farewell to the Rui Jin Guest House, my first residence here during my vacation days. It is located in Luwan, in the former French Concession region from the old days when Shanghai was divided up into zones that were completely free from Chinese rule and belonged to their respective Empires. The neighborhood may have a dubious history, but it is still the loveliest I’ve yet seen here. The tree-lined streets must be just luscious in the spring, summer, and fall. Even in winter they have a nice minimalist look. Many of the old buildings have remained, though now instead of being inhabited by one rich family they are split up into tenements housing several (likely poor) ones. The streets have tons of shops, restaurants, cafes, even a French bakery or two. I loved wandering around this neighborhood, occasionally happening upon an art gallery here, a park there, and magnificent old villas on every block. One of them is now the Shanghai Hall of Science, and it’s open to random wanderers (though I suspect they don’t get too many of those; when one of the workers saw me in the garden with my camera, he laughed and pointed at it and seemed pretty happy I was there). I later found this building in a book on the Quarter that says it used to be a French college. There’s even a Russian Orthodox church that became a restaurant, though now is closed altogether.

This is also the neighborhood where my family lived. It’s hard to say exactly where—all the street names have been changed (they used to be called things like Avenue Joffre and Rue Lafayette but are now names like Huahai Lu and Xinle Lu). Plus, without my aunts and uncle, there’d be no way for me or my cousin (who was showing me around) to definitively locate the old places. But at least I got a sense of the neighborhood relative to the rest of the city. I even saw the building my uncle used to own. My cousin said if he could get it back today, he’d be a very rich man. Luckily, that uncle is very happy with what he’s got. Though having recently bought a house myself, I can’t imagine how I would feel if some government took it away and never gave me anything back.

On that note, however, I must sleep. On the 75th floor of the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai’s tallest tower, and the fourth or fifth tallest building in the world. Luckily, I do not suffer from la vertige.


Ring... Ring... Ring... Ring...

Hey, all cell phone companies out there! It's time to extend the four-rings-then-voicemail standard. That standard is totally out of date. It's based on the days when you had one or two phones in your home. These phones didn't move much. When it started ringing, you knew where it was. You walked straight to it. You got there within four rings. If you didn't answer, it was because you didn't want to.

Now, everyone has both a cell phone and a cordless phone at home. These phones move around. Your cell phone, in particular, moves around a lot. Sometimes, it moves around of its own volition, sliding down to the bottom of your bag or into that weird nether region under the seat of your car. Sometimes, it gets moved by someone who doesn't own it. Most importantly, it's never in the place you expect it to be. When it rings the first time, you're lucky if you know which general direction to move in. The second time it rings, you confirm your course and start to find its general region. On the third ring, you're digging, but by then, hope starts to fade. You've got to work fast--you're on the fourth ring! You see the light--you grasp!

Missed call.

Four rings just doesn't cut it anymore.


Coincidence? I don't think so.

Tonight two momentous things happened. We got a new sofa and loveseat set, and I got my highest score ever in Geometry Wars.

The sofa is very comfortable. I may never leave.


Easy New Year's Resolutions Anyone Can Do!

I'm doing something different with my resolutions this year: focusing on quantity, not quality! New year's resolutions so often lead to a sense of disappointment...I don't do enough, often enough, for long enough, etc. It's much easier and probably more sensible to just forego the whole endeavor of turning over a new leaf based on some basically meaningless calendar equation. But I just love setting goals! And I love making lists! And blogs are great for lists! So, this year I'm making a list of "365 Easy New Year's Resolutions Anyone Can Do and Feel a Sense of Immediate Accomplishment." (Plus, since even making a list of 365 is sort of an accomplishment in itself, I've decided to do it in 3 easy installments! And YOU PAY NOTHING!)

365 Easy New Year's Resolutions Anyone Can Do and Feel a Sense of Immediate Accomplishment
1. Do yoga.
2. Bake a cake.
3. Cook a curry.
4. Do a crossword puzzle.
5. Make a charitable donation.
6. Read a poem.
7. Take a brisk walk.
8. Send someone a postcard.
9. Apply for a new job just for the heck of it.
10. Post on your blog.
11. Learn a new word.
12. Read a book.
13. Write a letter to the editor.
14. Sing a song.
15. Take a dip in a hot tub.
16. Have friends over for dinner.
17. Play Scrabble.
18. Make a goofy face in a photo.
19. Swim in the ocean.
20. Take a bike ride.
21. Call a radio station and say something nice to the DJ.
22. Go hear live music.
23. Eat a salad.
24. Write down one of your dreams.
25. Laugh really hard at something.
26. Save some money for a rainy day.
27. Eat something you've never tried before. baby pigeon... yuck!
28. Visit a new place. Shanghai!
29. Go to a local museum.
30. Have a picnic.
31. Play charades.
32. Play a card game.
33. Pick someone up from the airport just to be nice.
34. Watch a documentary.
35. Try a new restaurant.
36. Clean up your desk.
37. Play piano.
38. Buy an original work of art.
39. Volunteer at a senior center.
40. Do an art project.
41. Write to your oldest living relative.
42. Take a road trip.
43. Watch fireworks.
44. Get flowers for yourself.
45. Cook something with saffron.
46. Try out a random recipe.
47. Invite friends over for brunch.
48. Treat someone to coffee when they're not expecting it.
49. Discover new music.
50. Take a Polaroid camera to a party.
51. Give away five pieces of clothing.
52. Give away five old books.
53. Get rid of some old shoes.
54. Decorate your house with something pretty/new/unusual.
55. Go for an early morning walk.
56. Have coffee at a scenic cafe in North Beach.
57. Decorate your front door for a holiday.
58. Read the comics.
59. Wake up 30 minutes early and do some writing.
60. Go for a 30-minute walk in the middle of the workday.
61. Take a whole day off from computers.
62. Take a whole day off from TV and radio.
63. Get in touch with an old friend.
64. Go to an aquarium.
65. Give someone a ride home.
66. Get to know a famous piece of classical music.
67. Get to know a famous painting.
68. Learn 10 new facts about life in a foreign country.
69. Eat dinner by candlelight.
70. Spend a week as a vegetarian.
71. Do a home improvement project in your bathroom.
72. Do a home improvement project in your kitchen.
73. Do a home improvement project in your bedroom.
74. Do a home improvement project in your dining room. (Did I mention I have a formal dining room? ;)
75. Do a home improvement project in your living room.
76. Do a home improvement project in your garage.
77. Do a home improvement project in your office.
78. Do a home improvement project in your patio.
79. Do a home improvement project on your porch.
80. Write a news analysis/opinion piece on some current affair.
81. Call your local representative about an issue that's important to you.
82. Wear crazy jewelry.
83. Eat whatever you want one day.
84. Turn your cell phone off for a day.
85. Learn another new word.
86. Use both new words in a sentence.
87. Walk home from work.
88. Get a manicure.
89. Get a pedicure.
90. Get a massage.
91. Take a mini-vacation.
92. Take a real vacation!
93. Take a mental health day.
94. Do a jigsaw puzzle.
95. Tell your loved ones how loved they are.
96. Be nice to someone you hardly know.
97. Do something that terrifies you.
98. Try cooking something you think you can't make at home.
99. Ride a rollercoaster.
100. Make cookies.