Saturday, January 19, 2008

Planet Shanghai

Shanghai is a strange planet. At first it felt - no, looked - more Western than the West, as our taxi made its way past the countless neon-lit skyscrapers between Hongqiao airport and our hotel on Nanjing Dong Lu.

Now after a few days of getting ever so slightly under the skin of this city, I'm convinced that it's just as Chinese as any other city we've seen.

Beyond Nanjing Dong Lu, the streets disintegrate into the broken pavements we've become used to. The pedestrian zone, already under constant guerilla attack from mopeds and motorbikes, give way to aggressive Chinese driving (admittedly not to the same degree of lawlessness as Chengdu). Despite the glass and metal storefronts, the occasional shop still sports a tinny loud-hailer assaulting the public ear with what are presumeably sales pitches. The hawkers and vendors, beggers and grifters are still there, and still picking us out of the crowd.

Don't get me wrong - this is all good. I'm relieved we're still in China.

On our first full day we took the girls on their long-promised shopping trip for Nintendo games. We took the metro to Xujiahui station which had a direct entrance to the Digital Pacific Plaza: Six floors of technological bazaar. The process was complicated in that games were on offer on CDs rather than on cartridges, which meant that we also had to buy memory cards, and USB readers for the cards, in order to download onto the girls devices. We had to find what was on the CDs, make sure it was stuff that the girls wanted, was in English, and actually worked. In doing all this we discovered that in Shanghai it is no easier to get yourself understood in English than anywhere else in this country. So my poor battered brain, and poor tattered dictionary were given another workout. Almost 2 hours later we had 1000 games, and two 1G memory cards plus USB readers for 65 euros. I have no idea if that is a good deal for here, but based on Irish prices I can feel reasonably happy with it. I also put into practice the very important haggling technique of 'letting your arse do the talking' (anyone who knows me will no doubt reflect on how easily that will have come to me). What I mean is that we were seated behind the counter, with the salespeople, going though the disks. When they wouldn't come down far enough in price, it was enough to lift my arse off the chair, and begin to gather my belonging, for the price to come down. Energy well spent.

I took a good look at laptop prices as well. i'm starting to feel the limitations of the Nokia N800 a little. In fairness to the poor device, it's standing up well to the demands we're making on it. But the browser is having a hard time with some of the AJAX-based sites we use so much, and regularly falls over. And it just can't handle Google spreadsheets updating, so the budget is getting done by hand. There were some nice little machines like a Sony Viao or Fujitsu Lifebook for around 1100 to 1400 euro. But I think I'll keep my powder dry.

On day 2 in Shanghai we went shopping for 'antiques' (if that thing is old, then I'm flippin' ancient!) on Dongtai Lu. Nina is BIG into the whole browsing and haggling experience (I think she gets it from her Italian nonna's side of the family) which makes a welcome change from her previously held attitude of money burning holes in her pockets. I'm definitely getting the hang of this haggling, managing to get prices down to an eigth or even a tenth of the asking price. Must try that on the property market back home.

On Wednesday we visited Chinesepod on the Huangpi Nan Lu. CPod is a very successful company co-founded in Shanghai by an Irishman called Ken Carroll. They teach Mandarin Chinese online to thousands worldwide, and have become one of the world's most listened-to podcasts. I've used it regularly over the last 2 years to supplement my lessons from my very talented local teacher Liping, and it was great to see the premises, meet Jenny Zhu, Aggie and John Pasden (much to my disappointment, Ken wasn't in that day) and talk to some of the folks behind the scenes like John Biesnecker and Ross - another Irishman - who has just joined ChinesePod but has been living in Shanghai for the last three years.

(Jenny, Aggie, some mug wearing thermal underwear, and John)

Keep an eye on the company behind CPod - Praxis Language. They've been teaching Spanish on SpanishSense using the same business and pedagogical model as Chinese for quite some time now (we met the SpanishSense guys too - what a great bunch - I'm looking forward to tuning in to those lessons, along with Letizia, in preparation for South America). Early this year they'll be rolling out three more languages, including French (Nicolas - this might be your chance to finally be understood in Paris) and Italian. Russian and Arabic will eventually follow.

In the meantime, we've been looking at a few museums, checking out some of the other quarters of the city, and generally hanging out. Shanghai is something of a wind-down for us. It's a place to catch our breath, and catch up with our blogging. In truth, we can already feel the pull of Australia, and we've very excited about our next stop: Five whole weeks in Sydney!


Dave Mulligan said...

The Nintendo cards are a great invention, well Nintendo would probably disagree! But you didn't get as good a bargin as you may have first thought. The carts can be purchased over the web here in Ireland, they come with a 1gb memory card and cost 34 euro each with free delivery!
Ordering two would cost just 3 euro more than what you paid and that included delivery and no haggling!

Brendan Lawlor said...

Ah - but does that cover the 1000 games? (and the 2 hour Chinese lesson ;)