China – Impatience vs. Perseverance

Sometimes you hope for something…for something to happen or stop happening,  or in my case start working. After day one of being in Shanghai my blog stopped working, loading and functioning, and I had no idea what to do. I’m an impatient person so was immediately frustrated by this and thought that China had now stopped and restricted WordPress, but it worked in Beijing so surely it would work here, right? I had it in my head that for the next seven weeks here in Shanghai, you, the reader, wouldn’t have anything to read, look or smile at, and occasionally get bored by due to all the academic speak. After some perseverance and “belief” in technology (no matter how temperamental it is), it is back up and running…but for how long I ask?

First things first (which is a silly phrase, of course first comes first), greasy sticky hairspray hair has gone and my mid-length brunette locks are back to normal! Expensive Chinese Head and Shoulders saves the day!  I am so pleased about this as bad hair can really get you down. I do blame some sort of thick, glue like shampoo I used in Tianjin though. I wonder what was in it? So, what have RJW and I done over the last few days…as ever a great deal. I’m writing this in the ‘Academy of International Visual Arts (AIVA)’ office with a bowl of sticky, plain porridge with a few nuts on top (I found Quaker oats at a cheap price). I started my teaching preparation on Monday but let’s go back to last week first before I talk about all things AIVA and teaching preparation.

On Friday, it was time to get settled, get sorted and get moving. I woke up crazy early for some reason. My head full of the business of the next few weeks and the windows are not the best double glazing I’ve come across. It’s a little noisier here and at nighttime the neon flickering lights from across the street come though the thin cotton curtains, making you think you are sleeping on the main strip in Las Vegas. “Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire”…maybe not on fire, but RJW and I can definitely say that we like Shanghai, and like it a lot more than Beijing. Its’ a lot more natural for us to live here. That morning I got ready, looked at one of the 5 maps I have some how acquired, and walked for half an hour down Shaanxi Lu to AIVA to collect luggage that we left before we went to Beijing, and also to get RJW some fresh white sliced bread from the bakery on the next block. When I got to AIVA, most people were on lunch (and remember they have lunch at about 12-12.30pm here) apart from Lisa Juen, a German jewellery maker who has been in China and teaching at AIVA for 3 years. She makes some very beautiful pieces, and I’d definitely take a look at her website. Thought the images don’t do the works justice. We had quick chats before I battled like a warrior back to the apartment with two huge navy blue laundry bags full of I don’t know what.  They were so heavy one of my arms went red like the circulation had been cut off. I couldn’t remember what we had left behind. Then I realised….key winter clothes, meds and books…MORE books. Seriously, I have no idea how they are going to get home. RJW and I then had to go to the police station to register again as temporary residents. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing that afternoon as they wouldn’t give us the pieces of paper without seeing the old ones from Beijing which were back at the apartment. Thankfully I save these kind of things for memory box purposes so they were hidden away in a folder. During this afternoon faff, as the taxi negotiated the local streets, we saw furs, huge pieces of leopard, tiger, fox and other dark furs for sale. They looked as though they had only been taken off the animals backs recently, but also looked so soft, warm and inviting. That’s the strange dichotomy of real fur…you know its wrong, yet it would look and feel so good. I wondered how much they were?

In the evening, I had it in my head that we were going to my friend, Violeta Janiero Alfageme’s, exhibition opening called ‘China Photographs Madrid’ in the Madrid Case Pavillion at the Shanghai EXPO 2010. I interned and worked with Violeta for six months during my days at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  She is one inspirational, intelligent and special young woman who went through the whole experience of dealing with me in New York, whilst my Grandpa was dying back in the UK. I miss him every day. It was an emotional time. It is fantastic how worlds collide again. This makes me think things really do happen for a reason sometimes. RJW and I got dressed up and headed out super quick…jumped in a taxi which took forever but was also where I took a photo that will make me laugh until I cry forever, only for me to remember, just as we arrived at the entrance to the EXPO, that the opening was on Sunday night NOT Friday…well done Marsden. We thought about queuing, paying and having a look round…but then the mass crowds put me off and I wanted to leave as fast as I could. My forgetfulness and confusion really got to me that night. I’m a girl of super organisation led by her Filofax diary but for some reason I got it wrong. I never do that. I might be late as I have trouble ever being on time, but I never get dates wrong. Hmmmm, it still plagues me a little. Anyway, after this unnecessary excursion, RJW and I headed back to our apartment, getting out of the taxi a few blocks early to find food. Dressed for a night on the Chinese tiles, we had the option of nice food at an ok restaurant or a more rustic local cheap eatery…we went for the cheap BBQ place, and got a lot of looks. I opted for scallops in garlic, eggplant, leek, mushrooms and deep-fried tofu skewers…RJW had meats…not just your average meats though…he had chicken, sparrow and ummm lambs penis. The latter two looked HORRIBLE, literally a bird on a stick. Check out my tailored white shirt dress by the way…

I had to turn my head as he ate. He couldn’t even finish the lambs bits, but I suppose he tried it. I’ve eaten rather random things too like cow’s stomach…but sparrow? There’s hardly any meat on that thing to start with! RJW didn’t think I’d blog about this but it’s all part of our adventure. We went for a post-food wander up our street to find more eateries we can go to another time, DVD shops, corner shops…but no ice cream, when we wanted ice cream. We thought the mall on the next block to our apartment would have it, and they had better – frozen yoghurt. Welcome to my New York ‘Pinkberry’ days! I love this stuff…it was from a place called ‘Razzle Berry’, grossly overpriced but damn good stuff. I had a medium-sized cup with double raisins on top.

Perfect. The frozen yoghurt shop even had a karaoke machine set up in there…RJW stopped and paused for a second by it but moved on…the place was empty bar the rather over enthusiastic staff. I think they would have loved it if RJ had got up and sung a few classics. I think due to cost it’s probably not that popular a place, whereas the 1RMB purple potato dumpling spot round the corner definitely is a hot spot for people. There’s ALWAYS a queue in the morning.

Onto the weekend and how it flew by…really this trip is skipping and jumping away. Saturday was a “Rach admin” filled morning of emails, phone calls and planning, and the afternoon…an official bike hunt. We already missed them so much. So time to buy another bike to cycle round another city. I like the idea of leaving a bike in every city we go  and visit too…like a trail. Anyway, Lisa at AIVA told me that you could get bikes from behind the main train station that most likely fell off the back of a lorry (stolen right?) and after a little google-ing I thought I’d found out where it was. RJW and I set out on our mission and what was quite a hot, sunny day. We walked for about half an hour up to the station and starting asking the locals only to get the face and response of “we know where it is and were not going to tell you”…so RJ went and asked the people at one of the Shanghai EXPO information points that seem to be everywhere over the city. Most of them on the stand were teenagers and could speak enough English to understand what we were after and helped to translate our request with the older lady that was there. She wrote down and marked on our map a bike shop just north of the station which was apparently a short bus ride away on the 918…which in Chinese terms is also a short walk…so we walked and found this huge, brand new, all things scooters, electric and push bikes warehouse.

They had bikes by Giant, Battle, Flying Pigeon to name but a few brands and still none quite big enough for the 6 foot 3 inches of mr RJW, so he had to get one a little small like before.  A silver delight by Battle. I fell in love with a maroon, slightly traditional and old skool looking ride by Flying Pigeon. As the bike seller gentleman went on to get it prepped and ready, he realised the rear brake wouldn’t work and he couldn’t get it ready until Monday…when I really needed it now. So I had to let it go (which was tough, a lot of childish whingeing happened) and hunt and search, and spend a little more cash to get this matt black beauty with amazing handlebars…

…it is far more robust that the Anchor Tesco bikes we got. The seller even threw in a free basket and lock which was kind of him. RJW and I bought an extra lock each as bikes are stolen more here that in Beijing – mine red, his blue. We cycled back to the EXPO stand to show the lady who had helped us, and it made her day! I had visions of her that evening telling her family in Chinese about our request and conversation. So RJW and I are back on bikes, back on the streets, back negotiating the craziness that is the Chinese traffic…the cyclists here are a lot faster and more cutthroat than Beijing…I fear it won’t be long before an incident as I’ve already had a near scrape yesterday morning. I partly blame tiredness though for not being alert. My prize after getting the bikes was dumplings…one of my favourite treats here. On the walk to the shop we came across a couple of small eateries that sold them, so on the way home we stopped and got 2 steamers of these little meat parcels…perfect with a light soy chilli sauce.

We also had a couple of these sesame seed pumpkin and red soya bean pastries for pudding. Refueled, we set off on the ride home, stopping at our new local Chinese supermarket (which is where I got the porridge oats from). We were now fully settled, stocked up and prepared for what Shanghai has to bring over the coming weeks.

What was Sunday? How can I forget…it was Shanghai EXPO endurance day and the exhibition opening. This time it was really happening. Most of the day had been spent lazing around…finishing off bits and pieces of work and helping RJW with his “one person menu”, which hopefully is done and dusted (let’s see what Cory comes back with). We left on our bike for the EXPO just after 4.30pm and cycled south through the city for about 40 minutes, which in Shanghai land is long, in Beijing its average. There is no way you can get close to any of the gates or entrances at the EXPO so we parked and locked up our new machines by parking area 2 thinking it was close to entrance Gate 3…but I was very, very wrong. With three-inch heels on, dressed for a private view, RJW in his newly tailored purple and white checked shirt and I walked for  over half an hour and EVENTUALLY found it. By this time, my friend Violeta (who we were supposed to meet at 5.30pm) had to leave to attend her opening of ‘China Photographs Madrid’...so her colleague Miguel was there in her place, armed with two free evening EXPO passes. The EXPO site is phenomenal…overwhelming in scale and size. The entrance looks more like a cattle yard, where animals would go to be sold…which I suppose is apt.

As on a daily basis they get thousands of people coming through. Luckily, at just after 6pm it was empty with no queues. We headed straight to the Madrid Case Pavilion and to see Violeta. We still couldn’t get over how we were both in the same city at the same time. She has been in Shanghai for a year, staying for one more. She had been commissioned to produce the exhibiting ‘China Photographs Madrid’ which displays, in a digital projector format in an exterior rotunda and interior screen, the work of three Chinese photographers Li Wei, Han Lei and Maleoonn.

The show discusses how we define our own identity when in confrontation with the foreign (another link to my PhD research), where its aim is to not only show the Spanish identity through the eyes of three Chinese photographers, but also to try to understand a foreign mentality that is ruled by very different codes to our own, which is why China photographs Madrid. Each artist has made their own comment on Madrid and the Spanish culture using different themes and styles, touching on historical and cultural clichés, surrealist tendencies and choreographed scenes of engagement. By decoding the image, it brings us closer to defining and understanding a world populated by universal and internal entities. It is…

“…an exhibition where opposites are balanced and where anthropology, psychology and visual languages are combined.”

RJW and I actually saw Li Wei present his works at the ‘Pecha Kucha’ event in Beijing earlier in the month, so it was interesting to see his work in a different setting. We were lucky enough attend the VIP reception afterwards on the roof terrace of the Madrid Case Pavilion. There was a huge array of Spanish food and drink…a real feast for the eyes and body.

At around 8pm, RJW and I decided to move on and investigate the UK Pavilion and any others we could squeeze into the evening. At this point we were on the wrong side of the river so had to get the shuttle bus through the tunnel to the other side. I thought it was strangely quiet on the north site of the EXPO, immediately realising that everyone was on the south side, queuing and waiting for whatever pavilion they could see. We had an insider tip to take our passports with us so we didn’t have to queue. The UK Pavilion was called the ‘Seed Cathedral’ and it certainly had an overwhelming impression similar to any large-scale architectural and biblical structure. Discreet and gentle on the outside, it was loud and starry-eyed on the inside. I think the photos tell you more than I can describe.

It was developed by Thomas Heatherwick, and is a six storey high object formed from 60,000 transparent rods, which extend from the structure and quiver in the breeze like leaves. The rods contain seeds  of different plants that were from a bio-diversity project. The UK Pavilion hopes to raise awareness for the Millennium Seed Bank Project, an international conservation project launched by the Royal Botanic Gardens in 2000. During the day, each of the 7.5m long rods act like fibre-optic filaments, drawing on daylight to illuminate the interior. At night, light sources at the interior end of each rod allow the whole structure to glow. It is a visual illusion on entry. You are not sure what surrounds you and you want to interact with it to find out more. RJW and I were really proud to be British at this point as it really is an impressive project. After bathing in British beauty, we wandered by the African, Polish, German, Serbian, Spanish and Swiss Pavilions and a whole lot more. Props to RJW by the way for taking amazing photographs that night…

It was exhausting after a while, and only a handful of others seemed to have the impact and intricacy in terms of design like the UK one. I think we started to return home at about 10.30pm…walking…subway…

…wrong stop…walking…more walking…cycling…and home by midnight. It shouldn’t have taken that long but an EXPO volunteer gave us the wrong directions. RJW and I realised that Shanghai does actually sleep, the roads get pretty quiet late at night…which is very unlike non-stop Beijing. This made us like this city a little bit more.

From Monday to today I have been prepping and working at AIVA…getting my lectures and presentations written and ready, as well as my two-week project plan outlined. I am already enjoying working here as it is a very relaxed sociable place where you are welcome to use and implement your creativity. Everyone seems to really help and support each other too. Teaching actually begins next Monday and I am a little nervous, more so about the possibility of “lost in translation”. The presentations (so far) will be about ‘Contemporary Appropriation: Artists on Artists’, ‘New Media Art: Beyond the Digital’, Text as Image: Rethinking the Word’, Experiential Art: Rethinking the Gallery Space’ and ‘Paper Tangible: Artists’ Books and Book Arts’. I am also doing a short intro to photography and printmaking, and have the opportunity to do a book-binding workshop which puts a huge smile on my face. I get to go shopping with Lisa for materials next week. The past couple of days have also allowed RJW and I to find our feet and locate what is going on around us…from  pumpkin, sesame seed pastries…

…and purple potato (red soya bean) dumplings being made and sold out of windows and doors…to fruit sellers and sweet shops…to a very expensive European supermarket called ‘City Shop’ that made me pick up, stroke and then return to its shelf British food (at least I know now that if I desperately want a box of Dorset muesli cereal or Weetabix, I can get it for £10! as well as digestive biscuits, milkybars and so many other treats)…to vegetarian set lunches for 20RMB just round the corner from the office…to a tub of mineral face mask for next to nothing to pamper myself. Everyday it feels a little easier but at the same time  we know it’s a battle. I’m currently in the office from 9am to 6pm and the language thing is very trying…swings and roundabouts right? Patience and perseverance gets you a long way in life, and I’m so glad I have people around me that have some for me. I need both to get through the next month of teaching, and I know in the end it will definitely have been worth it. As Lou Reed said (thanks Mike!)…

“You need a busload of faith to get by, woh…Busload of faith to get by.”

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