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On the day after our arrival in Dengfeng, we visited the Shaolin Temple, courtesy of Mayor B with Dr. X as our guide. Despite the warnings I had, I still retained mental images of strolling through vast, dusty courtyards with the sound of monks training floating from the distance. What we found was thronging crowds of tourists from all over the world cluttering every nook and corner of the Shaolin Temple such that it was nearly impossible to take a single picture without catching some tourist in your picture. Of course, we took the obligatory tourist picture with Dr. X at the entrance.

As part of our project, we originally planned to study with the Shaolin monks to understand Shaolin medicine in addition to the more mainstream traditional Chinese medicine. We hoped Dr. X would be able to arrange for us to meet with some of the Shaolin medicine practitioners, as he was the Abbot’s personal physician. When we actually visited the Shaolin Temple, however, the extreme commercialism of the place and just how much we were like any other tourist provided the first hints that things may not go as we had envisioned.

As one of the first stops on our tour, we went to the Shaolin pharmacy, where Chinese herbs were stored in cabinets and weighed out by monks in training.

And they had this cool looking dude with meridians and acupoints marked on him, a standard of TCM dummy models.

We also saw a clinic where some monks were lying down for some acupuncture treatment. Unfortunately, Dr. X could not arrange for us to meet with the necessary people, and he did not really explain why. Nan and I were doubtless disappointed, but we slowly understood that there were many complicated reasons behind this, including the ambiguous relationship between the Dengfeng government and the Shaolin Temple. So… goal number one shot down, but our little brains were already churning out alternatives at this point.

Now, our guide Dr. X had a little bit of history with the Shaolin Temple. Like many young men raised in Dengfeng, he trained at the Shaolin Temple as a youth. Not only is he the personal doctor of the Shaolin Abbott, he has also worked in the Shaolin Pharmacy before. Dr. X explained a bit of the recent history of the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin medicine. In ancient times, the Shaolin monks trained in medicine because 1) they trained in combat wushu and needed to know how to treat wounds and 2) as Buddhists, they believed in the spirit of helping others and thus provided medical services to others. However, in the lost years of the Cultural Revolution, almost all of the monks were forced to return to their homes, and only a couple of monks remained at the temple. When Deng Xiaoping reopened the Shaolin Temple, not all the monks returned, and those who did tried to pass down their knowledge by mouth to the incoming generation. When Dr. X used to work at the Shaolin Temple, he worked with some of the old monks to compile and organize their medical knowledge. Right now, the Shaolin Temple is still in the process of organizing past knowledge. In terms of practitioners of Shaolin medicine, there are people in the Shaolin pharmacy that opened a few years ago, but they often only stay for a year or so, and their knowledge is not complete. So, even if we had gotten access to the Shaolin Temple, it is dubious what depth we would have been able to achieve.

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Since I have never been to China before, one of my first tasks when I arrived in Shanghai was, of course, to evaluate China and its people via Shanghai. First of all, always having felt bad about the hostile stereotypes of China and Chinese people that I’ve grown up hearing from older Taiwanese relatives, I was a little surprised when Nan agreed with many of them-louder, ruder, dirtier, unsafe, etc. Many of my first impressions confirmed the milder of the negative stereotypes I’ve heard. People generally sound louder and ruder, as if they’re arguing even though they’re just talking (I realize this is more true for the Shanghainese). There was a different set of social propriety and a lack of service attitude. People said please and thank you less, and service personnel (store attendants, waiters, etc) generally do not have a very professional appearance or attitude.

In many conversations about characteristics and stereotypes of the Chinese through the eyes of the Taiwanese, I found a really interesting asymmetry. While for the Taiwanese, the presence of China always looms strongly in our consciousness, the presence of Taiwan seems insignificant in the minds of most Chinese people. When I asked Nan what stereotypes of Taiwanese people her Chinese friends and family have, she answered, “Sorry, we just don’t talk much about you guys.”

My various first impressions of China (via Shanghai) can be summed up by this: the close juxtaposition of disparate qualities. Initially, around the suburb area where we stayed, I was often jolted by the inconsistency between a face etched with exhaustion and years of hardship while their clothes were young and modern. Other times, I was taken aback by the dinginess of the clothing that people wore into public. Oral health and skin care were dreadfully lacking, adding to the general lack of attractiveness. Many people’s teeth were crooked, stained, with gums that have receded to reveal part of the tooth root. Many people, especially the older generation, looked like peasants who had been sloppily transplanted into a metropolis. These negative impressions of how Chinese people look were quickly modified as I ventured into the tourist attractions and upscale shopping areas of Shanghai, such as Xintiandi, where Nan and I battled with giant chess pieces.

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In such places, people dressed better and looked better, and foreigners abounded. In comparison, my plain, solid-colored American clothes looked dingy and sloppy. At Nanjing Lu, one of the most visited tourist shopping streets, we were wowed by the delectable displays at a fancy Haagen Dazs store. We were also tickled to find that apparently you can sell ice cream with sex ;).

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While all big cities will inevitably have areas of affluence and poverty and everything in between, I perceived more immediate intersections between these different qualities in Shanghai than I had seen elsewhere (of course, this conclusion is based on my limited experiences). For example, even in the upscale, touristy places, you can still catches glimpses of backwardness. In a bookstore on Nanjing Lu, there was a lot of obviously pirated multimedia. Amusingly, I saw an elementary school workbook sporting a cover picture of Card Captor Sakura (Japanese comic character created by CLAMP), but a Chinese name was listed after “cover design.” This juxtaposition of disparities was echoed again when we rode the train out from Shanghai to our next stop, Zhengzhou. A mere five minutes out from the forests of glistening skyscrapers in Shanghai, the scenery out the window changed quickly to scenes of poverty. I saw many clumps of huts or small boats seemingly put together with wooden boards, tattered rags, and garbage bags.

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I can only guess that perhaps the drastic (and very impressive) changes that China has undergone in the past 30 or so years have left many people struggling the wake of rapid expansion and modernization. Some live in poverty in the outskirts of, and even inside, the modern city. Some learn to grow old in a city after life in the countryside, like the elderly passengers on the subway whose physical appearance look like farmers, yet they wear badly-fitted suits. Others take advantage of the gaps and loopholes left open by rapid modernization to make a living, such as by piracy. It’s easy to judge China based solely on its vices we hear in the news-rampant piracy, economic disparity, pollution-but one must evaluate the vices with acknowledgment of how far it has come. The question now is, would China be able to mend these gaps left open by its rapid growth? Would ALL of its people be able to adjust to and benefit from its rapid changes?

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If anyone asked me what Shanghai was like when I visited before, my 12-year old version would immediately make a face and say it was very dirty, smelly and was always cloudy. Shanghai is still very much like that, but the first impressions aren’t that simple anymore, especially when one has to try to live there for a bit of time.

The easy bits: Shanghai is always changing with more high rises, more KFCs, more Chinese-speaking foreigners, people are louder than before and the list goes on. The harder bits to see are the slow change of social institutions and environment — poorly-constructed healthcare system, few allowed-NGOs, the gaping disparity of wealth, the extremely competitive and sometimes madly-insane educational system, etc. Just a preview of the stuff that we’ll touch on in later posts.

On the day-to-day stuff, a lot of what I consider simple things in the US were a hassle in China. During our first week in Shanghai, we had to get a cell phone (so that our parents could bother us at their pleasure) and open a bank account (so that we can spend money like the girls we are). Luckily, my Shanghainese cousin accompanied us which meant that we got slightly better treatment than we would have had otherwise. Although we’ve met a lot of nice Shanghainese people, I felt that in terms of the service industry, it’s better to speak Shanghainese so that people know that you’re 1) native Shanghainese and 2) by extension, won’t tolerate any crap.

Anyways, in terms of China cell phone plans – most people pay as they go. However, we were going to be traveling all over China which meant we’d have to change our SIM card (and hence our telephone number) everywhere that we went. The service agent wasn’t helpful, and her attitude bordered on apathy. So it was a frustrating experience as we realized that we had to sign up for the China-world plan which meant paying much more than the first plan, but it allowed us flexibility in that we didn’t have to change cell phone numbers constantly (and this turned out to be a really good idea). The fun part was that we got to choose our cell phone numbers. If you want a cell phone number with the number eight, or six, it costs more. I think in the Szechuan region, the number of 8888-8888 sold to a business costed upwards of 200,000 kuai.

Opening a bank account was easier: fill out a form, deposit money, and remember to always bring your passport! However, one always must keep in mind that there are crazy lines everywhere, and that day was no exception. We waited thirty minutes, which wasn’t bad at all considering the long wait times that we had for other things in China.

So, in summary, first week in Shanghai went relatively well. It was a good adjustment week given that we were going to be staying here for a minimum of 4 months in China. Of course, our stomachs rebelled (especially mine), but in general, we got what needed to be done done and even got to tour some of Shanghai’s famous haunts plus treat our stomachs to some excellent and cheap food…

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