Tag Archives: Minneapolis

Living in Shanghai | Chinese Toilets, Tainted Water, and Other Colorful Details

6 Apr
hanging food in Hangzhou

Rooftop meat in Hangzhou, China

This morning I woke up, slipped my feet into a tacky pair of red and white, foam-filled slippers, and then promptly walked straight through our apartment and out the door. I crossed the dirty, dim hall space and ascended the narrow staircase beside a weird, pointless little sink mounted outside our door. I entered a tiny room at the top of the stairs that’s both essential to my daily life and baffling by American standards: a combination kitchen, laundry, shower, toilet room that’s altogether about the size of large closet. It’s a wonderful arrangement for anyone who’s into shaving their legs, frying an egg, washing the sheets, and going pee simultaneously.

The separation of the main apartment from the bath/kitchen room is a result of the original French-made design of the building, which is common to this area of Shanghai and features communal kitchens and bathrooms (ours is private, but some Shanghai residents still share). Adjusting to a permanent bathroom across the hall is just one of many shifts that I’ve made to my routine during the last half year.

In what way does your life change when you move across the globe? I suppose there are a lot of large differences, such as language, food, safety, familiarity, community. But there are also a lot of subtle shifts or exchanges that one takes in stride during days that seem otherwise familiar. Some habits look the same here as they did in Minneapolis, while others are strikingly different.

A different set of risks
In Minnesota, the risks I faced were chiefly political and economic. I struggled to find good employment, an apartment within my budget, pay for outrageously priced groceries and health insurance, and other challenges that result from living in a country that seems to be on the lookout for opportunities to attack the working class and women’s rights. In Shanghai, most of the immediate risks seem to be sanitation-related.

I take a shower with some of the most questionable tap water in the world, featuring toxic heavy metals, chlorine, bacteria, viruses and more. I greatly doubt the safety standards of most restaurants. I can’t trust news sources to reveal potentially harmful food and health risks in my own neighborhood, city, or country. I come into contact with millions of people directly and indirectly all day long, many of whom have very different hygiene practices and standards—people wash vegetables in the river (which recently featured about 16,000 dead mystery pigs), use toilet bowls to wet their mops, intermittently handle raw meat and vegetable with their bare hands all day long, and much more. Oh, and did I mention a new bird flu has arrived in Shanghai and the surrounding area? All of these things are just part of the daily smorgasbord that is living in China.

And then there are the things that seem the same, but slightly off. For instance, I’m currently using face wash made by a familiar brand (POND’S) that claims to “whiten” your skin. I bought it because it was pretty much the only cleanser available without a trip to some inconvenient ‘expat’ store, and I’m happy to report that it’s maintaining the status quo of my complexion effortlessly. I also shower every day under a set of four extremely powerful, built-in heat lamps, which provide a strange contrast to the general lack of insulation, central heating, and properly installed windows in China. In addition, I have to manually turn a water heater on and off to take a shower and remember to adhere to a strict no-flushing rule for toilet paper and everything else.

To squat or not to squat—that is the question
I must admit that the move from Hangzhou to Shanghai has made things easier—especially in respect to the dreaded Chinese-style toilet. Sometimes referred to as a squatting toilet, the Chinese-style toilet is ubiquitous in Hangzhou. To make a long story short, it always smells at least 50X worse than a western-style toilet and it took me about 4 months to realize that I was consistently facing the wrong way when I used it—or was I?

I assumed that Chinese people would welcome the western-style toilet, but a rather bizarre experience last winter revealed otherwise. I’ll never forget my shock at accidentally walking into an occupied bathroom stall in Hangzhou where I witnessed something wholly unbelievable. A woman had propped herself into perfect squatting-toilet position atop a Western toilet, her shoes pressing flatly into the top of the toilet seat with her whole body hovering 3 feet in the air. My thoughts were as follows: Oh, crap—excuse me! Sorry! Wait, what? Huh? That can’t be sanitary for the rest of us/isn’t that a little dangerous? and why, exactly? WHY?

From then on out I began to notice the sole prints on the seats and started hovering religiously. Apparently, standing atop toilets to squat into them is widely popular, even in Shanghai (notice below the sign posted in a Starbucks bathroom near our house). But I really don’t get it. New toilet, new technique, right? It’s not as if I EVER considered sitting my butt down on the designated foot spots of a squatting toilet!

Starbucks Bathroom Sign: Please No Squatting on the Toilet

Lucky for me and my bathroom challenges, toilets in Shanghai are generally much better than Hangzhou—i.e. they are almost always western-style and accompanied by: 1) an ample supply of toilet paper and 2) working sinks with SOAP (I can’t emphasize the importance of these two things enough, I really can’t. There is nothing like entering an extremely cramped, nose-curdling please god do not let me touch anything space without being able to properly wash your hands after).

Two positives in a whirlwind of change
Despite the terror, confusion, and smells, I’m confident that moving to China offers two major benefits: Firstly, with any luck (and assuming that I’m a halfway flexible, thoughtful person) it is helping to shape me into a more appreciative, tolerant person. Secondly, it exposes me to the finite nature of my own authority in life. A safe, controlled, risk-free world—whether in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Paris or Shanghai—is to a great extent an illusion. I am simply in the position of observing and deciphering the messages, choices, and unfamiliar toilets placed before me.

The Modern Friendemic – The Decline of Real Friendship in Minneapolis

11 Jun

You're gonna be big, kid--real big.

When you (and the majority of your friends) choose to go to college 45 minutes away from your hometown, you do a pretty good job of sidestepping the necessity of making new friends. I may have made friends during college and occasionally at past jobs, but where are those people now? I have a vague idea of their relative geographic location, but I couldn’t tell you much else.

It’s been a while since I fled the coop, and in the past 5 years or so I’ve spent a lot of time considering friendship, facebook, and the Twin Cities. What I’ve discovered is that it’s really hard to make new, close, “real” friends in Minneapolis. Everyone seems to be well contented with their own current social life, and in no rush to make additions.

During my search for new friends, I’ve experienced a distinct pattern:

Stage 1: Complacency/Comfort. I LOVE my old friends and we have so much fun.
Stage 2: Growing Pains. A bunch of my friends (or I) decide to relocate for a while – just where did my social life go?
Stage 3: The Pep Talk. I’m determined to make new friends. This involves a fervent attempt to talk to new people in Minneapolis and make plans with them.
Stage 4: The Let Down. If I manage to arrange a “first date” with someone (including the obligatory Facebooking “friending”), I either get blown off or make it to the “first friend date” where I experience a live and painful social nosedive due to lack of enthusiasm/mutual interest.
Stage 5: The Return. I continue to spend time with my lovely, understanding, old friends with whom I share a lot of history and opinions, but, I still occasionally hanker for new faces and perspectives.

Where is the friendship chemistry, Minneapolis?

I used to blame myself for not making enough new friends. Did I have some sort of inherent disability to meet new people? But the more I got to talking with others, the more I realized that my struggle to make new friends in Minnesota was not an exception—it was the rule. Especially when speaking to folks who’ve relocated from out of state, it’s apparent that “Minnesotans don’t make new friends.”

As a Minnesotan myself, it’s not hard to recognize the strange cliquiness that occurs here in the Cities. Identifying people from out of state is a snap because they’ll actually talk to you, despite the fact that you are a stranger. And as for all of these “great friends” we consider our besties—admit it, the majority of them are from grade school.

Now, before you find yourself in a huff over my outrageous claims, I’ll admit that there are some unique individuals who’ve managed to rise above the status quo and befriend some new people. But I bet you $5 that most of these new friends aren’t from Minneapolis—that’s for damn sure.

Is this friendemic specific to the Twin Cities, or is it part of the larger worldwide shift in friendship we’ve seen as of late?

According to Stephen Marche of the Atlantic, the average number of close confidants of a person has been in steady decline.

Marche states that in 1985, “only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only 1 confidant.” Scary stuff, right? One in four of us (or more) feels as though we have no one to talk to about life’s biggest challenges.

Why is it that we “Minnesota Nicers” don’t make room for new friends? Is it our cold, closed, Scandinavian attitude?  Or is this friend stagnation we’re experiencing actually reflective of larger shifts in social interaction suggeted in the Atlantic?

Is this what it's come to?

Marche explains that the internet and social media may be to blame for the degradation of modern friendships. Last month’s copy of the Atlantic overtly points an inquisitive finger in the direction of social networking sites, its cover asking in bold, blue text, “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”

Marche urges readers to differentiate between the social networks of the past and today. Modern communication and the internet may have grown our web of connections, but these connections are shallower. Suddenly, we exist in a world of distinctions between “real friends” and online friends, and these digital connections are “interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier…”

This screen-based way of life is more isolated, and therefore often lonelier:

A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to the major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.

It makes sense that we share less face time due to screens and social media. As Marche outlines, “We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds our less meaningful and less easy.”

In today’s market, you can even rent a friend or husband or mother by the hour to help you feel socially secure and deal with your problems. Wha?!

The size of our physical social networks is in decline, with the mean size of networks of personal confidants shrinking “from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004,” as Marche explains.

The allure and offerings of the social network phenomenon culminate into a contradiction between growing close and growing apart, a incongruity coined the “Internet paradox”.

The question at hand: Does modern communication technology bring us together or break us apart?

When it comes to understanding the reason why Twin Cities residents are irked by the idea of forming new friendships, I turn to Marche’s exploration of Facebook’s appeal:

“The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status update, pictures, your wall.”

Real friendships, whether old or new, are a lot of work and involve a certain amount of clumsiness and room for error, unlike your glossy, seemingly nonchalant wall post.


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