Posted in Travel

Stop Staring At Me

When I went to China, a Caucasian colleague who lived in Shanghai for several years warned me that I was going to be stared at. She went through it and I would go through it. What she didn’t tell me is that I would really be STARED at. I’ve been to New Zealand where I didn’t see another black person for a solid week. When my mom and I went, some kids looked at us. But, I always thought that had more to do with not being from some of the small towns we visited rather than being black. I’m used to being one of the few black people around. I’m totally not used to double takes.

More often than not I was just stared at. But, I had small children point at me and grab their friend / mother / grandmother. I had people taking cell phone camera pictures of me. At the Forbidden City in Beijing, I had people take pictures near me so they could get me in the background.

At the Bund in Shanghai

I watched my (incredibly sweet and delightful) college-age interpreter touching / rubbing the skin on my knee after I dozed off in the taxi. When she realized I was awake, she said ‘so different’. Totally innocent. But, still kind of annoying.

At Nanpatu Temple in Xiamen

But, mostly, I had people ask to take pictures with me. A lot. Like, at least twice a day but no more than five times a day every day for 10 days.

This woman brought her child up to me and kept rubbing her skin and touching her hair and pointing at me. That went on for a good five minutes before Elizabeth was like, ‘let’s go’.

In Xiamen

Some people were really sweet and would say, “So beautiful!” despite my being in a constant state of sweating for 10 days.  I started my trip with being amused by it and happily taking photos and waving back at people who were looking at me.  But, by day 10, it was just pretty freaking old. I was pointing and staring back. If they tried to take my photo without my permission I would turn my back or hide my face. And if they did the cell phone camera thing, I would take their picture right back or on my worst day give the finger.

Elizabeth is wearing my blouse. So freaking hot we were blowing through our own clothes at record pace.

Our interpreters told us that people were saying, ‘foreigners’ in Chinese as we walked by.  Which is an interesting concept to me. I say ‘tourists’ when I’m at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore or in DC. I think being a child of immigrants I’ve thought the word ‘foreigner’ as a mean comment. Elizabeth studied in France and we had a whole conversation about the translation and use of the word foreigner. My mom got mad at me when I referred to an occasional date a few years ago ah ‘the Italian’. Well, I really called him ‘the Anti-Semitic Italian’ but that’s another story.  Elizabeth also had people ask for her picture. But, we both felt I got the brunt of it. I started calling her ‘the one with Yellow Hair’ .

I understand that over 30,000 Africans were educated in China. With a population of a billion, that’s a drop in the bucket. I know it also speaks to where black people vacation (another cruise to the Caribbean?) but, by the end, I felt a lot like a sideshow. I know it’s not considered rude to stare in China. But, you can’t tell me it’s not considered rude to take someone’s photo without asking. Or pointing. Because every time a kid pointed, their friend / mother / grandmother admonished them.

It’s just a totally homogeneous society, I realize it didn’t come from a bad place but, I’m quite happy not to be stared at anymore.

Posted in sewing, Travel

How Not to Look Like a Hummingbird

At first, while fabrc shopping, I thought I would get my own fabric and make a ‘qipao’. But, I realized I didn’t want to be decked out in all embroidery. I thought I would look like a hummingbird. But, Helen and I saw these two beautiful, simple, classic designs that I started thinking maybe I would get them made.

When I was told each dress would be about $45 I realized it could be years before I got around to making one (and really. was I seriously going to make a traditional Chinese dress??) and I might as well give it a go. When they told me it would be ready the NEXT day, I was sold.

They took just a few simple measurements and asked how tight I wanted it. I told them loose figuring it was better to have have it taken in later (which I did in Xiamen) rather than struggle with a dress that was too tight.

Helen and her husband picked my dress up for me and delivered to my hotel since I had meetings that day and they thought the 50 RMB delivery fee was too high. For this dress, I had them move the side slits to a CB slit.

One of the things I found frustrating about China is the bargaining and ripping off of foreigners. In Xiamen the first tailor (admittedly at the hotel) wanted 400 RMB to take in my two dresses. The dresses cost 650 RMB. The next tailor I found in the garment area? 40 RMB. About $5. Isn’t that some BS?

I’m currently not a fan of sheath dresses on me. I’m too bottom heavy for it. But, I couldn’t resist this simple design in black. The red insert is a phoenix which is the symbol of the empress. I was born in the year of the dragon and figured that design was what I wanted.
But was told by everyone that dragons are for men.

Did I mention I only took one pair of shoes with me to China? Try not to shake your head at me. I did buy better shoes for the the second time I wore this dress.

The second dress was actually the first one that caught my eye. All the topstitching in hand done.

The cap sleeves are a bit limiting, but I love, love the color combination and fit.

Elizabeth had her dress made in Xiamen for about $30 for dress and jacket (not including fabric). Hers took four days to make.

It took a great deal of self control and FABRIC choice overload to prevent me from having another two made while we were there.

Here it is at my BEST dinner in Shanghai at Lost Heaven with our friend Fred. Have I already mentioned how great it is to have friends all over the world? Shanghai couldn’t have been easier to navigate thanks to Fred and Helen / Hai.

I think, if I lived in China, I would sew far, far less. The finishing techniques used I aspire to. The speed of garment production and the cost would really make sewing my hobby versus my primary way of clothing myself. If you can ever have something custom made (and not by you!) I highly recommend it! I love, love, love my dresses.

Posted in Travel

Shanghai by Bicycle

As in Montreal, I’m now totally into bicycle tours to see a city. First, it’s so fast for getting around. You see everything around you up close (including pink scooters). You’ll get off the main roads, travel the side alleys and still manage to work off all the extra calories you’ve taken in. And, with jut two full days in the city, and limited touring time, Elizabeth and I wanted to make the most of it.

Everyone bikes in Shanghai. It’s eyeopening.

I’ve never seen so many bicycles on the road nor amenities for cyclists. Real parking. Real biking lines. Roadside bicycle repairs. And no helmets to mess up your hair 🙂

Babies and children on the backs of bikes. Or, inbetween their parents legs on the scooter. People rode side saddle on the backs of bikes and scooters.

In Shanghai, we used China Cycle Tours for a 3:00 pm. to 10:00 pm night tour. This gave me enough time to go fabric shopping at the cloth market in the morning and let the humidity and heat cool off. Plus, Shanghai is beautiful at night.

We went through Wen Mia, the only Confucian temple in Shanghai; Xintandi which is a former Jewish settlement and now eight acre shopping center (think small streets of Prague); the Dong Tai Road antique market, and the Bund.

The Bund makes NYC’s skyline look like a nightlight.

It’s remarkable simply the way a city of 20 million moves people around the area. There are totally separate bike lines all over the city. There is bicycle parking everywhere. And, I mean everywhere you look. Scooters, cars, bikes and pedestrians truly share the road. Absolutely common form of transportation and moving cargo.

We wanted to do the same in Beijing, but our flight was delayed and the traffic was awful and through idiocy of mine, we were delivered to the wrong hotel. Well, not my total idiocy. We were  at Holiday Inn Express Temple of Heaven. But, I had the information for Holiday Inn Temple of Heaven. Apparently, two different places. So, no bike tour in Beijing.

The best part though? My new bicycle parka!

I became obsessed with getting one of these after seeing them in a photo there. It covers both you and the bike and has holes and cuffs to keep our hands dry over the handle bars. It has little clips to attach to the bike to prevent it from riding / blowing up in your face. I will obviously be making a pattern of this very very soon. I actually kind of want it to rain so I can wear it out :).

Posted in sewing, Travel

Fabric Shopping in Shanghai

Last month when I posted that I was coming to Shanghai, reader Helen emailed to let me know that she was moving back to China and would take me fabric shopping in Shanghai. I actually couldn’t believe my brilliant luck! I never cease to be amazed by the kindness and generosity I’ve experienced from women I’ve met because of the online sewing community. I mean, she doesn’t even *know* me and she was willing to babysit me for a day!

Helen and her patiently awesome husband Hai picked me up from my hotel at 8:30 am so we could beat the crowds at the South Bund Soft Spinning  cloth market. Helen wore houndstooth shorts. They were so well done with piping and pockets that I truly assumed they were ready to wear. It never even crossed my mind that they were home sewn! Her blouse is La Mia Boutique. She and her husband are honestly what made me love Shanghai.

I got goosebumps when I saw the sign for the cloth market. And the market? It’s a freaking cloth MALL. Not one mall. But, like three malls on one corner. After catching my breath we got to work. The market we went to had three floors crammed with stalls. There are other markets for wholesalers. This one is definitely for the retail customer.

While most merchants do speak a little English, having a native speaker by your side is infinitely helpful. Most of the stalls have garments already made up in the fabric available and will sell you that garment or tell you how much it costs to have the dress made for yourself. There is a bit of repeat around the material. And, all the retailers have a lighter for you to test the fabric.

I bought a very respectable five pieces of fabric. Enough to fit in on my carry on. I also bought some other items I’ll post later. Including what I like to think of as the ‘I’m not dating the Vegan’ silver fox fur earmuffs and coat collar.

I mostly bought silk. I have great access to shirtings at home but silks. Awwww. They make my heart beat! Here’s what I got:

Teal coral print on cream silk
A print so large I don't know what I was thinking! I loved the colors. Loved.
Stretch silk charmeuse panels. I bought three panels.
Silk cotton blend with solid cream lining (not shown)

Everything was about 35 RMB a yard which is $4 to $5. I learned an important lesson about about bargaining while at dinner the next night from a Singaporean woman. First she said, the prices at the market don’t fluctuate much. There are many many foreigners that come and the shopkeepers know what we can afford. She, a native Chinese speaker said that she can get the Chinese price (which I think would be half of what I paid) but, she has to bargain like a Chinese. Which means she yells, stamps her feet, insults the product and gets upset. Essentially, you have to wear them down. And she asked me if that’s what I really wanted to do over some fabric. And she’s right. It wasn’t worth it to *me*.

It’s definitely cheaper outside of Shanghai. But, in Xiamen where a friend had a dress made (more on that later) the fabric was less but the selection was extremely limited. Think mostly home dec. Oh, like shopping at JoAnn!

Posted in Travel

Gam Bei! Or, What I Ate in China

Sadly, despite my best laid plans, I lost no weight in China. Quite frankly, I probably put some on despite biking and lots of walking. I don’t eat pork and shellfish (only finfish for seafood actually) for religious reasons, so I figured between that and not being so adventurous I would eat less. Not so much because the food was amazing.

My favorite meal was a peanut soup in Xiamen from Huang Ze He Peanut Soup Shop. It was surprisingly good — warm, crunchy and delicious. I went here a few times for breakfast the five days I was in Xiamen.

They serve them with these pork buns (I pulled the pork out).

Dumplings are huge in China, especially in the Shanghai area. Most were pork, so I never got to taste them, but they looked amazing.

Did you know that 5 percent of Panama’s population is Chinese? About 150,000 people. I know this because I sat next to the head of their trade office at dinner one night in Xiamen.

What I couldn’t get enough of was the bowls of noodles. I could (and did) eat these every day. And even better? You can easily get seitan (wheat protein), And tofu is totally common there. Trena told me to adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. I’m not sure what the base was. But, I figured this was good enough. I did have some very very good meals at Buddhist vegetarian restaurants in Xiamen.


I had about five business banquets to attend. Those, were really bad for me. Despite the language barrier, most of my dinner companions picked up on what I was and wasn’t eating and would start to tell the waitresses to bring me something else. It was mostly the shellfish I shied away from. I ended up eating a lot of bamboo shoots. A. Lot.

My favorite was when I sat at dinner and saw that they had me listed as ‘Muslim’. Not vegetarian. But, Muslim. At first I thought it was because there was no Chinese translation for vegetarian. But, there is. Not a problem really. But, they also didn’t serve me any wine!! You HAVE to have wine to get through business banquets my friends! I ended up drinking watermelon juice. Not bad. But, not wine.

And, that was a HUGE lesson for me. You drink ALL the time at Chinese banquets. You have a toast at the beginning of the meal. And, then, during the meal, you go around and people come around to you to give smaller personal toasts. I was warned about they clear white shots. But, I didn’t listen. I won’t lie. I spent a lot of mornings in a haze. The regular toast is “Gan Bei” which literally means ‘dry glass’. Dry glass and a sweaty brow I say.

No trip out of the country is complete without one trip to the local McDonalds. It’s always fun to see what they make differently. I’d also like to point out that everyone inside was skinny. Unlike a US McDonalds. And, they clear your table for you.

I actually had breakfast here a lot. I could get an egg McMuffin with no sausage and a hot cup of coffee for less than $5.

It was totally fun for us to go to restaurants and look at the menus. Between the English translations and the photos, there was always a good giggle or gag available.

A few fine examples:

At the first restaurant we ate at after landing in Shanghai, the guys next to us had the special.

Fancy, overpriced Mochi became my favorite treat in Xiamen. I think they are going to be the next cupcake or macaroon. These were $1 US each.

At one place in Xiamen, you picked your noodle / soup topping for about 8 RMB ($1.10) a bowl. There are a lot of things looking at you!