Shanghai, China: Where Old Meets New

A few months ago, I found myself traveling from an airport towards my temporary residence for the next 10 days, in a city far from home.  As I approached the hotel, it was hard not to notice the dichotomy of building structures and landmarks on opposite sides of the dividing river.  The hotel (more on the incredibly beautiful property in a separate post) stood in the middle of an area known as The Bund, a beautiful historic district of Shanghai.  Standing at the window in my hotel room, I could see across the river to the opposite embankment, Pudong, where newness spilled onto the shores. With its abbreviated history, when compared to other cities in China, Shanghai is a city steeped in culture.

Founded in the 10th century, Shanghai was a swampy area that was home to roughly 12,000 households. In 1127, a neighboring District, Kaifeng, was invaded and its inhabitants fled to Shanghai, growing its population to 250,000. As canals were built and the restrictions on foreign trade came to an end, Shanghai found itself at the center of economic and cultural growth, as it sat at the intersection of geographic accessibility and foreign economic interest.

Divided by the Huang Pu River, the river banks of Shanghai, which in Chinese translates to "on the sea," showcase what seems like different eras. On one side is The Bund, a quaint, colonial-style area with beautiful edifices, rich in history where one will find antique markets, high-end restaurants, and unique bed & breakfast lodging.  On the opposite bank, electronic billboards streaming down the side of high-rise buildings, a large, district TV tower and a general sense of "newness" fills the area, which was built in the 1990's.

During World War II, at a time when many cities where closing their boarders to the Jewish immigrants fleeing Germany, Shanghai kept theirs open, affording as many as 20,000 an open, safe place for protection. The city's Districts, resembling neighborhoods, have a very European feel, as the British and European forces occupied the area for years.  Areas called "The French Concession" and "The British Concession" hold the authentic feel as if their namesake still resided over the area. While the city doesn't have the elaborate history as a city such as Beijing, it has more of a cosmopolitan vibe and is rich in culture where you'll find a plethora of markets, people practicing ballroom dancing in the public parks and cab drivers who drive more erratically then you'll experience in New York City.  From a population of 12,000 to now hosting more than 17 million residents, Shanghai is the second largest city in China, behind Chongqing.

Suitcases on display at market

Personally, I find Asia tough to navigate.  Why? Because they use characters, rather than letters.  When traveling through Europe, one can match street names by lining up the same words.  In Asia, a small variance in a character changes the meaning completely.  On the other hand, it's a challenge that I welcomed.  My favorite part of Shanghai were the markets.  Walking through the antique market, lined with old and new, you found locks, vintage cameras and leather suitcases.  Some were truly historic, while others were replicas.  In another area of the city, one found the fabric markets, where you could have coats, shirts and dresses custom-made for a fraction of the cost you for which you would find them in America.  Cashmere, leather and cotton fabric in bolts, where the employees took your measurements and within 2-3 days, you could pick up your suit, skirt or blazer.

Having been to both Beijing, the financial capital of China, and Shanghai, the more cultural, sophisticated sister, I enjoyed the walkability and distinct neighborhoods that Shanghai had to offer.  While Beijing has the history, Shanghai brings the old world up to speed with luxuries of the new.

What's in a Chinese American Name?

While in Shanghai, I met many people who lived in the city and other parts of Asia and during the customary introduction process, a few would give their Chinese name, some their American name, and most individuals would provide both.

Obviously, their Chinese name was their name, given to them by their parents at birth, but I wondered if the same was true for their American name.

Some spoke very little English, but their efforts were to be applauded.  With their welcoming smile and warm nature, a man would extend his hand and say "Hello, my name is Nicolas" or a little girl would point to herself and simply say "Mary."

Talking to a Chinese man, whose English was very good, I asked him how their American names were assigned. The answer was simple.  In our generation, as he was about the same age as I, it was one chosen by the individual and was a name that could be changed as often as desired. For example, he told me he had once gone by Michael, but had recently changed it to Nicolas, to reflect his admiration for the American actor Nicolas Cage. The younger generation, like the little girl named Mary, often had their names given to them by their parents.

Chinese children are introduced to English at a very early age. While in our equivalent of elementary school, they begin taking English language classes, where their American names are used. Do you remember taking a language class in grade school? I took French for years, where my name was Bridgette, said with a French accent and different from the American version of Bridget.  It's the same principle, however the name is carried out into their lives and used when they are speaking the English language.

For days, I had wondered just what goes into a Chinese American name.  This was the perfect example of sometimes, it just helps to ask!

Zen Spa: Shanghai, China

Two years ago, I traveled to Beijing, China, where I was introduced to the blissful wonder of Asian Foot massage. One rainy afternoon, a group of us went to a Bode, a relaxing spa, and enjoyed a 90 minute foot massage for a total of $15 per person. In China, people don't tip, and those providing the service often decline the gesture, as we experienced that afternoon.  We offered them buttons and cash, both of which were declined. Recently, I returned home from spending 10 wonderful days in Shanghai, China.  One night, while enjoying a delicious Spanish meal, in the French Concession in Shanghai, China (sounds so global, right?) I noticed that adjacent to the restaurant was a spa showing a "happy foot" on the signage.  Click! I realized that this foot massage was not relegated to Beijing, but it could be found in many cities throughout China, most likely all of Asia!

What did I do the next day? You guessed it.

Planned a trip back to the French Concession and found that sign of the happy feet for a nice, relaxing foot massage.  As in the United States, there are different levels of spas. Happy Feet was ok; it was clean and the girl made my feet feel like $1000, for the price of 68RMB, or roughly $10.  Not bad for an hour, even if the place looked like Grandmother Gertrude's living room from the 1930's with its doolies over the back of the chair, and faux Louis Vuitton towels that were used to dry my feet. Quaint, but not the serene Asian zen atmosphere I was looking for and had hoped to find.

Returning to my hotel, I asked a woman if she had any spa recommendations.  She disappeared for a minute and returned with a card, bearing the name Zen Spa in both Chinese and English.  Having the name written in both languages is important, as many of the taxi drivers do not speak English.  By showing them the card, they have the name of the destination and the address all in one place.

With excitement and a smile, I headed off to Zen Spa for another foot massage.  When I arrived, the sign out front told me that all massages were 20% off, so I decided to get a one-hour foot massage and a one-hour oil massage, for a total of two hours of pure bliss costing me a total of 350RMB, or about $55.  If I lived in Asia, I would go every weekend.  No kidding.

The spa is lit solely with candles, giving it the serene glow I was in search of and had a water feature in the room, giving it that fung shui, zen feel. The ladies led me to a room, filled with four chairs and asked me to be seated. Jasmine tea was brought in and I was given a blanket incase I got cold. Here in the states, they might offer you a robe to change into, but in China, you leave your clothes on and just remove your shoes. The foot massage started out with me sitting in a large, plush chair while soaking my feet in warm water for a few minutes.  When my masseuse came in, she asked that I sit on the ottoman and face the chair, with my feet still soaking, as she massaged my shoulders and back.  As a woman, I carry most of my stress in my shoulders, so her kneading my knots was most welcomed! After about 15 minutes, I stood up (while my feet were still in the water) and turned around to sit back in the chair.  And the foot massage began...

An hour sounds like a long time for a foot massage, but it goes by so quickly, that two-hours does not seem entirely out of the question. Reflexology, lotion and warm towels are used and the stress melts.  After sightseeing and pounding the Shanghai pavement in sandals (little structure, little support, but, oh so cute!) my feet welcomed the pampering.

I have yet to see Asian Foot Spas offered on the menu at any of the spas I've visited in the Washington, DC area, but have heard and read online that they are available in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  If you are planning a trip to Asia, or live in a locale where they are available, I highly recommend taking an hour to treat yourself.  They are affordable, relaxing and an easy way to decompress as summer quickly comes to an end.

Apologies

I've clearly been neglecting my writing on this page, but for good reason, I promise! Having traveled through Shanghai, China for the last 10 days, I have come back with many different topics and pieces to share with you! Check back on Monday, when I will begin writing regularly again and stay tuned for some fun additions, updates to the page and exciting projects coming up in the next few months! For now, enjoy your weekend!