Things I Learned as a Displaced Southern Mom in Shanghai

Things I Learned as a Displaced Southern Mom in Shanghai.

Things I Learned as a Displaced Southern Mom in Shanghai


I know it’s been a while since we met–almost a year to the date. I just wanted to let you know I haven’t forgotten the day I boarded that plane in L.A. and flew in the broken seat that refused to recline for 14 hours. Good times! On the positive side, the flight attendants were very accommodating and gave me first class treatment the whole way. Hello little Bailey’s Irish Cream minis!

The most thing I remember was the sheer terror of sitting in the LAX before leaving my family for 3 weeks while I explored another continent. I’m 41 years old and have never left the country before except for a brief Cancun excursion. This felt different, somehow. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that 7,000 miles away from my family and country is pretty far away.Because social media is considered a detrimental influence, all sites are blocked and the internet itself has to be accessed by ethernet and is iffy at best. I felt so cut off from my family and friends those 21 days.


I learned a lot about you, Shanghai. How many of your people cling to the culture of the old ways, and your young people yearn for all things western. I learned that democracy, whether welcome or unwelcome, is being discussed in your college classrooms as Western literature and thought creeps in along with our music and culture. Since the fresh college graduates represent the face of modern China, I’m interested to see how much their taste of Western influence will take them.



I learned that there’s something about sleeping 7,000 miles away from your husband that forces an untapped independence in you. I learned that being lost in a country with people who don’t speak your language causes you to slow down and use your primal logic. I learned that bonds that would normally take months to form grow at a more rapid pace when you’re in China for 3 weeks. In particular, one friend I met while drinking a cup of coffee at the L.A.X. before boarding the first plane to Shanghai extended unexpected kindness and comforting friendship over the days to come when difficulties arose. A bond so forged is too strong to fade over the course of a year. Rather, it becomes strengthened.

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I learned that when East meets West, there’s no right or wrong answer. There’s no right or wrong way to do things. Only differences that, when appreciated, increase my understanding of the world and how it’s run, and the people who comprise it.


It was so nice to meet you Shanghai, and happy anniversary to you.

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In Search of the Perfect Shanghai Coffee

coffee in austin


You know who I am…or so you think you do. I’m the gal who always carries a cup of coffee wherever I go. In fact, my addiction is akin to that of a streetwise heroin junkie…only chubbier. That first jolt of java doesn’t wake me up, it just gets me primed for my real goal: the second cup.
I was once involved in this crazy exercise craze where I tried to put my health first for once. I did everything my lean and gorgeous coach recommended.

Situps and pushups at the butt crack of dawn? Check.
Jogging at 5:00 a.m.? No problem.Cutting back on sugar and sweets? A less enthusiastic, but still present commitment.

Then came the final straw: give up coffee.

Me: “Excuse me? Did you say give up toffee? No worries…haven’t touched the stuff since last Christmas. You can count on me, Coach.”
Coach: “You heard me. I said no more coffee.”
Me: “I’m sorry, must be the earwax. Did you say give up being bossy? Well, anything’s possible, I guess. But understand, I’ve been bossy for a really long time, possibly since my exit from the birth canal when I tried to tell the nurse how to do her job,” I rambled nervously.
Coach: “COF-FEE. You have to give up coffee! For Pete’s sake…”

And the gauntlet was thrown.

Me: Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. I’d sooner give up my car and my bachelor’s degree and my prescription medication. And, trust me, ain’t nobody gonna want THAT to happen.

But sadly, there wasn’t a discount club to turn to last May when I spent 3 weeks in Shanghai. I was told there would be coffee. No, that’s not the first question I asked when the idea surfaced. I think the very first question was “Do I have to get a bunch of shots?” We were even promised that coffee was brewed in the dorm we were staying in. I don’t really count the coffee machine, circa 1978, as fresh-brewed, but you know what? I drank it and I’d do it again. I’m not proud of it, but you have to ask yourself what you would do in this situation.

Yes, they have a Starbucks in Shanghai. But you have to take a bus filled to the gills with sweaty students to get there, and they sadly close at 9:00 p.m.

Finally, about a week in, I found a little restaurant that, bless its little heart, was really attempting to serve “American” food. I’m not sure what the Shanghaiese (not sure that’s a word but go with it man) think of when they conjure up images of American food, but let me tell you, this was NOT it. I’m not even sure if the pasta was made of flour. It tasted something LIKE flour, only less floury. It’s difficult to explain if you haven’t lived in the Far East. Anyway, I saw on the menu, “coffee” and decided to try it…I DID NOT GET MY HOPES UP.

You know what? It wasn’t bad. It was pretty good, especially next to my vending machine standards.


It was this day that changed my luck, because before the trip was over, I was sitting at High Tea on the 28th floor with two lovely ladies, Anita and Lynn, at the Renaissance Hotel drinking THIS:

coffee in arkansas


I knew the coffee gods smiled upon me that day.

Where do you think the best cup of coffee is served? Vote here in the comments block.

A Southern Chick’s Analysis of Restaurant Service in Shanghai and the Concept of “Kuan-Hsi”

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a three-week trip to Shanghai, China. As part of the class, I was asked to make a presentation of some sort reflecting my experience there. I decided to discuss food service in Shanghai. Culturally, it’s expected that differences will emerge with Americans used to western service, and Chinese servers used to delivering Eastern style services.

Chinese service, like most of Chinese culture, is based upon the Confucian idea of Kuan-hsi. This concept is defined as the family as “microcosm” of society in the collective (Chang and Holt 251).  If a Western tourist can learn a bit about Kuan-hsi, an understanding about Chinese culture can be reached, which makes it easier for everyone to have a good time. Those who embrace Kuan-hsi understand that there is an ideal agreeable relationship tier that bleeds into the interpersonal relationships, even a relationship as shallow as server and customer (251).  At once seen as both humanistic and pragmatic, Kuan-hsi focuses on society as a whole whereas Western society focuses on individual value as perceived by the server.

Kuan-hsi’s goal is “social harmony” over individual pleasure (251).This idea suggests a different notion of individual value as opposed to collective value, which can be seen in practice in Chinese restaurant service. For the Westerner to understand how Chinese operate on a daily basis, we must have at least a basic understanding of Kuan-hsi (251).  In Chang and Holt’s article “More Than Relationship: Chinese Interaction and the Principle of Kuan-Hsi” the author explains, “Chinese interpersonal relationships are not conducted simply according to a set of well-prescribed rules. Instead, the Chinese world of interpersonal relations is complicated by clear distinctions based on the closeness of a given relationship, and consequently, all requests for preferential treatment that arise out of one’s special connections” (258). Because a Westerner cannot expect to be embraced as family by the Chinese server, the service given is sometimes misunderstood as rudeness. However, the Chinese server operates from a vantage point of mutal reciprocity (252). The American tourist might believe that by paying for a service, she has done her part of the relationship that is expected. However, the Chinese server operates from the expectation that money paid is not enough to foster relationship, so they don’t always go the extra mile to ensure the customer feels appreciated. To them, they feel that service equals pay and that’s all. As a result, the American customer might misconstrue the Chinese server as rude when that is not their intention. One thing I noticed was that after the menus were dropped off, the server would not come back to the table unless they were closed. This is different from the American notion of prompt attention. One of the reasons I feel that the servers take their time is that there is they don’t get tipped.  Here are a few differences I noticed right away.


This is not to imply that Chinese service is somehow worse than American service; it’s just different.  I developed an S.O.S. system that rates the stress of the server, because I believe that the higher the S.O.S. level indicates the less satisfactory the dining experience. After visiting several restaurants and shops in China, I gave them ratings based on this system.

happy waitress

Kuan-hsi explanation: “This norm serves to substantiate the behaviors deemed appropriate to each individual who occupies a specific role” (254). The server/customer does what is expected by the other and everything is ok. Here is an example of a “One Star” waitress-smiling and happy to have your business.

Two Stars: Moderately Pleasant Dining Experience


Kuan-hsi explanation: There a minimum of discomfort/misunderstanding of either the server’s duty or the customer’s reaction that is most likely a cultural misunderstanding. Each has a different idea of “the rules” and implied infractions but are able to mostly overlook the issue.

Three Stars: Moderately Unpleasant Experience

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Kuan-hsi explanation: There is a definite mutual feeling of cultural disconnect, and the server might not understand what the American is asking for (language/cultural barrier) or the reasons behind them, which causes the server and/or the customer to experience a mutal dissatisfaction.  I can testify that one thing almost always causes a moderately stressed/extremely stressed server: asking for separate checks. The Chinese do not do this; in fact, they often have playful fights over who gets to pay for the party’s checks. Amercians—not so much. The Chinese server is not expecting such a request and might think it is just another incident of Americans being difficult.

Four Stars: Unpleasant Dining Experience

sookie 4 

Kuan-hsi explanation: There are probably 2 or more cultural disconnects happening to cause this kind of stress. For example, the American crowd is asking for separate checks (with a non-English speaking server) AND is demanding refills (which is not a usual expectation). The stress is mutual as is the dissatisfaction. This is an obvious disruption of social harmony, and as Confucius says, sacrifices spiritual contentment.

Five Stars: Hellish Dining Experience


Kuan-hsi explanation: complete and utter lack of Kuan-hsi. One or more causes might be the root of the problem, and almost always in this scenario there is no common language in which to start the relationship.  Lack of social connection (or even desire of social connection) also limits the “rights” that a customer might expect. The American customers are considered the “outgroup” which cannot assimilate because of “manners of different orders” (254). 

One restaurant we visited while in Shanghai was Pizza Hut. Shanghai does Pizza Hut fancy. In fact, we were told it was a great place to take your date.


Kuan-hsi explanation: Most servers spoke English, or had access to English speakers the second time around. They saw us coming and remembered us from the first undesirable encounter and called the manager who spoke English. I think there was a tiny bit of Kuan-Hsi connection here because we were treated well the second time once they understood our needs (and because it was a more American restaurant). 

Another place we visited was a Korean restaurant on campus. It was cafeteria style, so we weren’t expecting high-end service, but we were also not expecting to be ignored, to be brought the wrong drinks and wrong food, and to be yelled at in Chinese by the server. When I told her this was the wrong dish (I had ordered hot spicy noodles and was served cold spaghetti noodles tossed in sesame oil and covered in raw cabbage–all I could think of was “Worms. I’m eating worms.” My stomach lurched but I surprisingly did NOT barf). I signaled for the waitress–impertinent little thing–and told her I had the wrong order (by pointing to the dish I actually ordered on the menu). She, as previously mentioned, yelled at us in Chinese. I kept saying, “I don’t speak Chinese.” She yells some more. “Nope, I STILL don’t speak it. Even now.” When she couldn’t get the response she needed, she recruited a bunch of friends who also came over and yelled at us in Chinese. I thought there was about to be a West Side Story Rumble.


Kuan-hsi explanation: I don’t think there is any explanation. These people were just rude/crazy.Those kind of people are all over the world, man.

Now THIS was by far my favorite Shanghai food experience. In part, I’m sure, to its Western-style setting and service. Yes, we of course had Chinese servers, but most of them spoke English well enough to never mess our order up and to keep the good food/drinks coming. We were never treated rudely here.

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Kuan-hsi explanation:We were definitely the “in group” at this restaurant. We had returned many times and spent lots of money so I think that elevated our “Kuan-hsi” at the Blue Frog. The idea of “in-group” is linked to relatives, which of course we aren’t, but this is how they treated us. Since we dropped a lot of cash there every time we came, this makes sense.

So, I learned that in China, to have the best experience, you need to form relationships with proprietors. How do you go about this if you don’t live there? Chang and Holt explain it’s about moving from the “outgroup” (American foreigners) to the “ingroup” Chinese family. In order to achieve this “manner of different orders” it’s important to utilize whatever pull you have. In our case, we were treated a lot better when Dr. Wu was with us. I think that’s because the Chinese viewed her as connected in some way, perhaps as a sister-mother connection. When she accompanied us, we were able to experience a secondary sort of relationship (we were kind of like annoying in-laws who followed her around, not blood family, but family nonetheless). Chang and Holt explain “everyone has different standards. Some may claim that “one’s own people” are their relatives, first level relatives, second-level, and third-level relatives. Some people may include close friends as part of one’s own people. Some may claim that good friends are the priority. My definition of “one’s own people” includes direct relatives, sibling,s my good friends, and even those whom I respect because of their morality, trustworthiness” (257). In other words, fake it till you make it. It is also recommended that you can show association by work or school, or a friend-of-a-friend. It’s not preferred, but it works.

So if you ever get to Shanghai, I really recommend the Blue Frog. They don’t make you work for your kuan-hsi, and they make an awesome Aussie Burger!


picmonkey_image-2 (1)It’s been a while since my last post. January to be exact. I realize I’m supposed to be more on top of it than that, but I do have a few good excuses, the first of which is I SOLD MY BOOK!!!! I have included a prototype of the book cover (it’s still being designed, but this is my vision).

War Eagle Women is (in the process of) being published by SoulMate publishing. I don’t have an exact date yet, but when I do I will post it here. Everything has been totally nuts since I signed the contract and I have been super busy with other writing projects (hello graduate school) and have let my blog sort of simmer on the back burner.

On another note–I’m going to  Shanghai in just a few weeks!!!!

I know. That is a bit random. But since I decided to title this blog “Transitions”…I’m going to cheat a bit and not use any.

Dr. Ann Beebe, who taught me (almost) everything I know about academic writing, might be annoyed by my approach to this sentence because I didn’t use a transition. I still remember getting a paper back from her that said in the margins, “Tina–how can I get you to use transitions?” So whenever I don’t use one…I hear the Voice of Professors Past. Or at least Dr. Beebe’s voice (this is my way of saying “thanks”, just in case I’m not being clear). But right now I am just too excited to use transitions.

When we talk about transitions, it’s interesting because the word has so many different connotations. In writing, transitions help move the topic from point to point without jarring the reader. In life, transitions are sometimes classified under what we call “The Hard Stuff.” For example, divorce, death, dismemberment…these all can be classified as “life transitions.”

Although I am not MOVING to Shanghai, I do have to make certain “transitions” about how I think as a Southern woman…at least for the time period that I will be Southern Woman Tourist in Shanghai.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

About Shanghai…I’m going to be an exchange student of sorts for 3 weeks! I get to go to a university in Shanghai during the week and do touristy things during the weekend. I am beyond excited, and a little afraid. The Mandatory Trip meeting we had which was meant to reassure us really only reassured me that I was more nervous.

Have I mentioned that I have never traveled outside of the country? Well, except for that one trip to Cancun years ago, which I kind of don’t count (since Mexico is connected and lots of margaritas were involved). This Shanghai trip is sort of this dream that’s becoming a reality and I have not really allowed myself to think about it, except for busywork such as getting my passport and applying for a Visa and all that good stuff. Overall, I’ve been feeling pretty good about the whole thing.

Then…the meeting happened. OY the meeting.

Our instructor who is organizing the whole thing gave us lots of advice meant to make our trip smoother. Everything she said was useful and necessary. However, there was a bit of Southern (or as Dr. Wu would say East/West) cultural shock happening during the meeting. There was a bit of…disconnect…between what she was saying and what I actually heard.

1. She said, “Every day, when you get up, just boil some water…make it a habit. Don’t even think about it: get up, shower, boil water.”(Tina’s translation: the water is nasty and probably contains ebola.)

2. “When you take a taxi, or bus, or train, bring this list of phrases with you so you can communicate in case you get lost.” (My translation: WHEN, not IF I get lost…I’m not feeling too confident seeing as I couldn’t find my car in the parking lot earlier. Note to self: Don’t take a taxi/bus/train. Just stay in the dorm room with the ebola water. Much safer).

3. “You probably won’t be able to use your cell phone…or Facebook…or Twitter…or the internet” (My translation: HOLY CRAP.)

4. “There’s no crime in Shanghai, per se…but keep your purse in front of you because there are some issues with pickpockets, so find a way to keep your passport/money on your person.” (My translation: WHEN I GET ROBBED my plan is ROLL OVER INTO A FETAL POSITION. Or, get a bigger bra (one with a special Passport Pocket) and extra sweat pads). Sick.

I know…I know. I am totally freaking out just a bit. I know this trip is going to be AWESOME and I am going to share all of it with you all. When I get back. After I get back. Because of the internet thing. Everything is going to be fine.

I just have to remember my transitions.