Monday, October 27, 2008

Ni Hao from China!
"Ni Hao" is how you greet people in China, and it means "are you well?". "Wa hen hao", I am very well, because I am in Shanghai, the largest city in China, with a population of 18 million people. San Francisco has only 1 million! This city is big, busy and crowded, and reminds me somewhat of New York. It's a city of charming brick houses on tiny lanes, and also of spectacular skyscrapers. New skyscrapers are going up all over China, especially in Shanghai and the capital city of Beijing, and everywhere I go in China I see older buildings being torn down and replaced by brand new high rises. As anyone who has seen the famous Water Cube and Bird's Nest on TV can guess, the architecture here is dazzling. Each new building that goes up seems to be more outrageous than the last. Some of the more unusual buildings have nicknames like the Bottle Opener, Dragon's Head, and Pair of Pants because of their interesting shapes. Some buildings even boast giant video screens.

Getting 18 million people to and from these huge buildings where they work every day is a daunting task, and cars are very expensive in Shanghai, so many people commute by bicycle and motor bike. Even the busiest streets here and in Beijing have dedicated bicycle lanes, helping bike commuters to keep safe. Traffic cops are everywhere, making sure people obey the rules. These two cities also have world-class public transit systems, cheap, clean and efficient. As I write, Shanghai is in the process of building its fifth subway line, and a high speed rail line linking Beijing and Shanghai is almost complete. I admire the Chinese for their commitment to public and alternative transit. Our country would do well to follow their example.

People in Shanghai are friendly and surprisingly laid-back for a city so large. The locals love to snack, and there is a candy store or dumpling stand on practically every corner. Roasted chestnuts and baked yams are very popular too. Of course, the national drink of China is tea, but because Shanghai has a strong European influence, coffee is popular too. American fast food chains such as Mc Donald's and KFC are visible as well, but according to one person I spoke with are not as popular as they were when they first arrived around 20 years ago.

Shanghai is a major shopping destination for foreign tourists as well as people from other parts of China. Big shopping malls, small boutiques, and outdoor bazaars are all here. For sheer excitement, Shanghai can't be beat.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bye Bye, Big Apple

As I get ready to leave New York and head for Asia, I have been looking back on my wonderful time in New York. I have had a chance to catch up on my reading, see friends and family, and visit some of the attractions that make New York such a great place to visit.

The Bronx Zoo
Leapin' Lemurs! The Bronx Zoo has a new Madagascar exhibit that is really informative and fun. There are many different Madacascan animals there: Fossa, ring-tailed mongoose, hissing cockroaches, snakes, and of course, lemurs. The exhibit has several different types of those adorable primates including sifakas, ringtails and the tiny, shy mouse lemurs. There is also information about Madagascar's unique ecology as well as explanations of the ways that the Zoo is helping to conserve the endangered lemurs' habitat. Having grown up in the Bronx myself, I was so proud to see my borough's own zoo hosting this excellent exhibit.

The United Nations
Located on First Avenue right on the East River, the UN was created to help nations to solve their conflicts peacefully. Representatives from almost every country in the world come to this building to discuss how to prevent war, end world hunger, and keep the world's children healthy. To me, the UN represents the ability that we humans have to "use our words" to help create a world where all people are treated with fairness and respect.

The New York Subways
A city under a city, the subway system moves vast numbers of people around the city every day. The system is a huge labyrinth of tunnels and trains filled with commuters rushing to work, tourists deciphering maps, and shoppers carrying enormous bags. On any given day there are always performers who play on the platforms for donations. Steel drum music from Trinidad, hip-hop dancing, South American flute music, and a classical string quartet playing opera are just some of the things I saw on my subway trips. When the trains went above ground in The Bronx and Queens, I got a bird's eye view of the city that was really spectacular. Many people in New York do not own cars because the subway system is all they need to get around.

The New York Times
I am lucky enough to have a cousin who works at The New York Times. Richard is on the editorial board of the newspaper, which means he is one of the people who decides what opinions the newspaper will publish. (In addition to news stories, most newspapers also publish editorials, which are the opinions of the writers). It is an important job, because millions of people read The Times every day, and they respect the paper's ideas very much. The New York Times building is of course, in Times Square, and is brand new, with lots of windows and sweeping views of the city. He showed me his office and the rooms where people talk (and sometimes argue) about what to put in the paper every day. Richard and his colleagues work very hard bringing the news to us.

The Theater
Many plays, musicals and theater productions get their start in New York, and the Theater is famous here. Every time I come here I try to see a play or musical. On my last visit I saw The Lion King, but this time I saw something very different. Fela! is a musical about a day in the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musician from Nigeria who created a brand new genre of music. By starting with traditional Yoruban chants and adding African drum rhythms and a funky horn section influenced by the music of James Brown, Fela came up with something electrifying and completely new. Fela's music was often critical of the Nigerian Government, so he was continually harassed my the military and arrested several times. Even though he recently passed away, Fela's music continues to be very popular in Africa and all over the world. The music, story and costumes had me riveted for the entire performance. I would not recommend this musical for children, but adults, if it comes to your city, see it. It was incredible.

Socrates Sculpture Park
New York has lots of beautiful parks. Central Park, Riverside and Prospect Parks are all well-known , even to those who don't live here. One Saturday, however, I found a park in Queens that really impressed me. Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City is right on the East River, and is a large green space containing many three-dimensional works of art by several local artists. The sculptures are made of wood, metal, concrete and found objects, and one artist had created an installation of a solar-powered kiln to dry wood. SS park is a fun place to visit, especially in the summer when you can admire the sculptures and escape the summer heat.