The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

You know how if you live in a certain place, you never get around to seeing the famous sights in the area? I know people who have lived in Beijing for their entire lives and never went around to see the Great Wall, and Californians who decided they don’t need to go to Disneyland. The Grand Mosque is kind of like that for me. I visited it as a tourist and was so enthralled that I vowed I would come see it again once I moved here. Didn’t happen. So far it’s been almost a year, and I pass by all the time, all the time promising myself that next time I’ll go see it.

The Grand Mosque, also known as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, was a vision of the late founder and of the UAE, and completed after his passing. Like most everything in the UAE, money was no object when it comes to making this beautiful piece of architecture; it cost 2 billion AED, or 545 million USD to build the Grand Mosque. Materials and designers were brought all over the world to help with the project.

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The Grand Mosque under the hot desert sun.

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The Grand Mosque at dusk.

Some people like to compare the Grand Mosque to the age-old ones in Turkey, and dismiss it for lacking history. I think the Grand Mosque is just as beautiful, with just as much care and reverence put into it as any of the older ones.

If you’re going to the Grand Mosque, don’t bother trying to cover every inch of your skin. If you’re a woman, they’re going to make you wear an abaya (traditional clothing for Emirati women) no matter what. For men, as long as you’re wearing long pants and shirts with sleeves, you don’t have to borrow a dish-dasha (traditional clothing for Emirati men). Ho strict is their dress code? Before you put on an abaya, they won’t even let you take a picture with the mosque.

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Remember when Rihanna ruffled some feathers because she took some “provacative” pictures in the Grand Mosque?

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I wasn’t thrilled about having to wear an article of clothing that dozens of people have worn before me, but I do love how slimming it is!

We were assigned an Emirati tour guide who spoke perfect English to show us around the Grand Mosque. He gave us a lot of interesting information about the symbolism and designs of the mosque, as well as about their religion. I learned that the call to prayer plays five times a day, at different times every day depending on when the sun sets. I’ve since gotten so used to it that I barely hear it anymore, but at the time I was woken up every morning at around 4am by the morning call. Even malls play it on their loudspeakers, and provide prayer rooms for shoppers to stop by. Don’t be surprised to find men and women washing their hands and feet in a public bathroom; they’re required to clean both before praying.

There are endless details that I could go on about, but my favorite are the domes. There are 82 domes in the mosque, each more intricate than the last.

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One day, I’m going to go back and take a picture of each and every one of those domes…

The inside of the mosque is awe-inspiring. Big enough to accommodate 40,000 worshippers at once

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Flowers are featured everyone inside and outside the mosque.

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The carpet inside the Grand Mosque is the largest in the world, and took 1,200 weavers 21 months to make. You’d definitely understand why they insist you take your shoes off before walking on it!

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The 98 names of Allah, one in each 5-petaled flower. If you look closely though, you’ll notice a blank one. The guide informed us that as humans we can’t possibly presume to know all the ways of Allah, and so one flower is left blank.

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Another world record, the biggest chandelier in the world!

For everyone visiting the UAE, the Grand Mosque is definitely a must-see! Not only are the guided tours informative and interesting, it really gives you a glimpse into Emirati culture. Just going shopping at the various malls can’t give you that.

That’s it for the Grand Mosque! I’m going to the Qasr al Hosn Festival tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll have more to share soon!

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The Dubai Mall

Yup, I’m gonna do an entire post on a mall! And what a mall it is; the Dubai Mall is currently the biggest mall in the world, with 1200 shops and still expanding! It’s the mall to end all malls, selling everything from solid gold iPhones to sleepy stuffed camels to Japanese linens. Almost everytime I go to Dubai I end up here, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin.

As part of our Valentine’s Day celebrations, we made our way up to Dubai to have a good meal and do some shopping. Just a heads up, some of the pictures are from different trips, so don’t be surprised if I’m wearing different outfits (no, I’m not one of those people who bring different outfits for pictures).

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Did I mention that the Dubai Mall is connected to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world?

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There’s no shortage of froufrou things at the Dubai Mall!

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Always check out the cars parked in front…they’re a sight in themselves!

Before we get to eating and shopping though, some ground rules:

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Keep your hands and lips to yourself!

A lot of people ignore the “respectful clothing” rule, and you’ll see short shorts and cleavage everywhere. Keep in mind that a lot of the locals to equate revealing clothing with whores (for women), so if you want to avoid uncomfortable comments and stares, it’s still best to keep to the conservative side.

ABSOLUTELY NO KISSING IALLOWED! Dubai is much more liberal than the rest of the emirates, but this is still an big no-no. As in you could be jailed for doing it. If you’re not married, refrain from holding hands, as a well-placed complaint could get you in trouble. Men should be careful to avoid physical contact with local women; simple gestures that we use to express friendliness could be interpreted very differently here.

We got to Dubai around 1pm, and we were famished. There are so many food options in the mall, ranging from the usual range of fast foods to five star restaurants. We settled on California Pizza Kitchen, as we had a great meal there in Hawaii.

It was very, very disappointing. The thing about eating out here is that familiar brands often end up very different than back home, and not in a good way. Nothing we ordered tasted good, never mind resembling the great dishes at the other CPK’s I’ve been to.

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CPK Meat Craver pizza in North America. Not my picture, but I can attest that it does look like that.

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CPK Meat Craver pizza in Dubai. Ugh.Just look at all that congealed cheese and burnt meatballs!

Thankfully our dinner was much better, as we picked an old favorite: Shake Shack. For those of you who know Shake Shack, it started out in New York and blew up there. They make the most amazing (and greasy) cheeseburgers, as well as amazing custards and milkshakes. If you ever come across one of these, definitely stop by!

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Probably the fanciest Shake Shack in the world.

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Red Velvet Custard…just looking at this picture makes me drool.

The Dubai Mall is also home to another New York cult favorite, Magnolia Bakery. I stopped going to the one at the Dubai Mall because one opened up in Abu Dhabi, but anyone’s who’s not had one should stop by Bloomingdale’s for a taste. The cupcakes are to die for, with fluffy sugary icing that’s somehow not too sweet, and the banana pudding is thick and creamy without being too rich. Some people say the one in New York is better, but I can’t see how!

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Vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing. It really is a wonder I don’t weigh 500 pounds!

Another good place to eat is the Social House, which is a Western and Eastern cusine fusion. There’s a good variety of food and drinks (non-alcoholic of course), and a great view of the Dubai fountain, the largest in the world. The fountain turns on every half hour; it really is quite a spectacular show, much better than the one in Vegas.

Photo Apr 27, 1 45 59 PM Photo Apr 27, 2 29 12 PMThe Hainanese chicken at the Social House is pretty close to the quality in China.

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The Dubai Fountain is really something else.Be prepared to fight with all the tourists around you if you want to film it though!

The Burj Khalifa is right next to the Dubai Fountain, but it’s only accessible to tourists from the lower ground floor of the Dubai Mall. You should make an appointment to visit the Burj Khalifa well in advance of your trip, as it’s the difference between 125 AED ($34) and 400 AED ($109) for immediate entry (click here for more information). It’s worth it if you have a great camera and want to get some pictures of Dubai. I’m personally a sucker for panoramic city views, and I’m planning to go up there in April to check out the sunrise.

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The tallest building in the world, and the best place to get a full view of Dubai!

If you have children, there’s also tons of things for them to do. The UAE is children-friendly in general, with a great focus on family and kids. The Dubai Mall has a huge indoor aquarium, one of the world’s largest suspended ones (yet another record broken), offering cage snorkeling, glass bottom boats, and other interactive activities.

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I really need a better camera to capture the aquarium’s beauty. This picture doesn’t do it justice.

Right across from the aquarium is the Cheesecake Factory, and a huge candy store guaranteed to make any kid (and me) scream. Everything in the store is over the top: giant swirly lollipops, the world’s largest chocolate bar and wall to wall to wall of different colored m&ms.

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Just looking at it will give you a sugar rush…

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There’s the Asian eyes again…

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The Waterfall is yet another extravagant water feature in the Dubai Mall, expanding all four floors of the mall and is known for it’s beauty. It was designed to be a meeting point for visitors, and has a variety of coffee shops surrounding it.

Now on to my favorite part, shopping! We visited the Dubai Mall at the end of the Spring Festival in China, and there were still many promotions and advertisements geared towards Chinese tourists. It’s a sign of how much their revenue depends on Chinese visitors, that every single store accepts UnionPay (the Chinese version of Visa and Mastercard), and all high-end brands have at least one sales assistant who speaks Chinese.

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A sign that Chinese tourists are taking over the world…

If you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home, the Dubai Mall even has a souk, a traditional Arabic market. It’s definitely not the best place for deals and heavy bargaining, but it has everything you’ll find in a souk elsewhere.

 

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The Souk

The Dubai Mall is also home to one of my favorite bookstores, Kinokuniya. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, but it doesn’t diminish my love for actual paper. It’s not that easy to find a good selection of books in the UAE, and Kinokuniya is one of the few bookstores that sell more books than stationary. Other than English books, they also have books in a variety of languages.

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There are Kinokuniyas all over the world, but this is the biggest I’ve seen.

For all the fashionistas and beauty junkies out there, this place is heaven. There’s a shoe garden of stores devoted to shoes, a gigantic Sephora, hard to find brands from all over the world. If only I had the money…

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The Shoe Garden…and a giant flower chair I found in the middle of it!

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Not as big as the one in New York, but you’ll definitely find some products unique to the Middle East!

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Repetto is pretty hard to find in the US. If only I had a spare $300 to spend on a pair of ballet flats…

 

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You can find Laduree macaroons outside of France here in Dubai!

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Souvenir from al Gallery…LMAO

That’s it for the Dubai Mall. I’ll post more on the Middle East soon, so keep coming back!

 

 

 

Five things that baffle me about China

I’m Chinese, and before I went to China I thought that even though I don’t agree with everything they do, I’d at least understand why. Obviously, I was wrong. Below I’ll share with you 5 things that Chinese people do that completely baffle me.

1. Chinese people are extremely anxious about their children. In the winter, you’ll often see Chinese children wrapped up in so many layers that they look like large puffy balls (they’re convinced that the cold will make them sick). Loved pets are often abandoned for fear that they’ll pass on diseases to their children. Thrifty parents will not hesitate to buy the most expensive milk powder for their babies. And yet, you’ll often see mothers jaywalk across a busy intersection with their child in their arms. Does that make sense to you?

2. People in China will spend two month’s salary on a new cell phone, but argue with a vendor for an hour over 10 yuan. They’ll save for a luxury bag, and then ride the bus to work to save on transportation costs (trust me, the bus is not a pleasant way to commute during rush hour). When they go home for Spring Festival, they’ll blow a month’s salary treating their relatives and friends to a meal, then go home and eat instant noodles for a month. The Chinese call this “slapping the face to look fat” (打肿脸充胖子). I always knew that face was important to them, but can it really mean that much?

3. They think that cheating is ok, even a smart thing to do. I was shocked when my students freely admitted that they cheated while in school, claiming it was “something that everyone does”. One explained to me that because everyone did it, you’d be at a disadvantage if you didn’t.

4. When I first started working in China as an English Teacher, I was uncomfortable with the “pretty” compliments. Coworkers would tell me that I will do well because I was “pretty” and the boss “likes” pretty girls. Students told me that I would be a great teacher because I was “pretty”. Sexual harassment was pretty much expected and accepted in the workplace; my boss would comment whenever any member of the female staff wore skirts.The boss often made very sexist comments towards the female staff, and pressured them to go out for lunch or dinner. Chinese friends were surprised that I would consider that kind of behavior sexual harassment, and thought it to be just how things worked. It’s pretty much accepted that a beautiful girl would have more opportunities in the workplace.

5. Women are expected to be “weak”, and they seem more than happy to fulfill that role. Despite the fact that a lot of women work, and some even command a higher salary then their men, women are still expected to be the weaker sex. If they earn more, they’re encouraged to keep it under wraps for the sake of the man’s ego. If they’re taller, they’re forbidden to wear heels to de-emphasize their height difference. Mind you, many of them take full advantage, taking time off because they have menstrual cramps (they realize this happens every month, right?), having male coworkers do work for them, and even going out to lunch with men so they can eat for free (splitting the bill isn’t common in China). I’m surprised both at the women for accepting this notion, and at the men for enabling it.

I’m sure I’ll think of more, so keep an eye out for updates! Also feel free to share anything you’ve noticed ^^

Happy Chinese New Year! 新年快乐!

Xin nian kuai le! Happy new year!

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2014 is the year of the horse (马, ma)

My family celebrated this holiday while I was growing up, but it was limited to family and the occasional lion dance in Chinatown. To be honest, all I cared about was how much lucky money I was going to get. Celebrating Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, in China is a whole new ballgame. The scale of it is mind-boggling! The entire country moves around so they can be home with their families, and everywhere you go is adorned with red and gold and everything that symbolizes luck and prosperity.

So here’s a post on some interesting Chinese New Year tidbits that I noticed while I was living in China.

1. Lucky…everything

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If you were born in the year of the horse, it’s recommended that you spend the new year’s festivities in red undies!

Almost everything done during New Year’s is meant to bring good fortune for the new year. Fireworks on New Year’s Eve is meant to ward away evil spirits and bad luck. Around the time of the Spring Festival, firework stands pop up everywhere. The safety standards are pretty lack; both customers and merchants can be seen smoking at, in and around the fireworks. And you wonder why there are so many accidents…

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Beijing on New Year’s Eve! You really don’t have to go anywhere in particular to enjoy the fireworks…

Another issue with fireworks is the effect on the already unbreathable air. The day after New Year’s Eve, the PM 2.5 is usually at least 5 to 6 times higher than recommended levels. Firework debris also litters the street (I sprained my ankle after slipping on some two years ago), not to mention the noise pollution for two weeks straight.

Fish is eaten because it sounds like “leftover” in Chinese (年年有于, nian nian you yu), and is meant to represent that you will have leftover money in the coming year. Dumplings are eaten because they look like they gold or silver nuggets (元宝,yuan bao) back in the day, and if you find money in yours, you’ll be especially lucky that year. If it’s your animal year, it means the gods have their eye on you, and you need to wear red underwear to avoid their wrath (at least I think that’s what it does).

2. Ghost towns

One distintictive feature of Chinese New Year’s is that the major cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) become completely deserted, as everyone returns to their hometowns. The usually crowded streets are oddly empty, and it’s the only time of year where you can actually drive above 40 km/hr. The downside? Most of the staff in a lot of service industries (restaurants, postal services, government facilities) have gone home, so expect delays and closures.

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It only ever looks like this during the Spring Festival…

3. Red envelopes (or red packets or lucky money)

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Counting the money in front of the giver is a big no-no!

In northern China, red envelopes are given to the younger generations until they start working (parents to children, aunts to nieces/nephews, grandparents to grandchildren etc.) Once they have a job, they are now obligated to give red envelopes to their elders (parents and grandparents) and the generation below them.

In southern China, red envelopes are given to the younger generations until they get married. Once you get married, you not only have to give out red envelopes to your elders, but also to unmarried people in your own generation. For example, my mom (who’s from Taiwan) gave a red envelope to her younger sister until she was 36, which was the year she got married. It had only $20 on it, but it’s supposed to be like a “good luck, I hope you get married this year.” I still get red envelopes if I spend Chinese New Year’s with my parents or relatives, even though I’m 26 and have been working for over 4 years.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of negative attention on red envelopes, with people’s wallets being stretched to the limits with the increasing amounts they’re obligated to give. Etiquette dictates that red envelopes should be somewhat equal, as they’re meant to symbolize luck and not as a way to earn money. This means if my aunt gives me $20, my parents should give my cousin $20 as well. Now, people use red envelopes as a way to show-off wealth, giving more than the receiving end can give back, causing stress, tension and embarrassment. Other issues with red envelopes can include the number of kids (if you have more kids, you get more red envelopes), who gave who more (grandparents playing favorites), and kids comparing who got more money. It really puts a damper on what is otherwise a festive holiday.

4. Food, food and more food!

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If you think a lot of food goes to waste, you thought right…

If you didn’t gain weight during Chinese New Year, you didn’t do it right. This is a food holiday more than equal to the Christmas holidays of the west, with days and days of banquets. Often, people only go back to their hometown once a year, and once home they’re faced with the daunting task of eating (and drinking!) with every single relative and friend, as failing to share a meal with someone can be seen as a slight. For some people, this has become a very stressful (both financially and physically) part of the holidays.

5. When are you getting married?

Many of my Chinese friends fear going home during the Spring Festival, and a lot of has to do with the inevitable questions that every single person back home will ask. If you’re single, when are you getting married? Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? You don’t want to get married too late, or no man will want you!  If you’re married, when are you having kids? How many? Don’t make your parents wait too long for grandchildren! If you’re working, how much do you make? When will you get a promotion? What are your career plans? It’s enough to drive everyone crazy.

6. “Gong hay fat choi” VS “Gong xi fa cai”

I’m really tired of people saying “gong hay fat choi” like it means “Happy New Year!” because it actually means “Congratulations on getting rich!”. It’s a way to wish someone good fortune in the new year. “Gong hay fat choi” is also Cantonese, and you would only greet someone with that in Canton or Hong Kong. “Gong xi fa cai” is Mandarin, and would be used in regions where Mandarin is widely used.

This year I spent Chinese New Year in the UAE, and was surprised by how many year of the horse products I found. It seems like the world has adopted this Chinese holiday, which makes me hopeful that one day I can celebrate with my kids, no matter where I end up in the world!