Shanghai Journal #3: A piano arrives


Morning in Shanghai at 10am, 30 January. As arranged, two gentleman with a Yamaha U1—a black upright piano—knocked on my door. They’re the pianos movers.

They weren’t huge. They didn’t look all that strong. But that’s often how it is with piano movers. They transpose weight from one place to another with ease.

Piano Tuning Details

When acquiring a piano from a dealer, the question posed is do you want the piano tuned before or after delivery? Prospective piano owners take note:

The correct answer is after delivery.

Pianos need to settle into new environment with whatever humidity, heat, cold, sunlight, and etc. are in said environs. Tune them in the store and they’ll de-tune during relocation to wherever they’re going. That holds for a Yamaha U1 and a 200,000 units-of-currency Fazioli.

Therefore, my tuning choice was do it at the store prior to delivery. The calculus is we’re not in Shanghai long enough to wait for the piano to settle gracefully into it’s new home. And I’m obsessive—compulsive—about practicing and playing on a tuned piano.

So on 30 January, the tuned piano arrived. One week later, today, Mr. Yang is coming to re-tune the piano. But, again, that’s the nature of a piano when moved from one place to another. My goal is to keep it in the best condition I can.

Piano Tuning Essentials

In a perfect world, all instruments on which we play should be tuned to within an inch of their lives! Only then can we hear what a particular piano can do. Only then can we hear if we’re playing to the capability of the piano. Only then can we hear if the piano will or won’t meet whatever capability we possess as pianists.

Shanghai Contract Details

Rent a piano. There’s a contract.

How long is the rental? What’s the deposit? And etc.

Of course, it’s up to Janet and me to work through all details. That means it’s up to us to understand what we’re getting into when we sign on the dotted line—contract is a contract.

But if you reside in China, contracts are in Chinese—although I think the pic shown here is a receipt, not a contract.

Polishook, jazz piano lessons on Skype and in person

When we negotiated the rental, the dealer explained all details, a process that necesitated a third party phone call to aid with translation. Then when the pianos arrived, through pointing, gesturing, gesticulating, we all—Janet, me, dealer, and movers—sorted the details.

Translating in Shanghai With Gizmos

Among the important gizmos is Google Translate running on my iPad and iPhone, bless it’s beating bits and bytes. For example, here’s a screen shot of a business card as Google Translate sees it on my iPad.

jazz piano lessons, skype

It’s from the shop where I rented the piano. It looks like a business card?

Except what’s here is the the automagic of Google’s translation technology. The card, as it exists in the physical world, is entirely in Chinese.

But things are never quite that simple. Because at the next level of learning is text that looks like this:


which(as Google Translate sees it) means:

Chemical resistance encountered how to do? Leaving nausea, chest tightness, convulsions, rash (abnormal smell and eleven different levels of discomfort EI there are a large number of insect deaths, abnormal plant changes abandoned gas masks, barrels, cans, etc.

This is the poster in the Shanghai Metro with that text.

All it means is what one should should an instance of chemical weaponry be in the vicinity.

Idioms In English and Chinese

The larger point is it’s not that the translation from Google Translate is inaccurate. Rather, what Google shows right now is at the limits of current technology. Or, at least current consumer technology.

So it is that with Chinese to English Google Translate excels at literal word-by-word conversion. For that reason, it does seem to go much, much, much better from English to French which are more closely related.

However, when it comes to idioms, particularly idioms in Chinese, Google Translate has no idea at all, not even hint, at how those work. So it’s true, GT translates but it’s doesn’t provide true translation.

Conversing in Chinese

Out of the blue, one of the movers said something to Janet which I didn’t catch. Janet explained he wanted to know if we were from America.

Then, in Chinese, she said to the mover—yes, we are from America. But we arrived in Shanghai from the UK which is where we live.

Navigating in Shanghai

Two nights ago night Janet negotiated the subway system to get us from an amazing English-language bookstore back to our flat. Last night, she got us on same subway system to Ikea.

Her ability to pick up phrases in Chinese and put them work almost immediately and to negotiate the Metro system by looking at signs, is expertise at a whole, different level. Meanwhile, I’m catching a few words and phrases such as I hear on TV.

I know our street number to say to taxi drivers. It sounds like, best as I can say it, like  lee-oh … ba! ba!. More importantly, we’re both going to take some Chinese lessons.

Our Mistake—A Kind Response

Again on Saturday, 3 February into the Metro we went. What looked like a two-stop ride turned into we-have-not-the-slightest-idea-of-what-lies-in-wait mega-confusion. What we experienced was exactly what and why WTF became an expression.

Our error was we missed one letter, the last letter, on the name of a stop. That one wrong letter took us to the wrong station about 2.3 miles from our destination.

Only the kindness of someone on the street saved us. We showed him our target address. He hailed a taxi and explained to the driver where we were going.

The rest was uneventful—we arrived at planned destination. But let it be said:

Everyone we meet on the street in Shanghai is so unbelievably kind and helpful when we ask for help.

Taxi Dancing

Count Basie recorded The Taxi War Dance. I perform it by waving an arm 180º up and down all the while rotating my wrist as far and as fast as it can go.

Sometimes the dance works. Sometimes not.

When we get into the taxi, we’ve learned to have our destination showing in Chinese on one of our phones. Otherwise, drivers point at the meter and become rude—quickly.

Whether or not we stay in the cab once rudeness begins just depends. Sometimes we get out. Sometimes we persevere and find our address on our phones where we store it in Chinese—to show to taxi drivers. In any case, we’ve learned and we know:

Have the address ready before we get into a taxi!

Fortunately, Shanghai taxis are unbelievably inexpensive. For example, it costs more to go a few stops on the London Tube than it does to ride a comparable distance in a taxi in Shanghai.

Shanghai Mobile Phones (and a rant)

And now we also have Chinese phones and Chinese phones numbers. The phones cost maybe a tenth of what an iPhone would be in the US or the UK.

They have at least as much functionality as an iPhone except there probably isn’t an App Store with thousands and thousands of apps. Or maybe there is and I just don’t  know it. It’s very possible!

Meanwhile, wireless and mobile data connections are EVERYWHERE. Deep in the bowels of the Metro we get a really strong signal. Strong enough that it looks like everyone’s streaming video.

AND HERE COMETH THE RANT: 500 megabytes of data per day is one yuan. Ten yuan equates to about one pound. In contrast, the same amount of data from my UK carrier is six pounds, about 60 yuan.

Granted, I’m roaming on a UK contract with my iPhone but is it really possible that roaming fees and data have to be 60x what they are in China?

Ummm … Telecoms in Europe and North America: Is there something you don’t get? Is there something I don’t get?

Ummmmm, yes. There is something I don’t get. That would be a fair rate for data when roaming!

However it is, cheap, high-quality cellular broadband is easily possible. It exists in China. It may also be subsidised by the government but I really don’t know whether that’s the case or not.

But when all is said and done why does data from European and North American carriers cost 60x more than what’s available in Shanghai?

Not to mention that Shanghai by and large is a cashless city. It’s cashless in the sense that no one really uses it! That’s because with just a few mobile apps just about all transactions everywhere and anywhere can be done from a smartphone. It all makes Apple Pay seem like rubbing sticks together to make fire!

What’s Next?

Upcoming is a post about music technology, and the piano (as always), and life in Shanghai (as always) and something I don’t typically blog about, which is politics.

But things are such right now that art and politics are colliding. Although they always have …

Therefore, related and relevant, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, is a fantastic book for anyone and everyone. One of the things that makes it so interesting is it’s a book about how to improvise a life in a knowledgable, informed way. That may make absolutely no sense which only means my description is lacking and the book needs to be read!

——Meanwhile, the near future, I’ll be giving a presentation in Taiwan on new musical interfaces and I’ll be present a solo piano concert there, so that’s yet another part of the story.

——In several hours Janet and I have our first Chines lesson. I’m very certain we won’t be speaking Chinese by 1 June, which is our return date to the UK. I am sure we’ll at least be able to order food in a restaurant or find out whether to turn left or a right at an upcoming intersection!

It’s About Time

And I’ll mention shamelessly, that my CD, It’s About Time is available on the iTunes Store, Amazon, Spotify, and all other such places where fine music can be downloaded. Many thanks to everyone who’s listened to it in one form or another. I really appreciate the feedback you’ve given to me about it!