When we lived in Barcelona four years ago, we met a wonderful family who became our companions as we explored the city. While we have met many interesting people here in Shanghai, no one has quite fit the bill of accompanying us on adventures, particularly food related ones.
Many people we meet are hard working professionals, busy doing big corporate jobs. We also have met many interesting students who are saving their kuai to pay for rent or buy beer. So it was a pleasant surprise to meet Rolf and Kaki who like us are here for six months and trying to soak up as much of the local culture as possible.
Rolf is a Canadian anesthesiologist who works part of the year as a temporary MD in a hospital, then takes the rest of the year to explore some interesting place in the world. His wife Kaki is also a medical professional. They have an 8 month old baby who is a social magnet. They also have wisely hired a nanny, giving them free time for language study and exploring the city.
Last night we went with them to a Uigur restaurant, which served roast leg of lamb accompanied by song and tribal dance. It was a lively place. Frances was dancing in the center of the restaurant with the waiters even before we sat down at the table. After stuffing ourselves with lamb and local black beer, we piled in a taxi and went to the opening of a dance club named Space Ibiza.
Frances’ Latina connection got us invitations to the club’s grand opening. Imagine an aircraft hanger sized building with three stories of seating around a giant dance floor. Many private rooms set up for karaoke. Part of the dance floor was on hydraulics which bounced it up and down to the music beat. The djs were imported from Ibiza for the event. Lots of high decibel pulsing music, changing ever so slightly every ten minutes. We staggered out of the place around 1 am when things just as the place was beginning to warm up. Alas, our nights of late night partying are years behind us.
I know that Rolf and Kaki have a long list of restaurants that they want to visit before they leave in January. This is a challenge that I am sure that we can help them accomplish. While no one can really replace our good friends the Millikens, it is good to find some people here to help us explore.
This morning we ran in the Terry Fox memorial fun run. Since the race started at 9 am on a Sunday morning, at a park on the outer edge of the city, I did not expect many people. As it turned out, at least a thousand, maybe two were there. Like many things in China, it was different than I expected.
Most of the people were there as part of their business. I could tell by their large colorful company banners. Many of the groups also had their own coordinated hats, mini flags, towels, even inflatable ‘clackers’ that you would see at a sporting event. As the race started people continued running in groups under the banners.
Century Park is the largest in Shanghai. It is almost to the end of the subway line in Pudong, the newest part of the city. I was expecting something a little bit rustic. Instead there were beautifully manicured hedges and flowers, surrounding a large man made lake. There were small snack shops selling popcorn and soft drinks every quarter mile. We ran by elaborate topiaries in many colors and a garden full of bonsai trees. It is clear who has won the battle between man and nature in this park.
The run participants spread out on all of the available paths. Some of the paths cut off about half the length of the course, but that did not seem to be a problem. At times the runners with the ten foot wide company banners would lead their groups past slower moving groups. Some groups would slow down to catch their breath, and then sprint forward once again. This went on in somewhat chaotic fashion for about 4 kilometers.
Henry and Jack bounded ahead while Frances and I stayed in the middle of the surging and sagging groups. I don’t know if it was really a workout, but it was fun for all of us.
On to shopping. At times it feels like that’s the major form of entertainment in this city – the streets are constantly full of people who are out either window shopping or buying. Given what we heard in the US about how cheap everything here is, I was curious to see how that played out.
Four options: super glamourous high end malls (which frequently have a similarly expensive but lovely food supermarket in the basement,) more ordinary department stores (ie, with locally made goods rather than designer and imported goods,) lots of little individual stores where you’re actually in a store (as opposed to someones’ “front parlor”) and then the many, many little mom and pop places which seem to specialize in soft drinks/ice-cream or plastic products (buckets and tubs) or small towels, or vegetables/fruit or paper/stationary goods.
For food buying we have a few options. There is a small “city supermarket” in our “compound.” (Right next to the Starbuck, of course – Incidentally, Steve says it’s not a compound because there’s no gate and no one salutes when you drive in, let’s call it an “urban living/working center.”) The store has all the basics of life plus comfort food appealing to about 8 – 10 nationalities. This is where I get breakfast cereal (US or british imported) cheese (which doesn’t exist in the Chinese diet) vegetable and fruits (these, because they aren’t imported, are reasonably priced) and occasional splurge items for the guys. While I have been very excited about cooking Asian for dinner – I haven’t convinced the family (or my own stomach) to do the Chinese thing and eat dumplings for breakfast. Then there’s a little local grocery about three blocks away where we get the basics like milk, yogurt, local snacks for the guys (somehow I can justify Chinese junkfood more easily than American) laundry detergent, tofu and all the important cooking sauces and spices. Finally, once a month I try to get to one of the big markets like Carrefour which sell about everything you can imagine for really low prices. As my language skills improve, I’m able to get some fruits and veggies from the little market places. Since all of this is done while walking, I shop almost everyday for something and bribe the guys with root beer to come with me to help lug water back to the house. Yes, water lugging is a fact of life because apparently the water is not just “other bacteria laden” as in many countries, but out and out “not potable” with hepatitis being one of the main issues. Shanghai hopes to have a potable water system in place for hosting the World’s Fair in 2010, but that’s a ways off. So all fruits and veggies get washed in a soap solution and then rinsed with bottled water which I’m finally sort of used to – and bottled water is advised even for cooking rice and pasta so we go through a lot of it. I think most people probably get water delivery but it seemed like one more transaction to deal with. While credit cards are not unknown – they are unusual, so all of this gets paid for in cash. And certain big things, (like airplane tickets) always get paid for in cash so frequently we are scheming to make megawithdrawals from the ATM in advance of payment days. We are trying to make do without a bank account (more bureaucracy) and check don’t get used much either because it seems the Chinese have little faith in their banks, so there’s not a ‘check” mentality. This is why when someone is moving a large amount of money, they hire two guys with submachine guns to walk flanking them. Crime is not generally a problem, so generally I don’t feel too worried carrying the big wad. (With the largest bill being about $12 – the pile ‘o cash accumulates pretty fast.
Getting around: Taxi’s are really cheap – but language is a problem. I remember the sinking feeling last year when we were planning the trip when I realized that we couldn’t even WRITE down an address much less speak it. And with the city being as huge as it is, we walk a lot but that only gets you to about a 20th of where we want to go. The metro is great (though jam packed during rush hours) but it is a new system and only covers a small bit of the city. Thus, one of the considerations when we moved into this “compound” is that it is associated with a hotel where we would be able to tell a concierge our destination in English and he/she would translate it into something useful to the cab driver. A major shift in the last two to three weeks has been the fact that we can now rely enough on our pronunciation of street names and numbers (and thank heaven for the Chinese unit on intersections and “taxi talk”) and so we are liberated from the concierge. Yahoo! Another small step. Steve talks about getting a bicycle, but I think I won’t. It’s pretty intimidating out there.
I have been storing little thoughts in my head since you asked me to write about the “nitty gritty” of life in China and my head is now ready to explode with little tidbits so here goes. Mind you, this won’t be the most scintillating report I make but it is interesting how daily life changes in a new place, and it’s probably better I get some of these things down before they no longer seem unusual.
Simple walking about - All one’s bearings are altered when you’re on the street in Shanghai – kind of like in London, where the traffic is on the left side of the street. Here they stay on the right, but your POSITION in the hierarchy of traffic is very different. The Chinese seem to place importance on the large and powerful, before the small and individual (for example addresses are totally in the opposite order as Western address: China first, then your city, then your street and finally your name.) Your family name also comes before your individual name. And so it is in the street. Pedestrians must watch out for bicycles, bicycles seem to respect motorcycles and scooters, these last must stop for cars and from what I can tell, everybody is scared of the buses. Someone told me that only recently did they change the law making a driver “partly” responsible if he hits a pedestrian, and from what I see, it may take a while for that shift to make it into people’s daily habits. While my brain accepts the theoretical fact that pedestrians don’t have the right of way, it has taken a little longer to train my body – especially the New Yorker in me that relishes plunging out there into the crosswalk when a car is taking a left hand turn. In addition, there is a norm here that right turns on red with NO STOP whatsoever are perfectly okay. So, after waiting at the light for a while, you march out into the street when the light turns green only to be reminded by the multitude of horn honking that there are gobs of vehicles of all sorts and sizes who think they should go first. You inch your way forward and wait for that bunch to pass only to arrive in the middle of the street in time for those cars who are making a left hand turn coming from the other direction to impede your way. Usually there are a few seconds left after that to get the rest of the way across the street. I will say that many intersections let you know just how much time you have left by way of a digital flashing meter across the way.
I find I try and stay surrounded by other people as a shield and barrier and do whatever they do. I suppose you could call it the “school of fish” method.
Other things that make walking a challenge are the fact that the sidewalks are frequently very narrow, the crowds are huge, the pavement 50% of the time is under construction, and many streets seem to be designated as “bike-parking-lots.” People fortunately are very organized about lining them up close to each other – indeed I’ve heard that there are people who earn their money by organizing and “guarding” them for you, but there are many times when the presence of 200 to 300 bicycles on a block leaves room for only one walking person to pass. With the city growing by leaps and bounds, construction is everywhere and the sidewalk is often where the scaffolding (made of bamboo) gets placed, creating more excitement for the pedestrians. Most streets accommodate bicycles and mopeds of all sorts and indeed 50 to 100 of these are likely to accumulate at the front of the street at traffic lights, but some streets don’t seem to allow them (or have room for them) so in that case the bikes and the motorcycles are also sharing the sidewalk with you. Depending upon the neighborhood the teeny tiny storefront stores are often the main living area for the family who lives there and runs the shop and so family members may be sitting outside their store in a chair, repairing something, eating a meal, napping or playing a board game. This lends lots of interesting ambiente to the neighborhood but gums up the foot traffic a little more. Then there are the newspaper readers and the street sweepers. Somebody (the government I assume) puts the daily newspaper behind glass on selected sidewalks and there are regularly small clusters of people reading it. And every street seems to have it’s sweeper. This unfortunate person must try and sweep with the foot traffic I’ve talked about and they understandably expect you to watch out for them and not vice versa (or they’d never get anything done.) Their brooms are all handmade, they have official uniforms complete with sanitary breathing masks and little push carts they scoop their stuff into. I promise I won’t go on too much more, but the sounds are also pretty intense, mostly because it seems every form of vehicle has some sort of bell, or horn and the brakes (particularly on the mopeds) need oil badly and screech at a high pitch which begins to make me a little crazy at times. I have actually started carrying earplugs and will pop them in when things get too intense. Believe it or not, now that the weather is no longer 90 plus and humid, I enjoy walking around – the variety of people, buildings, sights and what people are able to pack onto a bicycle is endlessly entertaining to me, though I do find that I sometimes hit my limit and need to get home quickly or stop and rest to keep it from getting too intense.
Then, of course, there’s the “foot Braille.” We noticed early on that in the center of each sidewalk (yes, EACH sidewalk – in 4 cities we have been in, we have seen them everywhere – except maybe on one or two streets,) there is a series of 4 to 8 raised bumps dead center in the middle of the sidewalk. We wondered about it at first, as it is a touch difficult to walk on and you find yourself semi-consciously avoiding that section of the sidewalk, and the bumps change texture before intersections, and we learned it is for the blind. It seems awesome sometimes that in a country where there is so much still to do for so many people, the government has made the commitment to install these everywhere. And lest you think it was an earlier communist ideal which also has gone by the wayside, (like free health care, for example,) I did see them installing some new foot Braille recently while out. (As an aside, while in Spain the blind population had the market on the kiosks for lottery sales, here in China, there are frequent establishments featuring “blind massage parlours.”) Street life starts quite early in the morning as the sun is up around 4:45am. Despite China’s size, the entire country is all on the same time zone – with Beijing getting the “normal” sun schedule. One benefit here is that the sun goes down really early which cools things off in the summer and the streets take on a much more pleasant feel with people strolling when it’s not so hot.
Much to my surprise, my father decided to come visit us in Shanghai. He and his friend Maud were going to be in London, so they decided to extend their trip here. His planned visit overlapped with the National day celebration, one of two weeks when nearly every Chinese worker has a vacation. So instead of only 14 million people here in Shanghai, another 1 million or so decided to show up along with my Dad.
My strategy was to avoid the most typical tourist spots and try to spend as much time as possible strolling the tree lined side streets of the old French concession. However one of the suggested activities was a boat ride on the Huang Pu River. It sounded safe. We get in a cab at the apartment, go for a boat ride and then get a cab ride home.
The problem was that the boat ride originates and ends in the middle of the Bund, Shanghai’s number one strolling destination along the river. The cab let us off about five blocks away from our point of departure. We muscled our way through the crowds and enjoyed a very pleasant and breezy ride along the river. Leaving the boat was another story.
By late afternoon, additional tourists were gathering along the river to get a good spot to watch the evening’s fireworks. The crowds along the normally pleasant promenade were shoulder to shoulder. Imagine the Minnesota State fair and Times Square on New Years Eve rolled into one. I became the designated blocker as we fought our way through the throngs. The temperature was at least 20 degrees above normal at a humid 90 degrees. I will leave the descriptions of street vendors and beggars to your imagination. Isn’t this every American’s stereotypical negative perception of a Chinese city- a steamy packed mob of people?
We ducked into one of the recently renovated 1920’s bank buildings to experience the opposite extreme of Shanghai- an elegant and refined afternoon tea service. We sat in a buffed marble atrium, sipping fresh squeezed juices and eating gourmet sandwiches in air conditioned splendor. Revived, we headed back outside, flowing with the pack of people to the Peace hotel a block away. As the only five star hotel on the Bund, it was my most reliable spot to get a taxi for the ride back.
No such luck. The street in front of the hotel was being closed off by police so that the pedestrians could fill out the whole street. We dragged our tired bodies out the back door, looking for the first open street. At this point I took a deep breath and tried to let go of my desire of a perfect visit. Yes, Shanghai has a lot of people and sometimes they all congregate in one place. And yes, despite that fact that there are 40,000 taxis roaming, they can be hard to find.
The Zen approach proved to be best. As soon as we stopped looking for a taxi, one appeared in front of us and eventually we made it back home. Not exactly a postcard outing but interesting none the less.
Frances has a special built in radar that allows her to detect Spanish being spoken, no matter where she is.
As we enrolled in our intensive Chinese language course, she detected Spanish somewhere in a room filled with a hundred or so people. Within no time she had become acquainted with Latinas and Latinos from Spain, Puerto Rico and Argentina.
We now share a taxi in the morning, going to school with Ava from Alicante. Spanish is spoken during the class breaks and after class. We have had a couple very pleasant evenings with some of the group, drinking Spanish wine and eating pan con tomate with Spanish tortilla. Little did I know that my Spanish language would improve in Shanghai from such a pleasant immersion experience.
While visiting Changchun, in Northeastern China, I was invited to join a group of Chinese heart surgeons, for a trip to a nature reserve. The reserve was a four hour bus ride to the North, almost to the border with Mongolia.
The bus weaved its way in and out of road construction, slow moving trucks, bicycles, and carts pulled by a variety of animals. This was accomplished without really braking and with a liberal amount of horn honking. Since this was the day after my big banquet with lots of Chinese toasts, I was not feeling in tip top shape. I consoled myself by thinking about the low probability of any accident involving 20 of the best surgeons in Chinese. In the event of an accident, what better company?
We arrived early evening unscathed at small simple hotel on the edge of the reserve. Outside on the parking lot were tables set for dinner and a roaring bonfire in the center. We proceeded to dine al fresco on roast lamb and milk tea- all local specialties. A couple musicians and a singer played local music while we dined. I was immediately offered insect repellant and turned it down, being a Minnesotan accustomed to all forms of hostile insects. What I then experienced was a totally new bug experience.
While there were no mosquitoes to speak of, there was a prolific display of beetles as the sun went down. I looked up at the parking lot lights and could see swarms of them blocking out the light. At the table level, small beetles were a minor nuisance, only a problem when they crawled under clothing and got stuck, finally resorting to defensive biting. Occasionally I would feel as if I had been hit on the back or head by a small rock. When checking the spot I would find a large black beetle, about the size of a quarter, resting after its flight. The dining continued without notice of such small distractions.
After dinner, the entertainment moved on to karaoke, followed by dancing in the center of the parking lot. It seemed to be ladies’ choice, and I danced with several of the heart surgeons and hospital employees on the trip. I learned several Chinese dances, including a great bouncy-step version of the lindy. All this time, being bombarded by beetles.
The next day we started with a breakfast of rice porridge and preserved eggs, which I am convinced is the ultimate hangover cure. Then off we went in jeeps touring the reserve. We saw many varieties of birds, all of whom must dine amply on beetles. The highlight for me was seeing four or five varieties of cranes up close. Some were just about my size.
We dined back at the hotel for lunch, having large local fish cooked in broth. They were served whole in big steaming metal bowls place in the middle of round tables, seating eight people. It is a thing of beauty to watch a group of Chinese surgeons strip a ten pound fish to the bone, only using chop sticks.
Afterwards we piled on the bus one more time. Then after the return bus ride and another banquet at our destination, I finally made it back to our Changchun hotel, tired and happy.