Published: June 20th 2012March 4th 2012
Shanghai and I did not get off to a good start. First thing I do is buy a bottle of water at an airport shop, as I'm rather dehydrated and dizzy from the long flight. I ask the shopgirl if she can point me to the metro, but then I realize I'm in China now, and English doesn't get me very far. She calls another shopgirl, and I repeat what I said, but they just look at each other confusedly and then start discussing the finer aspects of my outward appearance, I'm guessing. A person at Shanghai Pudong International Airport who doesn't speak Chinese? Impossibru! Whoa, whoa, hold on a sec! Don't worry, you can continue reading. This is not gonna turn into a blog where I bitch about how nobody in China speaks English. I was just making an innocent observation. I know I should be the one speaking Mandarin.
Eventually, I find my way to the metro, which is ultra-modern and clean, almost Singaporean-style. I check out a bunch of 15 year-olds checking me out, and generally behaving like 15 year-old shits. The train to the centre takes quite a while, and at one stop roughly half-way to
the city, everbody rushes out, and I rejoice, thinking: "Haha! More room for me!", but it doesn't take long for the train to fill up again. About half an hour later, I wonder how long it can possibly take to go to the city, and I get up and look at the map after the next stop is announced. I am quite horrified to realize that we're two stops away from the airport. The train actually turned around, somehow, at that stop where everybody rushed out, and I was supposed to switch to another train. How could I have missed that? The announcements are both in Mandarin and in English, but the names of the stations come out so mumbled that it's hard to hear if you're at Lujiazui or Longcao.
Anyway, that's all part of travelling, I tell myself, and get off the train at the next station to switch to the train back to the city. This time I get off at the right stop, switch trains again, make it to People's Square, where I change to the red line, hop on the train down south, and get off at Xinzhuang, the last stop. Total time from
the airport to the right district: three and a half hours. So much for thinking I can have a look around in the afternoon. And I still have to walk to my host's place, which takes me another 20 minutes.
My host Julia is Taiwanese and lives in a semi-posh appartment within a huge condominium complex, complete with gates, guards, little artificial lakes and whitewashed terracotta statues. She offers me tea, and I gladly accept, as I'm tired and weary from the long flight and train confusion. In my mind I was anticipating her brewing green tea leaves in a tiny, expensive traditional teapot in accordance with an elaborate, special technique that was brought down to her from her great-grandmother, who in turn learned it from her great-grandmother, the concubine of a mighty warlord in a remote Chinese tea-growing region. When I see her pouring water from a water filter into a cup, putting it into the microwave, nuking it for 30 seconds, and putting a teabag into the lukewarm water, my face kind of falls off, and I die just a little on the inside. Expectations can be treacherous things sometimes.
Her plan is to meet up for dinner with some friends, and I reluctantly tag along, despite being incredibly tired from the long trip. We take a taxi to French Concession, a neighbourhood closer to the centre of the city. The ride takes forever, and most embarrassingly, I keep nodding off while Julia is talking to me. Still, I can hear what she says, and I manage to wake up every time she finishes asking a question, which I then answer mechanically. I don't think I made the best impression there.
We go to a posh French restaurant serving mainly crêpes. In front of the place, there are a few streetfood sellers frying noodles and rice in woks, and I curse myself for having manoeuvred myself into such an inflexible situation. Her mates are all expats, of course, a few Brits, one or two Usonians, an Indian or something, the usual. A nerdy Chinese New Yorker chick, who, judging from their interaction, is one of Julia's best friends, tells me she used to have a German boyfriend from Leipzig. For some reason or another, they split up after a while, and she goes on to elaborate on the finer
details of typically German characteristics, all the while sporting this mocking smile on her face:
"They're so inflexible! It's always gotta be one certain way, and that way only. They're always thinking inside their little boxes...and if they are forced to think outside of that box, they build a new box for that! And they always obey the rules and stick to the laws, there's no leeway, it's always either black or white. I hate how they..."
Needless to say, I find her little monologue rather tedious, firstly because I feel like putting my head on the plate in front of me and escaping into sweet dreamland, secondly because I'm naturally very much aware of all the hackneyed German stereotypes. Being confronted in such a manner, I find very disrespectful and insulting, and it would be all too easy to deconstruct her by being a sarcastic prick ("Wait! Aren't you from that one country that...; I heard the people there are...; ...and then the...so funny...how can they even move?; The other day on the news...is that democracy?; ...glasshouse...blah"), but out of respect for Julia I take it all in and hold my tongue.
I order the cheapest
vegetarian crêpe on the menu, which costs twice as much as the most expensive crêpe I've ever eaten. It does taste quite good, but it's one crêpe, meaning my hunger is not satisfied after eating it. I feel like an idiot, sitting in Shanghai in a fucking expat haunt, eating expensive French shit served to me by a foreigner, having to listen to the misguided diatribes of a self-loathing nouvelle Merkin, while outside Chinese people are cooking beautiful, cheap streetfood. Note to self: prefer dull anonymity of hostel to ritualized dullness of hospitality network.
The following morning, I go out alone and have breakfast at a Chinese bakery. Their interpretation of Western baked goods is quite tasty, actually, and the French milk bun and blueberry muffin I choose are delicious. When I order a hot English black milk tea with sago pearls, I point frantically to the overhead menu to try and let the girl know which one I'd like. I attempt to explain with gestures that it's the third from above, but she doesn't get it, so she takes a pair of tongs and jumps up to point at an item she
thinks I requested. She gets it on the third jump, and we all laugh, relieved that face was gained on both sides (hers for jumping valiantly, mine for having very hairy arms), and that usual non-laowei service can resume. For future reference, I copy the Chinese characters with painstaking accuracy, elementary school-style, into my notebook.
I spend a few hours at Shanghai Museum, which houses an excellent collection of ancient Chinese bronze, sculptures, pottery, ceramics, jades, paintings, calligraphy, seals and furniture. A selection of the myriad pictures I took are to be found on this blog. I put them at the end, so if you're interested, you can do a virtual visit of the museum.
Later, I make my way to the famed Yuyuan Gardens, home to a gigantic bazaar, where you can buy everything "Chinese" from teapots and cheongsams to carved seals and silhouette paintings, most of it tacky and overpriced. A seller of adorned jewellery boxes strikes up a conversation with me:
"Hello! You are very handsome!"
-"Whoa, thank you!"
"It is very much in the retuality of you. I speak English."
you do. Not bad."
"Do you have a girlfriend? A wife?"
-"Yes, I do."
"Do you have a sweetheart?"
-"No, I don't."
"Oh, I don't think so. I think you have many sweethearts. You are very handsome. We are short and ugly. But you, very handsome!"
-"No, that's not true, you are also very handsome."
"No, no. Me not handsome. I don't have sweetheart. But I sell things for money, so then I can have sweetheart, too."
-"OK. Well, good luck with that!"
"Thank you! Bye bye!"
It's Saturday, so the Gardens, one of China's most well-known attractions, are brimming with tourists. There are not that many Westerners around, surprisingly, most visitors seem to be from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. I'm highly amused at their antics, especially so on the main square, where they go crazy taking pictures, eating all the dumplings, chicken feet and fried tofu that they can, and buying sweets and hackneyed souvenirs. There's nothing else for me to do but join in, so I first have the tofu with chili sauce, then some bubble tea and Japanese mochi, finally a
couple of baozi (dumplings) filled with veggies and red bean paste.
For the main course, I head to Songyuelou, Shanghai's oldest vegetarian restaurant (dating back to 1910!). They've been doing their thing for more than 100 years at the edge of Yuyuan Gardens, but they certainly don't make it easy for non-Chinese speakers to taste their delicacies. I head to the section at the back where the dishes are prepared and handed to the customers to check out the food, but when I want to order, the chef points me to the checkout at the entrance. When I ask the lady there for a menu, she points up the stairs, so I go up, sit down at one of the tables and skip through the menu given to me by a submissive waiter.
They have a very big selection of fake meat-dishes, including soups and baozi, but the prices seem to be a bit steep, which is probably exclusively so for the more formal seating area on the upper floor, while on the ground floor, you just order your cheap soup, sit down on a bench with other hungry herbivores, and tuck in. Precisely that I'd rather be doing,
so I copy the characters of 'beef' noodle soup on a sheet of paper, go down to the checkout, show the characters to the lady there, and pay for the soup. I get a receipt, which I hand over to the rough-looking kitchen lady at the section in the back.
She gives me a hard look, snatches the receipt out of my hand, looks at it, looks at me again with squinted eyes, pierces the piece of paper on a nail, and proceeds to prepare my soup. She takes a handful of white noodles and chucks them into a gigantic tub filled to the very top with steaming hot water. For a few seconds, she stirs them, then she takes them out with a big netted wok spatula with a long wooden handle. After placing the noodles into a big bowl and dousing them with a few ladlefuls of broth, she adds the mushroom meat, some veggies, then more broth, and hands the bowl over to me with a face completely devoid of expression.
I find a free seat and start wolfing the soup, which is so good, it makes my eyes water. It is also so much
that I can't finish it, a rare occurrence when a Chinese noodle soup is placed in front of me. I finish the delicious mushroom meat, of course, and leave a bunch of noodles, admitting defeat.
The next morning, I head out to People's Square and walk to the Bund via East Nanjing Road, which turns out to be a terrible mistake. All of a sudden, mean- and/or haggard-looking chicks start approaching me every 10 metres, asking the same questions over and over: "Herrow, sir, you wanna shop? You wan' iPhone? Camera? Massaaaage?" It starts getting on my nerves quickly, mainly because it's impossible to interact with them, for they only know these few phrases in English, which they learned by heart. I proceed to do random things to keep myself entertained, like carefully timed 360s to avoid my seeing them, loudly shouting "NO!" when they've just started their spiel, giving them long, blank stares or psycho-grins, anything to freak them out and make them nervous, to keep them on their toes, so they can tell their mum later tonight: "Oh my god, today I talked to this laowei, and he was a complete
psycho! You should have seen him, he was so weird! (...)"
Once at the Bund, the waterfront area lined with historical buildings, overlooking ultra-modern Pudong with its skyline on the other side, a different type of scam unfolds. Giggling pairs of girls approach me, asking me to take their picture, then proceed to enquire where I'm from, whether it's my first time in Shanghai, etc. Apparently what this is supposed to lead to is for you to agree to chat to them for a while in a posh teahouse, so they can practice their English, and so you get the chance to experience a 'traditional' tea ceremony. Upon leaving, you - the pitiful victim - are hit with a bill amounting to several hundreds of €/$, prevented from running off by meaty brick shitters, who will then escort you to an ATM, if you don't have enough cash handy. Needless to say, only an extreme noob would fall for that, and I just ignore the chicks.
Unfortunately, I'm a bit out of luck in terms of weather. It's drizzling very persistently, and the sky is so overcast and hazy that one can hardly see the panorama of Pudong
on the other side. I walk the whole length of the waterfront, cross Waibaidu Bridge, pass by the Russian Consulate-General, and suddenly find myself in a low-key neighbourhood full of small eateries, shops and streetfood vendors.
I find a tiny Buddhist vegetarian eatery, enter it to escape the rain, and am greeted by a family of five looking at me wide-eyed. After the initial shock they're all smiles and getting a table ready for me. The son pours a cup of green tea from a thermos flask for me, the youngest daughter places the menu on the table while the mum orders them around. All the while, they're busy chatting away excitedly. While I study the menu, all of them are standing around and behind me, wondering what I'm about to choose, studying my reactions to the different dishes. It takes me a while to make a choice, and while I'm scratching my head, pondering whether the fake duck would be as good as the one I'm used to or it would turn out a disappointment, they're getting even more into it, barely able to take the suspense.
I end up going for the noodle soup with some
veggie meat and lots of greens. It's a bit oily, but very tasty and extremely cheap. In fact, it's so cheap, and seeing they don't even charge for the tea I was served, that before I head out, I give a little donation to their Buddha shrine, which appears to make them very happy, so it was well worth the few cents.
I spend the rest of the night and next morning sitting in a Western-style café, making use of their Wifi, as I have to finish and send off a translation urgently. To round up my first impression of Shanghai, I visit one of the restored longtang areas, the traditional small alleyways featuring the distinctive shikumen buildings. The first of these buildings I see is like a punch in the face, for it is now home to a Starbucks. Kind of sad how the local authorities only realized very recently that tourists want to see traditional architecture, and that it is actually worth preserving these areas, instead of demolishing them and building soulless, modern buildings instead. It is also very unfortunate that the restoration projects turn these alleys, where real people used
to live their everyday lives, into little theme parks dominated by the usual multinational corporations.
To sum things up, Shanghai can be kind of pleasant, depending on what you do, but generally, it's just too big and too much for me. The fact that it's quite crowded and very polluted only adds to that. Nonetheless, on the cultural side, there are enough things to keep you busy forever, and on the culinary side, I would gladly move to Shanghai just to become a regular at the excellent vegetarian restaurants. I think the city needs time to grow on you.
On the next blog: a long-anticipated reunion, more yummy food, and more linguistic confusion.
There are more photos below