Sunday, May 20, 2007

China (April 27 – May 4, 2007)

At the end of April I went to Shanghai, China for a week to visit my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Amanda Cotterman, one of the most fantastic and very best people I know. I never imagined I would go to China before (just as, perhaps, 5 years ago I never would have imagined I’d go to Russia). I had almost no expectations, because I truly had no idea what to expect, and yet somehow when I arrived to Shanghai, my first thought was, wow, this is not what I expected. Shanghai is a huge modern city, the economic capital of China, with tons of skyscrapers and some kind of not-so-apparent communism, you might say. You can see a lot of very diverse things in here. Anyway, I'll try to explain.

I flew from Vladivostok to Harbin (in northern China) to Shanghai. All of China is on the same time zone, which means although the flight to Harbin is only an hour long, you leave Vladivostok at 2 pm and arrive to Harbin at 12 pm. (Did you get the time change there? It’s a 3-hour difference.) This means that in Shanghai, which by normal rules would perhaps be about an hour behind Vladivostok, the sun comes up before 5 am and goes down at 7. (While in Vlad, for example, it already stays light out until about 9:30.)

If you look out the window on the Harbin-Shanghai flight, you get the feeling that not an inch of eastern China hasn’t been touched by man. On Russian flights, and even on most American flights, I’ve realized that it’s usually fairly quiet on the plane. Not so on the Harbin-Shanghai flight. People just chatted away the whole flight long. This should have been a sign of things to come – China is not a quiet country. And if you are used to Russian behavior in public, which often makes you feel like Americans must be the loudest beings on the planet, China will make you think otherwise. Amanda’s Shanghai guide book states simply, “The Chinese like it hot and loud.” (Interesting…) I don’t know about the hot part, but loud is certainly right on. When you are walking around Shanghai loud conversations, shouting and honking are certainly something to adjust to. Especially in a city of 20 million people – that’s a lot of people being loud. Chinese drivers really like to honk their horns, and some drivers in particular seem to honk at everything – at other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, maybe even inanimate objects, for all I know – I couldn’t keep up. And multiply that by thousands of cars.

When we got off the plane in Shanghai all of the Chinese passengers piled off and immediately started taking pictures. And I thought, Dorothy, we are so not in Russia anymore. Apparently in this still-communist country taking pictures in airports these days is okay. The airport was large, clean and almost empty, and your luggage comes out almost immediately! Efficiency? Very odd. Amanda met me at the airport and we took the magnetic levitation train to catch a cab. (Really, it levitates! There’s a magnet. Although at first I thought it was called the magic levitation train, which is much funnier.)

Amanda lives in an apartment in the so-called French Concession, near the center of Shanghai. This is where the French lived for about 100 years (1850ish-end of WWII), when Shanghai was colonized. There are other parts of the city that were occupied by the Germans, British, etc. The French concession is a really nice spot, and a lot of the old French mansions are still intact, although today the buildings are apartments, restaurants, shops, etc. In the French concession you do not necessarily feel like you are in the middle of a city of 20 million people. There are modern high-rise apartment complexes next to 2- and 3-story buildings, many of the streets are just 2 lanes wide and tree-lined. In fact Shanghai is incredibly green. Way greener than Russian cities. There are trees everywhere, and the highway medians, for example, are not just grassy but have hedges and flowers that are obviously very regularly tended to and trimmed. (As Amanda says, Hey, this is communism. Everyone has to have a job. So it’s somebody’s job to trim the highway hedges.) The urban reforestation is certainly comforting, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem to have done much to disperse the haze that tones out the Shanghai sky most days of the year.

If you were droppedin the middle of Shanghai with no clues, I think you would be hard pressed to realize it’s communist, although perhaps there are a few signs around. In one park we saw 6 guys squatting down and cutting and weeding the grass on a plot of land about the size of my kitchen. It looked like they must be using scissors to do it. And hey, Wikipedia is banned in this country, after all. But Shanghai is a huge modern economic center with thousands and thousands of ex-pats and dozens of foreign companies and investment firms. Although the average salary in Shanghai is only $1500/year, apparently this is enough to support hundreds of boutiques and fancy American and European retail stores which plenty of clothes much too expensive for me. Bars and fancy restaurants are easy to come by, and here you can get pretty much any kind of food you can think of – from Italian to falafel, panini to Starbucks, Northern Chinese to Taiwanese to Shanghai dumplings, guacamole to brie to Eggo waffles, chocolate chip cookies to Burger King. (Amanda claims this is only in Shanghai, not the rest of China. Yes, I tried everything. Oh, except Burger King.) Of course, right next door are the open backstreet markets where you can buy a huge bag of some unknown green vegetable for 12 cents and for a quarter sample an enormous crepe called a jianbing with egg, cilantro, red bean curd, chili sauce and a big fried wonton inside (really, it’s good!). And next to the stylish shops are street vendors selling panty hose for 10 cents, knock-off watches, trinkets, DVDs and more, with plenty of bargaining customers.

In Russia I always try to keep a very low profile and hope I don’t stand out too much as a foreigner. In China, of course this is a hopeless cause. The funny thing is, you don’t really feel like a target for being a foreigner in China. “Shanghai does not have a problem with crime.” That is all Amanda’s guidebook says on this topic. However you do get plenty of attention. Everyone seems to want to prove to you that they know the word “hello.” This means you get “Hello!” shouted at you a lot. Dozens of times a day. It is not a politeness thing. Amanda and I also noticed that it is only Chinese men who do this. (Hmm, a maturity thing?) I also got asked to be in a lot of pictures – apparently I am extra special because I am blonde and extremely white – but Amanda always refused for me.

In China a lot of people ride bikes – regular bikes and motor bikes, none of which appear to be less than 10 years old. In a competition for this type of transportation Portland, Oregon has nothing on Shanghai. However helmets are rather a rarity, and bikers are just as likely to run you over in a crosswalk as drivers (Shanghai, like Vlad – not a safe place to cross the street!). Personal space is not really a big thing in China. Vendors trying to sell you stuff don’t think twice about tapping you on the arm, and there truly were times when we were walking shoulder-to-shoulder in a huge mass of people. Spitting apparently is a big thing in China. Fortunately in Shanghai it is not so bad, where there is a 250 yuan (more than $30) fine for spitting in public.

Although I expected it to be very hot in southern China, it was actually in the 60s my first few days, and only at the end of the trip did we see some shorts weather. Amazing, Chinese people will still be wearing long sleeves, jackets and long johns when it is 75 degrees out. It turned out that Amanda and I spent every other day in Shanghai, and every other day we took a little day trip to a nearby “town.” (Many of these so-called towns have a million plus people.) We did everything from touring Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian temples to seeing an acrobat show, visiting the “Venice(s) of the East” to climbing pagodas, getting facials to climbing bridges, touring communist mansions and silk and rice museums to paddle boating and getting fortunes read. I was lucky to have always-positive Amanda with me, who truly made the trip and was my tour guide, protector (from crazy cab drivers and crazed Chinese photo-happy tourists), and more. China can be hard on the tourist (after all, you are not dozing on the beach here), and although at first I wanted to be as active as possible during what might be my only trip to China, I quickly learned that you have to take some breaks here, otherwise with all the people, noise and new foods to try, you might be feeling a little “bu-shu-fu-ed” – that is, uncomfortable. In fact, I am somewhat ashamed to say that I learned only 3 Chinese words on this trip – “hello,” “thank you,” and I feel “uncomfortable” – the third was certainly a good one! Of course, Amanda and I also spent plenty of time talking away and catching up, which was so great. All in all it was a wonderful visit, and you can read a little about each day, or just look at pictures in the posts below. (You can click on the pictures to enlarge.)

Pictures: 1. Is Mao spinning in his grave? near People’s Park, Shanghai, 2. view from Amanda’s boyfriend Chris’s apartment in Shanghai, French concession, 3. old mansion in the French concession, 4. me with a Fu dog in Jiading, 5. the mullet is still a popular hairstyle in China, 6. Confucian teachings written on tablets on turtles’ backs, Jiading, 7. chickens with heads in market store, Shanghai, 8. stores in Jiading. 9 in front of a pagoda in Suzhou

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