Epilogue: 8 Days in Shanghai

I’m somewhat confident that you, dear reader, with a computer and access to the internet, are familiar with camera videos recorded live from non-intrusive attached devices. “GoPro” might ring a bell. Unprofessionally but quite effectively, our ‘smart’ phones are often used to video capture experiences and information. Here’s the point, the camera is usually steady until the action starts or something unexpected happens…the shark attacks, the skier falls, the skydiver gets tangled, the log falls off the approaching truck, the gunfire starts, the stripper falls off the pole into the ‘camera’s’ lap…The camera, still recording, captures the chaos randomly. It doesn’t close its eyes. It doesn’t say a prayer. It doesn’t hope that it doesn’t break. (That’s all of the stuff that we are doing behind the camera.) Every time I stepped out from the hotel in Shanghai, it felt like I was kayaking in class IV rapids…or slaloming on a Black Diamond trail…there was a full sensory onslaught that required concentration. This isn’t to be confused with fear. No, this is a relaxed attentiveness. Not knowing where anything was meant that I paid attention to everything. Not knowing what might be interesting meant that I found almost everything interesting. I had a beginner’s eye. So my blogs concerning Shanghai are the edited and consolidated single camera’s view when it was steady. I know this. I know that nothing happened on this trip that knocked me on my ass, literally or figuratively. For that I am grateful but not naïve.

There were alleyways everywhere, some wide enough to ride through, most cluttered enough that you needed to walk. I didn’t do either. I only peered momentarily down each one and then stuck to the main ways. In a city as densely populated as Shanghai, people made a home wherever they could. There was a grittiness to Shanghai that contrasted sharply with its glitziness. No surprise here. But it shouldn’t be left unmentioned.

I noted in a previous blog that my wife and I had walked the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall. What I’d forgotten to mention was the complete absence of street performers… musicians, magicians, gymnasts or statuesque posers that I’d come to expect in large city open shopping areas. Dublin, London, Lisbon, New Orleans, New York…to list but a few…all had a thriving street art community. I speculated to myself that these artists had all followed the birds to somewhere.

We’ve been back in the States for twelve days today. I’ve had dreams and closed eyed daytime memory flashes of Shanghai everyday. Nothing unsettling or ominous. They say that those who have gone into orbit around our tiny planet come back changed in ways that defy description and, yet, remain profound. In a very real sense, I feel that way now.

Advertisements

7th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

It’s been my experience that people who grew up in tourist destination cities or who live there because of work rarely have much interest in the such attractions. The Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Golden Gate Bridge are places the locals are most likely to avoid or hardly notice as they drive by. Since midweek I had been trying to solicit some ‘sites to see’ recommendations from English speaking staffers whenever I could and was having no luck. None of them had been anywhere, not to any of the places I mentioned and not to anywhere they would suggest for me. You see, the Saturday before our departure, my wife and I had another full, free day to be touristy. I had gone online to have a virtual look at what might be logistically feasible yet I had hoped that someone might steer me towards a lesser known gem. Not this trip, not this time. Still, we were not at all disappointed at the two places we decided upon. First thing in the morning we went to the Jade Buddha Temple. If there were going to be crowds, we were going to try to beat them. How American of us. I won’t bore you with the history or descriptions of the place. All of that is sorta kinda online. What I will tell you is that this is a ‘for real’ working Temple. Sure, it’s got gift shops. So does the National Cathedral, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Mount Rushmore. That in no way detracted or distracted us from feeling the sense of fervor and reverence from the people there to pray…the sense of cultural and spiritual history and continuity. Yes, yes…I too saw the orange cloaked monk standing at the urinal in the public restroom, and the two smoking cigarettes around one of the corners, and the one quickly picking his nose during chantings. That’s just humanity. But there was a wholesome and hopeful energy in this space. We took our time and explored every room slowly. We even took time to have a tea service in the formal tea room. I am not a fan of tea but I was a fan of sitting and sipping this room in. After several hours we left and took a taxi the Yuyuan marketplace. Again, you can go online for some general background and pictures. We arrived shortly before noon and the place was jammed. In truth, we wanted it to be. We wanted to feel the push and crush. It was a market bazaar…a mosh pit of enterprise and we dove in. We even allowed ourselves to be shepherded into a side alley shop by a stringer paid to snag people like us. Watches and hand bags were the lure. We learned quickly that our “no” was simply the beginning of negotiations, not the end. We didn’t buy anything but we did have fun. And I did give the stringer the equivalent of $5.00 for her persistence. We walked and talked, pointed and gawked for several hours. Along with several thousand other people, we stopped and took a few selfies. It was an exhausting and captivating experience. As tourist, we were sated. Shanghai was more than amazing. It was marvel filled…achingly vibrant…endlessly varied…subtly fascinating.

Two little last notes of thanks:

First: at the buffet breakfast in the morning there were two young bus persons, attendees, that my wife and I chatted with daily. Their English was ‘not so good’ but we all tried and did the best we could. We enjoyed asking them some things about themselves and they, in turn, seemed to like being asked and to be talked with. They did seem to give us especially prompt and cordial service. One of them, on our last Saturday, asked us how long we were staying. He was clearing our plates as we were standing to go when he asked. I suppose that Saturdays may be a big check out day. We told him that we were leaving the next day. He said that he was going to be off work. He then reached out his right hand. I thought he wanted to shake hands and so I extended mine. He took it and then moved right into giving me a hug. He said, “Thank you for being so nice.” I was surprised but delighted at his openness and honesty. I thanked him as well. He then hugged my wife and there were smiles all around. The next day at the breakfast buffet, the other bus person took his usual good care with us. He knew we were leaving that day and, as we stood to go back to our room one final time, he, too, shook our hands and gave us a hug. An hour or so later, we went to the front desk, settled up and arranged for our transport to the airport. As we stood watching the driver load our luggage, something made me turn back towards the hotel and, sure enough, the bus person was standing there. I don’t know why. But he stepped towards me and we simply hugged again. An uncomplicated human gesture of kindness and connection. No words were needed then. But now, 8’s days later, I want to send heart felt thanks for that hug. There’s hope for us all in it.

Second, my wife and I had gone into a coffee shop in a mall near the hotel. We ordered and, while waiting for our coffees, a little girl about 3 years old scampered by with her father not far behind. She obviously had not been drinking decaf because she was wandering playfully to and fro under the watchful eye. I’d shifted my attention to the barista when, quite unexpectedly, I felt a little hand around my left knee, circling it like one would a tree trunk. As a father of three, I knew the feeling and naturally just reached down and rubbed the little head of hair next to me. The father and I made eye contact and he was smiling. The little one took a half step back and gazed up at me with curiosity. Without thinking, I lifted her up so that she could have a closer look. Once more, I checked visually with the father and he was ok with what he was seeing. She touched my beard, checked out my glasses and posed while my wife took a picture. I want to thank that father for letting his child be a child and for trusting that there is goodness in this world. Even if it looks a little strange.

 

 

6th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

I would scan the steady stream of bodies on the ten people wide sidewalk from the fourth step of a bank’s entranceway for an hour. I would watch the foot traffic in a crowded mall from a 7th floor coffee shop’s balcony for an entire lunch time. I would search intently through the backseat window of a taxi on a 45 minute mid-city trek. Not once did I see anyone who was trying to stand out. In America, whether it’s with our boots, our belt buckles, our hair color or cut, our entire outfit, our bling or simply our swag, we feel encouraged…even obligated…to delineate ourselves…to make a personal statement…to express our individuality…constantly. Not so in Shanghai that I could see. Now let me be clear, people were no where near being uniform about their tastes or styles but nothing was ever stand outish. The observed protocol was, ‘Be yourself, sure, but keep a low profile.’ There was no purple hair, no mohawks, no chains connecting body piercings, no rainbow scarfs, full length furs, oversized or colorful eyeglasses, fancy hats or funky downtown struts. The odds were against this being something random or coincidental. There were parameters in place that were being observed/obeyed. Who or what did the enforcing was unclear. But no one seemed to be testing the boundaries. And no one seemed to mind. No one appeared deprived or held down. I did not sense that there was anything wrong or amiss with this state of affairs. Rather, I sensed it to be worthy of respect.

I wore my sunglasses whenever I went outside. They’re a ten dollar kind that I buy at a flea market. They have ‘reader’ lenses built into them. For those of you over fifty, you know what ‘reader’ glasses are and you can guess how handy it is to have sunglasses with ‘readers’ built in. I used to have to wear two sets of glasses at times outdoors. It looked as ridiculous as it felt. My children would laugh and poke good fun at me. Anyways, I wore my sunglasses, not because of the sun (the winter smog in Shanghai muted that well enough) but to make my gazings less obvious. I stared a lot. I watched a lot. My sunglasses made me feel less conspicuous. Ask any body guard. At a street side Starbucks, I sat with the smokers outside. Empty chairs not being allowed, I had various joiners at my table during the time I was there. One of them, with no real English but a friendly smile, asked me with gestures and motions to let him try on my sunglasses. I smiled, shrugged and passed them over. To this moment I still chuckle at the memory of the way he jumped back as soon as he had put them on, pulling them off…blinking, pointing and exclaiming at the lenses. I might just as well have given him Xray glasses by the measure of his reaction. “No, no, no” he said. He rubbed his eyes vigorously as if to get that bad mojo out.

Homeless people anywhere touch an ache in my humanity. They seem to wear our collective sadness in their faces, our hearts on the multi-layered sleeves. There’s no way to avoid it for me. I’ve often times told people that of all the seven deadly sins, gluttony has to be the worst because you have to wear it everyday for all to see. The homeless will always be with us and, so, this sadness lingers to be seen. There were only six such that I passed by in Shanghai. Each was poignant. Each I gave to. Each I ached for.

I know you understand and feel it too.

5th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

     On Friday, I met my wife just before noon where she was working. The plan was to have a stroll and find some lunch. I’d been slightly misled. The ‘stroll’ my wife had so casually suggested was actually a walk down the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall. This road was actually an eight lane super shopping highway that went on for more than a mile, North to South and East to West. There were at least ten ‘trains’, theme park styled, that ran back and forth, ferrying foot weary shoppers, from end to end. These stores were of the posh variety, some with names I didn’t recognize, all with prices that couldn’t be misunderstood. It was global enterprise meeting insatiable demand. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time. There’s no real scale for comparison to a typical mall in America that occurs to me except, perhaps, if one were to picture a gecko meeting Godzilla…both lizards of sorts… one being cute and containable…the other simply eating you alive.

     There’s no question that there are many facets to Shanghai that are not for public display. My wife and I caught a glimpse of a different aspect Wednesday night as we dined. This particular restaurant was only one of almost two dozen doing business in a nearby mall. We’d opted to try it randomly. It was fairly busy, brightly lit and we’d found some items on the menu that we recognized. As we were being seated, we noticed that not all of the staff were wearing similar uniforms. I presumed it had something to do with rank or specific responsibilities. I was mistaken. Within ten minutes of our being seated, live music began and nine of the servers formed in a line down a center isle. They were clapping in rhythm to the music as they converged and encouraging the diners to do the same. It was an up beat song which everyone seemed to know (save for us) and the staff sang with great animation and gusto while they performed their choreographed dance routine. The servers were pulling people up from their tables to join in. Some did so willingly, others with great reluctance. This went on for as many verses as a Baptist hymn, which is to say, longer than any one’s devotion lasted. It was flamboyant, camp and unapologetically way over the top. No remnant of suppression from the past was evident in the celebration presently before us.

4th Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

The Chinese may not have embraced capitalism as an economic system (not openly that I know of) but consumerism is in full bloom. A google search (oops, no google here), an internet search of luxury malls in Shanghai will surprise you. It did me. Not in a negative way. The heavens know how little choice the general population had experienced in previous times. Not that they weren’t content. (You can’t miss what you’ve never known). My sense is that, given the longevity of their country and culture, the Chinese simply have a way of making do. Currently, they are “making do” with options galore. Not crass, garish or trashy options. High end options. Tasteful options. Well made options. This is one genie that’s not going back into the bottle any time soon.

I watched as the concierge rewrote my English letters into Chinese characters. Water into wine. Scribblings into art. His fingers moved rapidly, precisely and, to my eye, with finesse. For the whole of the thirty seconds it took him, I was mesmerized. Then the American in me took over and I said, “Do that again, will ya?” He looked at me, sincere and confused. I told him that I was only kidding, but I wasn’t really. I could’ve watched him write the weather forecast with as much appreciation. I’ve been told that written Chinese characters have subtle variations in their construction that communicate to the reader specific inflections and shifts in meaning. My theory is that long ago their rulers and writers had discovered how often and easily something in writing could be read differently than the writer had intended. (We’ve all experienced that in modern times with our emails and texts). So, their characters developed nuance…additional marks that more clearly indicated the precise intention behind the word. Presently, we’ve resorted to emoticons as our solution to this problem.  🙂  They’re a work in progress.

Our first meal in China came after we had checked into the room. We were rather wiped out by the travel yet wanted some real food before attempting to sleep. The casual restaurant adjacent to the hotel lobby was our choice. We were its sole diners at 8:30pm on a Saturday night. We were outnumbered by the staff standing around 4 to 1. That was just fine by us and we were well attended to. So much so that, when the check came, we wanted to be sure to leave a good tip. Neither of us knew what the custom or norm for a gratuity was. My wife, on her way back from the ladies room, asked the bartender our question. There was a flurry of activity that involved the summoning of several other employees and an animated discussion ensued. I watched this all from the safety of our table. Soon enough, my wife came back and reported that they had no idea of what a tip was. It was a foreign concept with no point of reference. It was a simple matter for us to calculate a percentage amount as a token of our appreciation. My wife wanted to give it to our server personally. She walked back to the bar and gave the money to the server with her thanks. The server laughed delightedly, as if my wife had told her a clever but dirty little joke, and turned to her coworkers who also laughed and seemed genuinely appreciative of the colleague’s good fortune. As we exited the restaurant, we stepped up to the check in desk. Curiosity had gotten the better of us. We asked our question again and the three clerks on duty, each speaking relatively good English, did not know the word ‘tip’ nor were they familiar with the concept of giving a gratuity. We were too tired to pursue the issue and shuffled off to the elevator.

 

3rd Entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

I mentioned earlier that the hotel room had a wide window ledge that I made use of. I referred to it as the ‘perch’.  With an eighteen story view and a window pushed outward at the bottom to let in the air and sounds, I meditated there. I wrote there. I pondered things in my heart there. Here are some of my noticings and ponderings from the perch:

  • for the first four days from my perch I did not see a single bird of any kind anywhere…no pigeons, no seagulls, no sparrows, no crows. On the 5th day, 6 pigeons flew by, two stories below me, at 9:14am. They were in a hurry.
  • there has not been one police siren, ambulance wail or fire truck horn, day or night in 5 days. And I’ve been listening for them. I’m either in the wrong place at the wrong time to hear them or this city is like none other for first responders.
  • there are lots of car horns during the day. Very few after 10pm until around 6am.
  • On my walks and from my perch I have yet to hear a single car blasting music into the cosmos. No thumping base beats, no sing alongs at the top of lungs, no techno rhythms accompanying lane changes.
  • For that matter, I have not seen one tricked out ride (car)…no custom suspensions, no styling hub caps, no fat tires, no bling a ling hanging from the rearview mirror, no jacked up mufflers (no loud, broken exhaust systems either). Cars are just cars. They’ve not morphed into forms of self-expression…yet.
  • The package we have with the hotel includes the breakfast buffet. While my wife gets ready for work, I go down for coffee and to people watch. It’s fascinating and instructive. From about 7:30 to 8:15 each morning, the place is a madhouse scramble.  As if on cue, one elevator full of guests after another come quickly past the hostesses in search for space and sustenance. The buffet itself is overwhelmed. This is not your typical restaurant ‘rush’. This is a full on crush. Restocking can barely keep pace and, at times, does not. Every available seat is utilized with no regard for introductions or permission. I had people join me at my table without so much as a glance hello or goodbye. And it never felt rude. It was more that, if they had asked (assuming I spoke a word of the language), of course I would have said yes and, when they left, they presumed their gratitude would be implied. They simply had dispensed with the non-essentials. No offense intended and no offense taken.
  • It’s like this on the streets as well…people everywhere…multiple, non-stop mopeds skirting traffic and ignoring signals, cars, trucks, taxis, busses, trolleys and, then, the foot traffic….all making their own way–improvising constantly, honking repeatedly but not taking anything personally–no one is staking any claim or prerogative…”just keep moving” was/is the whole cooperative effort. Everyone accepts that everyone else has somewhere to go, something to do, and they all simply go in a no-nonsense, flexible, adjusting elements of a flow…like water around rocks. Whether this is a form of abject resignation or a form of a higher, collective consciousness is not for me to say. What I can say is that it beats some of the silly blustering outbursts that our sidewalks seem to create.
  • Traffic lights (signals) have countdowns to green on them. Countdowns to red too. Fifteen seconds of advance notice to the change coming. It seems to keep drivers from the anxiety of wondering when their turn is coming. It seems to be a very effective method of controlling the not knowing.
  • I understand that things aren’t always as they seem though.

 

2nd entry: 8 Days in Shanghai

Logistically, my wife was in Shanghai on a business trip. Because I am self-employed and a writer, I had the opportunity to go with her. A ‘plus one’ situation, as it is sometimes referred to. I mention this so that you might have the context to see why I wasn’t concerned about my sleeping patterns or how I came to have so much time to wander and ponder. From Monday to Friday of the week we were there, my wife went off at 8:30am and returned around 6:30pm. I could nap as my body required.

     One day I took a stroll through a public park. I was in an area that may have been considered ‘downtown’ and yet, there were at least ten other clusters of skyscrapers that could lay claim to that title within my field of view. I didn’t know that I was walking through a park when I started out. I thought I was walking the most direct route towards a building that, at its top, looked remarkably like the “Eye of Sauron” from the Lord of the Rings. Before long, I discovered that I was meandering. It wasn’t quite New York City’s central park, but it was fairly close. It had a small amusement park (rides and all), several concession areas with bathroom facilities, permanent game board tables for chess, checkers and mahjong (all completely filled with players and ringed by spectators), a pond with ducks and carp (Koi fish?), people doing yoga, playing badminton without a net, dancing without music, and having startlingly loud one-sided conversations on their cell phones. Lots of normal human stuff for a  park.

     Here’s some of what I did not see:

  • I did not see anyone sitting in the sun on the grass. People were sitting all over the place but always on the benches and tables provided. (I did see one man on his moped…leaned back, perfectly balanced and fast asleep.)
  • I did not see one couple making out (kissing). In fact, I did not see any public display of affection between anyone.
  • I did not see any young people that were in a pack or up to no good.
  • I did not see any graffiti nor any carvings or markings on the wooden benches.
  • I did not see nor did I meet anyone who asked me for money.
  • I did not see a single piece of litter.

     None of this was normal to me, an American.

     I still have no idea what to make of these observations or what they mean.

     I never will.