Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shave and a Haircut, Six Bits

We're visiting my wife's family today to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. But first, my son and his friend need a haircut.

We go into a salon by the subway station, where we're greeted with a hearty, “Huanying guanglin!” My wife makes the arrangements, and then it's upstairs with the boys for the treatment.

The salon is busy as a beehive, and just as noisy. There are easily a dozen customers, both males and females, and twice as many staff members moving about. There's also a clear division of labor—the women prepare the customers, but only the men cut hair.

Each of the boys is seated at a station. The hair washers lather them up and then lead them to the sinks in the back for a rinse.

While their hair dries, they get a twenty-minute massage—scalp, neck, back and arms. From the looks on the boys' faces, it must be a near-nirvana experience. I'm jealous. I wish I had hair.

Their hair dry and their muscles relaxed, the boys move on to the next station. Young men with bold hairstyles approach, comb and scissors in hand, to sculpt their clients' hair. Comb, snip. Comb, snip.

After every lock is perfectly trimmed, the boys get a second hair rinsing and then a blow dry. The stylists release their charges, and we go back downstairs to pay. Twenty RMB, or about three American dollars.

We walk across the square to my father-in-law's apartment.

“Nice haircut,” he says when he greets the boys. “How much did it cost?”

“Twenty kuai,” my son replies.

“Too much,” the old man grunts. He knows where to get the same service for ten.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Business As Usual

Back in my little town in rural Kentucky, it takes two hours just to get to the nearest airport. It feels so middle-of-nowhere, driving along country roads, passing but a few small towns along the way.

This evening I'm going from Shanghai Normal University, just west of the Inner Loop, to Pudong International Airport, as far east as I can go before meeting the sea. It'll take me two hours to get there, and I'll never leave the city.

I walk to the station and take a train to People's Square, where I change to another for Pudong International Airport. Still an hour to go.

The train pulls into Guanglan Road, halfway to the airport.

“Everybody off,” the conductor announces. “End of the line.”

I step onto the platform and see the sign. Service to the airport ends at 4:00 p.m. It's around seven now. I follow the crowd upstairs. With so many people heading that direction, there surely must be some other way to get to the airport, I think. But this is China.

Hawkers swarm the ticket gates.

“Pudong?” they ask. “Airport?”

Enterprising car owners have found a way to make a quick buck ferrying disgruntled subway passengers to the airport. If I knew the standard taxi fare from here, I could negotiate a better price. But I don't know where I am.

I also don't want to get caught in a bait-and-switch scam, where the driver offers one price but demands a much higher one at the end of the journey. I'm the foreigner. No one will take my side.

So I go up to street level to hail a cab from a legitimate company. But when I get to the surface, there are no taxis, not even much of a road. I'm in a narrow lane lined with farmhouses from who-knows-what-dynasty. And it's getting dark.

I go with the flow of humanity along this alleyway, trusting in the wisdom of the masses to get me back to the twenty-first century. I see the glow of street lights in the distance, I hear the honking of horns.

Scores of taxis are lined up along Guanglan Road, and I pick one, making sure it has a meter before I get in.

“Pudong Jichang,” I say, but the driver already knows where I want to go. The trip costs me 88 RMB, more than half what it would have cost if I'd taken a cab from home.

I've come to the airport to pick up my son, who's studying in Chongqing this summer but visiting Shanghai for the five-day Dragon Boat Festival. He's bringing a friend, and my wife is also in Shanghai now, so the hotel suite that seemed spacious when I was here alone is now cramped. Home life, Chinese style.

The clerks at the front desk want me to register my guests. My suite is set up for the typical Chinese family of three, but they offer to add a bed for 80 yuan a night.

“One of them can sleep on the couch,” I say.

“We're going to charge you for the extra person anyway,” they tell me, “so you might as well take the bed.”

I'm pulling four hundreds out of my wallet when my wife walks in and addresses the clerks in Mandarin. All three are talking at once, voices rising in pitch and volume. But they're smiling. This is a negotiation, not an argument.

Suddenly, my wife shifts from Mandarin to Shanghainese. This is no accident. She's playing her trump card, letting the hotel staff know she's a local, she knows people, she has influence. She's also playing on the reputation the Shanghainese have for being the toughest negotiators in China.

In the end, we pay for one night, and the desk staff forgets to collect the remainder. Everyone saves face, no feelings are hurt. It's just business as usual in China.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Expo Fever

Shanghai's all abuzz over the World Expo. “Have you been to the Expo yet?” is the standard greeting. The TVs on the trains and buses run continuous Expo news. And that Expo theme song is playing everywhere—I catch myself humming it and want to scream. Am I the only person in this city that doesn't have Expo fever?

If I had to fork over the 150 RMB for the ticket, I wouldn't go. But I've got a free ticket and a ride on the school bus, so I go.

Expo Park is packed, although no more so than an other street in Shanghai. And I refuse to wait in line, which means I only go in the really bad pavilions.

I learned in the DPRK pavilion that North Korea is a “Paradise for People.” Vistas of beautiful Pyongyang, videos of happy people frolicking at a water park. There are those, I suppose, who actually believe this.

The Iran pavilion reminds me of Disney's “Alladin.” Lots of carpets for sale. Maybe I can fly away on one, I think.

I keep getting messages from Expo Central. (Yes, if you use your cell phone, they really do know where you are!) The weather report says partly cloudy and hot, as if I didn't already know. And then I'm told the wait for the Saudi Arabia pavilion is eight hours. Eight hours? Put me on a plane, and I can fly there in that time.

The Bangladesh pavilion is a delight to the nose, the scent of curry wafting from the restaurant in back. Too bad it's only ten o'clock and I'm not hungry. (I make a mental note to return for lunch, but by noon I'm on the other side of the park.)

I'm surprised by the Uzbekistan pavilion, or rather by the long line outside. What could possibly be so interesting about Uzbekistan?

By afternoon I'm in Europe. True to geography, the Czech and Slovak pavilions are neighbors. No queue for the Czech pavilion, so I go in. It's a snooze about Czech contributions to science and technology. And it's bizarre, because everything's on the ceiling and you have to look up all the time. Dvorak's “New World Symphony” is blasting the whole time. The Slovak pavilion must be more exciting, judging from the line outside. But I don't do queues.

There's also a long line for the Portugal pavilion, but I rest for a while in the shade outside. Suddenly it dawns on me, the Chinese name for Portugal means “grape tooth.” (I'm learning the Chinese names for lots of countries, so this is an educational experience.)

One incentive for going in the pavilions is to escape the heat, but there's no air conditioning in the Bulgarian pavilion. However, I do learn Bulgaria is the “Birthplace of Civilization.” (Are these guys buddies with the North Koreans?)

The Cuba pavilion is done up as a Havana street. It looks like Hengshan Road, the street in the French concession with the expat bars.

Perhaps I'm a jaded traveler. Expos just don't excite me. However, I can understand the value of such an experience to a person who's never traveled abroad.

I also understand the symbolic importance of this event for China. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai are coming-of-age events for this country. They show China has matured as a nation, joined the world community. In that sense, I'm glad to have been part of it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Price of Prosperity

My father-in-law is unusually talkative today. He's speaking in Shanghainese, and I catch maybe one word in ten, enough to get the gist but not the details. And it's probably more important for him that he says these things than it is that I understand them.

He's talking about his old house in Jiwang.

When I first met him, he and his wife lived in a single room, shared a kitchen and a toilet with six other families. There was no heat, no hot running water, no shower. In the early 1990s, his five children pooled their money to purchase a house in the newly developing Western suburbs.

Two floors, eight rooms, heat and air conditioning, hot running water and two bathrooms! It was the Zhou family homestead, the place where any of us could stay when we were in Shanghai.

But the subways never made it out to Jiwang, and the area didn't develop as hoped. So the Zhou family sold the house and bought a condo in the city. Half the floor space, but five minutes to the subway and supermarkets.

He misses the house in Jiwang, he tells me. He misses practicing taiji in his garden, playing mahjong with his neighbors. No doubt he also misses his wife, who he shared that house with, but he doesn't mention her.

But the move back to the city was necessary. He's frail now and needs someone to take care of him. He lives with his daugher, her husband and their grown child. It's still common in China for three generations to live under one roof, but they couldn't have done this at the house in Jiwang, since the commute to work would have been too long.

It's a common story here. Loss of community has been the price of prosperity in Shanghai and other Chinese cities as people move from outlying villages and city tenement blocks into modern high-rise condomiums. Living quarters improve, but friends and neighbors are lost forever.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In the News

She was a reporter for Xinhua News Agency. She traveled the country and had many adventures. She also saw many things that never made it on the nightly news.

“There were things I wanted to report, but knew I couldn't,” she says. “I didn't want to get sent to the mountains.”

Reporters that crossed the line too often were sent on a six-month retreat, she says, where they relearned the principles of socialist journalism. She saw it happen to a colleague.

“You can't see your family or friends the whole time,” she says. So she never crossed the line. But she didn't like it.

“Besides, I wanted to travel abroad,” she adds. “And it's hard for a journalist to get a passport, unless you're assigned as a foreign correspondent.”

So she quit her job and used her skill in English to land a job in an international trading company.

He was a correspondent for CNN, and then a journalism professor in Ohio. He now works in the news bureau of ICS, the English-language channel in Shanghai.

“The role of the media in China is to shape public opinion,” he explains. Its goal is to build consensus, not foment unrest or monger fear.

The news in China does have a decidedly positive tone—economic projections met, the day's events at the World Expo in Shanghai.

So I'm surprised by the heavy coverage of the recent earthquake in Qinghai. We see toppled buildings, rubble in the streets, bloodied bodies carried away on stretchers. The casualty reports are surprisingly large.

But we also see rescue workers extracting a little girl from the rubble, distributing water and food. And we see Premier Wen Jiabao touring the site, talking with the people. We hear about the generosity of the Chinese people, who have donated so much to the relief effort.

The role of the media in China is to shape public opinion. And the government has skillfully used a disaster to bring its people together. It is also sending its people a clear message: “We will take care of you.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back to the Future

Who is the father of modern China, Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping? I've heard the Chinese debate this question. On the one hand, Mao liberated China from the twin evils of the Japanese and the Nationalists. On the other hand, it was Deng's policies, not Mao's, that led to the economic miracle transforming China.

Officially, Mao is the father of New China. His portrait hangs in Tian'anmen Square. His face is on the currency.

But on the east bank of the Huangpu River, things are different. It's the twentieth anniversary of the opening of Pudong. At the foot of the Oriental Pearl Tower, a billboard displays Deng's grandfatherly face and his words calling for the building of a new Shanghai.

Under the tower is the Shanghai City Museum, endless hallways of photos, dioramas and plastic models. It's equal parts culture and kitsch.

Shanghai has been a trading center for a millennium, but it didn't become a world player until after the Opium War. Foreign investment built the city into a regional economic center at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it's rebuilding Shanghai a century later.

As I walk past the displays, I wonder how the curators will deal with Shanghai's history during the Japanese invasion, the civil war, the early Communist years. This answer is, they don't. Shanghai's history ends in the 1930s, bustling with economic activity, but with dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

Older Chinese know the rest of the story. In the 1940s China was at war. And in the 80s and 90s, it was rebuilding.

But there are three decades of turmoil and upheaval the Chinese still haven't come to terms with. And they can't blame the Japanese or the Nationalists. The disasters of the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution were all home made.

Perhaps the Chinese are too busy moving forward to look back. But we are also reminded, those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them. The future of Shanghai in 2010 looks every bit as bright as it did a century ago.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Tour de France

It's Thursday afternoon, the start of the May 1 holiday, and I'm taking a bicycle tour of the French Concession.

This is a publicity event, and I'm the token foreigner. Photographers pose me in several candid shots—standing with my bicycle, getting on, riding down the lane. Then they bring in the rest of my group, and we point at buildings, look at the map, discuss our route to the click-click-click of cameras.

A cameraman records our ride down the lane. But he wants another take, so we go back and ride down once more.

Now we're out the lane and into Wukang Road, a shady side street lined with pastel villas. We could be in southern France. We ring our bells just to say, “Hello World!”

A left turn brings us into the traffic of Fuxing Road. We glide along, contending for space with motorcycles and taxis.

The weather is great, and I'm in the flow. I'm also empowered, no longer at the bottom of the traffic pecking order.

A pedestrian crosses before me. He has the green light, but bicycles don't stop for red. I ring my bell, and he steps back.

Past the intersection, a taxi pulls out in front of me. I ring my bell again, but I yield. I may be brave, but I know my place.

Ringing my bell once more, I squeeze between a stopped bus and the curb. (Always watch for bicycles when getting off a bus!)

We each have a landmark to find and a question to answer. Mine is: “What color is the dome of the Russian Orthodox church on Donghu Road?”

We ride the length of the street but don't find it, so we stop and ask a local.

“It's not on Donghu Road,” he says. “It's on Xinle Road.”

“Or do you mean the one on Gao'an Road?” asks a local woman who's joined the conversation.

It seems there are two Russian Orthodox churches in the French Concession, but neither is on Donghu Road.

More locals gather and ask about our tour. The discussion shifts to Shanghainese, and my comprehension drops to zero.

At last we reach a consensus. We'll do the church on Xinle Road. We thank the locals and pedal away.

Two hours later, we've visited half a dozen sites, chatted with locals about the history of each. It's time to head back to the tourist bureau to claim our prize. But our leader is unsure of the way.

“Follow me,” I say.

Ignoring the “No Bicycles” signs, I lead the group into Huaihai Road, where we flow with the taxis and buses and, yes, other bicycles. We take the sharp corner around Normandie Apartment, its edge looming like the bow of an ocean liner, and we're back on Wukang Road, where we started.

And what color was the dome of the Russian Orthodox church? It was blue with gold trim.