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.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Food Poisoning and Cricket

I thought I was immune. For two months now I've been tempting fate, eating pancakes and pork buns from street vendors, slurping noodles in holes-in-the-wall. I've spent enough time in China, I've built up immunity. But microbes are always evolving, and Wednesday my stomach encountered a bug it hadn't met before.

You don't want the details. I'll only say I'll never eat kungpao chicken again. Probably anything with peanuts is no longer in my diet.

Thursday I summon the strength to phone in to cancel class, and then I return to an unconscious state. During bouts of wakefulness, I sip water or juice to rehydrate, but I'm not even hungry. I just want to sleep.

As I lay in the dark, I feel homesick for the first time. I just want to lie in my own bed, eat food prepared in my own kitchen. I'm miserable, I'm lonely, I'm depressed.

Friday morning I drag myself to class simply because I yearn the company of other human beings. My students know I'm ill and are kind to me, for which I'm grateful.

I sustain myself on bread and bananas. It's all I can get down. I'm definitely not going back to the school cafeteria, that poison palace. And I don't want Chinese food anyway—do they really have to fry everything?

Saturday I'm on the mend and meet friends for lunch at Zhongshan Park. I'm so excited to be having spaghetti and salad, the first American food since I've been here.

After lunch, I go with two British guys to a cricket match in Pudong. We ride the subway under the river, change trains, and go deep into terra incognito.

When we climb to the surface, we're no longer in China. Broad boulevards. Wide open spaces. The streets are clean, the sidewalks spit-free. Cars slow down for pedestrians in crosswalks. (But they still don't stop.) We've ridden the subway to another country.

We pass well-dressed people speaking English and French, Japanese and Korean. I see an American kid buying a candy bar in a supermarket. I overhear a French couple in heated conversation—about existential philosophy, I'd like to believe, but more likely about the poor selection of cheeses at Carrefour. Here, wealthy expats can live as if they were in America or Europe. And so can wealthy Chinese.

We sit on the veranda of a coffee shop drinking pints of Guinness. The British guys explain the rules to me, but I just don't get it.

Out on the field, British and Australian and Indian men stand around throwing a ball at each other. Every now and then, they run around the field or jump up and down cheering. Baseball is a game that packs five minutes of action into two hours of playing time, but cricket packs the same thrill into an entire afternoon.

“And sometimes the game goes on for days,” one of them tells me.

It's getting dark, and the players walk off the field. We haven't been following closely enough to tell whether the game is over or will continue tomorrow.

We have dinner at Century Avenue, and then we head home. Four subway lines cross here, and we each take a different one.

For half an hour, I slide sideways through a hole in the ground, and when I climb to the surface, I'm back where I live. I dodge taxis and motorbikes as I cross the street, I push through the crowds on the sidewalk.

From the depths of despair midweek, I'm back to my normal happy self. It was a good day, the kind of day I came here for—to get out of my little corner of the planet and meet the world.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Good Communist

What's this—a line in the cafeteria?

And then I remember. I saw the signs for the Marxist Youth Conference this morning. Like old ladies at a church supper, these students of socialism have been inspired to treat their fellow humans with kindness and respect, at least for the rest of the afternoon.

But I am not a good Communist. I cut to the front of the line, grab a tray, set my smart card on the reader and order lunch.

China is a nation of many religions. Here in Shanghai, you see Muslims running beef noodle shops and grilling lamb kebabs on the street. Buddhist monks ride the subways on their daily rounds. Christians talk to you about their religion, invite you to their church. And Communists believe the socialist utopia is but a generation away.

Marxist theory has had profound geopolitical ramifications over the last century. But for the common man, Communism plays the same role as religion. It provides a set of rules for proper conduct in this life, and hope for a better future.

Religion can be an effective political tool. American politicians constantly profess their faith in God, even as their behavior strays from Christian ideals. Mao Zedong used faith in a new socialist order to unify a nation, first against Japanese invasion and then against Nationalist corruption.

Nowadays, most Chinese are secular, as they have been throughout history. They're generally tolerant of religion, but have no need for it in their daily lives. They mind their own business and don't meddle in others' affairs. I find this attitude quite liberating.

Monday, April 12, 2010

In the Moment

I'm talking about my adventures at the the Xinyang free market.

“I hate bargaining,” says the British guy across from me. “I'd just give whatever they asked.”

He met his wife in London, agreed to settle in her country. It's been a year, but he's not adapting well. He hangs his head, chews his lip.

Next to me is the grinning Canadian. He's just returned from a Buddhist retreat in Laos.

“In North America we have no freedom,” he says. “There, every aspect of our lives is structured by rules and regulations. Here, there are no rules, so people are free to do whatever they want.”

He leans back in his chair, takes a deep breath.

“My body feels so relaxed here,” he says.

The British guy hunches his shoulders. He complains about the food, about the daily struggle for survival here.

“You don't understand,” says the grinning Canadian. “Western society, with its rule of law, is a perversion. Here, people live naturally, the way our species has lived for thousands of years—alive in the moment, in tune with their fellow humans.”

The British guy just shakes his head.

It's interesting how the same situation can be experienced so differently. In China, one has found Hell, the other Nirvana. But my experience is also different, somewhere between the two.

I can empathize with the British guy. I felt the same when I first came to China. Because I'd lived so many years in Japan, I thought I knew Asian culture. But Japan too is a highly structured society. China was so different, so overwhelming.

To a degree, I think the grinning Canadian is right. When society is tightly structured, it's easy to go through life in a semi-trance, gliding through the day on autopilot, focusing attention inward, ruminating over petty personal problems. Certainly I've fallen into this rut back in America.

But here, as I cross six lanes of traffic against the light, dodging taxis and motorcycles, I'm keenly aware of everything around me—I'm in the moment—and I feel so alive, even happy. The grinning Canadian would call it “stepping outside yourself.”

The Chinese are not always selfless beings in tune with each other, though. On the crowded trains and buses, for example, they use their iPods and iPhones to shield themselves from the masses pressing against them.

I don't have an iPod, rarely use my mobile. So how do I hide within the crowd? I think about things to write on my blog, of course.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

At the Xinyang Free Market

I'm at the Xinyang free market in Pudong. I need a hat to keep my head from getting crispy, and I need a waterproof jacket for the rainy season coming in a few weeks.

I find a vendor selling hats, so I go in. I saw hats in Qibao the other day for 10 RMB, but I didn't like the style. I find one here that will do.

“How much?” I ask.



“You're joking.”

I walk out of the stall.

“Wait, wait, wait!” she calls as she runs after me. “OK. Ten.”

(Obviously my initial bid was too high.)

She puts the hat in a bag and I hand her a twenty.

“No change,” she says.

I hand back the hat. She gives me a ten. I just bought a hat for a buck and a half.

I have a harder time finding a jacket. That one's too thick. I need something for springtime. That one's not waterproof. I want a lighter color. I'm saying things in Chinese I didn't even know I knew.

“How long have you lived in China?” the vendor asks.

“Twenty years,” I reply.

(This is a negotiation, not an interview. The truth is irrelevant. What matters is she buys it.)

I try one on, look in the mirror. I really like it. It shows on my face, and she sees it. I have made a tactical blunder.

“How much?” I ask as I take it off.

“Four hundred forty.”


“You're joking.”

I step away, but she pulls me back.

“Make me a serious offer.”


“I give you t-shirt for seventy-five.” She counters with two eighty-five.

“One hundred,” I offer.

“You don't want it,” she says and turns away. She's right. I walk out of the stall.

I check some other vendors.

“You want jacket?” a man asks.

I say yes and follow him. I chat for a while with him and his wife, tell them with utter conviction I've lived in China for twenty years. They keep calling me pengyou—friend.

She shows me exactly the kind of jacket I'm looking for. I try it on. It looks great, but I maintain a poker face. I ask how much.

“American price.” She punches 1850 on a calculator. “Pengyou price.” She drops a thousand.

“Seventy-five,” I counter.

“You're kidding.”

I walk away. They pull me back.

“Look at the quality,” she says. “Famous name brand.”

“One hundred,” I offer.

She drops two hundred.

“One twenty-five.”

She drops another hundred.

“One fifty.”

Four fifty is her final offer. I walk out of the store.

“Wait, wait, wait!”

I have just bought an item, identical in every respect to a Columbia Titanium rain jacket, for twenty-two bucks.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sunday Afternoon in Fuxing Park

They were dancing to the Tennessee Waltz in front of the statue of Marx and Engels.

Sundays I meet friends for coffee in Xintiandi, and afterwards I walk to Fuxing Park, in the heart of the French Concession, to watch the people dance. Today, there aren't enough men, and several of the ladies are dancing with imaginary partners.

“Can you dance?” one of the women calls out to me.

“I don't know how,” I reply.

“I'll show you,” she says, and before I know it, I'm on the dance floor.

“Yi, er, san,” she counts. “Si, wu, liu.” Step out, step back, count to six again. I've got it—as long as she keeps counting for me.

She asks where I'm from.

“Meiguo,” I reply.

I miss a step, and she starts counting for me again.

The next dance is more complicated, though, and I quickly reveal my two left feet. We plod through, but when the music stops, I thank her and bow out. She smiles and nods, and then she hooks up with one of the other single women for the next number.

I walk over to the open space in front of the pond. Men in berets sit at tables playing go and Chinese chess, while other men gather round watching and discussing strategy. Across the pond, a man stands in a pavilion singing Italian opera.

Several joggers pass me by as I follow a path through the trees. But one nearly trips when he sees me. Shaved head and geek-sheek glasses—is he my long-lost Chinese twin?

I enter a cave in a rock formation, but as I go around a corner, I spot a couple making out in the dark. I quietly turn around and go back out.

In the field, families are picnicking and flying kites—rainbow colors dancing in the wind before a backdrop of skyscrapers.

So much of Chinese life is lived outdoors. Today, the clouds hang low and the air is damp. But we bundle in layers and go out anyway, living our lives in the open air.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lonely Monday

Monday afternoon I'm bored and agitated, I need to get off campus for a while.

So I head to the French Concession for a stroll. I love the narrow streets lined with century-old villas and cottages, and I enjoy the art-deco buildings on Huaihai Road as well.

Later, I decide to check out the Bund, open again after renovations for the upcoming World Expo. I stand at the rail and look across the Huangpu River at the skyscrapers of Pudong. I watch a freighter pass by.

I turn my back on Pudong and look down Zhongshan Road. Here, the British built a replica of London. It's six o'clock, and the bell tower on the Customs House does an imitation of Big Ben.

I'm lonely and tired. I've done a lot of walking. My feet hurt, and I'm limping a little. The Bund is one of the major tourist attractions of Shanghai, so why is the nearest subway station six blocks away?

On Nanjing Road, a hawker approaches.

“Hello sir!” he calls out. “Watch? Wallet?”

I'm feeling lousy. I've had enough. I turn on him and shout, “Go away!” My hand is raised. I want to hit him.

“Go away,” he parrots.

Six steps later, another hawker approaches. I swat at him like a mosquito. I've lost my cool and I know it.

The subway station is packed. The Chinese are rarely timid, but subways are new in Shanghai—not yet engrained in the culture—so when a full train pulls into the station, the people on the platform just stand there. But I rode rush-hour trains in Japan for years—I know there's always room for one more. I walk up to the open door, shove hard, and step into the train. The door closes behind me.

I get back to campus too late to eat in the cafeteria, so I order a veggie wrap from a vendor outside. There's a crowd—never a line in China, always a crowd—and the guy that paid after me is trying to cut in front. I'm not going to let him do it.

When it's my turn, the cook asks him what he wants on his wrap. I tell her what I want.

She smiles at him and says, “Let the foreigner go first.”

They're treating me like a child! (And they also think I don't understand what they're saying about me.)

“You teacher here?” asks the guy in halting English. Oh, now you're being friendly, huh?

“Yes,” I say.



Puzzled look on his face.

“Xinlixue,” I explain.

“Oh, you speak good Chinese.”

Not good enough to tell you what I really think about you.

The cook hands me my veggie wrap. I could sit on the patio and eat it, but I just want to go back to my room. I've had enough of China and the Chinese for one day.

Mostly this trip has been good. I've done a lot of interesting things, met a lot of interesting people. Sometimes, though, I also feel very isolated—lonely and frustrated. But that too is part of the experience.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Terms Are Negotiable

You don't order food in a Chinese restaurant. You negotiate.

“We'll have the lotus root stuffed with sweet rice,” says our host.

“No lotus root today,” the waitress replies.

But these aren't the bad old days of Communism, when the standard response to every request was "mei you"—“don't have it.” Rather, Chinese cuisine depends on fresh ingredients, so if they didn't get their shipment of lotus root, they can't serve it.

“Why don't you try the pork-stuffed eggplant,” the waitress suggests. “It's good today.”

Nine of us are sitting around the table, throwing out suggestions from the menu.

“You've got two beef dishes,” the waitress says. “You could change one of them to a fish or chicken dish.”

Someone suggests the sweet-and-sour fried fish, and the waitress points. We all get up and head to the tank room. After a long discussion, we reach a consensus. A busboy nets the fish and carries it, flopping and dripping water, to the kitchen.

Waiters are carrying dishes to the table, but then the waitress comes back.

“There's no goose for the three-meat platter,” she tells us. She's not apologizing, merely informing us.

“Would you like to order something else?” she asks. “Or, we could substitute duck instead.”

We tell her any three meats will do.

Near the end of the meal, someone notices we never got the pumpkin fritters, and we ask the waitress about it.

“We don't have any pumpkin today,” she says.

“Why didn't you tell us?” our host demands.

“I didn't know,” she replies.

It doesn't matter anyway, since there's already more than we can eat.

From the Western perspective, China is not a well-ordered society. Those new here are constantly complaining the Chinese never follow the rules.

“My life flashes before my eyes every time I cross the street,” they complain.

Those who've been here longer rationalize Chinese behavior. The traffic laws are merely suggestions, the traffic lights are but decorations.

But I don't think that's the right perspective either. The Chinese navigate traffic the same way they order a meal, the same way they conduct every aspect of their social life. They negotiate.

Twenty of us stand at a crosswalk, and our numbers are growing. Will that light ever change? Someone steps off the curb, and several others follow. We reach critical mass and pour into the street.

A bus is heading toward us, horn blasting. Not to worry. It won't slow down, but it won't hit us either. We quicken our pace, and the bus swerves around us.

We all make it through the intersection, and we all go on with our lives.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Meet the Faculty

Although I can't catch the details, I follow the gist. Should students be allowed to eat or drink in class? What to do about students that come late or leave early? How to handle disruptive behavior? These are the same questions we ask at faculty meetings back in the States.

Tell them to leave, says a hard-liner. But another suggests a softer approach. People are all talking at once, and the volume is increasing. But they're not arguing—the shouting match is punctuated by rounds of laughter.

There's no parliamentary procedure, and I can't even tell who's the chair. At last, the shouting stops.

“The meeting's over,” a colleague tells me. “Now we're going out for dinner.”

We talk and laugh as we walk to the restaurant. The air is crisp, and the plum blossoms glow pink against the azure sky.

As we nibble on the cold dishes, someone opens a bottle of huangjiu and pours shots.

“Ganbei!” he shouts, and it's bottoms up.

I do a couple to be polite, but no more. I don't want to nurse a hangover in the morning.

One by one, the hot dishes are brought in—a chicken and mushroom stew, snails with garlic, “lion's head” meatballs, a fish soup with rice cakes, to name a few. The men are drinking beer now, but I'm doing tea with the ladies.

After dinner, it's karaoke. We've got a private room, and waiters bring beer, tea and plenty of snacks—just in case we're still hungry after that sixteen-course meal.

The men are sloshed. They're belting out Teresa Teng love songs, and they make me sing along. After we croon “The Moon Represents My Heart,” one of them gets on his knee and asks me to marry him. But I don't take it as a serious proposal.

The women are giddy without alcoholic support. They sing and dance to teenybopper hits, giggling and screaming between each song. I sit back and think, if only their students could see them now....

I admire the Chinese gusto for living and wish I could let go the way they do. Even though I was subdued by comparison, they did pull me out of my shell, and it was fun. On the taxi ride home, I hear Teresa Teng singing in my head, and I'm humming along—“yueliang daibiao wo de xin.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fish Head Soup

“You're early,” she says. “Why don't you come shopping with me?” She wants to make fish-head soup.

We could go to the supermarket by the subway station. It's three floors of more kinds of food than you can imagine. But they don't have good fish heads, she tells me.

So my sister-in-law and I head in another direction. The sun is shining, the air is fresh. It's a great day for a walk.

It's also easier for me to make conversation when we go out. Like a two-year-old, I ask questions. “Na shi shen me?” I point and ask. What's that?

We go to a market where dozens of stalls are set up under one roof.

“What else do you want to eat tonight?” she asks.

Only everything, I think. My eyes are drawn first to the vegetables. Any you'd find in an American supermarket is here—broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, corn. And then there are the various Chinese vegetables I've learned the names of over the years, but there are still many more I don't know.

“We had that last time,” she says, pointing at a long thick stalk with bushy green leaves at one end. She tells me the name again, but I still don't remember it.

At the fishmonger's stall, a fish head lies on a stone slab. It's still breathing.

She talks in Shanghainese with the woman behind the stall, who points at the fish head, but my sister-in-law shakes her head.

Not fresh enough? I wonder. But she tells me in Mandarin it's too small.

The fishmonger reaches into a tank with her bare hand, pulls out a ten-pounder and flops it on the slab. The fish thrashes about, but she grabs a hammer. A few whacks to the head, and the fish settles down.

Then she takes a cleaver and chops it in half with one stroke.

The next stop is a tofu stall, where my sister-in-law buys dried tofu to cook with tender Chinese celery, and gelatin sheets that will go in the soup.

Back home, I offer to help, but she insists her kitchen is too small for two people. So I stand in the doorway, watching and asking questions. She pan fries the fish head with ginger, and then she adds water, salt, green onions and peppercorns. While the broth simmers, she stir-fries yellow chives with eggs, a leafy green with shiitake, and tender celery with dried tofu.

“Three dishes and a soup,” she apologizes as we sit down. It's the bare minimum for a family meal. But there are only three people at table. Her father joins us, but her husband and daughter are both working late.

I tell her the soup is delicious.

“Ma ma hu hu,” she replies, but I insist it's anything but so-so.

The love of good food and the joy of cooking permeate the culture here—the pleasure of shopping for the freshest ingredients, the loving preparation of the food, the sharing of the meal with family. That's what life in China is all about.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Rare Day

I wake up Wednesday morning to find a dusting of snow on the ground -- a rare occurrence for Shanghai. But the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the air is fresh. All the omens are right. It's going to be a rare day.

On other days, I'm a teacher in the psychology department. But on Wednesdays, I'm a student in the Chinese language program.

“You're going to be both a teacher and a student,” said the secretary as she helped me register. “That's very rare in China.”

So Wednesday morning I find myself on the other side of the podium. I'm sitting three rows back. I'm no more willing to raise my hand or volunteer an answer than any of my classmates. I look up at the teacher. I'm smiling and nodding. I understand maybe one word in three.

So this is what it's like for my students here, trying to learn psychology in a language they barely understand. And I also wonder if it's any different back in the States, where I talk academe-speak to students just out of high school.

Now I know why they're so quiet, so reluctant to respond. I remember now what it's like to be a student.

“It's rare in America, too,” I told the secretary.

But maybe teachers should sit on the other side of the podium once in a while. The new perspective could help them be more compassionate teachers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Benign Neglect

“Jing'an Temple?” I ask the bus driver. He nods, so I climb aboard.

“I'll let you know when we get to Jing'an Temple,” says the woman behind me.

I know where to get off, but I thank her for her kindness. We chat briefly, and I find she graduated from Shanghai Normal University, where I'm now on sabbatical. But then her phone rings, and that's the end of the conversation.

In the city center where the tourists go -- the Bund, Nanjing Road, the City God Temple -- hawkers swarm like flies on every laowai they spot.

“Watch? Wallet? DVD?”

I walk past as if he weren't there.

“What you want?”

To be left alone.

“Hello sir!” he calls out to me.

A dozen paces later, a woman approaches. “Watch? Wallet?”

But here in the suburbs, the people treat me the way they treat everyone else -- with benign neglect. In a city of 20 million people, you just can't say hello to everyone.

They're not callous, though. I've witnessed many acts of kindness toward strangers, like the one I received on the bus to Jing'an Temple.

So when a gentleman approaches me in Kangjian Park, I know he's not trying to sell me a fake Rolex. He's just curious what a foreigner is doing in his neighborhood.

I tell him my story, and we chat a while. He compliments me on my Chinese, I compliment him on his English, and then we say goodbye.

We'll probably never see each other again. But if we do, we'll surely say, “Ni hao!”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

One Lifetime

Because I speak like a child, he treats me like a child. He holds my hand when we cross the street, he takes me to a candy store.

But he too is like a child. He needs me to take his arm as we step off the curb, he needs me to slow my pace because he can't keep up.

He doesn't say so, but I can tell he's happy I'm walking with him.

“My American son-in-law,” he'd told the doorman on our way out, putting his arm around mine.

He doesn't speak Mandarin very well, but I understand even less Shanghainese, so our conversation is limited.

We're in an appliance store, and he's teaching me the names of things. Some words I already know, some make sense and stick in my mind, others make no sense and go over my head.

“This is a water heater,” he tells me. “That's a washing machine.” When I first met him twenty years ago, he lived in a house with no hot water, no heat, no washing machine, just like everyone else in China.

I try to imagine what his life must have been like, all the things he's seen.

In his youth, he saw his country invaded by the Japanese, he endured the civil war that followed. Then there was the thrill of Liberation, the hope for a New China, the betrayal of the Hundred Flowers Movement. During the Cultural Revolution, he was branded an intellectual and sent to the countryside for re-education through labor. Later, he saw three of his five children leave China to make their lives in other lands.

Yet he's living his final years in comfort and abundance. Could he ever have imagined a future like this? What does he think of it all? There are so many questions I'd like to ask him, if only I had the words.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Saturday at Home with the Family

One of my Shanghai sisters-in-law called and invited me for lunch.

“What time?” I asked.

“Lunch” she repeated, perhaps thinking I'd misunderstood.

I need to stop thinking like an American, a slave to the clock. Time is more fluid here -- things happen when they happen.

Midmorning I hop a bus in the general direction, but when I get off I still have a good 20-minute walk ahead of me. Along the way, I stop in a mom-and-pop store to buy a box of cookies for her granddaughter, and later I turned into a side-street market to find a gift for the hostess.

I could have done my shopping at the supermarket next to the university, but I prefer the open markets, where I can talk with the vendors and practice my Chinese.

I'm looking for something sweet -- a dessert or snack after lunch.

I stop at a stall selling rice cakes -- sticky rice decorated with dried fruit. The cakes are pretty, but the cleanliness of the stall is questionable, so I move on.

An old woman selling roasted chestnuts calls out to me, and I make a mental note to come back if I find nothing else. In the end, I find a fruit stand where I buy a pound of strawberries and a pound of mangoes.

Just as I'm buzzing my sister-in-law's door, her son arrives, his 2-year-old in his arms, and we ride the elevator together.

My sister-in-law seats me in the living room and brings me a cup of tea. Her husband is doting over his granddaughter, and he helps her bring out peanuts and watermelon seeds and tangerines. The little girl hands me a watermelon seed, and I crack it open with my teeth, but the tasty morsel inside is for her.

My brother-in-law looks much happier now than the last time I saw him five years ago. He loves to talk -- I understand maybe one word in six.

“Two years ago I was very busy,” he tells me. “But now, because of the poor economy, I have much more time to spend at home.” He's smiling.

I chat with their son in a mixture of Chinese and English. Five years ago, he was a Web-page designer. In the meantime, he got married, had a kid, and got promoted to manager.

“Our company runs the biggest TV shopping channel in China,” he tells me. “The government has given us many awards, and they want us to double our business. They want China to be the biggest TV shopping market in Asia.”

There's absolutely no sense of irony that the Chinese Communist Party is promoting one of the crassest forms of capitalism.

At the start of lunch, there are half a dozen dishes on the table -- braised fish, eel with green peppers, a mushroom stew, bamboo shoots with tofu and peanuts, a roasted duck, a leafy green.

“Nothing special,” my sister-in-law says. But during the meal, she and her husband take turns in the kitchen preparing more dishes.

“Eat everything,” she tells me. “We're cooking all new dishes for dinner.”

After lunch, we sit in the living room and watch a movie -- in English with Chinese subtitles. We sip tea and munch on peanuts and tangerines. Midafternoon, my sister-in-law brings out the strawberries.

Later, I watch TV with the granddaughter. It's her favorite show, Clever Tiger, and she sings the theme song to me: Qiao hu, qiao hu ... Finally, a TV show I can understand.

Their daughter-in-law joins us for dinner. She works for an on-line gaming company. (World of Warcraft is one of their clients.) Despite the recession -- or perhaps on account of it -- her business is flourishing, and she'll be working overtime on Sunday as well.

Around nine it's time to go, and my sister-in-law walks me to the bus stop -- one much closer to her home than where I'd gotten off.

“Come again any time,” she tells me. “Just stop by if you have nothing to do.”

My bus arrives. I thank her again and tell her I had a great time. And I did have a great time --nothing special, just Saturday at home with the family.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Yunnan Tea Ceremony

I met a young couple today in People's Park. In a mixture of broken Chinese and broken English, I learned Pingping and Yangyang were from Harbin, but they'd been living in Shanghai for several years.

I told them I'd first come to Shanghai for my wedding in 1989 and since then I'd been back many times. They were a lively couple, and I enjoyed talking with them.

“We're on our way to a Yunnan tea ceremony,” said Yangyang as he gently tugged on Pingping's sleeve.

“Nice talking with you,” Pingping said as she waved goodbye.

What a pleasant couple, I thought as I walked away. And I even got a chance to practice my Chinese.

Oh, Dawei!” Pingping called back to me, using my Chinese name. “Would you like to join us?”

I was just hanging out in the park, taking in the sights. I had no idea what a Yunnan tea ceremony was, but it sounded cultural. So why not?

As Yangyang led the way, Pingping asked me about my wife's family -- and she has lots of family. We were talking mostly in Chinese, and I kept mixing up the words for older sister and younger sister, older brother and younger brother, and Pingping teased me.

Engrossed in conversation, I was barely aware we were no longer in People's Park but were walking down a side street. I thought Yangyang had said the tea ceremony was in the park. But maybe he'd said it was near the park.

Yangyang led us into a shopping arcade and up to the second floor. Two young women in ethnic dress greeted us at the door. Now I get it!

“I've got to eat lunch right now,” I told Pingping and Yangyang as I turned to leave. “Maybe later.”

“There will be food at the tea ceremony,” Yangyang said.

“No thanks,” I replied as I hurried down the stairs and out onto the street.

I'd heard of the English conversation scam, the karaoke scam and the art student scam, but the Yunnan tea ceremony scam was new to me.

In each case, an attractive young woman chats up a lone foreign man, and then she suggests they go to a teahouse for conversation or karaoke, or else she tells him she's an art student and asks if he wants to see her gallery.

When the duped laowai tries to leave the teahouse or art show, he's presented with a bill for several hundred yuan, and he has to deal with the bouncers if he refuses to pay.

O Pingping! O Yangyang! My new Chinese friends! How could you betray me like this? And yet, I have to admire their skill. They are true con artists. I don't know whether to wish them well or ill.

I returned to the park, bought a spiced pancake from a vendor, and sat on a bench to eat my lunch. Two young women approached and asked how I was enjoying my pancake. They told me they were students from Wuxi sightseeing in Shanghai, and I told them I was an exchange professor at Shanghai Normal University.

“By the way,” one of them said. “We're on our way to a Yunnan tea ceremony. Would you like to join us?”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blue Skies Over Shanghai

He met me at the airport and loaded my bags into his new BMW. He's a music professor, but you can't maintain a lifestyle like his on a teacher's salary. He'd made his money in real estate.
When Deng Xiaoping opened China to capitalism, he told his people some would get rich faster than others. My friend was one of the first.

We were speeding along an elevated highway, a ribbon of concrete stretched across a sea of tiled rooftops.

"I just got back from India," he said.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Dirty. Very dirty."

I used to think the same about China, but I didn't tell him that.

Today the sun was shining, the sky was blue. Blue skies over Shanghai? (Of course, it was the end of the weeklong Chinese New Year celebration. And by Monday, the familiar Shanghai smog was back.)

On the plane, I'd met an American teaching at a university in Yangzhou.

"Everything in Yangzhou is powered by coal," she said. "A fine black dust settles on everything."

"Shanghai used to be like that," I told her.

Nowadays, Shanghai's smog is no different from what you'd find in any big city, like New York or Los Angeles. As China develops, I guess some cities will get cleaner before others, too.

I've been taking early morning walks, just to learn my way around. Along the way, I buy a bun or pastry from a street vendor and eat it as I walk. It's a customary breakfast here.

The main thoroughfares of Shanghai are lined with shops and restaurants, many with names familiar to Americans. The cars are sleek and the people are smartly dressed.

But turn into a back alley and you're in another world. Here, quarters are cramped, and life spills out into the street. A teenager washes his hair in a basin of water. An old man butchers a fish. A woman stirs a kettle of who-knows-what. A little boy pees in the gutter. Here are the people of China still waiting to get rich.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Welcome to China Perspective

When I visited for the first time in 1989, Shanghai was looking ragged. The city had largely been built by European colonists during the nineteenth century, but it had not been well maintained through a century of political upheaval. Depending on the district, you could easily imagine yourself in one of the seedier neighborhoods of Paris or London, Berlin or Brooklyn. The east bank of the Huangpu River was still undeveloped.

Each time I went back to Shanghai, the city looked different. Here and there, skyscrapers began rising above the expanse of two-storied tile-roofed houses. An army of workers, equipped with little more than pickaxes and wheelbarrows, dug up Huaihai Road and built the city's first subway line. One by one, the old buildings of the colonial concessions were restored to their original grandeur. And the wasteland of Pudong gave birth to the twenty-first-century skyline that has come to symbolize the economic miracle of China.

During my five-month sabbatical, I will be observing everyday life in this dynamic city. I will also be interacting with its people, trying to understand life in this rapidly changing country and how the Chinese view their relationship with the rest of the world. Although I will consider cultural differences, I will mostly be searching for the commonalities of human existence that bind us all together. Shortly after my February 20 arrival, I will begin posting twice a week. I hope you will join me as I experience the China perspective.