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.