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.