[Gentle reader: I have been trying really really hard to write everything in order, but I’m falling so far behind that I’m afraid that I will never catch up unless I skip ahead to the present day. I promise I will write about Bangkok, Malaysia, and Singapore later, but right now, we need to fast-forward to China. Ok. Get out of the Delorean; we’re here.]
I have been in countries where elephants roam free. I have been in countries where people eat tarantulas. I have been in countries with no traffic laws. I have been in countries where the king has hundreds of wives; countries where blood pudding is considered a delicacy.
But I have never been anywhere that feels as foreign as China does.
Maybe it’s all the staring.
It’s not like it’s a surprise; I had done my research and I came totally prepared to be stared at. (There just aren’t very many white people.) But it’s one thing to know intellectually that people will look at you more than usual—it’s quite another to actually see people stop in their tracks and gawp at you. Over and over again. (Just to be clear, plenty of people don’t look at me twice. But enough others actually turn around to continue staring that they tip the scales.)
On day one, when I was sightseeing in Shanghai, I sat on a low wall about two feet from an American couple. A Chinese woman holding a baby plopped herself down between us and smiled as her husband snapped several photos of all five of us. Then they stood up and walked away. (Since I had decided in advance that I would take photos of everyone who took photos of me, here they are.)
But let me back up, because things have been—I hesitate to use the word “strange,” so let’s use the word “different”—since I arrived in China a few days ago.
I flew from KL to Guangzhou (formerly Canton), which is in the South near Hong Kong. I picked up my backpack, got my passport stamped, re-checked my luggage, and went up an escalator to go through security. I was really hungry, so I was looking forward to checking out the food court before my flight to Shanghai. But instead of an open concourse, I found myself (and about fifty other people) faced with a hallway-cum-waiting area separated by the security area by glass doors. A female officer with a walkie talkie was standing in front of the doors, refusing to let people through. So I sat down and waited. After about half an hour I began to get a little nervous—I didn’t know how long the security line would take or how far I was from my gate, and I still had a second flight to catch. I stood up and headed over to the officer, trying to compose some simple sentences in Mandarin in my head. Fortunately, just as I was about to throw myself on her mercy, she opened the doors and I was able to rush to the front of the security line. I have been in airports all over the world and I have never, ever been in a situation like that.
The area around the gate was also different from any other airport I have ever been to. Usually there is a range of food options, from the low end (McDonald’s) to the high end (say, Todd English’s restaurant at Logan). By the B gates in Guangzhou, however, everything is pretty fancy looking. It was so fancy looking that I ended up having two Snickers bars and a bag of sweet potato chips (the former purchased from an elegant gift shop, the second from a classy fruit shop). I spent about $10!
When I finally arrived in Shanghai I could not wait to jump in a cab and get to my hostel. Little did I expect the longest taxi line I have ever seen, anywhere. And there I was without a winter coat. Fortunately, it wasn’t freezing cold, so with my sweats I was reasonably warm, and the line did move pretty quickly. But there were literally hundreds of people in it. And the Chinese are not known for respecting lines, so I had to keep an eye on the woman behind me, who kept trying to edge in front of me.
Then when I was finally pointed towards a taxi, the driver seemed befuddled when I showed him the hostel confirmation on my ipod touch, which was written in both English and Mandarin. (China has a 91% literacy rate, so odds are that he could read it just fine.) Fortunately, the man directing people to taxis strode up and read it to him. The driver nodded in what I hoped was not feigned recognition, and he drove me into the city. I was too tired to absorb what I was seeing, but I did register that the hostel was right around the corner from the Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverside walk.
The most notable thing about my hostel, Captain Hostel, was how cold it was. There was a central courtyard and even though it was winter, the windows were open into the hallway. The bathroom was so freezing that I didn’t even contemplate a shower. I opened the dormitory door with dread, but was relieved to find a very warm, modern room with only about six bunk beds around the edges of a large room with tables to sit at and the most high-tech lockers I have ever encountered (you touch a key fob to them and they unlock). Most of the girls were already asleep, which was a huge relief since I was too tired to deal with loud people coming back from bars. I was a little surprised to see that I was the only non-Chinese—I’ve never, ever stayed at a hostel where everyone was from the country I was in. I’ve only stayed at two where anyone was from the country!
In the morning I stopped at the front desk to get advice as to where to go. The man at the desk suggested I buy a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus. Normally I don’t do those things, but since it was so cold out and my winter coat was in my luggage that Brad (my co-teacher) was bringing from America for me, it seemed like a good way to see the city without freezing to death. He also wrote the name of a breakfast food I should try on a piece of paper in Mandarin so I could just hand it to a waiter. But his description of where to go was a little hard to follow, so I decided to walk to the Bund and see what I could find.
The view from the Bund is spectacular—on the far side of the river is Pudong, the newest part of the city. The skyline could rival any city in the world. On the Puxi side, my side, were old buildings built by the British and French during Shanghai’s various colonial periods. I saw the red double decker buses and was just about to buy myself a ticket when I decided that it would make more sense to get some food first. I walked down a side street in search of a Chinese restaurant that could give me whatever was written on my piece of paper (I really hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was), when in the window of a beautiful art deco hotel I saw the one word I can never resist: patisserie.
I headed inside (hoping the doorman was not thinking: who is this woman who is wearing ten layers of thermals and no winter coat and why does she think we allow riff-raff like her in our hotel?) and found myself in a very elegant café. My heart sang when I saw that they had pain au chocolat for a not-too-outrageous price (a little less than $3). I was about to order a cup of coffee when I saw the prices. Not trusting my mental math, I pulled out my ipod touch and checked my currency converter app. I was right: there was not a single coffee option for less than $8!!! I quickly decided that my pastry would be enough for me.
After breakfast I purchased a bus ticket for the very reasonable price of 30 rmb/$5 (or, as I like to call it, about 60% of the cost of a cup of coffee). They gave you a little card that you had to swipe each time you got on the bus and a pair of ear buds that you could plug into the wall and get descriptions of what you were looking at in about six different languages. Which was all very well in theory, but in reality the timing was usually so off that I had no idea which building I was supposed to be looking at. And most of the time they just played elevator music while the voice reminded us to hold onto the bars in front of us at all times. (The other big negative was that the route only went in one direction. Which meant that if I found myself just one stop past the Bund when it was approaching the time when I needed to be picked up at my hostel, I would have to take a taxi back, since there wouldn’t be time to do the entire loop again.)
The first stop I alighted at was the City God Temple, which seems to be the Shanghai equivalent of Quincy Market. I never actually spotted the temple, but since the whole area was built in the traditional Chinese style (and still decorated for New Year’s) it didn’t really matter. I walked around for a while and admired the shops. I was impressed by the line at a place that sold crab dumplings. It looked vaguely familiar to me—I had a feeling I’d seen it before in videos about Shanghai. I guess I will have to try it someday. (Hopefully before that I will learn to like crab.)
I ended up eating at a cafeteria-style place where you grabbed a tray and then could choose between at least a dozen different foods. Descriptions were on display in both Mandarin and English—though the prices were not as easy to discern. The food was already plated so I ended up grabbing a plate of many more pork dumplings than I could eat. I’m sure there was a way to take less but since I couldn’t communicate I just took them all and it ended up being relatively pricy (maybe $6). I found a seat next to some Chinese people, who, mercifully, ignored me. I couldn’t see chopsticks anywhere, so I went over the cashier and managed to ask, “Where are the chopsticks?” in Mandarin. When she pointed to the chopsticks I could not have been prouder.
I really enjoyed my dumplings but there was no way I could finish them. I hate wasting food and I was just working up the courage to ask the Chinese family sitting across from me if they wanted to have some when they left and were replaced by a middle-aged white couple. After a morning of total silence I could not have been more excited to see them—and that was before I found out that they were from Braintree, Mass! They own their own construction company and are on a cruise around the world on the Queen Mary 2 for their 45th anniversary. Chatting with them was very comforting. I was very sorry to see them go!
I got back on the bus and went to Nanjing Road, a pedestrian street with lots of shopping. I looked in a few shops for a winter hat but didn’t see any. In one touristy shop a Chinese man who at first had appeared to be another customer sidled up to me and asked in a low voice what I was looking for. Since I had nothing better to do, I told him that I was looking for a hat. He told me to follow him. He led me out of the store and around the corner to a smaller shop full of silk scarves. I didn’t see any hats and I told him so. He looked at me in confusion. “Scarf?” “No, hat.” I touched my head. Light dawned in his eyes and he motioned for me to follow him down the adjoining alley. I hesitated, since it’s not usually a good idea to go down alleys in strange cities with strange men, but since he wasn’t even waiting for me and was almost out the other end of the alley, I decided to go for it. He ended up leading me into a store full of… baseball caps. “I want a warm hat!” I told him. He finally understood, and led me around the corner to a small stand at the end of another alley, right next to the shoppers making their way down Nanjing Road. He showed me an attractive black wool cap, picked up a calculator, and typed in the number “80.” (Typing numbers into a calculator is a popular way to negotiate when both parties don’t speak the same language; I did it all over Southeast Asia.) I might pay $13 for a winter hat in Boston but there was no way I was doing it in China. I took the calculator back and typed in “40.” He made a sound as if both amused and injured. Then he typed in 75. I typed 45. He tried 70. I held firm. I had barely started looking for a hat, and as far as I was concerned one black wool hat was very much like another. He must have sensed how I felt because after a few minutes he relented. When I gave him the money he shook my hand with a look of real admiration on his face.
I spent most of the day on the bus, admiring the city from the warmth of my seat. I went back to the cafeteria-style place for dinner, then took a taxi back to the hostel to be ready for my ride to Wuxi, the city where I would be teaching for the next four months. I found a seat by the door and settled in to wait.
After a few minutes a Chinese man and Chinese woman appeared at the door. They scrutinized the faces of everyone in the room, and I waited for them to settle on me. Finally they did.
“Carrie?” the woman asked. I smiled and nodded. She introduced herself as Chris, one of the English teachers at the school. The man, she told me, was the driver.
Our first stop was the airport, where Brad would be arriving shortly. Chris asked me if I’d eaten. I said I had since I wasn’t sure if we’d have time for food before the long drive to Wuxi. She said that she and the driver hadn’t eaten so we’d be stopping at KFC. (I had no idea how popular KFC is in China. There must be hundreds of them in Wuxi. I don’t think I’m exaggerating—it feels like there is one on almost every corner. There are some intersections which have KFCs across from KFCs!)
Chris told me she was excited because it was going to be the first time she had ever seen an airport. I told her I hoped it would live up to her expectations, but the part we would be seeing would probably not be that exciting.
Chris was alarmed when we got to the international arrivals area and we didn’t see Brad. “It says his flight got here half an hour ago!” I told her not to worry—lines can be very long at immigration and luggage takes a long time to unload. But she didn’t seem convinced. Every time a white man emerged from the baggage area she asked me if I thought it were him. I pointed out that they weren’t pulling my (giant red) suitcase, so probably not.
Eventually, a tall, American-looking young man appeared with my bag, and we were all very happy to see each other.
I expected the drive back to Wuxi to be on an American-style highway (i.e., in the middle of nowhere), but tall buildings remained around us at all times. After an hour and a half I read a sign on one of them and was very surprised to see that we were still in Shanghai! I guess that’s what happens with a city of 20 million people.
Eventually the city around us became noticeably less dense (though still full of tall buildings with lots of neon decorations).
“This is Wuxi,” Chris told us.
I had been warned before I arrived that even though Wuxi had a population of 3 million, it felt more like a town than a city.
It may feel more like a town than Shanghai does, but it feels more like a city than Boston does! Everyone, but everyone, lives in an apartment building with at least 10 stories. There are so many tall buildings that my building, which has 25 stories, is only visible from a few streets away. I live in the downtown core, and the city’s famous lake is more than an hour away from me by bus.
We stopped at Brad’s building first. Even in the dark I could tell that his complex had a beautiful garden. (I later found out that there were multiple water features and statues.) His apartment seemed nice, if a little outdated (especially the furniture). I was happy to see that he had a bathtub, and hopeful that that meant I would have one too. Mr. Q, the vice principal of our school, met us at Brad’s apartment and was very helpful about turning on the heat and other details. He also presented us both with welcome bags of food.
Then we went across the street to my building. Alas, there was basically no green space, but my apartment was on two levels, with a living/dining room with floor-to-ceiling views of the city, and a well-appointed kitchen and half-bath, and a staircase leading upstairs to the bedrooms and the main bathroom. Mr. Q turned on the heat for me in the larger of the two bedrooms (which also had a spectacular view of the city), and told me that he would send an English teacher to pick me up at 11am the next day and bring me to the school.
And then I was alone. Alone with my view of a city that in America could only be Las Vegas. But I wasn’t in America any more.