Technically, I don’t work, so I have few complaints about getting back to my normal, everyday life now that we’ve returned from two weeks of loafing it in Shanghai. This was my third time back and I enjoyed experiencing the less touristy side of the city.
Thanks to family friends of my husband’s, we had a free place to crash. Let me take a moment to say how small it makes the world seem to have a family connection on the complete opposite side of the world from our true home. That’s one of the perks of marrying into a globetrotting family. I already get to travel to places like Italy and Greece to see my in-laws and then, on top of that, I get to stay in someone’s home in Shanghai. Our paths crossed for a mere twenty-four hours. Long enough to be shown around parts of Shanghai by a ten and fourteen year old who were born and raised in the city, speak excellent Mandarin, and who also have impressive bargaining skills like all native Shanghainese should.
They even made time to make us a special Ukrainian breakfast of blinchikis (crepes) that we got to top off with gourmet jams, maple syrup, and cream cheese imported from PA Dutch country (my home turf!). Mmmm…yes please and thank you.
Most days, we set off on foot from our home base in the Hongqiao area without solid plans. One day we hung out around Pudong so Iggy could check out and admire the skyscrapers (again!). My reward: sipping on a — GASP!!! — 75RMB ($12.50) cappuccino as we lounged in the Park Hyatt’s 87th floor, soaking in the pollution clouded views of Shanghai.
Another day we hit up Tianzifang, a collection of cute little shops in the French Concession, followed by the Dongtai Lu antique street. Twenty years from now when I’m 50, I’ll remember the pleading murmurs of “lookey lookey” and “I give you good price” I heard as I walked from vendor to vendor — not the supposedly old Chinese stuff said vendors were selling. One night we participated in the “Kiss” art installation in trendy Xintiandi. We were one of some 50,000 couples whose kiss lit up a huge Christmas tree.
Shanghai is a weird city in that it feels both Western (or international) and modern, yet Chinese and old at the same time. On the surface, the sleek, impressive glass skyscrapers and shopping malls that serve as monuments to capitalism and “progress” trick you into thinking you’re no longer in China. If you want, you can slip into a familiar and comfy Western expat existence of Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchens, Marriotts, etc. A few days we did just that, relishing the American style breakfasts served at Element Fresh or sipping on good beer at Shanghai Brewery. In fact, there is a whole pedestrian-only street called Lao Wai Jie that caters to expats of all nationalities. On our stroll down it, we experienced what it must be like to be famous. A half-dozen Chinese photographers followed us and snapped photos of us as we checked out menus and window-shopped.
But there’s no getting away from the Chinese/old side of Shanghai. I think that’s a good thing. There’s still a good chance that a Starbucks barista won’t understand your English in Shanghai. Why should they? In all likelihood, it’s possible that there’s some taxi driver pissing just outside that expensive shopping mall you’re in — a gross mental image for most Westerners, but you have to admire the Chinese for embracing a basic fact of life.
There are so many things to do in Shanghai, but my favorite option is to traipse around the city, observing how Western/modern Shanghai brushes up against Chinese/old Shanghai. Old is an unfair word — I don’t mean it in a derogatory way, but in a past tense kind-of-way, like Shanghai in the good ol’ days (whatever and whenever those may have been). For example, an entire, random block of two-story buildings was being bulldozed. Given the surroundings, I’m assuming the workers were clearing the way for Shanghai’s next skyscraper.
Pounding pavement is also a good way to check out local life. You never know what you might come across when you get off the beaten path, like this guy showing off his artistic skills.
There is always a group of guys playing mahjong or some other game out on the sidewalks at all times of the year, whether in Shanghai or in Haiyang.
We also managed to have our fair share of fascinating and bizarre conversations on our trip, as we always do in our travels. As we rode up an escalator in a metro station, an older woman turned to us and asked in English where we were from. When we told her the U.S., she whipped off her face mask and chatted us up, telling us she had lived in New York City for twenty years and learned English on her own. In the middle of the metro station, she confided that she wanted to study English in university but that was during Mao’s time and was forbidden. As she said this, she tellingly slid her finger across her throat. So, instead, she became a chemist and professor and now at 73, she’s retired and splits her time between Shanghai and New York. In the next breath she changed the subject asking if we had kids (we don’t) then telling us we should due to Iggy’s perfect white skin and rosy cheeks, explaining that our child would be beautiful because of this. I didn’t have time to be offended (where were some compliments about my freckles or curly hair?!) before she launched into some cryptic lecture on how I need to start drinking “noni juice” now to ensure that I will be (1) healthy during any future pregnancy (2) younger looking after a pregnancy and (3) cancer-free for the rest of my life. Turns out she was a sales rep for a questionable drink product called Tahitian Noni…thanks, but no thanks, lady.
Less crazy — but no less entertaining — conversations were had with our taxi drivers, who love the fact that Iggy can speak Chinese. We’d hop in the car, Iggy’d tell the drivers where we were going in Mandarin, then the drivers would laugh heartily and pepper him with questions about where we were from, how did he know Chinese, etc., etc. I wish I would have taken photos of our favorite drivers. Like the one who tried to practice his English on us. He’d been studying on his own he told us. He had some work to do and eventually switched to Mandarin when he couldn’t fully communicate what he wanted to say. The gist of the conversation went like this: he loves music and especially loves to go to KTV (karaoke bars). He’s planning to travel to the U.S. or England on his next trip because of his love of music. When we asked him if he liked The Beatles he laughed and said “no, no” as he turned up the volume to blare Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean. Nothing like rocking out to a little MJ with a middle-age Chinese taxi driver to start your night off right! And is it just me, or was this guy another great example of the blurry line between Western/modern and Chinese/old Shanghai?