Friday, May 9, 2014

A Slice of Shanghai

We're spending the weekend in Shanghai, a city I haven't seen since we visited Daniel in 2009. What I remember is feeling overwhelmed by China's noise and crowds, which was exacerbated by the August heat and air pollution.

And now I'm back. Bob has visited since, but for me, I'm taking it all in with a very different perspective. After living in Beijing for two and a half years, I sense Shanghai as a pleasant place, where the cars generally respect pedestrian crosswalks, more people speak English than in Beijing, and trees line the streets of the French Concession, where we're staying. (Pictures to come.)

It's a faster city than Beijing, with cab drivers truly racing around. It's a glitzier city, with more neon and slick high rises, few of which seem to be coated with a Beijing level of grime. It isn't Taipei -- which is truly Asia's lifestyle city -- but it's easier somehow than Beijing.

While Bob was working, I spent the morning looking at the European architecture of the French Concession, and then took a cab over to the Shanghai Museum, spending a very pleasant three hours looking at porcelain, bronze, and ancient scrolls until my head started to hurt.

I grabbed a cab, and got a chatty driver. He asked the question (in Chinese) that every single billion-plus Chinese want to know about foreigners: where are you from?

It's always a big hit to say you're a Meiguoren. It makes me feel that I've somehow accomplished something beyond the luck of my birth and the farsightedness of my ancestors.

Meiguo, Meiguo, he kept repeating.

As the conversation continued I heard him refer to Shanghai as "San Hay." So I asked him about that and he offered up a short tutorial in what Shanghainese sounds like compared to Mandarin. We also covered the basic driver-passenger small talk that's pretty universal: the weather, the traffic, a smidgen of politics. And by that I mean, he smiled and said, "Clin-ton!" The former president is still a popular figure and Nixon is even more of a rock star.

It was as pleasant a cultural experience as staring at delicate porcelain bowls decorated with the Eight Immortals. To reward myself I'm sitting in a Wagas eating a bowl of tomato soup and taking advantage of their free wifi.

Next to me a young couple sit, deep in conversation. Suddenly he starts to sob. I see he has a dozen pink roses peeking out of the opening of his backpack. Eventually she slips away, and a few minutes later he leaves too, still carrying the roses.

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