Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Shanghai Surprise

I had a minor anxiety attack on the plane circling Shanghai when suddenly it hit me that I would, in a matter of moments, be back in China. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated my experience backpacking here in 1992, the country also exhausted and exasperated me, and I wondered what in the world I was thinking, not just returning to my personal Waterloo but also dragging along someone I love.

Almost from the second I landed, though, I realized I was in a completely different place. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder if I didn’t get on the wrong plane and end up in, I don’t know, Singapore, maybe. So little is familiar. I miss some of the charming old aspects, like sidewalk tailor stands, and old people shuffling around in blue jackets and caps. And I’m not crazy about all the new developments, like traffic jams and beggars. But for the most part China seems to have taken an enormous (perhaps even great) leap forward. When I was here last, China seemed to be in an awkward adolescent phase, trying really hard to be something it wasn’t ready to be. In 14 years, it’s grown up a lot, and it’s still tripping over its own feet a little, but it’s easy to see what it’s going to be like when it’s a fully grown modern city.

Actually, it’s really just about there. It has most of the trappings of a Western city: Shopping malls, a subway system, Starbucks, skyscrapers, even a Ferrari dealership. Many of the old, backward customs seem to have fallen by the wayside: Nobody spits on the street anymore, and I just realized recently that nobody stares, either. The gawking and the constant chorus of “hello, now we practice English” used to drive me bonkers, but I don’t get a second glance now. The novelty of blue eyes in Shanghai seems to have finally worn off.

It’s not just the skyline and mucus management techniques that have changed, though. The country just seems fundamentally more welcoming. I used to have a stock spiel I would give when someone asked me what was difficult about traveling in China. I would say how in a communist country (and one with no tipping, at that) there was no incentive for anyone to give good service. I would complain about how foreigners were seen as there to be milked for their perceived fortunes (the practice of charging visitors double the Chinese entrance price has fallen by the wayside, too). But now I feel terrible about every bad thing I said about China during its peevish development years.

I keep thinking of a time during my first visit when I was homesick and I passed a long-distance telephone office. I thought how nice it would be to call home. So I went in, and found four women behind a counter playing cards. There was nothing else in the room except for three telephone booths, all inexplicably barricaded off from the rest of the room by a wall of sandbags four feet high. It was hard to get the attention of any of the women, but finally I managed to get one to tear herself away from her card game long enough that I could tell her I wanted to make a phone call. “Phone call?” she snapped incredulously, “To make a phone call, you need to go to the bus station.” That seemed odd, but who knew more about long-distance phone calls than someone who worked at the phone office? So I got on another bus and went to the main station. When I got there and asked about making an international call, they looked at me the way someone might look at you if you went to your local AT&T office and asked when the next bus to New York was leaving. There was no hope of getting what I wanted there. I’d been had by someone who just didn’t want to help me.

Contrast that with the last 24 hours here, when Pipi and I seemed hell-bent on self-sabotage, but were saved from ourselves every time. First I overpaid for dinner by 10 kuai (about 25 cents) and a waitress chased me down and gave me the extra bill back. Then I left an umbrella at a café in a museum, and they found someone to make an announcement about it in English over the loudspeaker. The next morning, Pipi and I were waiting in the lobby of the Peace Hotel for a tour we’d signed up for to begin when a Chinese man sidled up to me and asked my name in broken English. At first I thought he wanted to know if I was part of the tour group, but then I noticed he had Pipi’s credit card in his hand—she’d left it in the ATM outside, and this man had taken it upon himself to ask the name of every wai guo ren in the lobby until he found a match. Getting out of a cab in the afternoon, I dropped my sunglasses in the street and didn’t even notice until I heard a traffic cop yelling “Hello, hello” over and over again. When I finally looked, he made the international finger-circle-around-the-eyes gesture for glasses and pointed to mine lying in the street. When he realized I was a slow-moving foreigner, too frightened to dart into the endless stream of rush-hour bikes and kamikaze cars, he waded into the traffic himself, then came all the way across the intersection to give my sunglasses back to me. It’s true that he had his traffic cop status to protect him—I think in just about any culture you’re in serious trouble if you run over the guy who’s supposed to be protecting people from getting run over—but still, I couldn’t believe someone would risk his life to help someone who isn’t doing a very good job of helping herself. Something has changed in China, and while maybe not all of it is good, it’s definitely making the country an easier place to visit.

Shanghai photo gallery


Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that you are safely navigating the world. By the way I love the information about food, since that is truly the only REAL reason to travel. Have a safe trip, both of you, and I will see Pipi very soon...Marcia

Nicole said...

I agree completely. Sightseeing is just something to do to kill time until it's time for your dinner reservation.