I TOOK THIS TRIP in spring 2003, and wrote this over the following year. It was my first solo trip to another country, and the observations reflect that. I had an idea, from stories friends had told, of the great adventure of backpacking, that you should just drop into a random country with no plan other than a Lonely Planet, and enlightenment would ensue. But I never would have imagined that such a thing could be done if my peers hadn’t done it first.
My friend read this entire thing and recommended it to other people, but when I pressed her for real god’s-honest writer’s-workshop criticism, she said “You come across as kind of a whiner. I know the trip sucked, and I know there’s plenty of potential (and much realized) humor in that, but you carefully enumerated every detail of everything that went wrong while glossing completely over the couple of things that went right. Maybe I’m a jerk, but it seems to me that no one enjoys hearing about people’s troubles as much as people enjoy telling about them.”
I’m sure she’s right. Those words have been an encouragement to me ever since to be less annoying. And to slowly claw my way out of the haze of thinking the world revolves around me. I thought I was being a wit like Bill Bryson with this travelogue, but somehow he sounds endearing when he whines. Let this be a lesson to you all.
It’s 32 pages single-spaced when printed out. Feel free to skip around.
How I traveled in China knowing next to nothing about either China or traveling.
- Get In The Van…
- The Shining Hotel
- Why Am I In Shanghai?
- A Long Treatise On Chinese Government and Economy (See title of article to understand the value of the author’s insight on this subject)
- Driving and Biking: Kill or be Killed
- The Ordeal of The Shoes: Knockoff Goods in a Lawless Country
- Bike Deposit Returned? Plus: Dinner “Alone”
- Trying To Leave Shanghai
- A Walking ATM
- Chalk One Up For the Horsefly: an Attempt at a Chinese Meal
- The Town Near Huang Shan
- A Brief Trip to the Mountain
- Chinese Service Personnel: Deep Down They Really Do Care
- My First Friends
- Homeless in Nanjing
- First Impression of Nanjing
- Kerouac and the Expat; Further Insight into the Onward March of Progress
- Finally, Something Huge and Old
- Taiping and the Rape of Nanking (and The Story About That American Woman)
- Still Trying to Eat Chinese Food
- The Chinese: Beneath Their Rough Exterior They Actually Have Hearts of Gold. Cold, Lifeless Gold.
- I’m Still An Ass With Too Much Money
- Which Sucks More: Americans or Being an American?
- More Hotel and Dining Adventures
- Toilets! Toilets! Toilets!
- Bootleg CDs: Crime, No Punishment
- More Insane Driving
- Three Artists From Beijing: On Not Buying Art and Talking About Mao in Public
- The First Shall Be Last
Get In The Van…
My adventure in China started on the sort of note that a trip such as this–my first time alone in a poor country–should: in the back of an old unmarked van stuck in 2nd gear doing seventy on a desolate highway at midnight and nine 20- to 30-year-old Chinese guys grinning at me and ostensibly taking me to a hotel. 20 to 30 is, of course, the internationally recognized “I-could-be-a-petty-thug” age. “Hello” they said. And then they grinned some more and spoke about me and laughed. I smiled back and watched the roadside for a nice ditch to lie in when they rolled me and left me for dead. There were miles of suitable ones, actually, if that tells you anything about where I was.
I had already been relieved of 20 bucks before I even got into the van going to this “hotel.” My plane had arrived late and the airport is about an hour away from Shanghai and in the middle of nowhere, so I figured I would just march up to one of those service desks they have at every airport and order a hotel room. Turns out that in Shanghai at that time of night all those service desks are manned by teenagers with cell phones and stacks of worn brochures for elegant but surely non-existant hotels, with one that they just happen to recommend. They looked like they snuck in through the exit door when security wasn’t looking. I was feeling alright until the guy asked me for the 20 bucks deposit for the hotel. My feeling got worse when I asked for a receipt, and he dug into a pile of garbage and chucked a crumpled piece of paper at me. When the rickety grey mini-van full of young Chinese guys pulled up, possibly his brother’s friend’s van, possibly they had been cruising five minutes before throwing coins at pedestrians, I admit that I got worried. Not 30 minutes before I had been on an international flight from Tokyo, and as I’m sure they well knew, I never would have gotten into the van if I’d had a moment to make another choice. My last thought before climbing in was of what an entertainment I would be to them, clutching my crumpled receipt while they took my clothes and wallet.
Amazingly though, we did arrive at a clean new little rambler of a hotel, I was credited with the money I already paid, everyone else in the van stayed there too, and I spent my first night in Shanghai safe and clean. And I got to start my travelogue out with a story that makes me look slightly xenophobic, so, you know, that’s cool.
I took a bus to the city the next day. The first thing you notice about Shanghai is the smell and the dark tint of the air. Wait, let me start from the beginning. The first thing you notice about Tokyo is the smell and the dark tint to the air. I couldn’t breath for my first couple of months in Japan; it’s fortunate that my job there didn’t require my brain to be well oxygenated. Gradually I got used to it, though I have always missed the sunsets such as I saw almost nightly in Nebraska and Florida. So, to say that a city reaks when you’re coming from Tokyo is really saying something. Shanghai freaking reaks. Especially on hot humid days like this day. I later discovered that nine of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China. I also discovered that China’s pollution is not only due to vehicle exhaust and industry, though there is ample of both, but also to the fact that everyone burns coal. The pall spreads all over the Chinese countryside.
I got a dorm bed for $6 a night at the backpackers mecca in Shanghai, a large old hotel left over from the swinging imperial years at the beginning of the 20th century. It was in the Bund, the historically European section of the city. There were pictures of esteemed lodgers of those times in the entry way and in the grand ballroom, people such as Bertrand Russel and maybe an Einstein or two. Its the sort of place Indiana Jones would have sat and dined, dinner jacket concealing bullwhip while he sneered at dignitaries speaking in posh accents about the failure of the empire and superiority of the English race. This elegance has been transformed over unchanging years into a relic of elegance, which made it all the more interesting.
What really got me were the hallways. Visualize “The Shining.” They were incredibly long, poorly lit, and had uneven dark cherry hued floorboards worn smooth and in places blackened from 100 years of walking, the old wood soaking all sounds like a padded room. To get to the shower room I had to walk down 30 yards of dark hallway, turn right, and go down 20 more yards of hallway, past stacks of old wooden chairs and mattresses being stored right in the walkway like it was the unused wing of a school building, until I felt like I was someplace in this massive old building that no one had visited in a week. I pictured a child, sitting on the floor all alone behind one of those stacks of mattresses, quietly playing with a toy car in the dim light. And then of course he hears a sound and looks up, eyes as wide as saucers. He sees something, but we don’t know what, and starts to slowly back away and then breaks into a run, screaming down the hall for safety, but the hall is so long and dark that it seems he’ll never make it and then he gets lost but eventually he finds safety because of course the kid wont get snuffed. But his nanny, man, his poor nanny, if she isn’t the one doing the killing, the hoary succubus, then she’s the one he sees impaled and dangling by a meat hook just as he careens around another wrong turn. And he can only thank his lucky stars that just as he is about to be devoured by whatever evil as he stares in morbid petrification at this spectacle, his mother sweeps him off to the ‘safety’ of the locked meat freezer. I’m certain this has happened at least four times in this hotel.
Surviving a shower and the unfortunate lack of succubi (you never know, it might be worth it), I headed back up to the dorm room and met my first fellow backpacker. He was a friendly Aussie bloke who had been traveling with his girlfriend for an entire year and this was actually his second to last night before heading home (which happened to be Japan and an English teaching job). He had been in North and South America for 11 months and China for 1 month. When I told him my plan, 2 weeks in Shanghai and vicinity, I heard something I would hear echoed by every backpacker I spoke with during this trip: you should have gone to Beijing. Or Sichuan in the West. Or Qingdao on the Northern coast. Or Hong Kong. “Why’d you come to Shanghai?”, they’d ask with vague amusement.
I dunno. Maybe something to do with the fact that it’s been popular with Japanese people lately. Not that I regularly agree with Japanese people when it comes to matters of taste. I think they like it for the shopping. Shanghai has Western goods you can’t get in Japan. Which is of course exactly what an American like me wants on his vacation in Asia.
Seriously, I don’t know. My initial fascination was just to see China. I, like many Americans, grew up with this vague impression that China and Japan are pretty much the same country. Living in Japan for 3 years and learning that they aren’t, and hearing about the “Chinese influence” over Japan in old times, made it an irresitible draw. But it’s a huge country and I had to pick someplace to go. The middle seemed like a good place to start. If you go to Beijing you are going to see the things you are expected to see; the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. I wanted something completely different and unexpected. In retrospect, I don’t regret choosing Shanghai, but considering the things that really impressed me on this trip—the Ming city walls in Nanjing and the few Chinese temples and buildings I could find scattered sparsely around—the Great Wall and the Forbidden City probably would have fit into that paradigm just grandly. Nonetheless, while the things I did see are probably less spectacular than those found in Beijing, I feel they are a bit more unique as far as bragging rights and half drunken look-at-me-I’m-big-world-traveler-guy stories are concerned. “China? Well, let me just tell you about this lovely little temple I stumbled across on a backstreet in Suzhou…..barskeep, another Moscow Mule for the beautiful lady…..”
Thats a lie, of course. All of those things, temples and such, were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. But I could tell you reams about the public toilets in Suzhou. In fact, if you make it fifteen more pages I’ll be sufficiently convinced that you want to hear all about them.
The thing is, the entire time I was in Shanghai and the vicinity, a ticket to Beijing beckoned for $50 and 12 hours of overnight travel. But it just didn’t seem to make much sense to do that. No matter where I went, it was going to be a once in a lifetime thing. So I figured that while I was in the area I might as well stay in the area and see what it has to offer. I can fly to Beijing from anywhere in the world. So I stayed in Central China, all contrary advice be damned.
To get you more acquainted with my view of the city, I’m going to cheat and tell you something I didn’t know when I first got to Shanghai: it is the model for the entire country of the future of their capitalist economic development. Shanghai is what the rest of the country wants to become as they throw off their shackles of communism and get down to the business of making some cash.
How this is coming to be is kind of ugly. The bus ride in from the airport was when I first noticed the unusual frequency of vast piles of rubble. I figured it was just run-down like any poor country. Later I was able to get closer on a rented bike, riding through tiny winding streets in Shanghai city proper. I passed row upon row of old one-story shack-like neighborhood dwellings, with vegetables and clothing and all manner of things for sale, and people standing or sitting in the street talking, old men playing mah jongg every 50 or so feet. And then the settlement would abruptly end and there would be acre upon acre of rubble, houses reduced to piles of ash, many with personal effects still sitting out on the floors bared to the elements, a maze of crumbling cement and splintering wood. And on the other side of that would be four identical brand new forty-story high-rise apartments arranged in a semicircle.
When I tried to ride out of the city to the outskirts, my way was blocked by an impenetrable dullness. Metropolis slowly gave way to miles and miles of wide boulevards and new high rises, so that I quickly despaired of ever going anywhere at all. This is a contrast to riding in Shanghai city proper. It can at times be an interesting and exciting experience with it’s historic neighborhoods, winding streets, waves of bicycle commuters that sometimes carry you along, and the ever present companion of third world city dwellers, death by car.
On my last day I went to Pudong, a downtown area just accross the river from the city, created from nothing in ten years and devoted entirely to capitalist pursuit. It’s separated from everything else in Shanghai by a river with only two crossings: a car bridge and an expensive tourist trolly. No bicycle or pedestrian crossing. It is only for those who possess the means of production to enter there.
Because it is still in the process of being built, and because it is being built so rapidly, it is an odd combination of open fields and Manhattan-worthy skyscrapers. It feels like a new suburban development, but with office buildings instead of houses.
I didn’t realize how right that was, in the ‘cookie-cutter’ sense of suburban, until I went to the top of the tallest building to have a look at the city from above. It was entirely unike what you see from most tall buildings in the world. Rather than seeing the random Jackson Pollock splotches of color and shape of most cities, Shanghai is a patchwork quilt of architecture. Every new building (and in Pudong that’s all of them, in Shanghai just over the river thats many of them), excepting the largest, is copied 2, 3, 10 or 50 times over within the same block. So that here are the white ones with green roofs in a triangle shaped 5 acres, and right next to them are the four 30 story beige high rises with blue roofs, in a square 15 acres, then 30 acres of snaking 3 story apartments with white roofs, and on and on like that. Its as if a child were playing with a “make a city” program on a computer with 25 different building styles, and just started pointing and clicking a few here, a few different ones there, 30 of this kind here, until the whole screen was filled up with buildings in five minutes. Like a glitch in the Matrix, or like a virus started making copies of things that there was only supposed to be one of. Taken in aggregate, it was surreal and unreal.
I would even go so far as to call it “unnatural”, though that term might sound absurd when applied to a city. However, a possible definition for “natural” in the sense of nature is anything created by many forces interracting without a central conscious mind directing them (with a fuzzy line of course where animals are the culprit minds). If we derive another level from the term, we can call a natural city one in which many individual minds, like individual forces in nature, concieve of individual spaces and interact without the guidance (or with only minimal structural guidance) of one central governing body. In this sense, Shanghai, like many American cities suffering from the blight of suburbia and other developments on a massive scale, is unnatural.
My scant education in Communist Chinese history reveals to me a pattern that appears to go thus: huge ideas, sweeping programs, big slogans and pervasive rhetoric. Its no incisive political commentary to remark that these things have usually failed. Think about how ‘programs’ get enacted in the American educational system, or any bureaucracy you might be familiar with. An idea gets trumpetted by a few excitable people at the top and inflames a few evenly spaced gangs of excitables in the general populace while the mass of the population is bribed or cajoled into half-heartedly going along with it. If its a bad or just unnecessary idea, it quickly peters out under the weight of the real and unadressed problems and struggles of human existence and interaction and the never ending work that will be required by each new generation to stay on top of them, something which no single idea will ‘solve’ because the so-called ‘problems’ are the very substance of human existence. Vestiges of the idea may stick around for years afterward, having lost all original meaning or purpose. If the idea has some merit, it might be a part of a positive change, but the lasting change will be slow and organic if it occurs at all.
Now apply that to China. Freaking China. The goverment exercises totalitarian control, so the movement is fast. And there are a billion people to move. But according to Mao and the party line of old, if an idea is right then it should be put into practice universally and immediately. Mao declares that China will join the industrial nations by producing steel in hundreds of thousands of small community run foundries in the countryside, so a billion people build and begin operating their foundries within a year; they get shabby foundries and tons of useless steel. This week they invite intellectual criticism of the Party; next week they punish you for it: the One Hundred Flowers. Now a nationwide purification of capitalists is declared, and they get ten years of the Cultural Revolution, which, perversely, no one could stop.
Things have changed since then, but probably not nearly as much as the government would like you to believe. They have embraced capitalism, but it’s still a totalitarian government doing the embracing. Put this together with what you can see in the city today and you can clearly see the manner in which Chinese are capitalisitcally developing their country: “NOW.”
This is more than a little disheartening. In a short time and at this rate, it seems that every person in Shanghai will live in a brand new thirty-story high rise apartment. I’m sure it will be more comfortable for them, and I’m sure many of them want it. But I can’t help but wonder where they will play Mah Jongg.
These apartments are, by the way, exactly the same sorts of structures that we in America have called ‘projects’ and that sociologists have studied for the past thirty years as abetting the production of the anti-social and violent behaviour we associate with these places. It’s the destruction of community, and therefore the destruction of the younger generation’s feelings of responsibility and attachment to the people and places around them. Not that the cultural revolution didn’t destroy enough of that already.
But I better stop playing sociologist and political scientist for now. I developed the ideas for the fun of developing them, so forgive me my naivety and congratulate me if I stumbled upon any part of the truth. I’ll get back to talking about the plebeian crap I usually dwell on now.
Driving and Biking: Kill or be Killed
The second thing you notice about Shanghai is the noise. Through some sort of feng shui or possibly the effects of isolated evolution of the sort that the Japanese try to claim heir to but so obviously do not have, the Chinese have gained superhuman powers over their environment; they possess a batlike sonar that allows them to “see” around obstructions using sound waves. Drivers can barrel around blind mountain switchbacks and city buildings alike with nothing more than a blare of the horn. I think it was the difficulty of seeing through the air that led to this evolution. It may seem at first that they are doing this to warn people on the other side that they are coming and they should get out of the way, but that would be presuming that the Chinese had developed the reflexes of a cheetah and could get out of the way in the split second between the sound of the horn and the presence of the vehicle. As I never saw these reflexes, I think the bat hypothesis is more likely.
Or pehaps its simply that they have endowed their horns with the ability to make things disappear. Every day I saw cars meandering down empty streets happily blaring their horns at the baseball diamonds of empty space stretching out before them. If this is the case, the system has apparently not been perfected just yet. Sometimes not 1, 2, 5 or even 10 straight minutes of honking will make obstructions go away, whether they be a red light, a twisted and smoking pile of recently conflagrated cars, or, say, a building. But a good Chinese driver facing any of these will never give up hope.
For this reason and others, Shanghai is far from a biker’s paradise. That doesn’t stop the citizenry from biking everywhere, but for a visitor it’s nearly impossible to even find a place to rent a bike. The Lonely Planet Guidebook told of one place that I couldn’t find after traveling and walking for over an hour my first morning. Luckily I discovered another shop nearby and just barely managed knock over three old women as I scrambled off the bus to get to it. There were about five of the internationally-recognized-thug-aged boys milling about inside watching an extreme sports video. One kid, could have been 16 years old, took an immediate liking to the financial possibilities I presented and was happy to try to speak to me though he didn’t know any English and I no Chinese. My determination to get a bike overcame my reticence, and I whipped out the absolutely indispensible phrase-book to look for the word “rent”. He clearly wanted to rent to me, and after I convinced him that there would be a free Tibet before I would give him my passport as a deposit, He graciously accepted 1000 Yuan instead. Thats about $120, probably a months wages or more, 1/6 of the money I wanted to spend for the entire two weeks, and if you figure a cheap lunch costs about 10 Yuan in China, it felt like handing over $1000. But it was a nice shop, they had nice bikes, so I took a chance. The transaction was a little marred by the fact that the guy wouldn’t write numbers down but only spoke them, and the fact that the guy who spoke English didn’t speak until after I had agreed on everything (shrewd, very shrewd). I talked him down from 200 to 150 for two days, so I felt a little proud at having gained some quarter. But in truth, a bike rental probably ‘should’ cost about 20 yuan according to the kind-but-ego-deflating Aussie at the hostel and a nice Chinese man I met while riding, but I don’t know where ‘should’ exists when theres no one else offering their wares. Ahhh, capitalism. Besides, I’ve spent more on lunch in Japan.
As soon as I tore off I knew the bike was well worth it. It was the quickest and best maintained rental I’ve ever ridden. My only concern was that I knew I would worry about my 1000 Yuan deposit for the entire two days I had it. At least I was getting what I wanted out of the bike, which lessened the pain of potentially getting screwed on the deposit. The Ordeal Of The Shoes offered no such respite.
The Ordeal of The Shoes: Knockoff Goods in a Lawless Country
Its kind of a stupid story, but I’d like to tell you about it, to illustrate the perils of shopping in a country with little copyright or trademark law enforcement. Also, it sort of permeated my entire trip, so I feel it’s salient.
Before I even got to The Shining Hotel on my first day, I realized that Shanghai was going to involve a lot more walking than Tokyo. The Subways are sparse (and not suprisingly, brand new) and the bus system is almost incomprehensible. The shoes I was wearing were worn out and flat soled. In a fit of first-day-of-travel excitement, I marched into a store to buy new ones. All of the shoes were clearly knockoffs, thankfully not even trying to be exact replicas of Nike’s, but more like a Picasso impression of a Nike, with an essence of Reebok thrown in for je ne sais quoi. Okay, I have no idea what that means. Anyway, no one there wanted to help me, the shoes didnt fit and they were uncomfortable anyway. I decide that the only safe thing to do would be to buy real American brand name athletic shoes. I entered into emergency shopping mode: This is my once in a lifetime China Trip, that I have planned for 2 years. I’m not going to bumble about on these strips of carboard I’m wearing now, nor am I going to hobble around on Chinese fakes of misguided design with giant lumpsof plastic that poke into your arch an hour after purchase.
But how to tell a fake from the real thing? I bought fakes in Bangkok last Christmas, and though they looked nice and were cheap, they were all but useless as footwear. Armed with that knowledge and the knowledge of the totally lame fakes I had just seen in the other store, I walked into a shop advertising American brands.
The shopkeepers were thrilled to see me, and they wasted no time in shoving pair after pair of elven-sized Nikes, Adidas, and Reeboks on my feet. “No, no, I don’t want my feet bound, merely shod, please,” I said with a jovial laugh. In my head just now, I mean, not when I was actually there. It was turning out to be just like Japan: their largest pair of every style was just that smidge, that hair too small, and this lack of selection in Japan was basically why the shoes I had brought with me were such crap.
After two such shops, I found one pair of Adidas tennis shoes that seemed just barely big enough. At least they felt bigger after all of the others I had tried on. And I was feeling desperate. My confidence in their genuinity was bolstered by these two facts: 1) all the shoes I had tried on seemed pretty comfortable aside from size, and 2) they were asking outrageous prices for them. Surely, no one would have the hubris to charge a month’s wages for a pair of fake shoes, would they? So I bought the shoes and, in the final act of my emergency shopping frenzy, told them to throw away my old ones. Foreshadowing foreshadowing foreshadowing.
The shoes held up pretty well that first day and I was overall quite happy with them. I especially liked the arch support. Man, that arch support was really…um.., supporting my arches.
That evening I got to talking about getting cheated out of money with the Aussie backpacker who had already told me to go to Beijing and that I paid five times what I should have for a bike. I told him about my adventure in the van the first night.
“I figured the $20 I gave the guy was gone, and I was ready to get rolled for the rest of it when we arrived at the vacant lot where I figured I’d be spending the rest of the night.”
“Yeah”, he said, “You really don’t know when you first get here. But they are usually pretty honest about not shortchanging you. I was a lot more worried in South America.”
Thats reassuring, I thought. “Like today,” I continued, “I bought these shoes for 620 Yuan ($80), and I gave the guy 700. It took about 2 minutes to ring everything up, write the receipt and all that, meanwhile I’m anxiously waiting for my change. Finally I told the guy I gave him 700, expecting to have to fight for it, but he was already getting the change for me by then. I didn’t mean to be an ass about it, but you know, I just didn’t know if I was going to get it back.”
In the middle of this story, I noticed a pained look creeping onto on his face. I sensed another ego deflation coming. This guy seems to be really good at those. “How much did you say you paid for those shoes?” he asked.
“620.” I’m trying to be cool about it.
More pause, more pain in the face. “Shit man, thats a lot.”
“Well, they’re Adidas.” And as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized how stupid they sounded. Not only was I naive enough to pay 620 yuan for fake Adidas, but I just told this guy who had probably lived for the last 2 weeks on that much money. What a dumb-ass.
He kind of twisted and nodded his head, trying not to embarass me.
“Do you think they’re fakes?”
He nodded, but started trying to play it cool. “I don’t think anything in this country is real. They make some amazing replicas here. This guy,” pointing to the bed next to mine, “just bought these Caterpillar work boots for 150, they look totally real, but, yeah, they’re fake. You can’t tell the difference.”
“Well, they’re really comfortable,” I said.
“Well, thats all that really matters, isn’t it?” he said, relieved to let me save face and keep things cheery. Obviously well versed in backbacker relations. We’re on vacation right? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we get screwed again.
‘Well, they’re really comfortable’. I had a premonition when I said it that I was jinxing myself with this phrase. At first I wasn’t sure if it was just psychosomatic when I started to feel the huge chunk of plastic sticking up into my arch as I walked to the bike shop the next morning. But as I hobbled around that evening looking for the famed Chinese Acrobatics show, I knew the Aussie was right. I had paid $80 for fake Adidas created by the artisans of torture that the Chinese are so famous for.
I had two days on a bike, which promised a lot of respite from painful walking, and I was quite grateful for it. But the problem of my feet was still looming in my mind, clouding my vision, and making me angrier with every moment. I resolved to go to some shops that I knew couldn’t be selling fakes, the shops in the Ritz-Carlton hotel complex. Unfortunately, they only sold $400 shoes. But the mall right next to the Ritz-Carlton had sports shops. I figured, surely they woudn’t have a huge, expensive mall catering to Ritz-Carlton guests selling knock-offs. I found a sports shop, and it had a certificate that said “authorized Adidas dealer”. I went in and found the pair of tennis shoes that mine were copying. They were the same price. Even more amazing they looked identical in every last detail, from the stitching to the sole imprint to the tag on the inside of the tongue. To any logical observer, the conclusion seems obvious–either both are fakes from the same people, or both are real. But for some reason I was so bent on believing in the authority of this mysterious Australian bloke that I began to devise in my mind the elaborate way in which some Chinese guy in a dank warehouse somewhere had meticulously copied every detail of this pair of Adidas to sell on the back streets of Shanghai. Imagine the attention to detail it would require to get even the stitching to match up, to be identical. But, I figured, with over a billion people in the labor pool, it shoudn’t be too hard to find someone with just that sort of talent. I was in fact so convinced that the pair on the shelf were real and the ones on my feet were fakes that I almost bought another pair of the same shoes (that were thrashing my feet).
I was saved from what would have been one of the most comically absurd deeds of my lifetime by giving myself time to reflect. After five minutes I marched back into the store and asked the employees to tell me if they could tell if my shoes were real or not. They had to get a German businessman in a nice suit who spoke excellent Chinese to translate for me. A European fluent in Chinese purchasing shoes from this store; surely that’s another vote of confidence. The shopkeeper looked at the tag of my shoes and spoke to the German man. The German man turned and said to me “They’re real.”
I was stunned. “I guess that doesn’t change the fact that they hurt my feet.”
“It happens,” he said with a shrug.
Indeed, it does happen. I realized that I had become a conspiracy theorist, wanting to believe the worst of a situation no matter how much the facts told a different story. In truth, I’m pretty well convinced by this pronouncement, but I guess I will still harbor a shred of doubt unless I can go right to Adidas headquarters and get assurance from someone there. Actually, I’d like to talk to the original designer and find out what aspect of tennis performance is enhanced by putting jagged chunks of plastic in the arches of their tennis shoes.
(Postscript: I gave the shoes to Shouji upon my return to Japan. He is still wearing them. I’ve learned a valuable lesson: just because a shoe is a good shoe doesn’t mean it’s right for your foot. Happy Ending: I have a pair of Saucony Jazz runners now, and I think they might be one of the greatest things I’ve ever owned.)
Bike Deposit Returned? Plus: Dinner “Alone”
Having solved the Mystery of the Illfitting Shoes, no thanks to those damn Bobsy Twins, I was ready to move on to book two, the Mystery of the Dissappearing Bike Deposit Money. I pulled up to the bike shop ready for an argument. I had resolved to sit on it outside of the shop until they brought me the money. I didn’t have to, though. The guy figured out right away what I wanted and gave me the deposit back (I even had a real receipt this time). I spoke with the one who knew English for a bit. Seemed like they had a good life, all things considered; his own bike shop in a nice neighborhood where he and his friends could hang out. I was glad to give him my cash.
The nice neighborhood was an area called the French Concession, the last significant place I wanted to see and the other major European part of town. Whereas the Bund is composed of grand banks, hotels, embassies, and department stores on wide busy boulevards, the French Concession has many small quiet streets with humble two or three story houses and sidewalk cafes.
Hobbling around that evening in my genuinely painful Adidas, I was really in the mood to go somewhere that people were, to talk with someone. Instead I accidentally slipped into a tiny cafe/bar that was completely empty except for the bartender/cook and the waitress. It did have really great cozy cluttered ambiance with low lights, dark wood, curtained booths and works of art scattered about. I suspect that there were many other empty places like this around here.
In the absence of conversation, my perennially ready back-up plan should have easily kicked in—eat a quiet meal and read a good book. I was thwarted by what I presume is the Chinese version of good service in an empty establishment: stand back several paces and stare at the customer as he enjoys the meal. While I was naturally grateful that they were ready to spring into action at my slightest gesture, the possibility that that gesture would be misinterpreted and result in twelve bowls of corn soup and a whisky sour made me very reticent to make one at all. Overall it just left me feeling a bit pathetic. I couldn’t find any friends that night, but I could purchase servants by the hour.
Trying To Leave Shanghai
I did many other things in Shanghai, but looking back they are all marred by exhaustion, dehydration, bodily filth and a general inability to walk. Coming from Tokyo, I understimated it’s size and wasn’t able to pace myself or time things correctly to ensure that I, say, could get a bath before going out for the evening. So I will make a list of the things I did, because on the level of emotional memory, that’s about how much significance they have to me: I saw Chinese acrobatics, I got a massage, I went to the Shanghai museum, and I went to a shopping bazaar and saw a temple. All cool things to file away in the brain, no doubt, but theres some fundamentals you have to take care of before enjoying whats going on around you. After returning the bike, I was pretty satisfied that I had seen enough of the city and decided to leave as soon as possible the next day.
As it turned out, I wasn’t able to leave until the following evening. At first, I tried and failed to buy a bus ticket. The English speaking travel agents don’t book busses and the bus depots themselves are zoos and scattered all over town. Each depot only has departures for certain areas, so without information beforehand finding what you need is next to impossible. So I was forced to take a train, and most long distance trains in China are overnight. This is opposite to Japan, where trains only run between about 5 am and midnight. This was dissapointing, because one of the things I really wanted to do in China was to just see the countryside, to see how people lived.
The train station that night was a depressing den of concrete, filth, and dim fluorescent lighting. The trains themselves are quite pleasant, however. I had a sleeper, the top bunk in a stack of three, and I was sharing the tiny ‘room’ with a family of three and a few other people. The family was really nice, the boy about five years old, cute as heck and his parents were trying to get him to say hello. They offered me some of their snacks, which I gratefully ate, but they absolutely refused to take any of mine when offered. I thought that the exchange of food was a universally recognized pact of friendship. I think it was a commentary on my poor choice of food, and maybe they weren’t trying to make friends but simply felt sorry for me. Imagine your reaction if you gave an apple to some out of luck looking guy on the corner and he pulled a cheeseburger out of his pocket and offered it in return.
My final treat for the night was the incredible snoring coming from the guy accross from me. His breathing would get more and more quiet over the course of a minute as his body relaxed, then just at the point of asphyxiation he would let out a loud “SKNNRONNNK” and wake up to begin the process over again. Minute after minute, hour after hour. So I hadn’t slept much by the time we were all awoken by loud Chinese rock music at 6 the next morning, the wake-up call for everyone on the train. I looked out the window and saw only a heavy fog. So much for seeing the countryside. We had an hour to get ready to disembark the train at our destination, Huang-Shan, the Yellow Mountains. (The Chinese “shan” is the same as the Japanese “san.”)
A Walking ATM
I chose Huang Shan more or less at random. My main concern was to get out of Shanghai and see something different, something non-metropolitan. But I didn’t figure I could go just anywhere, so I chose someplace that they would be expecting someone like me. Huang Shan is a tourist place, but not really a place where I would be meeting nothing but other non-Chinese backpackers. The mountains themselves are among the most famous in all of China. Many old Chinese poets, philosophers and artists spent considerable time there being creative and profound in their respective ways, and paintings of Huang-Shan’s craggy peaks are quite famous as well. Odds are you may have seen a painting of them somewhere. I was looking forward to some quiet and fresh air, a relaxed time after the assualt on my senses I got in Shanghai.
I got off the train and was immediately mobbed. A crowd of about 50 people, with a few hundred others milling around in the background, met as though in battle the hundred people exiting the train. There was an immediate cacophony of shouting and pointing and cajoling and bartering. Though everyone on the train was a tourist, I was the only white bewildered looking guy and they descended upon me in exceptionally strong force. And stuck with me after everyone else had dissapeared.
I had just assumed that I would be able to leisurely stroll off the train, meander around for awhile, and assess the place and my situation for a few moments before I had to make any decisions. So when the people pounced, I instinctively started walking to get past the crowd to safety, politely saying ‘no’ in English, and trying to look at my Lonely Planet guidebook to figure out what to do next. I had had half a notion before of just checking into a hotel room and resting before making the additional hour long trek to the mountain; that notion rapidly solidified into a definite plan of action under 500 Chinese eyes and hands.
Charging through the crowd like I was outrunning horseflies, I was looking for the hotel marked as cheapest in the Lonely Planet, which was supposed to be right here on the first corner outside of the station. I saw two hotels, one looking like it hadn’t been touched since 1965, the other looking like it had been recently built to look like 1965. I assumed the run down one must have be the cheap one. I had to assume because the Lonely Planet only gave names in Roman letters, while the signs were in Chinese characters (and let me just say that, for someone familiar with Chinese characters, this is quite irritating).
There was one horsefly who just wouldn’t leave me alone. Looking back on my whole trip, this doesn’t really surprise me so much, but at the time I was amazed. Nothing in Shanghai had prepared me for this. I walked away from her rapidly. She followed. I stood on the corner looking at my guidebook. She stood there staring at me, grinning widely. She said “taxi?” I said no. She said “Huang Shan? Go to Huang Shan? You need taxi.” I said no. I don’t need. She said “Taxi over here. You need taxi,” and grabbed my arm to take me. I said no, no thank you, and shook her off. She followed, smiling as though we were playing a game where she had to guess what animal I was thinking of. She said “Eat?” and tried to beckon me to follow her to food. Again I refused. She saw me looking at the hotel. She said “No, no.” and waved her hand like that was a foolish or impossible thing. Then she said, again, “Taxi? Huang Shan?” and again tried to point me in the direction of a taxi. I again walked away from her, to the center of the courtyard, and she went to summon a taxi driver to take me to Huang Shan. He came marching over, saying “Taxi?” and pointing at his car or bus or whatever it was he had. She was walking just in front of him, looking proud of her accomplishment and amazed that I was too stupid to realize that she had just gotten what I wanted. 200 other eyes and 100 wide grins were bearing down on me. I said no again, making all the appropriate negatory gestures I could think of, still trying to look at my guidebook. The entire time, when she wasn’t speaking to me in broken English or speaking to people around her in Chinese, she was staring at me grinning. Finally I started marching toward the run down hotel and she followed after for a few steps yelling “no! no!” before throwing her arms up in disgust, laughing at her back-up crew, as if she was finally going to let me walk straight into a wood chipper if thats what I really wanted to do.
So far in China, doorways seemed to have been magic portals to whole new worlds, and the one at the hotel was no different. The people at the front desk were humbly grateful that I chose their hotel. I got my room, which was faux elegent circa 1950, which equates to much more run down looking than the elegant circa 1920 hotel in Shanghai. Tattered red carpetting, forty year old console radio, Best Western bed spread, and a luke warm shower. It was heaven on earth, and I slept until 5:00 that afternoon.
Chalk One Up For the Horsefly: an Attempt at a Chinese Meal
During my entire 3 days in Shanghai I didn’t eat a single meal of Chinese food. Strangely enough, everything in China is written in Chinese. Knowing Japanese will help you read the signs that say North South East and West, and help you remember the characters of a landmark, but it does nothing for reading a Chinese menu. While in China I realized just how much English there is in Japan. Its freaking everywhere, and not just on “Let’s have happy chocolate with eating time for all our best life!” and “Shoul”d I bee a seductive?” slogans and morals that emblazon everything. There’s really a lot of very useful English in Japan, often in places where there theoretically really should be Japanese instead, such as the labels for buttons and switches in cars and other useful informational services. Theres also the added benefit of katakana–the script the Japanese use to render English words that they want to make a part of their own lexicon. Thus, on a Japanese menu, you will see, in katakana, “chikin”, and you know its chicken. If you live here long enough you will become quite proud of your proficiency in reading Japanese without reflecting on how often it is that you are really just reading English in a Japanese script. I didn’t notice this until I got to China where everything everywhere is nothing but a wall of impenetrable Chinese characters. You only see English on the most progressive, tourist friendly signs, and these are few and far between.
So I had to think of other strategies for acquiring a Chinese meal, and I was about to test one out as I woke up from my day’s sleep absolutely starving. This was the plan: walk up to a restaurant or vendor and say “anything” (in Chinese). Sit down and wait for the feast to arrive.
I marched out of the hotel with a purpose, and was immediately spotted and accosted by the horsefly from that morning. Grinning just as wildly as ever, she marched over to me frantically as if she were the secretary and I was Jerry Maguire trying to march back into the boss’s office. Yammering away in Chinese and making eating gestures with her hands, she pointed rapidly at the outdoor food vendor right by the hotel. It seemed like a reasonable enough idea.
I sat down, said the magic word, “anything”, and waited for the sparks to fly. This place, like many other outdoor stalls throughout town, consisted of large plates of meats, vegetables, eggs, mushrooms, and other things next to a frying pan. They started bringing many delicious looking things before my eyes and I accepted or rejected them in turn. I figured they were just going to mix a bunch of things together and serve it to me, like a stir fry. I ended up with three plates, served in intervals of about 3 minutes. The first was a delicious fried tomato and egg mix, which I devoured. Next was something with cat food in it (my best guess, as it was heavily salted), which I found a little more difficult to eat. I dont remember the third, but I ate about ¾ of everything I was served. But where was the rice? I was profoundly dissapointed at the lack of rice on my plate. What country was this, anyway?
A yound girl of 16 or 20 brought my bill, and carefully and politely showed me what they had served and what that corresponded to on the bill, and how it all added up to the total of 70 yuan. This was about 5 times what I should have paid for a meal, though I had been served food for at least 3 people, eaten for about 2, and if they had given me rice like they should have, I would have been satisfied with 1. Rather pissed off but at a loss for what to do, I paid the bill and left. They smiled, as expected.
In hindsight I can see very clearly the error of my ways. For three years in Japan I’ve become accustomed to having those members of the population that are most likely to go out of their way to speak to me being unable to shake the notion that I must be a lost dog in need of help, and these people will go to the ends of the earth to give me that help, no matter how much I protest that I don’t need it. They are all well meaning, but sometimes not too bright. Now, I wasn’t naive either; I’ve spent time in other countries where most people who approach you on the street to try to help you are suspect. As I’ve already said, I was wary of everyone in China at the outset. The difference was that this woman wouldn’t leave me alone. From her persistence I figured she was working from a combination of wanting legitimate business and wanting to help. Con artists know when a mark isn’t going for the bait and quickly look for another, right?. I thought she was legitimate, if annoying.
So I was a lost dog to this woman, but not a cute Japanese cartoon character dog. More like a Chinese “we’re out of beef, see what you can find crawling around behind the dumpster” kind of dog.
(Postscript: A few months ago I saw a short article in the Kyoto Journal about someone else who had an identical experience at a street stall in Nanking, pointing to multiple dishes hoping for a stir fry and instead getting served a meal for each dish pointed to. Maybe they just think westerners eat absurd amounts of food [jeez, where’d they get that idea?] at meals.)
The Town Near Huang Shan
I walked around the town for an hour or two after dinner. Besides being the gateway to a tourist attraction an hour away, I imagine its pretty indicative of towns all over China. I say ‘town’ because thats what it felt like, but by population standards its a city, supposedly housing over a million people. Thats the size of the Twin Cities, but it felt about as big as York, Nebraska or Itako.
My untrained eye found nothing to distinguish it from any other town in the world. Long, wide, straight boulevards, lots of people milling about, street markets, ratty old buildings. All very interesting for being the real China, but not inspiring in the way that streets and towns all over Japan are. I got plenty of stares as I shambled along, but only a few people accosted me for taxi rides, which was nice.
I came back to my hotel at night fall, casting a dirty glance at my muggers at the restaurant resting happily in the twilight’s warmth. I spent the rest of the evening finishing up Steinbeck’s Cannery Row before falling asleep for another eight hours, a mere six hours since my last slumber. Clearly, travel in China was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.
A Brief Trip to the Mountain
The mini-bus ride to the mountains the next morning was really pleasant. The guidebook says that the journey takes in some of the most beautiful countryside in all of central China. It wasnt exactly breathtaking–no terraced rice fields cascading hundreds of feet down hidden valleys with tiny peasant houses nestled in between–but aside from the transluscence of the air it was nice and I’m grateful I got to see it. Mostly plains and rolling hills with small farm plots and run down shacks.
Looking at the Chinese countryside, an area that should be about the same population density of Japan, I think, I got anew an appreciation for the efficiency with which Japan uses its available land, and the cuteness which results. China spreads out more. You can feel it’s continentness.
At the resort town servicing the mountains I was greeted by a bunch more eager smiling and pleading faces trying to sell me things. The reaction of a street hawker to a foreign tourist is exactly the same as would be the reaction of the average person to a man walking down the street unaware that his arm has just fallen off and is lying in a bleeding mess in the gutter. “Hey HEY!”, frantic hand waving, running around, and panic, “My god! Your arm has just fallen off!” “My god! I’m selling maps!” Me: “No thank you.” Them: “No, you don’t seem to understand, man. Your arm has just fallen off!” “No, you don’t seem to understand, man. I’m selling maps!” The only thing to be done is to say “no”, wave your arm and continue walking. Unless its one of those rare occasions when they have something useful to sell you. In this case I bought the English map. But, because its China and you’re supposed to bargain with people, I talked the poor and desperate looking old woman with the dusty maps down from about 2/3 of a cent to 2/5 of a cent. Then I felt like a total shit the rest of the day.
The Huang mountains are impressively craggy and would be beautiful in clear air. I exhausted myself by walking up for three hours, though I probably wasn’t nearly as exhausted as the men carrying hundreds of pounds of building materials and beverages on their backs for the hotels at the top. They rested every ten steps; I could go for fifteen or even twenty.
I debated whether to hike further on and spend the night at an inn in the mountains, or whether to go back to the city. It was only the beginning of the hike and the beauty and the view got much better from there and it seemed stupid to quit now. But I was really tired of walking and tired of the whole freaking Huang Shan experience, with the murky air and the tireless touts. Even after speaking with an English tourist on the mountain for a half hour, I still felt really uneasy and uncomfortable in the place. I decided to take the cable car down, head back to the city and get the hell out of the whole area as fast as possible.
Chinese Service Personnel: Deep Down They Really Do Care
I steeled myself to run the gauntlet at the station. I pictured myself marching confidently in, looking at the simple train schedule, and demanding a ticket for the next possible train out of town.
Here’s how it actually went. I was able for the most part to avoid people selling, and did easily figure out the train schedule and did go to the ticket seller and ask (not quite demand) for a ticket. I discovered that a prerequisite for working as a ticket seller in China is to have an absolute disdain for doing anything that has anything to do with your job. I brought my carefuly written request for a ticket to the seller. She snatched it up with a sigh, checked the computer, slid the paper back at me, rolled her eyes and said something akin to “not available, idiot”, and looked past me at other customers who would surely have the decency to only inquire about things she could grant, or even better, not ask anything of her at all. From her look and tone I think she expected me to go outside and find a nice bush to sleep under, perhaps set up a permanent residency in this town because there wasnt a seat available on this train. At least she seemed a bit surprised and exasperated that I came back 5 minutes later to inquire about a different train. She grudgingly checked and said “It’s not available” as if I had asked about the same ticket she denied me 3 minutes ago, and added (I’m guessing) “Are you a mouth breathing half wit? Why are trying to buy a train ticket here?” Then she returned to her computer terminal for whatever business she was doing in the ticket selling window that was so much more important than selling tickets.
I looked outside and the prospect of spending another night and possibly day in this town sent a shudder up and down my spine, so I went back to the schedule to see what I could figure out.
All this time there was another horsefly, though a benign one. He was a boy of maybe twelve that caught my scent when I first knelt down by the big schedule on the wall to check my guidebook and dictionary. He peered over my shoulder with a huge grin, and followed me when I went over to the ticket counter, and followed me back again. Just standing a few feet away, smiling wildly. I let it pass, as he was just a kid and wasn’t asking me anything.
Then his mother came over, grinning hugely, and spoke a few words to him. I was expecting her to say “stop bothering this man, come on” or something like that. But no. No, no, no, oh Lord above, no. After speaking, she took a spot beside her son to share in his happy vigil. Just stood there, silently, about 3 feet away, peeking over my shoulder, smiling, meeting my eyes whenever I looked up. A grown woman. I needed no more incentive than that to do whatever it took to get a train ticket that night.
I figured out that the best I could do was get a seat, not a bed, on a train leaving in 2 hours (8:00 pm). The bad part of this was that it got to my destination, Nanjing, at 3:00 am. In spite of this, I forged ahead, as my prime directive was to leave as soon as possible. The ticket vendor sold me a ticket, naturally in complete disgust that there was actually one available.
I went outside for dinner. At another outdoor vendor, a kind and calm man sold me that delicious tomato and egg thing again, this time for 15 yuan. When I asked for rice, the man motioned to the self-service rice pot and said something in the tone of “Of course you can have rice. What country do you think you’re in?”
My First Friends
On the train I made my first Chinese friends, 5 or 6 college boys, engineering students. Their English was excruciatingly difficult to understand, but they were eager. They had all been on a weekend in Huang Shan and were heading back to their studies near Nanjing. They too told me that there were many other better places in China to visit than where I was. I also discovered that none of them had a girlfriend, but they all wanted one. It’s hard to tell if that’s a cultural charactersistic of Chinese college students or of engineers.
We spoke for a bit about Japan and China. They said that Chinese people for the most part don’t like Japanese people. I can’t remember if its because of the war or because they are rich capitalist pigs. I told them that I thought the difference between Chinese people and Japanese people was that Japanese people always hide their true feelings, while Chinese people blatantly show them to the world at all times. They agreed on this.
The seating section of a Chinese train is everthing that the sleeper is not. It’s hot, it’s dirty, the ultra bright fluorescent lights stay on at all times, there are too many people, and the seats are far more uncomfortable than they need be. The seats are plush and soft with high backs, but these backs shoot straight up at a right angle to the floor, so there is no lounging back. After the conversation with the students trailed off into nothingness from my sheer exhaustion at trying to speak with them, I wasn’t able to get any sleep or even rest. I have lower back pain when I stand in one place for too long. This was the first time I’d ever gotten it from sitting in one place too long. Fortunately, this ride was short.
Homeless in Nanjing
At 2:30 am I disembarked with hundreds of others in Nanjing, a large city about 3 hours west of Shanghai. I was immediately thrust into the gauntlet once again, another clashing cacophony of exiting passengers and hotel hawkers frantically, desperately trying to lure someone into their scheme, and thirty taxi cabs and drivers all shouting for fares. I knew where I wanted to go: a University dorm that rented rooms in the center of the city. I was almost certain that there would be no one there to let me in. But I was really wary of taking up one of the hotel touts on their offer. A common scam in this country is to show you a brochure for one nice, cheap hotel, get you in a cab and drive you around for an hour, inform you that the hotel has burned down, and then drop you at another, much more expensive hotel.
I didn’t want to take a cab, either, if only because the drivers were being so pushy and annoying. I had a map and I figured I didnt have anyplace to go so I might as well take my time getting there. The station was on the outskirts of town, however, and looking out at the street I couldn’t tell if Nanjing was 500 yards away or 5 miles. So I reluctantly approached a driver, one who hadn’t yet annoyed me, though from the look on his face when I asked him for a ride I can surmise that the only reason for that is because he hadn’t seen me yet. In the process I did shake off one guy who had been following me for 3 minutes, so it felt like a small victory to not reward at least one horsefly.
I got dropped off at my destination, which was a closed and locked gate in front of the dorm. The cab sped off and I was left on a silent back street in a strange and poor country at 3:00 am. I took out my guidebook and looked up “crime.”
Lucky for me I had chosen a good part of town in which to be homeless. I walked around to the main street on the block and I was thrilled to find wooden park benches under street lights all up and down a nice boulevard. It was as nice as any street in good old safe Tokyo. And according to the Lonely Planet, crime isn’t a big problem in Eastern China, though I doubt they had my situation in mind when they wrote that. I got comfy on the bench and tried to figure out why I wasn’t scared.
I think I was unnaturally and illogically comfortable in China because there was little, between the moments I was being accosted, to jolt my subconscious into the knowledge that I wasn’t in Japan. I’m constanly surrounded by millions of short black haired dark skinned slanty eyed people, all yammering away in a language I (still, to my eternal chagrin) don’t understand. And all of the signs have characters that I’m familiar with but usually can’t actually read. Its gotten so I can go through a whole day in Japan and not particularly notice anything, much like daily life for most people throughout the world, but very much unlike daily life for someone in a country strange to them. I thought that if I found myself in this situation in, say, Thailand, Vietnam, or Mexico, I would be more worried. I don’t know if it’s just me or if that feeling is actually warranted.
I couldn’t decide if I should try to lay down in the shadow of some bushes and risk the embarassment of getting caught, or stay on this deserted but well lit downtown boulevard where I was easier to see. There weren’t any suitable bushes, so after about an hour I went for a walk, out of boredom more than anything.
Fortunately, I got lost. It killed a lot of time. I ended up walking much more than the distance from the train to my hotel. My shoes still hurt my feet. To make matters worse, two days earlier while finishing Steinbeck in my hotel room in Huang Shan, I had absentmindedly ripped ½ a toenail off my toe. Oh yeah, It was definately rubbing on my already quite painful shoes in a bad way now. Do I nurse my arches by walking on my toes, or nurse my toe by walking on my heels and arches?
I hobbled around for a good two hours, all the while thinking I must be very close to where I started, before finding an all night coffee shop. It was about 6:30 now, and I felt really bad for being so gross and sitting in their very nice coffee shop, but of course they couldn’t have really stopped me with a mere dress or hygiene code. I think that if I had looked and smelled like I felt, though, they would have called the police.
It was a nice coffee shop, very American/European, obviously catering to the University students nearby. And in fact I had walked around for two hours to find an all night coffee shop that was only three blocks from the dorm that would serve as my hotel. Though I wasn’t feeling pleasant at the time, this was a taste of the pleasantness to come. Only a metaphorical taste, actually. The weird lumpy ‘milk shake’ they served me would have gone unconsumed in any but the most desperate circumstances.
Up to this point I can’t exactly say that I was enjoying the trip. This is probably why this travelogue so far contains so many trivial details. I was learning, which was my focus anyway, but even the learning was really just learning about mundane reality rather than anything sublime imprinting itself indelibly in my memory. The work of being a tourist was taking up almost all of my mental and emotional energy.
But, as I said, that was about to change. I got a crisp, clean, and quiet room on the 17th floor, with a clean, hot and powerful shower. I gratefully paid for 3 nights up front, and was once again back in paradise.
First Impression of the Nanjing
I was in another world in Nanjing. It was much more like Tokyo than Shanghai had been. The lack of government attention in comparison to Shanghai makes it more cosmopolitan, more natural, more real. And more pleasant. There were plenty of restaurants and bars of all stripes. The streets were nice and relatively clean, as was my dorm. And there were college students of all nationalities everywhere. I was in desperate need of a place where I could just be, and not be bothered by people. I wanted to stay for 2 weeks.
My first night there I went to a foreigners bar nearby. There were old guys in bad casual clothes playing pool and drinking bottled beer with young Chinese women on their lap. The one guy my age looked and talked like he played football in high school, or was Fred Durst (he was an English teacher. The guy at the bar, I mean, not Fred Durst). It was an American boy’s bar, a surprising far cry from the cosmopolitan pubs, clubs, and TGIFriday’s in Japan, in which the culture seems to be predominated by big time business types and college grads living out Jack Kerouac fantasies. I wonder if this is what Japan was like 20 or 30 years ago, before the huge growth. Are these the kind of people that come to a place trying to get in on the ground level before an economic explosion, and all us foreigners in Japan now are just johnny-come-lately’s? I think so. I think these days the first wave of foreigners to live in a developing country are more often much more working class than those who come later.
The next day I was quite proud of myself for figuring out the bus system in Nanjing, with the help of a route map. I was able to find my way all over town with little trouble. The first day I went to some old temples and buildings on the wooded mount east of the city. Some of these were quite spectacular, particulalry the 600 year old beamless temple hall. I saw Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum, something the Chinese people love but seemed a bit overrated to me. A concrete dome with a dead guy underneath (and what did I expect out of a mausoleum?) The huge promenade of steps leading up to it was pretty impressive. It reminded me of Star Wars, the ceremony at the end. There was also a small temple complex that was still being used, something I hadn’t seen much of here. It seemed similar to a Japanese temple, if a bit more colorful.
Kerouac and the Expat; Further Insight into the Onward March of Progress
Back at my dorm that night I went to the small restaurant accross the street, with a big “Mentioned in the Lonely Planet” sign out front. It’s such an internal battle. On the one hand, I hate traveling thousands of miles just to blindly follow the cheese that someone set out for me. On the other hand, sometimes I like to eat. Having a menu you can read is a good step in the right direction.
I walked into the tiny bistro of a place and saw a guy reading the exact same edition of a book I had finished the week before, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. There’s the Asia I know and love. I had been profoundly moved by this book, the story of Kerouac finding his Dharma, the principles of existence or truth in Buddhism, in Northern California in the late 50’s with all the other Beatniks. They read and wrote literature, poetry, and philosophy, climbed mountains, lived in shacks, and drank a lot. Kerouac uses these experiences to talk about the Dharma. Religious experiences aside, what I liked was that its really just the story of a very tight and loving community of poets and outcasts enjoying a simple and authentic life, before the hippies took the baton and made stinking deadbeat copies of it. But what really moved me wasn’t so much the story itself, a model of the simple joys of living, learning and friendship, but the story of what happens to Kerouac after this idyllic time, after he published all of his books in a frenzy in the late 50’s and early 60’s: he gets married and divorced, moves in with his mother, becomes a hybrid Catholic/Buddhist mystic, turns into a recluse who never sees the friends he wrote about anymore, and dies of alchoholism in 1969 at the age of 42. Reading his own autobiographical novels and then reading the rest of his life story, you can almost taste the descent from light to dark to death. I had only recently been wondering who if any among the people I knew in Japan would follow a similar path.
It’s an apt comparison. California isn’t much of an adventure for us nowadays, so we go all the way accross the sea to find our Dharma. It has a little to do with the fact that the East is where the term originated, but more to do with escape from whatever it is back home that is keeping you from feeling free, a chance to redefine yourself and be surrouded by those of a like mind. This Japan experience, or a China, or Thailand or whatever experience, will be the high point of some people’s lives, when they found the most meaning and significance. Kerouac’s books are about moments of joy and meaning, but his life testifies to the fleeting nature of it all.
I hadn’t intended to talk to anyone, but I couldn’t help it. “Are you enjoying that book?”
He looked up, a little surprised to be addressed. “Yeah, yeah. Its really good.” He went back to reading and eating.
I looked at the menu and ordered. Then, I couldn’t help it. I hate to bother someone who is reading, but something came over me. “Are you familiar with the rest of his life story?”
“No, I’m not. I haven’t read anything by him before. I’d always meant to. You know everyone always talks about him, I finally decided to check it out.” He closed the book. I guess I had just made it a talking dinner, not a reading one. I hadn’t spoken with anyone in a couple of days, so it was probably good for me. Keeps me from dissapearing.
He was American, about 25, at the university researching on Chinese history or economics or something. His hair was just a little too long, not in a way that looked at all good, but in a grad student way, dipping a little toe in a momentary liberation and the appearance of rebellion almost as though it had to be done simply because it could be done. As many of us often do, he spoke about this gig as though it were something he was just doing for laughs until his real life’s work begins, and not because he particularly cared about it. We’re all just so thrilled giddy to be here, but we have to play it off like we totally belong, like this experience was owed to us, and we really are and always were as cool as this makes us feel. We were all world travellers long before we travelled the world, and we’re all going to do amazing things after this.
After talking about Kerouac, I got into a perennial favorite topic of mine, the hideous notions of urban development that abound in the world. “They’re tearing down all of Shanghai and building boring and ugly high rises over it.”
He nodded vigorously. “Well, you’re looking at the future of all of China. Shanghai is the national model for future captalist development. That city is their pride and joy.”
I launched into my barely formulated theory. “From the little bit of Communist Chinese history I’ve just been reading on this trip, you get the feeling that they’re still just thrusting the country back and forth in one or the other direction with these massive movements–one guy makes a decision,” …I’m being careful to avoid saying ‘Mao Ze Dong’ in public, as I don’t know what the reaction would be… “and suddenly a billion people have to follow suit. Now its like ‘Okay, we’re all going to be capitalist now’. So they tear everything down and build it back up into what a capitalist place is supposed to look like.” And then a question I’d wanted answered for a week: “Do people want this?”
He was quick with the answer. “People really want stability. You know, no one wants another…” and he glanced around and whispered “….Cultural Revolution. Really, you can hardly call it a communist country anymore. They’re embracing capitalism so vigorously as a way to bring about stability. But you’re right, it’s still a dictatorship. Its a capitalist dictatorship. But its developing at an incredible pace, too.”
He had a point. I didn’t live through the Cultural Revolution. Maybe if I or my parents and older siblings had, all I would want was an air conditioned apartment with beige carpeting, too. Is this why the depression and World War II created suburbia in America? People just wanted safety and comfort at the cost of culture and community? As much as I love the dense sea of humanity in Japan, I have to admit that Japanese people would probably live in suburbs like Americans if they had the land.
We talked a bit more. He told me about all the great things there are to do in China outside of the region we were currently in. I nodded and changed the subject. I told him about how easy the English teaching gig in Japan was, and how good the money was. This seems to be something that surprised most of the foreigners I met (the half of them that didn’t come from English teaching jobs in Japan). We were both obviously taking pleasure in showing off our own expertise in an important Asian country, and in learning about the other. I try not to be pretentious, but I guess there’s worse ways to feel good about yourself. Then he took off, before my food came, so I got my reading supper and ate it too.
Finally, Something Huge and Old
The next day I saw my favorite site of the whole trip, the Ming era city walls. They used to, of course, surround the whole city, but now they get about 25- 30% coverage of the perimeter, which is still pretty spectacular.
I don’t know what the great wall is like, but I think this one might rival it in inspiring awe, if only for the stark contrast to the modern city within. On the bus, you might just casually pass under a huge 600 year old stone archway. Near the gates that I visited, there is a new, small city park butting up against the walls. It could be any wall, a sound barrier separating a neighborhood park from a freeway, but it’s not. It’s a 600 year old brick wall. The other side of the wall has a busy boulevard that stretches for a mile down the length of it, which is about three stories high and five car lengths thick, about the size of a Japanese junior high school. It’s breathtaking.
In building projects like this (I believe this is true for the great wall as well), the brick makers living in the country side had to stamp every brick they made with their insignia, so that if the brick was found to be defective it could be returned and replaced. Many of the bricks still have 600 year old Chinese characters stamped into them, and some of them even look to be hand written. Damn, thats cool. Thats a little more profound a thing to have on a wall than “KORN kicks ass.”
You can get to the top of the wall at the official historical site of the city gates, which are four thick; theres a gate, a courtyard, a gate, a courtyard, a gate a courtyard, and a final gate. Standing on top of the front gate you are about 6 stories up. For about two dollars you can buy a bucket of boiling oil to poor on the passersby below. I’m cheap so I settled for just chucking large stones down upon them. The one cheesy thing (really) is that they have seven foot tall statues of sentinals lining the perimeter at the top of the gates. They also have depressing souvenir sellers occupying some of the dark caverns in the walls, and they look like they are doing no business whatsoever.
Taiping and the Rape of Nanking (and The Story About That American Woman)
Nanjing is historically famous in recent times for two things. One is the Taiping rebellion. A Hakka (one of the smaller Han Chinese ethnicities) from the south got his hands on some Christian missionary pamphlets towards the end of the 19th century, and through this spartan education in Christian theology became convinced that he was the brother of Jesus and was supposed to lead China and the world into a new heavenly kingdom (taiping). He was initially very succesful, taking over a large part of southern China and setting up his capital in Nanjing. In the Western books I’ve read, much is made of his aberant theology and the cult he created around himself. In the museum devoted to him in Nanjing, he is completely revered. The focus of the museum (thankfully some of it was in English) is how he had been a brave revolutionary against the tyrrany of the monarchy, and fought for the cause of the rights of the common people. Barely any mention was made of his theology, and nothing disparaging. It is of course obvious that the Communist “People’s”government would interpret it that way, but I hadn’t even thought about it until I got there.
The other claim to fame is the “Rape of Nanking” (the old way of romanizing Nanjing). In 1937 the Japanese were sweeping over China and taking over as much as they could. They had been acting quite heinously toward the Chinese for many years, but when they got to Nanjing all hell just broke loose. Chinese men, women and children were tortured, raped and some 300,000 slaughtered over a period of about nine months. In Nanjing they have a memorial/museum to this holocaust.
The entrance to this memorial has one of the most effective representational monuments I’ve ever seen. A gently sloping hill about the size of a baseball infield covered with white rocks of varying shapes and sizes. It represents a field covered in bones. Near this, there is a cross section of excavated earth with actual bones from the mass graves. Inside is a museum with pictures of the slaughter. Arrogant, swaggering Japanese men marching chained lines of seething and stoic faced or terror stricken Chinese men; guns pointed at people’s heads; half to fully naked Chinese women, shortly before or after being raped; corpses everywhere. All over the museum are signs saying “quiet and respectful, please.” But of course one would hope that that sort of admonishment would be unnecessary in a room full of such horrors.
Indeed. Forgive me for making light of this moment, but its not my fault. If you need to take some time to contemplate the previous paragraph before moving on, please do so. I didn’t have that luxury. Witness:
A middle aged American woman who has somehow procured the services of a Chinese professor (or possibly a medical doctor), also a middle aged woman. I’m guessing the American is the wife of a man in town on business with some connections. They are walking around the museum together. I come upon a picture of a decapitated head stuck to a fence post. It is gruesome, a vile testament to the inhumanity people are capable of. The cigarette sticking out of it’s mouth points squarely back to the black hearts of the men who did the deed and found it amusing. I am taking in the horror.
She is there, speaking loudly, sincerely.
“Oooh. Dr. Chong, I think I remember seeing that picture in one of our school textbooks.” Then, confiding, “You have to have pictures in the textbooks you know. That’s the only way to get the kids to ever even open them, let alone read them. Ha ha.” She appears confident that the professor will commiserate with her on the difficulties of instilling good study habits into young children.
More. “Dr, Chong, wasn’t there a picture somewhere of the Japanese soldiers throwing babies in the air and stabbing them with their bayonettes?” She is making stabbing motions into the air to facilitate the bridging of the language barrier. “I think I saw that somewhere, or heard about it.”
Dr. Chong, quietly and a little confused: “Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t heard of that.”
“I saw it somewhere. I wonder why they don’t have those pictures here.” Again, sincere, contemplative, furrowing her brow and perhaps touching her chin from the strain of the thought.
I walk around the corner. She catches up. “It says here that there were 300,000 dead. Now, is that the actual figure of dead or is that a guess…..?”
Dr. Chong: “Hmmm?”
“I mean, how did they arrive (arrriiive) at that figure? Of 300,000.”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand.”
She is stammering a little. “That number…. The amount. The…. amount of dead people. How did they arrive (arrriiive) at it?”
“How did they count? Do they know for a fact or is that just……. Is that the American number, or the Chinese number…? Did they count afterward, or is this from when it happened…….?”
“I don’t know”
“I’m just wondering how they would know that. Because…..well…it seems….I mean, I just wonder how they arrived at that number. Of 300,000.”
“I’m not sure.”
Why does it seem like all stupid tourists are American? Go to France and witness a college student standing before a “memorial to our youth” with the dates 1914-1918, and listen as she says “Did something bad happen to a bunch of kids then? Was that the Vietnam war?” You know that she is American. She has a Teddy Bear strapped to her backpack. Who goes to the millenia old Roman Coliseum in $100 Ralph Lauren flip flops and wonders loudly whether its really worth eight Euros to get in? Only an American. Who is that portly couple in knee length baggy jean shorts wondering whether that tall stone bridge in London is the Eiffel tower? Could they possibly be from the wealthiest nation on Earth? I know, other countries have stupid people, too. Maybe America is just the only country where the stupid people have enough money to travel. It’s a shame though that so many in the world are learning English and can understand them when they speak.
The “Rape of Nanking” memorial and museum reminds me of the atomic bomb museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many accuse the Japanese of propaganda with these museums and memorials, not telling the whole story of the war that they started that ended with the destruction of 2 cities and 300,000 lives in a flash, but only focussing on the evil of America’s deed. While there isn’t really any back story that the Chinese are hiding with their museum, I got the sense that they weren’t really trying to keep from sowing the seeds of hatred against the Japanese, either. They never miss a chance to insult the entire race from which the aggressors came, always throwing in adjectives like “the barbarous” before “Japanese”.
But thats a small criticism in light of the one that is still rightfully aimed at Japan. Japan has also come under a lot of fire for not owning up to the attrocities the Japanese commited in the Asian countries they occpide during their war, and for not teaching this part of their history in the schools. As far as I know, Japanese children learn little or nothing about the Rape of Nanking, and whatever is included in the curriculum is put there grudgingly and because of international pressure. (All of the text at the Nanjing museum is in Chinese, Japanese and English, so Japanese people can come here and get an education from a different voice.)
But in spite of the wounded feelings on the official front that are still held by all players over 60 years later, there are some who are extending their hands in gestures of sorrow and reconcilitation. Come to the Rape of Nanking Memorial and you will see chains of colorful origami paper cranes hanging along the walls at the entry way, given in memoriam by Japanese high school students who have presumably been taught extra-curricular information
If you don’t already know, let me explain the special significance to this. The story in Japan is that fifty years ago there was a little girl dying of cancer from the bomb in Hiroshima. Filled with hope, she had the idea that if she could just make 1000 paper cranes, then she would survive (a traditional way to have wish granted). She died after only making about 400, but in a show of national solidarity and mourning Japanese school children from all over the country decided to finish the task for her, and now in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there are hundreds of chains of colorful paper cranes hanging from select places at the monuments, memorials to all the dead who won’t be forgotten. That students from a Japanese high school would make and give these to the Nanking museum is rather moving.
Still Trying to Eat Chinese Food
My final site in Nanjing was a small Confucian temple. I went there because I had never seen a Confucian temple before. It wasn’t strikingly different from other Chinese and Japanese temples, except that it had a giant and unadorned statue of Confucius instead of a golden Buddha on an altar. And, to get you in a votive mood, they played a Kenny G sounding version of Celine Dion’s Titanic hit over the speakers out front.
Outside this temple was a nice outdoor shopping plaza where I decided to venture once again on acquiring a Chinese meal. I had passed several places selling noodles, and as I love the Japanese version of Chinese noodles called “ramen”, I thought I might try the ‘real’ thing. This was my strategy this time: walk up to a vendor, point at the noodles, and wait for the feast to arrive.
The first guy couldn’t figure out what to do. He pointed me inside the building, a sort of food court with lots of counters and lots of Chinese written everywhere. I had no idea what to do, so I went to another place. Again, I pointed, and I looked up the word for “noodles” in my dictionary and showed it to them. They were young and game for the challenge of communicating, but it still took about 3 minutes to establish that I wished to buy the only thing they were selling. Unfortunately this meal wasn’t very satisfying. I don’t think its where ramen comes from. The noodles were as clear as the water that came with them and flavoring was provided by adding your own soy sauce. And there were some green vegetables. I wondered if this was a meal here, or if I was just eating a snack.
On the busy street waiting for the bus to take me back to my dorm, a man was selling a delicious looking omelet and bread type thing. There were several happy people standing around and chatting, a maelstrom of contented activity. It took me a minute or two of contemplation, but I finally decided I really wanted one. It was nice that he wasn’t calling out at me to buy one. It was nice that, when I did order, he just got me one without making a fuss. It was nice that, standing there eating, the people kept on with their business, but still acknowledged me by trying to get their small child to say “hello”. And it was nice that everyone was laughing, and I was just another guy eating an omelet on a street corner with some other people. I get this feeling all the time in Japan, but so far in China it had been rather hard to come by. Nanjing felt cooler and more human than anywhere else in central China I had been.
The Chinese: Beneath Their Rough Exterior They Actually Have Hearts of Gold. Cold, Lifeless Gold.
There was a woman at the bus station information counter who spoke really good English and was intelligent and friendly, maybe the friendliest help I had yet encountered in China. And yet, even with this spirit guide to the mysteries of the long distance bus system, all I succeeded in finding out was that it would be too difficult to try and do it. There were at least 3 different bus stations in Nanjing and again each only served specific cities. I was at the wrong one to get to Suzhou, my next randomly chosen destination, and none of the places these busses were going to were appealing or in the right direction. So off I trudged to the train station to catch a quick hour and a half long day train.
Much ado is made by foreigners of the fact that there are over a billion people in China. Too much, I think, but it is such a striking thing that even my best instincts for originality couldn’t keep me from mentioning it two or three times already. More striking, however, is that no one seems more consistently surprised (to the point of disgust) by their numbers than the Chinese themselves.
There is no queueing in China. Well, there is, but at least 33% of the people will disregard it at any one time. There are 200 people waiting at 10 train ticket windows, and everyone just shoves and pushes there way in, completely oblivious that there are other people waiting as well. On the subways in Shanghai, as soon as the doors open there is a mad dash to get inside first because seats are so scarce. Grown men and woman shove each other, children, and the elderly aside and rush onto the subway like there was a greased watermelon inside and their team had to carry it to the goal. I’m surpised no one runs to touch the balance poles and shouts “first!” before relaxing into a satisfied grin a la third grade after gym class. I’m pretty sure this isn’t happening because no one on the subway has a satisfied grin. They are all enemies.
Of course, in any crowded situation people are bound to step on toes and get frustrated. But again, I contrast this to Japan, which has a similar population density and worse crowding on the trains. And yet, Japanese people always wait for passengers to disembark before entering the subway, and when they do race for seats, its the much more subtle quick walk and cool glancing around that you see in fifth graders. Most will check for elderly and disabled people before sitting down. The only place outside of China that I’ve seen adults act the way the Shanghainese, China’s future mind you, do in the subways was those morbidly obese passengers at the Greyhound bus stop in Albert Lea racing for cheeseburgers, or people on the news racing for Cabbage Patch Kids. Like I say, its been a rough fifty years for the Chinese.
If there was ever an injustice to facts in the world, the fact that Japanese and Chinese are ever said in the same breath must be one of the greatest. There couldn’t be a bigger difference in character or temperament. In two weeks in China I saw three fights. In three years in Japan I have seen no fights. I am completely shocked if a wage earning service provider in Japan ever so much as hesitates to do what they are supposed to do. In China I was often the most shocked whenever these people didn’t look like they were about to kick me in the nuts. Of course, China is much poorer and they have much worse jobs, such as toilet attendant. Put me in a room where at any one time no less than 30 people are commiting their foulest act of the day, and I will not tell you to have a nice day, either. “Where do you work?” “Downtown, at the toilet.”
But about those fights (I’ll get to the toilets shortly). The first was on the subway in Shanghai. 200 hundred people were getting off a train and onto a narrow platform at once, and two of them, both men in business suits, started to go at it. They both grabbed each other’s necks and pushed and pulled and yelled for about a minute, knocking over a sign and almost falling over, before some people broke them up. The second fight was virtually identical to the first, this time outside at the taxi stand at 2:30 am in Nanjing.
The third fight was on the train to Suzhou (the ticket lady in Nanjing this time didn’t even consider kicking me in the nuts, which was nice). This one wasn’t so much a fight but a five minute long shouting match between a man and a woman. All heads were craned for a few seconds toward the aisle, to try and see what was going on, but everyone quickly went back to what they were doing, and the argument raged on for another 3 or 4 minutes before it spent itself out. I guess the Chinese and Japanese do have that in common: can’t be bothered to get involved.
I was in an aisle seat, so my view of the countryside was still quite limitted. Relatively flat though with some rolling hills (Eastern Nebraska, maybe?), many fields of some yellow flowering plant, and surprisingly no rice. The houses are all organized into little communities of twenty or thirty, and they are built of stark crumbling concrete, though still cute in a lived in sort of way. The communities are spaced about a mile or so apart. Passing by them on the rails I had a tremendous urge to get off the train at the next stop and just walk through the countryside and villages, an urge naturally tempered by my dislike of causing coronaries in simple townsfolk.
I’m Still An Ass With Too Much Money
My adventurousness was rapidly winding down at this point. I was enjoying Nanjing so much that I wanted to just stay there for 3 more days until it was time to return, but I figured I better add one more city to my dossier. Suzhou was billed as a popular tourist destination because of its history with the silk industry, and because of its beautiful canals and gardens, which were rapidly being swept away by developments for tourism and industry.
Disembarking the train, I was ready this time. I was immediately mobbed by about 3 people. One of them was offering an English map of the city, so I snatched it up. As soon as people saw me laying out cash, no less than 20 people surrounded me and shouted at me to buy what they were selling. I charged off, utilizing the second word/phrase I learned in Chinese, “bu yao”, “I don’t want it.” (Interestingly, it took me about 2 years to learn how to say this in Japanese.) Said with enough force, and while walking away flailing my arms, this dispersed most of the crowd. Except one guy. He followed me about 20 steps more as I headed to the city bus depot, waving something in my face and prattling away. I stopped, looked straight at him, and said “NO!”, with all the rage and anger of 5 straight days of this crap. His response completely shocked me: his face went slack, he sullenly looked down at the ground, and he slunk away. I felt like a braying pink monkey’s butt. But I would probably do it again if called upon.
It’s just so dehumanizing, to be stared at and set upon by people who see you as nothing more than a cash dispenser. I wanted to be acknowledged as a person, a sentient being with thinking powers and a decision making capacity of my own, someone who can say yes or no and have that be it. And most important, someone who does not respond to the tantrum throwing two year old by giving in a buying the shitty toy at the check-out counter.
But another part of me couldn’t help but wonder who I thought I was, casually walking in their midst with six or twelve months wages strapped around my neck and not giving a thought to their plight, in fact using their plight for my own “authentic” sightseeing benefit. I had been accosted by all manner of beggars, street hawkers, and con artists since I got there, even in Shanghai, and its just tiring to be constanly reminded of the difference between me and them, and to have to constantly consider whether or not I was going to give in. The beggars were usually the most polite, and I sometimes gave to them if I had change handy. But then you have to wonder, why give money to someone for nothing and not to someone at least trying to give you something in return, even if you don’t want it? The person from whom I bought the map, which was about 10 years old and possibly printed from a high resolution dot-matrix, was only just one step above a beggar. And of course, the money they were asking for was virtually nothing. A dime, a quarter, rarely any more. A lot of times the only thing stopping me from giving any money away was slow reflexes and wandering thoughts.
Which Sucks More: Americans or Being an American?
The map got me right to my hotel, another University dorm, this time a small affair on a tiny York college style campus on the back streets of Suzhou. Getting there I walked about half a mile of a street that looked to be entirely in the service of foreign backpackers and other tourists. Everything was cute one or two story buildings with restaurants (“Featured in The Lonely Planet!”), bootleg cd shops, Eastern and hippy looking clothes and wall hangings, art, jewelery, and convenience stores. Almost everyone on the street was Chinese, but there were a few Western tourists. Its the sort of distict that’s modeled on places like State Street in Madison or South Beach and Key West in Florida, and many other towns accross the Western World, but that has been cropping up recently in places that these Westerners like to frequent: Bangkok, Cameron Heights in Malaysia, and, um, well I haven’t been anywhere else, but I’m sure they’re there. Backpackers love Western China and a place called Dali for just this reason. Oasises of Western culture, but not the Ritz Carlton and McDonald’s. Places with cheap communal lodging, decent beer and cocktails in public houses with the proper ambiance, maybe a few thatched roofs if the weather calls for it, and kindrid to detail your adventures with.
Well, I didn’t find any of those this time, but I did find another Aussie as soon as I checked in. He was just finishing up in the toilet when I got there.
“You a student or a traveller?” I asked.
“Neither. I came here about a year ago while traveling. Thought it suited me pretty well, so I never left.” His reply was given while barely noticing me.
Feckin’ Aussies, man. I’m convinced that less than 50% of those between the age of 20 and 35 still live in their own country. They’re either living it up in Japan with the rest of us and making bucketloads of money, or they’re dropped out and are living in one of these enclaves in Cameron Heights or Bangkok or Suzhou, or they’ve just, you know, taking a year off to travel the world and insult my shoe shopping habits. Or they’ve invented an extreme sport at which they are the world’s best and have gotten sponsored by Foster’s to live in Vanu Atu.
And what are all the American’s doing during this time? I’ll tell you: we’re at home working our asses off to pay off $30,000 in student debt, a cost that the young Aussies (and Kiwi’s and Brits) foist upon those of their country who are working and paying taxes. I haven’t been paying taxes lately, so I’m a bit biased I suppose, but I do feel the working classes’ pain here. And I am also a selfish bastard who wishes he went to college for free. And anyway, to be fair, the cost of education in other Western countries that is being foisted upon the taxpayers is much less per student than the cost in America, I believe. The other place young college graduates go is to the military so that they’ll pay for it. This explains the two things America is famous for abroad: ridiculously high GNP and absurdly powerful military. Either way, unlike our other young Western counterparts, we have to work for a living. The Europeans, Aussie’s and Kiwi’s can afford to go galavanting around teaching English in Kryryzygyzstan for 75 cents a month or drinking nickel beers and playing Scrabble in central Malaysia for 5 years, but for us Americans its all about performance. Make yourself useful, boy, because if you don’t the man’s going to come knocking and ruin your credit rating and garnish your wages. “What cost, O world domination?”
In truth, Japan (and now Korea) is the only non-Western country many Americans can afford to live and work in for this very reason. This in spite of the fact that almost every country in the world from Eastern Europe to Thailand wants English teachers, often with no qualification beyond speaking English but at most simply holding a four year degree in anything. They can pay you enough to live decently where you will be, but not enough to send any of it home.
I’d like to get some personal benefit from that whole world domination thing, too. I’m paying for the damn wars, aren’t I? (Well, I would be if I still lived there and were paying taxes.) Why can’t I get something more than death threats for being an American abroad? Meanwhile every other Western country is inking visa reciprocation deals with each other faster than Sub Pop in David Geffen’s conference room, but nobody, and I mean nobody wants to reciprocate with the U.S. Or maybe it’s the U.S. that won’t reciprocate with them. Either way, as an American the only country I can live in and try to find employment is America. Every other western country is part of a union or commonwealth that lets people move accross borders even before they find a job and get a visa. We just had to go and fight a stupid war to get our ‘freedom’ from England, and nobody even drinks tea in the U.S. anymore so who cares if they tax it? America: can’t live with it, pass the sushi.
More Hotel and Dining Adventures
I blew out the power on my wing in the dorm, trying to take the lampshade off my cute little lamp on my cute little night stand beside my cute chair in my cute little dorm room. I just wanted more lighht to read by, that’s all. It took a lot more unscrewing than I had anticipated, and resulted in a short circuited lamp. When the power went out, I went to the circuit breaker to flip it back on, only to have a large sheet of metal come crashing into my shoulder. Unable to explain everything to the startled woman at the front desk, I feigned ingnorance at the cause of the defective lamp and asked for another one.
Then I cracked open the factory packaged cookies I had bought in Nanjing earlier that day at a street vendor. The packaging was old and they seemed a little off to me. When I had pointed to the dusty package at the vendor’s, I had meant that I wanted a package of cookies like those, but not that actual package as it seemed obvious that that package was for display. When she handed me the exact ones I pointed to, I stupidly assumed that if she was selling them to me then they must be alright. I assumed that even after noting their fould smell in my hotel. (Its just like the shoes; I’m so trusting of other people’s authority)
After I puked up the first one I ate, I went to a cheap little Chinese place along the backpacker’s street, again lured by the “Lonely Planet” cheese on the sign. I had some fried noodles, by which I mean noodles swimming, wallowing, drinking and giving birth to grease. I also drank a bottle of the local beer, which was horrendous. I was the only person in this 3 table floursescent lit closet diner, but there were 5 people working there. They began by being overly excited at my entrance. Next, one person gave me a menu and stood over me while I perused. Meanwhile, the person who was manning the door also stared at me, as did the cook, the owner, and the back-up waitress. I made a selection, and they fell over themselves to get it. Everyone except the person at the door, who just looked in my general direction. Let it be known that this person was ready to serve my every door need during that meal. Perhaps I should have asked her to hold it just ever so slightly ajar for the duration of my meal. The owner pushed the local brew on me, and the waitress and her back-up tried to push a lot more on me. But the most important and most comforting fact was that they watched me the entire time I was in there.
The after effects of that greazy meal hit about five minutes after I left the restaurant, and I spent and hour in vain searching for a public toilet. It seems that the prevailing theory is that, since there are too many people producing too much waste and not enough ways to dispose of it, then the people must be prohibitted from expelling it altogether. This is probably an experience shared by many travelers (it’s even tough to find one in New York City), but this was my first experience with the double trauma of the scarcity and universal hideousness that is taking care of these basic needs in a strange and poor country. Ergo, I feel a strong urge to, uh, relieve myself of these feelings. Please, if you think this is juvenile (and I assure you that it is) and that turns you off, skip to the next section.
Public toilets can be found in train and bus stations (but not the subway, I painfully discovered), and every once in awhile on the street. They all have attendants. They are the squat type found in Japan, in which wastes are depositted on an open air shute before being washed down the drain by the action of flushing. Sometimes the toilets don’t flush. Or sometimes people just choose not to flush them. Or sometimes the waste is so massive that it will remain unmoved by the trickle of water that the toilet provides. It will then be the job of the attendant to make sure that they waste is manually cleared. Eventually. Maybe. Not necessarilly before you go in there, though.
I soon discovered that this problem was not only to be found in public toilets. One afternoon when I returned to my dorm room in Suzhou, the entire hallway reaked of human feces. It was the sort of smell that permeated 3-South, my college dorm wing, that one week that Coot and Mahaffey played a trick on everyone by hiding their own excrement in a bag in the closet at the end of the hall. In fact, I immediately thought of the way everyone dealt with this in college: stuff towels in the crack at the bottom of the door to keep the smell out of the room. However, this time I wasn’t in the mood for stopgap measures and stench may have been too strong anyway. So I went to the source. In the bathroom I found two huge piles of steaming turd just sitting in the toilets, which in these types of toilets is about three inches away from having steaming piles of turd sitting in the middle of the bathroom floor. The piles were big enough that I’m pretty sure they were each left by more than one person, a concept that seems almost unfathomable to me: someone actually squatted bare-assed mere inches above another’s pile. I couldn’t imagine how anyone not inured to the wacky antics of Coot and Mahaffey could live like this, so I flushed them, but much like the public toilets the stream of water was simply too weak to move these mountains into the drain. So I got a broom handle and manually pushed the offending masses off the cliff and into the sewage system.
I assume these piles were a common occurence because the situation on the floor below was identical; four toilets, four piles of crap, four in the afternoon. I also assume that they usually do live like this, because I imagine that most visitors don’t take quite the initiative that I did. You might say, “Ah, it’s just their culture. Don’t impose your Western notions of hygiene on a society that has their own ways of dealing with their waste.” But I disagree. Indoor plumbing is supposed to make life better, more sanitary. These Chinese people, in college, are grossly misusing it, living worse than any subsisting tribe in Papua New Guinea or Africa. No one in those places shits in the middle of the floor of their home and then leaves it while they go off to weave a basket. Either you shit outside on the ground or you shit in a hole in your home that makes it dissapear. If the hole in your home doesn’t make it dissapear, then it shouldn’t be shat in. I don’t think any ‘primitive’ people, like their Chinese ancestors for example, would dispute that.
It took me about two days to realize that by reversing convention and my rear, I could drop wastes directly off the cliff and into the drain and not have to have them sitting out in the open on the porcelain shute waiting to be washed down by the water. If cultural practices were not so ingrained people’s minds, the entire country could nullify the problem of poorly working toilets and fowl stench altogether by doing likewise.
My favorite toilet was the one where everyone was lined up in a row, front to back (with small walls for privacy at least, though I understand these aren’t always provided), straddling and squatting into the same long trough. Every two minutes the water would come automatically and wash it all down into a single drain. Which means that if you were in the stall closest to the drain (and guess who was when I was there) you got to see 10 men’s crap wash past you (or not quite make it all the way past you, as the case may be).
Being on this intimate of terms with my own and everyone else’s fecal matter was one of the most tiring things about China. It probably ranks right behind street hawkers and restaurant menus. One of my strategies in Japan is to search for McDonald’s when I need a clean private toilet. This holds in China, though in ratio to their overall lower standards. I sometimes feel guilty about using their toilets and not buying anything, but China changed my mind about that. I decided that since we have given the world the wonderful precious gift of McD’s, we Americans should get unlimitted bathroom passes at any one anywhere. Just show our passport and do our business. Besides, the very fact of being an American means that we have probably eaten no less than 20 pounds of McDonald’s food for every year of our life. Dude, if anybody owed us a toilet break, its them.
Bootleg CDs: Crime, no Punishment
The next day I made a game effort to do some sightseeing, but I just wasn’t in the mood and it didn’t seem that there was much to see, anyway. Had I had more energy, Suzhou would have been the perfect place to rent a bike (they were everywhere, right near my dorm) and ride around town and even to the outskirts. I could have ridden right up to a section of the original Grand Canal and seen a Really Frickin Old Bridge. But after walking to one temple and being accosted by several people selling Rolex watches who understood neither “bu yao” or “no”, I decided to go to a place selling English books in town and hunker down for another day of reading. I got Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
I do regret not biking around. I’m sure on a better day it would have been a really eye opening experience. And while I would have avoided any street vendors accosting me by riding outside of town, I would have had to endure stares from everyone and that general constant on-edge feeling of not belonging. All it took was walking about fifty yards into a neighborhood street in Nanjing before some ten year old kid saw me and shouted “Hello. Fuck you!” I just didn’t want that sort of attention, though I had to applaud the kid for learning something I rarely hear from Japanese ten year olds.
It ended up that about the only thing I did in the town of Suzhou was shop for bootleg cds. There were about 100 titles to choose from in about ten tiny doorless shops spread throughout the foreign tourists district. Initially, I didn’t want to get involved, because to me, an avid cd shopper, it was a moral and economic chaos to be able to get any cd I wanted for a buck. How would I know when to stop?
But it started with just one sip, or one puff, as they say. I bought Nirvana’s Greatest Hits because it’s such a bastard thing to do to make a fan buy 14 songs they already own just for one new one (and it takes someone as depraved as Courtney Love or a record company executive to do it). Then, I remembered that I think that about any band with only one good song, so I started searching for a cd with the Creed song “Higher”. That search proved to be in vain, but in the process I found a lot of other cd’s I sort of wanted but wasn’t willing to pay for (Dido, Rolling Stones’ 40 Licks), some that I had already bought but ruined (Master of Puppets, melted to a cd sleeve), and finally, with all this moral relativism, I couldn’t resist just buying some cds I wanted (Audio Slave, Foo Fighters). I don’t feel bad, though, because every cd is printed with “Copiwrite ResPrved. Unauthorize dreproduTion is Stric tly Prohibbitted”. So they might not be bootlegs. I bought about 20.
(Postscript: One of the boots, when put in my $400 cd player/burner, made a huge racket and refused to play, in spite of being of perfectly correct dimensions by all appearances. The cd player broke down shortly afterward and that cd may be to blame. My understanding of cd technology offers me no possible explanation for how a cd, which touches virtually no mechanical parts, could break a cd player. I guess its just karma.)
More Insane Driving
Suzhou is a small enough town that the next day I was finally able to get my much sought after bus ticket. There is only one bus station in town, and Shanghai, being ninety minutes away, is an obvious destination. By this time I had seen enough of the countryside that the bus didn’t yield any new insights, other than the fact that Chinese drivers are just as purely insane at 120 km/h as they are at 50. Once the bus actually had to stop at the side of the busy freeway (which was sort of still in the middle of the busy freeway) so that the driver could get out and yell at the woman behind the wheel of a packed mini-van for almost killing forty people by trying to thread into the half lane between us and a semi-truck at high speeds. I’d like to know if this happens a lot.
Three Artists From Beijing
Back in Shanghai, I had from noon until the next morning to kill before my flight. I decided to return to The Shining hotel for my last night and catch an early morning cab to the airport. It took most of the afternoon to get there, check-in, bathe, and check my e-mail. In the evening I went for a stroll along the main shopping arcade in the area (where I had bought my bum shoes 2 weeks earlier) and around The Bund to gander at the architecture. I looked for more bootleg cds and bought a new wallet. Every once in awhile someone would step out and accost me for money or to sell something, but I had gotten pretty good at dismissing them by now. They aren’t nearly so bad in Shanghai anyway.
It was around 5:00 or 6:00 that I started to peek into restaurants to perhaps rustle up some dinner. But everything was looking a bit lonely. I had been pretty happy to eat alone for most of this trip, but I just thought that for my last night in China it might be nice to have a conversation or something. It didn’t seem too likely, though, and I almost went in to several little places along this street.
Fortunately, fate intervened. I was walking through a crowd on a street corner heading back to my hotel when someone looked me right in the eye and said “hello”. I was about a nano-second from saying “No!” and brushing them away, maybe giving a fake sucker punch to the air for good measure, but, as she was an attractive young woman with two attractive friends, and my finely tuned prostitute detector came up negative, I stopped and listened instead.
“Would you like to come to an art show Its free you don’t have to buy anything we’re art students from Beijing here to show our art its in a room nearby would you like to come its free…..”
“Art? What kind of art?” I asked.
“We do many things. Ink, paint, Chinese, Western. There is no cost.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“We’re from the Beijing art program. We come to Shanghai to show our art. It is festival here in Shanghai. We’re all artists. Our paintings are in a room nearby. Would you like to come? Its free.”
“Yeah!” I was ecstatic at my good fortune, and glad I didn’t follow my first instinct to swat them away.
So we walked half a block and went up an elevator and into a small comfortable room, maybe 8 meters by 6. They told me they were here with a big group and everyone else had gone out to dinner but they weren’t really hungry then.
The room was full of small unframed works hanging from the walls, and several other stacks on tables. The outgoing one who originally accosted me showed me one of hers first, a painting depicting the four seasons. There were many works in the room depicting the four seasons, as its a Chinese motif, a metaphor for life, birth to death. The artist takes a single scene, a tree, a river and a small humble hut, for example, and paint four versions of it. This artist was quite talkative, but I don’t remember much of what she said, unfortunately. She explained many of the details, describing how different effects were produced with brushes. It was all very interesting. I took my time and looked at things, and the other two artists, a bit shy, chimed in about their own pieces.
There was one thing that was nice about this moment: I was talking with real live Chinese people and they weren’t asking me for money. I guess I had had that with the college boys on the train as well, but that conversation was really slow and difficult. This one was very refreshing.
“You know,” I said “I almost didn’t stop when you spoke to me on the street because I thought you were going to try to sell me something. Everyone who stops me on the street in China only wants my money. I’m glad I stopped.”
“Yes,” their leader began “because you are American, everyone want your money. They think that you are very rich, and Chinese people have nothing.”
“Yeah, but many Chinese people are very rude, I think. I have to yell at them to make them leave me alone. Bu Yao!” Everyone chuckled.
“But actually, I was wanting to tell you, you can buy a painting.”
I had figured as much anyway. They were being really pleasant though, and I had other plans for how to repay them.
“It’s only 70 yuan. Its only 15 dollars, the cost of a t-shirt. Many people buy t-shirt for souvenir, but you can have original painting for same price.”
In truth, I hadn’t bought anything except for bootleg cds and painful American shoes. I’d been having a crisis of possessions lately, knowing that I would have to move soon, and then probably move again and again shortly after that.
“Mmmm, no thank you.” I said.
“All of these are for sale,” she said, pointing at the unhung stack, “you can choose any one for 70 yuan. It’s the same cost as a t-shirt.”
This went on for several more minutes as she made her sales pitch. Of course, I could have easily afforded a painting. Its just that I didn’t want one. Buying someone’s original art is a big responsibility. You have to take care of it and treat it well. Its not like a crappy t-shirt that you can stuff in your bag and get ketchup all over. Its like a bouquet of flowers….like the flowers I got on my first day of school in Japan. A huge bouquet, which I laboriously took home on my bike to my sloppy apartment. For about 5 minutes in my apartment I looked for a vase among the detritus that my predecessor to the job and apartment had left behind. The first day of school was already a pretty stressful occasion, and my stress level was rising higher yet as I tried container after container, each one proving unstuitable for a bouquet. I was already mad that I had had to carry them all this way, and now all I wanted to do was sit down and rest. Instead I was trying to figure out what to do with these stupid flowers that I didn’t want anyway. I didn’t know any stores where I was, I couldn’t speak Japanese to get help. The flowers were really pissing me off. Finally I took the huge, expensive and exquisite bouquet and stuffed it down into my garbage can. And then I felt tremendously guilty for destroying such beauty and life, not to mention thoughtfulness. I had to wrap up the bag and put it in the other room just to get my mind off of it. The murder of those flowers still makes me feel bad to this day. Original art, in my transient life and my living spaces that are too cluttered to be worth decorating, feels like this to me. I feel unworthy of it. Besides, how would I ever carry it back to Japan with me?
“It can roll up and we have a tube you can put it in. So it’s no problem. You can take it on airplane. Its easy. See?”
Ahhh, I do see. A tube. It didn’t occur to me until later that I could have bought one and given it away to someone more worthy than I. However, at this moment, all I could think of was sadness that this relationship was being commodified, despite understanding on some level why it probably had to be that way. It felt dirty, like I had summoned the services of strippers or something. Not to mention the bit of guilt I felt for wasting their time by not buying their stuff. I just wanted to make friends, thats all.
“I’m sorry. Your paintings are very beautiful, and thank you for telling me about them. But I don’t want to buy. But I would like to take you all to dinner. Are you hungry? We can go to a restaurant and I will buy you all dinner.”
They all looked a little shocked. They got together and spoke softly for a few seconds. I was worried they would think I was being creepy.
Finally, the leader broke off and tried to explain, a little sheepishly. “We would feel strange letting you buy us dinner. We don’t know you well and we would feel bad.”
“No no. I want to thank you. I want to thank you for showing me your paintings. Also, before I met you I was walking and looking at restaurants, but they were all so lonely!” This I said with a big smile and some play acting of looking into restaurant windows. “I was hoping to meet people to eat with. I have been in China for 2 weeks but I haven’t spoken to any Chinese people and I haven’t even eaten Chinese food because I can’t read the menu! Please help me.”
Again, I thought they might think I was creepy, or maybe they really didn’t want to go. “You can choose the restaurant. We can go out to the main street and you can take me to any restaurant you want. If you don’t want to go, its okay, but I really would like to buy you all dinner. I think you’re nice people.”
They spoke together some more. “Okay, lets go.”
We went to a nice restaurant with table cloths and fancy dishes and a million waiters in white shirts and bow ties. I had them order everything, and it reminded me quite a bit of Chinese food in America. Rice with meat and vegetables.
In about the middle of the meal, the question came up. “What do you think about the war in Iraq?” The war had just started the week before I left for China, and I had done a lot of research into the pro-war argument in the months previous and wrote an article about it. I can’t remember how I answered their question, but I remember feeling like I ought to be careful. They, of course, couldn’t understand why America was doing this.
“Why does America have such a ‘long arm’?” The other girls were speaking more now, and one of them asked this question using a gesture to explain the way America reaches around the globe to meddle in affairs.
All I could do was agree here, as well. But I also wanted to ask them if they could explain why their own country is in Tibet and the Turkic Western Provinces, but I couldn’t decide if that was prudent or not, especially in public, so I kept my mouth shut. In retrospect I wish I had. However, it got really interesting when we started talking about Mao Ze Dong, a name I’m pretty sure they brought up. I asked them about the ‘new China’ and what they thought. They were split: the two quiet ones liked the old China, the talkative one liked the new China. (I will henceforth refer to the quiet ones as one entity, as they are largely indistinguishable in my memory).
“I think it was better with Mao.” one of the quiet ones said. “we were all equal then.”
“Really?” I was amazed. I couldn’t have imagined a young person saying they longed for the days of Mao. Just goes to show how much your education influences the way you think, and that goes for the both of us. I desperately wanted to dig deeper into this to find out why, but I chickened out somewhat and never mentioned ‘Cultural Revolution’ or ‘100 flowers campaign’ or any of the bad things he was responsible for. All I could do was ask “Why?”
“Now, there are many people who have nothing and others make so much money. Before it was better when people were equal. Everyone had the same chance.”
Again, it seemed amazing that two girls who were living at the top of the heap were longing for equality. But I suppose they, having come from the provinces, were direct benificiaries of Mao’s ‘equality.’ The talkative girl was having nothing of this.
“They always do this!” she said through a big squinty grin and laugh. “They only know each other for maybe 2 month and they always together against me!” Everyone was laughing now. “Before, they didn’t know each other, but they were only my friend. Now they spend more times with each other than with me! And they always together against me!”
I’m chuckling too. “So you don’t like Mao? You like the new China?”
“Well,” she said, “Of course Mao was great leader, but he cause many problems. Before many people can’t eat, but in new China people can work hard to get what they want.”
“I remember,” one of the quiet ones chimed in “my brother, he is same your age, and he always say to me when I was young ‘you are so lucky, you can eat as much as you want! When I was young we never have enough to eat. We were always hungry.’ So there were some bad things. But I think it better when everyone is equal.”
There was probably about 6 years difference between her and I. Thats a testament to the incredible changes China went through every couple of years between 1945 and 1980. I would have given anything to have sat with them for hours more in a private room and tried to figure out the difference between what they had learned about China (and the U.S.) in school and what I had learned about China in the book I had been reading during that trip. I imagine the chasm was large.
The meal was sadly over and I couldn’t think of any other activity to invite them to. We had spent some time talking about Chinese and Japanese language and culture so I gave them a deep bow and a heartfelt “Domo Arigato Gozaimashita”. They laughed.
The First Shall Be Last
I walked back to the Shining hotel praising my good fortune at having met them. As I walked into the door, I met my last unwelcome interlocutor in China, an old and frail hunched back woman dressed in rags trying to sell me postcards and phone cards. She was one of the first beggars I had noticed in China, having met me every time I came in and out of that hotel, and I had brushed her off every time. She seemed to be in an autopilot daze as she approached me and said “phone card, post card” in a hushed and feeble voice, staring at her goods as she sorted through them and then hopefully glancing up to my face. I’m guessing that she never really registered that she had seen me, or any of the guests, before. I was on autopilot as well, and gave her a quick “no” as soon as I saw her, and she ambled quietly away as she always did, never being pushy.
But just as I hit the steps, I changed my mind. If anyone earned my money in these two weeks, she did. I went back and said “Actually, I will take some postcards. How much?”
The joy, surprise and gratefulness that came over her face at that moment was priceless. It also suprised me, and again cut to my heart and forced me to consider my attitude toward it all. You can’t help everyone and some people are so obnoxious or dishonest that they don’t seem to deserve your help, but it is immoral to turn everyone aside. Jesus inveighed against the treatment of the poor in his time, in a society economically more similar to these third world countries than the ones I live in. For this more often than other moral dilemmas I think of his person and his words, and this woman seemed to be the perfect example of the poor and the widows that he called upon his followers to succor. I felt shamed.
“10 yuan”. She said. Thats about a buck twenty-five. I couldn’t decide if I was happy or sad about that. I didn’t talk her down.
The next morning I spread a different kind of joy with my wild spending when I found a cab driver in the lobby to take me to the airport. He was practically rubbing his hands together with glee to get this fare. He drove wildly, offered me cigarettes through the dividing window, and almost laughed out loud when I gave him 150 yuan and told him to keep the change. Spreading good will through cash.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I finally opened the postcard package that I got from the old woman. I really wondered how they could make postcards of so hideously ugly a city as Shanghai, or as polluted a country as China. I thought perhaps they would use the Japanese method of doctoring photos to remove the pollution from the air and the horribly misplaced works of man that mar virtually every pristine landscape they could have. The Japanese have become really proficient at this, and they have even developed their own style that often makes the photos immediately identifiable as Japanese. They look a lot like video games such as Mario Kart or the final scene of Star Wars episode I: Impossibly clear green grass and blue sky with perfectly clean innocuous utilitarian structures. The photos don’t emphasize so much the uniqueness of a place or the excitement of visiting there, but rather simply the cleanliness and orderliness of it (which is a lie anyway). They could be from the literature of an inisidious suburban religious cult.
The person who conceived and created these postcards used a cheaper and rootsier method of concealing the blight of their city. I rifled through picture after picture and read captions like “Glorous Shanghai in the Night” and “The Majestic Night View of Viaduct”. The only visible thing in each photo was the bright and multicolored lights of the city, as if to say “See? We’re just like Tokyo and New York.” I laughed out loud.