I know I go on and on about the heat, but folks, 104 degrees and hella humid ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at, especially when A/C is sparse and unpredictable. The heat affects everything we do here in Shanghai. We are slow and dull-witted, no, wait, I think we were like that back in the States, too. Seriously–when you can barely navigate a place because the language is so different, it’s important to know how to stay cool and hydrated, and sometimes these basic necessities can be difficult to negotiate. My cold has gotten better, but I do have to make sure I have plenty of tissues in my purse and dose myself with cold medicine. Ah, there’s nothing like a summer-time cold, especially when you’re on vacation in the biggest city in the world during a 40-year record heat wave.
Yesterday, we did manage to have fun, despite lots of miscalculations and misunderstandings. We decided a few days ago to go with our American friend, Jarrod, on a day trip to nearby Suzhou, the “Venice of China.” We have no phone, so we had to set up a time in advance to meet at his hotel and hope he would wait for us if we were late. We were. And he did. On the way to his hotel, we bought our breakfast, which consisted of bananas from a corner market, a yummy pancake-thing cooked with an egg and various savory herbs (cilantro? green onions?) and sauces, and a tea-egg (she over-charged us, but we didn’t figure it out until too late; my sweetie was hot about that one and had to walk it off), and lemonade.
This all sounds pretty easy (and strange for breakfast food, perhaps), but each little bit is a challenge. First, and always, is the heat. Wait, no first is the elevator. We’re on the sixth floor, so we’ve considered taking the stairway during elevator rush-hour (if only we could figure out when, exactly, is elevator rush-hour), but there are no lights on the stairwell, so we’re hoping there won’t be an emergency while we’re here. So, we wait for the elevator, crowd in with many, many non-English-speaking locals, then welcome the blast of hot Shanghainese air when we get through the lobby doors. After the blast of heat is the sunshine. Break out your umbrella (if you remembered it) and avoid being hit by speeding scooters as you step into the street. Yes, you might want to walk on the sidewalk, but it is cluttered with fruit stands, lounge chairs (with sleeping owners), parked scooters, and women washing clothes or dishes or fish or greens in plastic basins. So, you’re on the street, avoiding the scooters and occasional cars. You don’t have a bottle of water for this morning, so buy two at the shop on the corner (because the woman at the one near your hotel charged you too much last night). Bananas. Okay. Yesterday, there were lots of singles, but not today. So, pick up a bunch, say a word that is supposed to sound like “two” in Chinese, and hope she’ll let you take two and not the entire bunch. She does. Cool. Pay 3 yuan, nearly double what you used to pay in Wuhan.
Tea eggs. Okay. The woman yesterday cheated you, so find somewhere new. Turn down a new alley and spy a group of people standing in a line, but it’s strangely split in the middle. Most of the line-waiters are quiet (which you suddenly realize is strange), but maybe it’s because two of the women are screaming at each other. Of course, they are screaming in Chinese, so you don’t know what it’s about. One of them is being corralled by a man, gently led in the opposite direction. Who knows? The screaming continues for awhile, but finally she turns the corner and is gone. Wait in line, hoping that by the time you get to the table, you’ll understand how to order what you want, or what you think you want, because, of course, until you put it in your mouth, you don’t really know what it tastes like. Score! Yummy tea eggs, rice (with a dipper-ful of sauce), green beans, curried potatoes (?), edamame with questionable meat, and something you thought was bok choi but turns out to be cooked celery (oops–the pancake-thing was yesterday). Yum. The problem is, there’s no where to eat, and it’s already over 95 degrees. You head to the mall for lemonade and A/C. Buy said lemonade, then quarrel with your husband about whether or not it’s okay to eat at the food court. Finish all food and lemonade before being asked (or yelled at) to leave the food court. Find out when the yummy bakery opens the next morning, then hope that the sign on the mall doors doesn’t really mean that the mall opens an hour later than the bakery. Then head back to the hotel/hostel, buying cigarettes and baijiu for friends and family back home. Stick to the shady side of the alley, the same side everyone else sticks to, too. Lobby. Elevator. Home.
Yes, that’s a typical morning. But, of course, nothing is really typical in China. I read Lost on Planet China before I left the US. I just thought he was being clever coming up with that title. The longer I’m here, though, I more I feel like I’m on another planet. It’s the language that clenches it, the written part, that is. Because Chinese doesn’t use our (Roman) alphabet, or even a phonetic alphabet at all, it’s extremely difficult to figure out what you’re reading. My sweetie and I went to a bookshop a few days ago, the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Road, just a few blocks from our hostel. Sweet Jesus. This store is like what the best bookstores used to be in the States. Ten, fifteen years ago. I was emotional. I cried. I have taken so much for granted–the books I’ve read, the music I’ve grown up listening to. Visiting that bookshop made me realize how lonely and isolated I feel here. In the States, so much of my time is spent with language–reading, talking, writing. But here, I can’t read what’s on the simplest sign (unless, of course, someone has been thoughtful and translated it), so I have no idea how to read the books, how to participate in the literary heritage. So, yes, instead of just being in another country, I feel like I’m on another planet.
Speaking of heritage, the longer I’m in China, the more I sense the absence of something. I thought at first it was because of the language barrier, but now I’m starting to wonder. My husband taught a mini-course in US music while we were in Wuhan, and as he prepared, I got to hear some of his lessons on blues and jazz and negro spirituals. In the US, we have an incredible musical heritage, and much of it comes from suffering and oppression. In China, though, there only seem to be two kinds of music–old Chinese music (think stringed instruments and high, nasal singing) or Western-influenced music, such as pop or hip-hop. I’ve only been here a month, but as far as I can tell, China has no music that developed from its own culture, its own struggles in the last century. And let me tell you, China has had its share of struggles in the last century. It’s as if Mao squashed the people so hard that they couldn’t even make music. Maybe it goes back further than Mao. I don’t know. What I do know is that everywhere I look (and listen), there is a gap, an abyss that points back to the Cultural Revolution, the years that the schools were shut down and the intellectuals were persecuted (or killed), the millions and millions (70 million, to be precise) of people who died (many of starvation) because of Mao’s policies, the teenaged Red Army that terrorized the countryside, and a government so repressive that people turned over their own family members to the military officials. What a legacy. Yes, China is changing and growing and building, but they are working from such a cultural deficit, that it is no wonder they are looking to the West for inspiration–they have so many gaps in their own modern cultural development that it’s (almost) normal that they would look anywhere but at home for a sense of where to go next.
Where are we going next? No, not our country, just me and my sweetheart. Well, we’re going to see Shanghai acrobats tonight. Tomorrow we’re checking into the Pacific Hotel, posh digs that we got at a discount. Then perhaps a city bus tour and the Shanghai Museum by the People’s Park. Then we’ll be getting ready for the long, long ride home. Oh, home. Can’t start thinking about that yet….