Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I was expecting reverse culture shock when I flew into New York City and returned home, what with all the Americans, skyscrapers, and Western food. It turned out I didn't need to get all the way back to America to feel like I wasn't in China--in comparison to Zhangye, Shanghai was really something else. I've heard mixed reviews from other foreigners, who have complained of Shanghai's crowds, unfriendly people, and high prices, but I fell in love with the place. It's the most cosmopolitan city I have seen in China, one where in places you could almost pretend you are in the heart of a European capital. One of the best-known sites in Shanghai is the Bund, a stretch of buildings along the Huangpu river built by Europeans in a grand style that made me think back to London. And just across the river stands Pudong, one of the few sets of imposing skyscrapers in mainland China, which has risen very recently from the surrounding swampland.

During the previous year I had eaten non-Chinese food no more than a dozen times, and the three of us delighted in Shanghai's international cuisine, including Indian, in one case being treated to a crazy and unexpected dance show by a jovial Indian bartender. Stefanie and I also indulged in a shameful ham sandwich gorge-fest in our hostel's restaurant, but I felt I owed it to myself after not being able to purchase cheese during the past year.

Me and Nissa being small-town folk back in America, Stefanie had to show us a thing or two about being high class, and brought us to the Westin hotel. Judging from just the lobby of the place, it was probably worth more than the city of Zhangye. We sat down for desert on an upper-floor restaurant, and despite being amongst fellow foreigners, still stuck out like the proverbial sore thumbs. As we got up to leave after finishing our daintily presented delicacies, I had a bit of a coat malfunction, and awkwardly stood beside the table looking at my inside-out sleeve. Then I noticed Nissa too was proving no match for her jacket, and looking as helpless. Stefanie shook her head in severe disappointment and ushered us out of the restaurant while we still had some shred of dignity, but not before we grabbed the uneaten bread from a nearby table on the way out.

One of the weirder sights we saw in Shanghai was the Bund sightseeing tunnel, a mysterious "ride" that brought unsuspecting tourists under the river from the Bund to Pudong and back. Do you remember the scene in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie in which they take a hallucinogen-inspired boat ride? It was a lot like that, without Gene Wilder on a bad acid trip and giant centipedes. My two companions, young at heart as they are, were beside themselves with delight during the 5-minute ride and beyond. On the way back, the only other person in our car was a stone-faced middle-aged Chinese man in a suit, who seemed to be contemplating his direction in life. I had the funny notion of him riding to his job as an investment banker like that every day, with bright neon lights dancing around him and a dramatic voice making announcements like "meteor shower" in Chinese and English.

Though certainly an end in and of itself, the sightseeing tunnel also magically transported you to a group of attractions, namely an aquarium or a sex museum. Obviously, we chose the sex museum. I would be interested in accompanying my students on a field trip there, seeing as the revelation that I've not only dated a girl before but more than one was enough to audibly and instantaneously shock 35 students. On the way out, Nissa was asked by a woman with a European accent just where they might have put the toilet paper in the bathroom, as they seemed to have neglected her particular stall. Nissa had to explain that there is no toilet paper in the bathrooms here, so you have to bring your own, leaving the women in complete shock and confusion, albeit one tissue richer.

I had been looking forward to experiencing Shanghai nightlife, and on one of the nights we decided to try a bar in the French Quarter listed in the Lonely Planet guide that had a Ladies' Night with free drinks for females. The two-floor bar was completely and utterly packed with Westerners who also owned the Lonely Planet guide, with the DJ pumping out trash like Wham! that I thought I left back in senior prom where it belongs. We had invited a stray Australian girl from the hostel who was by herself, and the four of us found the remaining free floor space in the back where we could dance in peace. At one point Nissa left to use the bathroom and jokingly said to me "now don't go off dancing with any other girls." As soon as she was gone, an intoxicated women in her early 30's snuck up behind me and danced with me like it was her last night on Earth for about 45 seconds, and then said "thank you" and walked away into the crowd. Of course, free drinks for the ladies quickly turned into force-feeding me mixed drinks when the bouncers weren't looking, as quickly as possible before the free drinks ended at midnight. They weren't strong by any means, but quantity has its effects, and the last thing I remember that night is seeing the bottom of a couple of empty tequila shots.

On our last night in Shanghai, I suggested that we try a noted jazz club called the Cotton Club, which was also in the French Quarter, which seemed to be the Greenwich Village of Shanghai. It was my kind of atmosphere, and I would probably be a regular if I lived there. We had a table just a few feet from the stage, and as the band was setting up Stefanie recognized the guitar player from a picture of the place in her Lonely Planet Shanghai guide. When she went up to talk to him and get him to sign it he had obviously not seen the picture, and was obviously not sober: "whoa, what book is that? Cool. What's your name? Stefanie? My name's Greg. I've had a lot of wine!" The band was excellent, with a mix of Western and Chinese members, and an ideal end to the trip. The next day we took a train to Beijing, where I would catch my plane back to America and Stefanie and Nissa would meet two American friends coming for a two-week China experience. China was starting to feel rather familiar, and really couldn't picture America feeling quite the same again.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Upon saying "sayonara, Zhangye" (never mind...), we embarked on our 30 hour train ride back to Yangzhou, where Stefanie and Nissa live and teach, and we spent almost, but not quite, 1 day. We had planned a further full day, but that was on the silly assumption that you can count on buying cross-country train tickets whenever you want, and we decided to cut a day from Yangzhou rather than Shanghai. I had the chance to meet two of their favorite students, Frida and Brack, for a noodle dinner, during which Frida excitedly toasted us with soda and Brack wrote a poem by Li Bai about Yangzhou onto the learning-Chinese notepad I always carry. Anyone who fears the rapid rise of China needs to meet more of its English students. We also met up with Megan, who teaches in Yangzhou at a different school and also came to China through Pacific Lutheran University in Washington State.

Stefanie was at this time on an amazing streak of losing valuable possessions, and went off with Megan for a while to buy a new cell phone. With what time we had, Nissa then took me on a tour of Yangzhou, which turned out to be a pleasant, mid-sized city. The famous dish of the place is the Yangzhou Fried Rice, and Nissa was annoyed to find their favorite fried rice place had closed and been totally gutted and demolished in the space of the last week, a common discovery in China. A lady emerged from this wreckage and promised to lead us to another place, and after a weird 10 minute walk through questionable back alleys, we arrived at the place, which had no less than three greeters, none of who seemed to be actually serving food. The highlights of the evening tour were the canals of the city, including duck boats that obviously have captured Nissa's fancy. The rest of the night was low-key, involving a trip to a bar, a mockery of a pool game, and very inexpensive wine. Luckily we got back to their hotel rooms just before 11, and didn't have to climb over the fence, as there is apparently a curfew ("wear narrow shoes for the fence," I was warned). I didn't have the chance to see a whole lot of Yangzhou or meet the young, artsy French couple I've heard about (mostly through great Stefanie imitations of their accents), and the next day we were off to Shanghai, "Whore of the Orient."