I wondered this on more than one occasion last year as Adam regaled me with tales of what was obviously one of his favorite cities on earth.
Adam’s business took him to Asia a half-dozen times in 2010, and Shanghai was clearly his favorite spot. (I always kind of assumed it was because it was the one place on earth where he towered over everyone else!) But after reading his blogs about the strange exotic foods he ate, the glistening new skyscrapers rising to the stratosphere and the culture with which he was so clearly enamored, I was more than a little curious about why, of all the places he’s been, this one held such appeal. What made Shanghai stand out over cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore?
Having now spent some time in Shanghai myself, I still can’t figure it out.
After visiting China’s largest city in December I decided there were a few things I’m not so thrilled with: the people, the food, the culture, the traffic and the toilets.(Did I miss anything?)
First, the people.
Oddly, since I’m Korean, I was more apprehensive of being around Asians than I have been of any other race. Growing up I was not surrounded by too many other Asians and had completely adopted the American culture. In my mind, I was a Southerner. And engaged to a white guy so I wasn’t sure how the Chinese would view me. (In my early 20′s, I got a lot of pressure from other Asians to date only Asians.)
The Chinese could have cared less about who I was with, but they did seem to resent me simply for not being Chinese. In cabs, shopping centers and restaurants they would yammer away at me a thousand miles an hour in Chinese, then return my blank stare with a hostile one. This would normally be followed by more Chinese which I swear translated into questions about my intelligence. After all, how dare an American Korean not speak and understand Chinese?Growing up other kids would mock me with statements like “All you Asians look alike.” The Chinese apparently think so, too.
Second, the food.
Chinese food in America is not my favorite (I prefer spicier fare like Korean, Thai and Vietnamese,) but it’s not awful.
Chinese food in China is just plain gross, even when it’s not staring back at you through still-alive eyes.
I never understood the concept of Chinese restaurants in America, owned and operated by Caucasians, Thai or even Latinos, claiming to serve “authentic” Chinese food. After eating hairy crab, live king cobra and an endangered species of turtle in Shanghai, I’ve decided that I prefer my Chinese food prepared by Doug or José.
In China they eat every single bit of the animal they’re consuming. Nothing is wasted. From an environmental standpoint this sounds good, I guess, but when presented with yellow steaming brains or the still-warm pancreas from a freshly gutted snake, you stop caring about the environment.
Adam, who as I’ve noted occasionally operates from a different dictionary than the rest of the English-speaking world, promised not to make me eat anything “scary.” For Adam “scary” apparently meant “nothing that has a significant chance of overpowering you and escaping out the door before you eat it.”
I would have ordered for myself after the first night, but the next reason I don’t like Shanghai came into play, and only Adam, or one of his male colleagues, got much attention from the waiters.
Reason three: The Culture.
China is still very-much a male-dominated culture. I can see how Adam would have had a different experience, and thus a different perception of this place. If I was a man, I’d think it was one of the greatest cities on the planet. Who wouldn’t love to be pampered and waited on hand and foot by lovely maidens? Unfortunately for me, I’m a woman and the same rules do not apply.
Even though Chinese culture has come a long way from the time when females were viewed as “property,” 2nd-class citizens who should “know their place,” they are still not treated equally, or in many cases even respectfully. If I tried to order something the waiter would look to Adam, or his Chinese-speaking colleague, for approval.
I didn’t encounter too many of these circumstances as I was there with Adam, a Westerner and guest in their country, but it was enough to leave a definite sour taste in my mouth where China is concerned.
Next, the traffic.
Shanghai is a city of nearly 20 million people, and it seems as if they’ve all agreed that it’s more fun when we’re all on the roads at the same time. I can understand why so many use bicycles, even in the frigid cold. The traffic is appalling. (Come to think of it, this might help explain why they’re so willing to eat weird animal parts; by the time they arrive at dinner they’re so hungry they’ll eat anything put in front of them!)
And lastly, the toilets.
Word of the porcelain throne doesn’t appear to have reached China yet. Those needing to empty their kidneys or bowels are required to squat over a filthy, foul-smelling hole in the ground, often in stalls with no doors. When finished you zip up and leave. If you want toilet paper you’re outta luck – it’s drip-dry here or nothing. Yuk.
The one area where I could agree with Adam on Shanghai’s appeal was the back-alley shopping. It’s a bargain-hunter’s dream. And it was quite the shocking experience for me. Walking through areas like Yuyuan Gardens or Nanjing Road, Adam (because he’s obviously foreign) gets a lot of attention from street peddlers who flash cards bearing images of watches, purses, clothes etc. I was astonished at how quickly “enticing” became “accosting” when the prospective buyer didn’t show immediate interest. These merchants of stolen and replica products are so aggressive and pushy it was sometimes scary.
We ultimately agreed to follow one girl who led us down endless winding alleys to a secret door, leading up creaky stairs to the display room. When she knocked and the door opened, my mouth hit the floor. There were two small inter-connected rooms, one of which was lined with shelves packed with Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Coach, and other expensive name brand purses, and the other with watches and the same expensive name brand wallets, belts, and clothing. If by chance you didn’t find the exact item you wanted, the merchants would show you a catalog or call someone with a description of what you wanted and that person would bring it to you.
I picked out several items, then decided to study a corner of the wall as far away from Adam as possible as he started haggling. I assume he did extremely well based on the merchant’s fury and the vehemence of whatever he was barking at us in Chinese. I don’t know what he said (he was, of course talking at me as if I were Chinese,) but I would assume that he was not saying kind things.
Adam still laughs at me to this day for my disappearance when it came time for the haggling.
He gripes about it, but I think he secretly enjoys it, too. I suspect it’s just one more thing he finds so charming about Shanghai, and on this one at least, I agree.