An American Abroad

Shanghai 2

The two highlights of my trip to Shanghai were walking through the neighborhood around Tianzifang Street and seeing my old friends and students.

It can be hard in Shanghai — and elsewhere in China — to find older buildings that have been well-preserved and are still in use. China is currently building new museums by the hundreds, and while I enjoy museums, I enjoy living history even more. I found my fix on Tianzifang Street, a neighborhood in the former French Concession of two-story red brick buildings, picturesque alleys, and vintage electrical wiring (which often doubles as clothes line).

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The area is now given over to artists, boutiques, craft shops, and comfortable bars and restaurants, but it is still a residential area too. It reminds me of an Asian version of parts of Boston such as Back Bay, the South End, or Beacon Hill. Yes, it’s heavily touristed (much as those Boston sites are), but even the groups of out-of-town Chinese following their flag-bearers through the alleyways there couldn’t kill the essential charm of the place for me.

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My final day in Asia was spent with the people who inspired me to go live in China: Wu Gang, Wang Wei, and their son Max. When they lived in the Toledo area, I tutored them in English once or twice a week. Soon I felt like an adopted member of their family. They were warm, fun, smart, thoughtful, and caring. Watching them successfully adjust to the shock of moving from Shanghai to Haskins, Ohio gave me the idea and the courage to do something similar. It was fitting, then, that seeing them again was the capstone of my thirteen months in Asia.

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Unfortunately, Wang Wei was not feeling well during my visit, but her absence from the pictures I took does not connote an absence from my heart.

Wu Gang and Max took me to the Bund, the row of colonial-era banks, shipping companies, law firms, and import/export houses that made Shanghai into one of the largest commercial and financial centers in the world. On a misty, rainy evening, we walked along an esplanade by the bank of the Huangpu River. To our left were the historic buildings of the Bund.

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To our right and across the river lay Pudong, where so many of the now-iconic contemporary buildings of Shanghai touch the clouds.

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It was a magical moment. The experience of walking with friends on my last night in China and seeing the past glories of the Bund to my left, the contemporary dynamism of Pudong to my right, and ships on the river heading out into the big wide world seemed to sum up my life at that moment.

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Thirty six hours later, I touched down in Detroit for a brief return to the U.S. before heading to Tunisia, where I will be living for the next year.

Stay tuned . . . .

Shanghai 1

Once I got settled in Shanghai, I set out to explore. To do that, I first had to navigate the Shanghai subway system. As you can see from the map below, it’s so simple even a laowai could do it:


There were some strange and interesting ads in the subway:

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One of my first stops was the Dongtai Road antiques market. Lots of small shops, many selling reproductions of varying quality, but some selling some nice vintage treasures.

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I then set out for Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s most famous shopping street. Shopping really isn’t my thing, but it was cool seeing all the people and the store window displays. My overall experience there, though, was marred by the many pimps who accosted me every fifty feet. I have no problem with hookers themselves (who are just out to make an honest buck), but pimps repel me. Some of them were very aggressive and would not leave me alone. I lost patience with one particular pest and told him I’d break his nose if he didn’t go away. I’m not sure he understood my exact words, but he got the gist of the message, swore at me, and scuttled off.

Other pimps there were very slick and entrepreneurial. One thrust his card into my hands; it was the first pimp card I’d ever seen with a mission statement: “Our aim is to think of what your think anxious of what your worry.” Remove the Chinglish and this could be the mission statement of any number of businesses, colleges, or professional practices.

I cut my visit to Nanjing Road short and headed back to my hotel. This is how the city looked in the afternoon from my 23rd story room:

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My friends told me that this was actually one of the less smoggy days.

By Train to Shanghai

After saying goodbye to Spencer, I flew from Hanoi to back Kunming. The reason for this zig-zag was because I had stored my big luggage — about a hundred pounds worth — with my friend Martin while I traveled in Vietnam. Who wants to be encumbered by that much stuff unless and until it’s absolutely necessary?

I’d decided to close out my thirteen months in Asia with a visit to Shanghai to see old friends Wu Gang and Wang Wei and their son, Max. I had tutored them when they lived in the Toledo area, but now they had returned to Shanghai and I wanted very much to see them. I’d also decided to make the 2,375 kilometer (1,475 mile) journey by train, a journey comparable in length to going from Boston to New Orleans. The trip took about 38 hours.

This did not prove to be one of my better decisions.

I generally like train travel. It’s good enforced down-time. I’ve ridden the Lakeshore Limited from Toledo to Boston many times and enjoyed the restful freedom to read, write, nap, listen to music, watch the world roll by, and hang out with other travelers in the club car. I was picturing something like that when I reserved my Chinese train ticket.

When I got to the Kunming station, laden with 120 pounds of luggage, I found a chaotic scene. New security measures erected in the aftermath of the horrific terror attack there back in March have created a confusing gauntlet of checkpoints and unmarked temporary ticket windows. I queued up and went through airport-style security (which was more theater than anything else) outside the station. I was then funneled to a new outdoor ticket counter. After a wait in line of maybe 20 minutes, two women with bullhorns came over and announced that since it was now 6:00, these windows would be closing. The people lined up around me went nuts, angrily rushing the window, yelling at the clerks, and rudely thrusting money at them. It wasn’t any threat to my well-being, but it was pretty dispiriting to see people acting like this. I made it up to the front of the queue and the poor clerk there, seeing I was a laowai, took pity on me and issued my ticket after the official closing time.

I then went to check my two big 50-pound suitcases. I assumed (there’s that mistake again) that the procedure would be as simple as it is in the US. Nope. Finding out where to go was difficult; it seems that most of the personnel at the station had never heard of the idea of checking bags. Finally a porter led me to a dingy little storefront half a block from the station. This was a shipping office, but the clerk there also acted as if she had never heard of someone wanting to check luggage before. It took multiple and lengthy conversations via mobile phone with a friend of mine who speaks Chinese to finally get it worked out–and it cost me an additional ¥377. Furthermore, I was told that the luggage would not be going on my train with me, but would be on another train and would arrive a day after I did. I left doubting that I’d never see my bags again.

Finding the right place to wait for my train was also difficult, with the usual issues of different officials saying different things. (For an official to say “I don’t know” is to lose face, but to simply lie about knowing something and direct you to the wrong place is acceptable.) During my wait of several hours, I saw many Chinese people stocking up on food to take on the train. I told myself I didn’t want to burden myself further with food, and that I would simply buy it on the train. Another error.

When the train boarded, I found my compartment, a “soft sleeper” that contains four bunks, two up and two down. I was assigned one of the upper berths. While the bunk as actually long enough for me to stretch out comfortably, there was not enough headroom to allow me to sit up. This meant that I had to ride most of the way prone — not a good position for reading, writing or chatting. My compartment mates on the lower berths kindly allowed me to sit on their bunks, but I felt like I was intruding on their space. This is probably a very Western way of looking at things, but it’s the way I’m wired.

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After a couple hours, I crawled into my upper berth and fell asleep quickly.

I woke in the middle of the night with a painful headache and a queasy stomach. I’d actually eaten very little in the previous 24 hours, but something wasn’t sitting well with me. I went to the already-reeking bathroom a couple times where the odor of amoniated piss made me feel more nauseated. By morning I was throwing up and had a brutal headache.

My compartment-mates and the conductor were very kind to me. The conductor opened her med kit and fished out some herbal pills made of some kind of mint leaves. At her prescription, I took four of these. My stomach did settle about 90 minutes after that, though whether it was due to the pills or just the effects of time I cannot tell. My head still throbbed, and one of my compartment mates gave me some metholated ointment to put on my temples. I don’t think that did jack for my headache, but his concern and desire to help were genuine. Still, I spent most of Tuesday in the hallway of the sleeper car sitting on a little jump seat with my head resting against a support bar as people squeezed by me. It was pretty sub-optimal.

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I missed dinner and the dining car was closed, but the helpful conductor snuck me some bread, saying that she knew that Westerners like bread and that I really should eat something.

Wednesday morning I woke up starving and craving caffeine. (I think that caffeine withdrawal was in large part responsible for my symptoms. I guess I am an addict. Going cold-turkey’s a bitch.) I then discovered that the dining car was essentially out of food. At one stop, though, I left the train (technically not permitted, but I didn’t care) and quickly bought a pack of ramen noodles from a vendor on the platform. I mixed this with hot water and had my first real food in 48 hours.

We got into Shanghai on time and I happily rendezvoused with my good friend Wu Gang. With his help, I went looking for my luggage. To my surprise, I’d received a call en route saying that my luggage had actually gotten to Shanghai ahead of me. Finding it, however, proved difficult. Again, no one seemed to know where the luggage office was. Finally one knowledgeable worker directed me down the street from the station to another dingy office staffed by four people, three of whom were sleeping at 4:00 in the afternoon. It took a couple of phone calls to the shipping office back in Kunming, however, to determine that while my luggage was indeed in Shanghai, it wasn’t at this office. They did, however, promise to have it delivered there in 30 minutes. And they were better than their word; I had the suitcases 15 minutes later. But the whole luggage tango was nerve-wracking with its lack of clear information and its ad hoc feel.

I still like trains and train travel. Certainly if I hadn’t gotten sick I would have a much better memory of the experience. And to be honest, nothing terrible happened. In my year in Asia, I’ve traveled to eight different countries (China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Vietnam) and dozens of towns inside China and never had a real travel problem. So if an uncomfortable 38-hour train ride and a stomach bug were the worst things to befall me, I was actually pretty lucky.