Friday, October 21, 2011
Oh China, where do I begin? Well, I could start by saying that I returned from Shanghai a week ago and it’s taken me this long to get back on track. Jet lag is not my friend, that much is true.
To make a long, drawn out retelling of my adventure short, all I can say is that China is crazy. Very, very crazy.
Now to the details. (Although, not all of the details because that would take far too long!)
I arrived in Shanghai three weeks ago to visit my friend during her fall break after an uncomfortably long flight. 13 hours long to be exact. I, and my not so fat wallet, sprung just enough for the cheap-ish seat in the very back of the plane. My thought process was, well, there really is no way to get comfortable on a flight this long, so I might as well save my money for doing fun things in China. This is what poor people tell themselves until they get a look at those swanky first class reclining chairs, and the well dressed people lounging in them sipping away on Champagne. I’m still telling myself I wouldn’t have gotten any sleep either way…
Somewhere in Canada.. or maybe Russia? I don't remember
I was in a complete daze when I got out of the airport and into a cab with my best friend and her host sister. It was cloudy and drizzling, and I couldn’t see much over the retaining wall over the interstate. At first, it really didn’t look that different. Just a lot of tall buildings covered in advertisements for as long as the eye could see. It kind of reminded me coming home from the airport in San Francisco. At least, that was the only thing I could compare it to. Shanghai has a bizarre mix of architecture. It has some very western influences, and yet definitely still feels Chinese.
I managed to stay awake long enough to make it back to the host family’s condo (about an hour cab ride from the airport) to drop off my stuff, then walk to a nearby mall and grab dinner. I pass out on the hardest mattress I’ve slept on in recent memory around 7pm.
The Family Condo
Cut to 4am and now I’m wide awake… of course. This happened a lot my first few days. Falling asleep right after dinner only to awake before the sun, and trying desperately to will myself back to sleep without much luck.
Our family life in Shanghai was pretty typical to anyone who has a stay-at-home Mom. She would wake up first to make breakfast for the rest of the family, then spend the rest of her day doing house hold chores (cleaning, laundry, buying produce from local markets, etc.) I suppose the only difference is that in China, being able to be or have a stay-at-home Mom is a luxury most cannot afford, and a position that is highly coveted.
Host Mom making us dinner
After breakfast, we would go out to explore Shanghai. Unfortunately, the first week I was there was China’s National Holiday (think 4th of July, only it lasts for an entire week) so EVERYONE was out exploring Shanghai. I found out later that there were 6 million EXTRA people who came to visit during that week. It was absolute madness. We took a lot of cabs to avoid being packed like sardines in a tube 3 stories underground with 6 million other people.
China is CROWDED...
Somehow we managed to see several temples, touristy shopping areas, art galleries, parks, bars, an acrobatic show, and countless other things in the mix of all the people.
A variety of Temples:
I think my favourite part about my trip was actually taking a mini vacation to Hangzhou (about 2 hours south by slow-train.) Hangzhou is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains and tea fields. The main attraction is West Lake, which we just so happened to stay in a hostel that was across the street from. If you ever find yourself in Hangzhou, stay on the lake. You won’t regret it.
We definitely took the opportunity to eat a lot of non-Chinese food whilst in Hangzhou. I like to think of myself as somewhat open to trying new food (I’m certainly no Andrew Zimmern, but I’ll give some things a try) but Chinese food – real Chinese food is a bit.. well.. gross. There are a lot of mystery fatty meats, and sea creatures with the head still attached, and baby ducks on a stick…
We never ate the street food, because it’s just not safe. Shanghai does have their equivalent of the FDA, but it’s just not very regulated or enforced, especially on street vendors. They keep their food on the ground, where people and stray animals pee, meat is not refrigerated, the water is not clean (i.e. they wash their food in the nasty, polluted river as seen above,) and sometimes they use recycled oil from wherever they can find it – including sewers or dumps. Lets just say coming home with a parasite or severe food poisoning was not high on my souvenir list.
Don’t get me wrong, we also had some really amazing Chinese food. One day we went out to an authentic restaurant for Xiao Long Bao – a dumpling that has pork and soup on the inside. So good! It’s actually really difficult to make, so finding the right xiao long bao place is key.
I should also mention that at this particular restaurant, the American way of waiting for and receiving a table does not apply. We walked into a crowded restaurant, stood in the middle and watched while people ate. We did this so that the second someone stood up from their table, we would grab it. We were told that you have to do this, because otherwise you will not get a table. "Minnesota Nice" does not suit you well in China.
So that's what we did. Which also means, we sat next to a random guy finishing his meal. It was incredibly awkward. We asked the host sister if she felt awkward, and she said she did a little, but you just have to do that or you will never get a table. And mostly, she's just used to it.
I was not used to it...
Shortly after the man who's table we bombarded left, and our food arrived. And it was delicious! Seeing the photos again just make me want some dumplings! Yum!
Xiao Long Bao
I also did see some pretty amazing art in Shanghai (this is an art blog after all, right?) The best exhibit I saw, hands down, was the Communist Poster Museum. It was in this random part of town, in the basement of an apartment building. Not exactly what I would have imagined for some pretty rare and priceless pieces of history, but meh? What can you do.
Overall I did have a great time in China, but at times it was exhausting, stressful and gross. The culture is very in your face – very pushy and loud and self centered. It seemed to me that people just do not give a shit about one another. You move out of the way or get run over. You push people out of the way to get on the train or miss it. You sit down at a table where other people are still eating or you don’t get a table. You talk louder than everyone else so you can be heard. You hack up luggies on the ground next to other people – even if it’s indoors…
But that’s China I guess. I wanted to see what was real. Sure we did some touristy things, and they were fun, but I defiantly got an authentic experience, and for that I am truly grateful. So farewell, China. You were an adventure I am not likely to forget!