Things I miss about home

Traffic Laws

Contrary to what you might have heard, there are no traffic laws here in China, there are only suggestions. Lights exist merely to give you an approximation of when you can continue on your path. One must look both ways and walk carefully to avoid being hit by buses and motorcycles alike. Also, motorcycles can drive (legally?) on the sidewalk, so there is no completely safe place to walk while outdoors. How do people continue to think this is a good idea?


You never have to go hungry in China, there’s street vendors everywhere. On top of that, every corner has six or seven restaurants where you can easily eat for less than $1.50. Much of what they’ve got to offer is fried in oil just the way an American like me likes it. But there seems to be no one above them regulating what is and isn’t okay to put into innocent mouths. Everyone I know has at least one embarrassing “I got so sick that…” story that they only tell when drunk. I’ve got mine as well, but that’s for a later post. Which brings me to my next topic…

Public Bathrooms

Think of the grossest truck stop bathroom you can and then imagine wishing for something so refreshing by comparison to the average squatter you find in metro stations. I’m not sure that all Chinese are used to the idea of “flushing” and the embarrassment western women are passively endowed with which dictates what is and isn’t okay to do in public restrooms seems to be largely lost on the Chinese. Seriously, sometimes when I enter a stall after a little old lady, I’m surprised by the capacity of her intestines. On top of this, the plumbing here in China leaves much to be desired and even in some homes (thankfully mine not included) have issues with flushing toilet paper. It just isn’t done. So if you can’t speak Chinese, never fear. You never have to wonder where the toilets are. The powerful stench of an entire’s day’s worth used 卫生纸will lure you straight to it.

Public Courtesy

Sometimes I come close to pimp-slapping those who shameless cut in line. But it’s just a cultural practice here in the Middle Kingdom, and you get used to it in time. You even find yourself cutting ahead of the patiently formed line when you yourself are running late for work and absolutely need to catch the next train. But spitting in public and holding your children over trash cans so that they can relieve themselves… I can’t quite get used to. Which reminds me…


You never realize how nice it is to not be noticed until there’s absolutely NOTHING you can do to avoid being stared at the entire day except for staring in your bedroom. When I walk through my tiny, poor neighborhood, there’s no shame when I see people tap their friends on the shoulder “Here she comes!” and they smile, sometimes shout a “Ni hao!” but many times are quiet and giggle about the foreigner who has entered the neighborhood. This even happens when I’m in the city center, an area crawling with foreigners. I suppose this is the case largely due to the rarity of my physical appearance; even I stare when I see another black person. It would also be great if, upon meeting strangers, their first questions weren’t “where are you from? America? How much money do you make?”

But perhaps what I miss the most is my family and friends. I’ve met a lot of people here in Shanghai, but none of them are as irreplaceable as those I’ve left behind. In this fast-paced rat race on the ocean, I don’t really have the time I wish I had to talk with those back at home, but know that I think about you every day, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. At least not until the above list gets the attention of the Chinese government.


Shanghai Scene #2

Ten pm, perhaps a little later. I sit with my head down on the subway, listening inattentively to music from my ipod. Over the familiar melody I hear the gentle, rhythmic rustle of coins in a cup. I open my eyes to see a woman of indeterminate age knelt directly before me, her head lowered as either a sign of humility or shame; I cannot be sure which. She looks at me through eyes of glass, blank and soulless, reflecting my own discomfort. On her lap is a young child suckling her milk. She is dressed to display her thinness, in what I can only assume is a deliberate attempt to show that the child is drinking from a rapidly drying well. I am paralyzed with a mixture of shock and pity. But I am no stranger to poverty. I have seen what I had hitherto thought were the depths of human displeasure and desperation. What about this scene has evoked in me such a crippling emotional response? At first, I think it is the presence of the child and his patent suffering. I reconsider this; I have seen poor children. I close my eyes and re-imagine the scene. I am overcome with a sense of emptiness and desolation, but even more by a sense of ubiquity. Before me are representatives of a visible, but silent population of Chinese poor, too distant from the long arm of Big Brother to receive His aid. This country has perhaps a billion more people than my home nation, and in its impressive size is a similarly impressive number of ever-desperate impoverished citizens staining the pristine image of communist equality. Poverty seems a force as unstoppable as gravity, and has bred in Chinese of every class a sense of annoyed impotence. I recline in my seat, having done nothing to alleviate their squalor. To my left, receding in the distance, I hear the gentle, rhythmic rustle of coins.


I had a conversation at a rooftop party recently about being a foreigner in Shanghai. Because this is one of the premier cities in the world, it is ceaseless exciting. Words fail me when I try to capture the experience succinctly, in a way such that it is comprehensible to those who have never experienced it. But this particular guy said that he was not too fond of Shanghai and wanted desperately go elsewhere. He listed a number of reasons, such as the unreliability of Chinese products, public safety and health, horrible bureaucracy, but perhaps his number one reason was the seclusion of the foreign population. By and large, foreigners and locals don’t mix, and both sides of the equation appear to equally reinforce this notion. The wide cultural gap is second only to the wider gap in salary in contributing to this issue. Shanghai is perhaps the only great city left in the world where one can be invited to party with celebrities at bar openings purely for being from the West. Despite how quickly and greatly this city is leaping forward, foreigners are still the object of suspicion, curiosity, and in many cases, envy.

Misplaced Shame

On West Beijing Road there is a large structure known as the Shanghai Center, an Escher-esque business and shopping center with winding staircases which lead to apparently impossible geometries. Located in the center of town, its eye-catching and stylish architecture is indicative of its youth, and is a banner of Shanghai’s rapidly increasing prosperity. Naturally, it’s got a Starbucks.

For reasons of which I am still unclear, I purchased a drink therein. Upon returning my receipt, the cashier struggled to inform me of some sort of redeemable prize I could attain. After a few aborted attempts, I told him that I understood Chinese, of which he was endlessly thankful. After it was over, he apologized profusely for his English and I walked away with a quiet shame. This was one of many instances I’d experienced in my brief time here in Shanghai of people in the service industry expressing extreme embarrassment for communication difficulties. Let me put that another way:

There are many people in China who are embarrassed because they don’t speak perfect English.

Does this fact bother no one but me? I feel like a fat, slovenly Caesar riding on the backs of poor, naked Chinese. I feel overcome with a wave of imperial guilt, like white Europeans seem to feel toward poor immigrants. My employment is predicated upon the idea that English is somehow more valuable than Chinese (a fact which is now impossible to deny). Other expats seem to be largely immune to this sense of shame, or see it as adorable. I’m lead to believe that not very many attempt to bridge the language gap, which only reinforces the problem.

One fact, however, lessens any negative emotions I might feel when I think on the disparity in relative importance of our mother tongues. All services catering to an English-speaking public are about two to five times more expensive than those meant for the Chinese. They may be shamefully berating themselves for their lack of English skills, but they’re doing it all the way to the bank.

Money and China

Perhaps it is because I’ve never enjoyed the simple pleasures of middle-class American life that the “necessities” of many foreigners relocating to China seem egregiously exorbitant to me. Dining out, name-brand clothing, gym memberships, paying bills on time, these all seem like the stuff of legend, or at least weeknight sitcoms. I’ve been poor my whole life, and I like to think that it has bred in me some degree of character. If nothing else, it has acclimated me to a simpler existence than most. Some may consider my pay meagre, but I make much more than the average Chinese with a graduate degree. I live in a tiny whole in the wall and I love it. I’ve got the internet, some books, some beer in the fridge, and a gadget or two. I’m not showing off my new Prada bag to the bleach-blondes at Chez Doucherie, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. I’m even managing to save a portion of my check each pay period. If there’s anyone wondering if they’ll survive in this town on a “paltry salary,” my advice is to first save enough money to have your head surgically removed from your ass; it’ll save you a lot in the long run no matter where you live.

Shanghai Scene #1

The room is dark and quiet. I linger in sleepless limbo. Outside my window, a congregation is forming, speaking loudly in a language I do not understand. I ignore them. An orange light emanates from the west. Several minutes pass, and the gradual loudening of voices stabilizes. Dean rises from his place on my couch and goes to the window to inspect the scene. “Wake up,” he tells me. “We’ve got to go. 着火了 着火了” Some time elapses before I am able to translate the sentence. The building has caught on fire.

I grab my laptop and rush to my roommate’s door, knocking loudly. We inform them of the situation and hurry down the old, wooden stairs. Gray streams of smoke drift slowly just outside the window; after a few floors, we can no longer see them. We wait by the door as streams of people rush by in both directions speaking Shanghainese and heavily-accented Mandarin. Everything I own is on the sixth floor. All my documents, clothes, trinkets, everything except my laptop.

Because I have forgotten my shoes, my feet are bare as I walk carefully upon the rain-slicked concrete. My roommate and her boyfriend descend the staircase hand-in-hand, looking about in dazed confusion. When they come to greet me, I am alone, and Dean has fled to inspect the damage. Fiona’s English abandons her in this time of distress, and her boyfriend’s English is nonexistent. I learn that I am virtually unable to speak Chinese when worried, and can only nod or respond in one-word sentences.

“Where’s Dean?” – “Gone.”
“Where are your shoes?” – “Forgot.”
“Would you like to go for a walk? It’s dangerous here.” – “Sure.”

Dean rejoins our company and informs us of situation. The building next to ours is engulfed in fire. We can hear glass from upper stories crashing to ground. Surely, as we speak, people are dying. We wonder aloud what the cause of this could have been, but our questions are in vain. We walk to the front gate where the police are pacing back and forth, speaking in a language lost to us. Fiona is in tears, hardly able to walk without support from her boyfriend. We’re exhausted, uncertain as to the fate of our belongings, confused and angry. Fiona’s face is a maze of dried tear trails; at their origin are large oval eyes sparkling under the weight of tears yet to be shed. Her boyfriend takes her by the hand and pulls her in the opposite direction. “We’re going for a walk,” he says. “It’s dangerous here. She needs to breathe fresh air.” Dean leaves shortly after, unable to stay still for very long. As I sit alone near the police, it begins to drizzle lightly and I hold myself by the shoulders for fear of freezing.

Dean has been gone for a while. I am nervous. I turn to the police, ashamed and embarrassed. “Pardon me,” I begin, “My Chinese isn’t very good, so please be patient.” They nod in approval. “What is it that I hear about the fire? You were saying something earlier that I didn’t quite understand.” “It’s been put out.” “Put out?!” I want to ask how far its spread, how many lives were lost, a thousand other questions, but my Chinese fails me. I am unable to make further conversation. I sit alone on the bench and watch the emergency vehicles as they circle my complex and listen to the sweeping of broken glass and brick and to the gradually fading voices in the familiar distance.

A quick remark

One of my favorite novels is one that I read fairly recently, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a cerebral science fiction that explores many of the more fascinating ideas ever preserved in print. Toward the beginning is the following passage:

“Suddenly, looming up in the opening which led to the communal bathroom, a tall silhouette appeared, barely distinguishable in the surrounding gloom. I stood stock still, frozen to the spot. A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs. Less than a yard separated us as she passed me, but she did not give me so much as a glance. She went on her way, her grass skirt swinging rhythmically, resembling one of those steatopygous statues in anthropological museums.”

I think people in the Beiyangjing and Jinqiao areas of Pudong can sympathize with the narrator’s sentiments.