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?

The FDA

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…

Anonymity

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.

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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.

Foreigners

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.