Wednesday, January 16, 2008


8 years ago, I arrived in Shanghai with my friend Justin and we had 24 hours to explore the place and then dash to a train station. This time Xin and I were stationed here, staying our first whole week here and the last three days. I had been told by many people, particularly Shanghainese, that Shanghai had developed hugely year upon year. When I first came, I was blown away by the modernisation; in my mind it pipped Singapore and Tokyo in the swishness stakes. Perhaps I only saw a slice of it, because this time round it seemed much less glossy.
As Xin noted, the difference between a sophisticated shopping area and dingey mucky roads can be measured in 10s of metres. Often you have to get your shoes quite dirty in the process of going around some of the shops.

The main thing to do in Shanghai is shopping, because there is not much else out there to do there. But the shopping is good. I went nuts in bookshops and was out-clothes-shopped Xin for the first portion of the trip. Books were dirt cheap; in my first splurge I spent about RMB330 on a huge stack of books, which is about NZ$100. Clothes weren't as cheap as I expected but shoes were.

Shanghai also came with the implicit advantage/challenge of having Xin's parents around. For the most part it is a huge benefit; They've dropped virtually all of the resistance to me and pretty much treat me as a son-in-law. When I first went to China with Xin, they sat us down for a discussion about us and the future and they seemed to have the starting premise that we couldn't really go on together. It is definitely not the case now. They do think rather seriously about their daughter's future and so do give me plenty of curvy questions like the financing of my future house, course of my career etc.

Her father ordered food well with consideration to my vegetarianism, which he didn't do well when we came the first time. Her mother and I get along like a house on fire, chatting non-stop on several forays out onto the streets. They also, although very cautiously, let us share a room on one of our trips.

The climate in Shanghai was pleasant with none of the chilling temperatures I experienced on my first trip, seemingly always between 5 and 10 degrees. It was though shrouded in mist for most of the days I was there. It took days before I saw the sun finally shine through the layer of cloud.

The people were generally as large city people are, which is to say that they are pretty apathetic to strangers. Despite people saying to the contrary, so called sophisticated Shanghainese still stare at foreigners despite being a fairly common sight. Actually foreigners are quite eye-catchers. Even I stare. Even Xin stares. 'Look lesbians!' she exclaimed once. The usual antidote to staring is to stare back in that direction. Usually that works, although not always. In an Aunty's Dumplings, I noticed a middle-aged lady staring over at us for a while. So I looked back at her for a good 5 seconds, before eating another dumpling and meeting her gaze again. She was still looking. She thought me looking at her was amusing so told her younger companion, who also decided to join in. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.

One odd thing about foreigners there in general is that they don't have any feeling of 'kinship' with others in China. Only one out of two or three dozen I met recognised my existence to any extent, despite some of my own attempts to break the ice.

Shanghai on the whole was not bad, definitely liveable, but I'm not sure if I would want to live there for too long.


Paul said...

Now I know what I should have asked for when you offered me a gift from China. A pair of snazzy shoes from somewhere in the sea of Shanghai shops. Excuse my alliteration. You see, my big toes have poked holes through the leather uppers of my work shoes, and finding a replacement pair is no easy task. But I digress.

Your segment about being stared at was interesting. I experienced the same thing when I was in Bangkok. Could it be that Asian peoples never get it drilled into them that it's rude to stare? In many ways, Asians are far more polite than Westerners, yet there seems to be a few areas where this is not the case.

Maybe Westerners once stared at people of different races a lot more, in the days before our societies became so multicultural.

Crypticity said...

Shanghai might not be the panacea for your problem. The majority of shoes are those that western feet just won't fit. Some of Xin's rellies were amazed at the width of my feet (and its not like I have extraordinary feet by NZ standards).

As for the staring, no they don't have the same English sense of staring necessarily being bad etiquette. There are so many things to stare at in China. I can imagine your eyes popping out at many of the urban sights. And I believe you are right that there was probably a little staring in our past. The Chinese who came to work in the mines in the south probably got a fair bit of a stare. Compounding my situation was the fact that I was holding hands with a young Chinese woman for large portions of our outdoor adventures and that must increase the novelty value slightly.

There will be another episode of staring in a later tale in my diary.

lightspirits said...

Ah...the thing about the starings, how can you have a "real" journey in Asia without those stories?

It's quite understandable why they stare though, people stare at things they found new, strange or interesting, no matter which culture you are from.

Say when I was in Hyderabad (Southern India), it's actually rarer to see Asian-Mongolian looking people than Caucasians, so in one occasion, I was being stared at by an European women for quite some time!!