My husband Gaz and I donned our raingear and headed to Nanjing Lu, the main pedestrian thoroughfare and shopping district of Shanghai. Big, bright, neon and modern, much of Shanghai’s architecture resembled a caricature of what someone in the 50s thought “The Future” would look like. Shimmering glass buildings covered in a rainbow of glowing signs flanked the wide walkway. The streets heaved with people, and in the sea of short, black haired Asians, we didn’t exactly fit in. We were prime targets for vendors shouting, “You want Prada? Shoes, bags? Dior, Versace?” It took getting used to.
When we first arrived in China, I tried to be nice, smiling politely and saying “No, thank you.” But the Chinese interpreted those signals as playing hard to get. Something got lost in translation. I tried to be kind but firm. Now there is no kind, only firm. Make no eye contact. Just say “no”. Shake your head and put your hand up. It seems rude, but this is the way it must be done.
I learned this the hard way in Beijing. I was curious about a vendor selling barbequed snake, so I stopped by his roadside shack to look. He put a shish-kebabed skinned snake on the grill for me.
“Snake, snake, you try snake,” he shouted. I tried to walk away, never having indicated that I wanted one, but he kept shouting and I caved. Flustered, I paid him 15 yuan ($2) and walked away with a long white tube of meat twirled around a skewer. I figured I might as well try it. I took a bite. It was soft and slimy. It was a meat marshmallow. It promptly went into the trash, along with any concerns I had about seeming rude.
We wandered through the Shanghai shopping district, taking pictures and interacting with the locals mainly with liberal usage of the word, “No.” Weary and wet, we decided to take the subway home. It was chaos in the subway station. Lines did not exist. Tickets counters looked like the New York Stock Exchange: lots of shouting and hands flying in the air. We managed to acquire tickets and waited patiently between the two parallel yellow lines that indicated where the train doors would open. We were directly behind the black line we weren’t to cross if we wanted to avoid falling onto the tracks. We were clearly first in line.
The subway train pulled up, the doors opened, 237 Chinese commuters shoved past us in both directions at once, and somehow we were the last two people to enter the car. From my vantage point above the heads of most people there, I spotted the last empty seat. I slithered through the crowd, turned and started to sit, and suddenly felt myself get violently bucked out of the way. I turned back to find a middle aged, suited businessman nonchalantly ignoring the fact he had just borrowed a maneuver from the National Hockey League to steal my seat, literally, right out from under me.
Hell hath no fury like a soaking wet tourist. I’d been pushed to my limit. I glared into the man’s brown eyes and shouted, “What the @#*! is wrong with you!!??” Gaz had gotten caught in the tide of people and carried over to the other side of the car, but he heard the strains of English profanity floating over the din of the crowd. He wrestled his way back to me.
“This guy pushed me and stole my seat,” I seethed. The man sat and stared straight ahead as Gaz yelled at him, clearly unfazed and probably unsure of what had been so upsetting. Everyone on the train car stared at the crazy travelers. Finally, we arrived at our stop, and again, we barely made it through the automatic closing doors. We’d had enough. It was time for a break.
I was tired of being shoved and yelled at, and still annoyed from the experience of the previous day. We were both happy to get out of the big city for a few hours. We took the train north of Shanghai to Suzhou, a canaled town dubbed, “The Venice of the East.” The train was packed, and Gaz and I got separate seats. It was early, I was groggy, and I felt content to stare out of the window at the rain.
I dug around in my backpack and pulled out a new bottle of water. For some reason, it was sealed so tightly I couldn’t open it. I struggled, wishing I had a wrench. The young man in the seat facing me watched and asked, in very carefully and deliberately chosen words, “May. I. Help. You?” I smiled gratefully as he cranked open the bottle top.
Later, feeling chilly, I opened my backpack to retrieve my jacket. As I pulled the zipper, some of the fabric from the jacket got caught. Really caught. The old woman next to me watched me trying to wrangle the zipper open and grabbed the pack, rather forcefully actually, to give it a try. After no success she nudged her husband from across the aisle to fix it. He grappled with it for a while before looking at me and saying something which I translated as, “Wow, you really did this good, didn’t you?” Eventually he liberated the jacket from the zipper’s teeth. “Xie xie!” Thank you! I cheered. He laughed and replied, “Bu ke qi,” You’re welcome.
These interactions got me thinking. How can a country have people that are so nice, and people that are so rude? I acknowledge the idiocy of this question, as every place in the world has nice and rude people. I then realized I had been thinking of them as mutually exclusive qualities, whereas maybe everyone in China had aspects of both. Would the kid who opened my water have cut in front of me in the ticket mob? Would the sweet old man who helped me with my jacket have hurled me out of the way on the subway? Would his lovely wife have bullied me into buying an unwanted snakecicle? I’d thought I had the Chinese all figured out, and my new awareness threw me for a loop.
After getting off the train, we found a park with an open plaza where young children ran around, blowing bubbles with plastic wands. I sat, content to watch them and their joyful innocence. They found so much amusement in popping a soap bubble between their palms. It was a sweet scene. I then watched as an old woman picked up a toddler and squatted with him out in front of her. She held his legs up as he peed out of a slit in the bottom of his pants, right in the heart of the square. People were everywhere and nobody was fazed by this fresh puddle of human urine residing in the middle of where their kids were playing. (Turns out diapers aren’t used so much in China, but rather most young children wear pants with a bum-exposing slit down the back. They are free to pee and poo wherever their guardian sees fit.) My own bubble having been burst, I suggested we move on.
We walked to a more wooded area and sat down on a low wall surrounding some tall trees. Across from us, on the other side of some more trees, was a group of men playing instruments and singing. They had a guitar, a keyboard, and a twangy instrument that looked like a tin can on a stick. The men were all around 60. We observed them secretly through the trees, but when Gaz broke out the camcorder, they noticed and started playing it up for us. There was one man in large glasses and a cheesy white baseball cap like you’d buy in an interstate gas station gift shop. He took particular interest in us, looking over and actually smiling. Usually the Chinese locals just stared blankly like we had three heads.
As darkness fell, the band dispersed. A woman in her 40s with black, glossy hair pulled into a ponytail stopped in front of us. She said “Hello,” and we responded appropriately. Then she stood there, looming over us, looking up to the sky and wracking her brain for the right words.
“Uuuuhhhh,” she muttered. She stood there for a long time, to the point where Gaz and I felt uncomfortable and looked at each other like, “What do we do with her?”
Finally she found it: “Where are you from?”
“America and England,” we replied.
A blank stare followed. She had worked so hard to come up with a question and obviously didn’t understand our answers. Which made me wonder if she would have understood any answer at all. That led me to the question of why she had even asked. I appreciated the friendly effort, though. Luckily, White Hat came to the rescue. He translated our answers to Ponytail, who smiled and nodded. As we continued to speak with them, a small crowd formed. From our spot still seated near the ground, and the curious onlookers standing above us, we felt like creatures in a zoo. There was no way out and it was unnerving. We tucked our backpacks under our legs, just in case.
The curious crowd asked our translator tons of questions, like where we lived now, and how we met. They were intrigued by our appearance. They requested that Gaz stand and show them how tall he was. Ponytail asked if my hair was naturally wavy (yes) and naturally blond (not really). I explained that it gets lighter in the summer from the sun, and she found that fascinating.
White Hat then explained his French was better than his English, and so he and I spoke in French from then on. Translating from English to French to Chinese was a new experience!
“Tell him we liked the music,” Gaz suggested. White Hat smiled, and told us they were playing old folk songs. During the Cultural Revolution nobody was allowed to perform such songs.
“Now,” White Hat explained, “we are having a Cultural Resurrection. If you want to sing, you sing. If you want to dance, you dance. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good.” He smiled. “Every Saturday everyone comes to the park to enjoy their freedom to do such things.” I was at the same time fascinated and appalled by what White hat said about the Cultural Revolution. Trying to erase an entire country’s heritage is not cultural progress. Cultural progress would be no kids peeing in the park. Regardless, I was very happy the Chinese were reveling in a resurgence of the old ways and a revival of the formerly forbidden arts.
At the end of this long, full day, we dragged ourselves back to the train station. Slogging along in the dark, I realized I had been charmed by the people in the park. They didn’t want anything from us, only to talk. Our experience with the Suzhou locals was exciting, authentic, and unforgettable.
I continued to rethink my attitude toward the Chinese. I decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And if you don’t join ’em, just get over it. I was a stranger in their country. If things worked differently there, who was I to get upset? Did I really think that by telling off every person who pushed or scammed me, I was doing anything to further the societal enlightenment of the country as a whole? Surely not. Theirs was the oldest surviving civilization in the world. They could do whatever the heck they wanted. All I was doing was wasting my own energy being frustrated at things I couldn’t change. So instead, I changed.
My outlook was different for the rest of the time I spent in China. I look back at that trip as one of my favorites now, and I think I’m fond of it because it was so much harder than the other trips I’d taken. Coming to an acceptance of our differences was difficult, but once I did that, I enjoyed my journey even that much more.