Shanghai, Sept 30 – Oct 13, 2011

Just came back from a two week trip to Shanghai, where my parents live a few months out of the year. I took almost no pictures as 95% of the time I was with my mom in the hospital where she was resting up from surgery after having broken her leg. I also used a cell phone that was not my usual iPhone, and I learned that part of the pleasure of taking pictures for me is to tweet them right away. They’re almost like visual thought bubbles for me. I’m not big on archiving photos, and it was interesting to me to be behind he Great Firewall of China — no Facebook, no Twitter, no Youtube, no WordPress.

 

Here are a few scattered word-pictures:

 

Q: What’s the difference between a suicide and a pedestrian at a Shanghai intersection’s crosswalk?

A: The pedestrian makes it to the other side.

 

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Uses for old, grey mop heads too worn to keep mopping with: put them thread-side up over your bike’s rear wheel rack to make a cushioned passenger seat. Chinese people are the original reduce/reuse/recycle “a wee tetch of OCD” people.

 

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Q: How do you get “full employment” in a country of 1.3 billion people?

A: Mandatory retirement at age 55, many many low-paying jobs, a plenitude of jobs “watching over” stuff (car parking spaces, bike parking lot attendant, elevator operator) where a person seemingly does nothing but technology does not replace that person’s task.

 

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You want an old, rusty, shitty bike. Sure, there’s a bike parking attendant, but do you think s/he will risk life or limb if someone steals your bike? Therefore, you want an old, rusty, shitty bike.

 

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There are nice wide bike lanes on every road in Shanghai except for highways. However — the wide bike lane is exactly the width of a car (so be prepared for someone in a car freestyling it), and it’s meant to be a two-way thoroughfare.

 

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Bicycles are capable of carrying a pallet’s worth of boxed goods, a street vendor’s cart of roasted yams or chestnuts or both, or a half dozen 6′ tall houseplants.

 

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There is less smoking than I thought there would be. However, 90% of this smoking is exactly where it’s most unappetizing — at the next table over from you in the same restaurant.

 

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Organizing principle of herding toddlers totally applies for oldsters/those approaching 80: offer frequent nutritious snacks, plentiful water, frequent potty stops, walk slowly, make space for naps/quiet time.

 

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In October it’s hot and wet enough in Shanghai to breed mosquitoes. They’re fully capable of flying through 10th floor unscreened windows.

 

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I saw 3 homeless people in my corner of Shanghai: two very elderly white-haired people begging on the steps of the metro, and a disheveled, filthy (possibly mentally ill) young man lurking in the food court of an upscale mall. I think he was waiting to dart out and eat food scraps left behind by other people.

 

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Doctors in Shanghai will hold your hand as they talk to you or perhaps reassuringly pat your leg as they stand bedside. They will also call you “ah-yi,” auntie, if you’re an older woman like my mom.

 

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When you look ‘huaqiao’ (overseas Chinese), you will hear yourself remarked upon in blistering detail even if you’ve made it clear you understand but don’t speak Mandarin. This is how I learned I have “nice” pale skin and a round ass like my mom. (WTF? This was mom’s 77 year old female cousin who said the latter, by the way.)

 

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Corollary to the above: if you try to ask about the price of something in a shop, the shop-owner’s young-ish son will immediately start asking you nosy questions like, “Oh, are you here visiting for business or vacation? Where does your family live?” “What part of America do you live in?” and, no joke, “Are you married?”

 

When telling someone else the above anecdote, it occurs to you that had you been more fluent in Chinese, you would’ve said to the young man, “Is that your idea of a proposal?” Subtleties of wit and tone (asperity)  are lost to the slow-tongued.

 

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The part of Shanghai my parents live in resembles Manhattan’s Upper West Side, minus the bagels and widely available wifi.

 

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It is possible to be polite and yet not waste your breath saying “excuse me” every time you bump up against someone on the bus or subway; you simply let it slide. There are just too many people in China for that.

 

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Lo, the glorious infrastructure spending! The new subway goes from Hongqiao airport to Pudong airport, which is a fair amount of land acrosswise. It’s very extensive, clean, and there are plentiful trains. Likewise there were lots of buses. I wanted to try the mag-lev train…some other trip.

 

There are billboards and signs advertising solar farms and wind turbines everywhere. Color me JEALOUS. I expected Shanghai city air to be choked with smog; it actually wasn’t bad at all. No worse than LA, and LA’s been getting better.

 

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Want to buy a real diamond-studded Cartier watch in Shanghai? Easy-peasy.

 

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TV is bifurcated between MTV-ish youth-driven pop culture or reality/game shows, and epic 20-50 part costume dramas involving scheming concubines and eunuchs. There are occasional old-skool wire-work kung fu movies, and your C-span like public affairs shows which I suspect few people in China watch, just like their US counterparts.

 

There’s a blissful lack of FRIENDS re-runs on the particular cable channels my parents subscribe to.

 

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I was there during China’s national independence holiday, which meant the city was sleepy. Most people were out of town. In October of 1949, the communists declared a new government for China in a break from previous Qing dynasty and republican eras. (Republican era — not be confused with the GOP or anything having to do with a left-right divide according to a US political spectrum. (In China this is the period 1911 – 1949.) That was over 50 years ago. It’s a bit breathtaking the ground China has covered in the 20th and now first decades of the 21st century. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but according to my dad, who was a child in China during the republican period, the inequality people experienced then was grotesque in its proportions and near-permanent. Now there’s actually a large middle class in China.

The first week of October was also the time when #OccupyWallStreet really took off in the US after a slightly tentative start.

The irony for me is that the US is *still* battling its oligarchs, profiteers, and economic warlords. Even though we fought them once already during the struggle to establish the New Deal. If their agenda to eliminate the middle class succeeds, we’ll go hurtling backward at exactly the time we need to evolve as a country.

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