Living Laowai// Shanghai no. 2

Getting Comfortable in Shanghai

On June 5th C and M packed up and headed back to Beijing leaving me alone in Shanghai. We hadn’t spent a day apart from each other in over two weeks and although our friendships were new it was hard to say goodbye to my travel pals and face the next 6 weeks of solo travel.

I connected with a classmate, F, who has been working in Shanghai for the summer and we had a very full day of exploring and eating. We started the day at People’s Square. I got completely turned around in the metro station, something I found embarrassing having grown up in New York, I ended up being half an hour late but F didn’t mind. We walked to the Shanghai Museum where we saw an incredible exhibition of Chinese coins and money. Some of my favorites included paper- thin gold coins with a date, amount and Genghis Khan’s name pressed into them. Genghis Khan had used these coins! Next we went for Hong Kong style dim sum. There was goose, shrimp dumplings, chicken wrapped in rice paste, pineapple rice, cabbage/ lettuce (I couldn’t tell), rice wrapped in lotus leaves and tea. After lunch we wandered to Yuyuan Garden, East Nanjing Road, M&M World and the New World Department store. It was a very full day and by the time I got back to the hostel all I could do was crawl up into my top bunk and fall asleep.

The next morning I switched rooms to a room across the hall where I stayed for the next 6 weeks. Just as I finished settling in another girl, E, moved in and for the next couple of days we walked and sometimes danced our way through Shanghai.

The first day of our exploring turned out to be the first day of the Dragon Boat Festival. Typically you would celebrate by going to watch men race in the dragon boats which look like huge canoes with dragon heads on them and by eating zongzi which are rice cakes filled with either pork or red bean and then covered and steamed in a bamboo leaf. I was determined to do both of these things and mapped out exactly where to go and when to go. As can be expected E and I got totally turned around and ended up not finding boats or zongzi.

We dd find this building though- what’s up with the rock in the middle?

We walked along the water for a long time enjoying the juxtaposition of small, worn down shacks with the sturdy European influenced bridges.

Were amazed by the maple trees lining every street, the parks and the highway’s green legs.

Squeezing in as much greenery as possible

We ended up on a street filled with people cooking, crayfish, garbage, bright lights and delicious smells. We were too nervous to try anything but being surrounded by the energy gave us a little taste of Shanghai life.

The next day E and I were determined to make a plan for the day and to stick to it.

On our schedule: The Jade Buddha Temple, Walk through the Old Town and People’s Square.

The Jade Buddha Temple is a famous Buddhist temple that houses 2 jade Buddha statues from Burma. Both statues are carved in whole pieces of white jade making them invaluable cultural and art objects. I was interested in visiting for research purposes and spent a lot of time scribbling notes, and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Picture taking was mostly prohibited so unfortunately I don’t have too many photographs of the temple.

Jade Buddha Temple
Jade Buddha Temple

Something that I have begun to notice is that religion and ritual practice are not just contained to churches and temples. These daily routines seep into everyday life, the kitchen god is postered in every restaurant, incense and candles are burned on the street and small butsudans are in hostels, homes and shops.

In Canada there seems to be dividing lines, personal space versus public space, private versus public, religious versus secular but here in China I’m not seeing these lines. Everything seems to be blurred together and very fuzzy. I think that I am finally accepting this and adjusting to it.

Curbside incense and candles

After our temple visit we walked through the old part of the city and followed a path that had been mapped out by Time Out Shanghai. It turns out that we had actually walked these very streets yesterday! Rather than be disappointed with the repetition we felt brave enough to try some food from a street stand, funnily enough the stand we went to was selling zongzi! It was meant to be.

Red bean zongzi

The zongzi was wonderfully sticky and sweet and savory and a fun activity to eat that left your hands dirty- it kind of felt like I had glue on my fingers.

After resting at the hostel we went to People’s Square and walked up to the Bund to see the lights at night.

On the way to the Bund from People’s Square

We stopped in a side street for a supper of rice and chicken, potatoes and the classic big bottles of Tsing Tao. There were lots of locals sitting on small plastic stools outside chowing down on huge overflowing plates of food, more bottles of beer than I could count and loud conversation. We had a bit of trouble ordering at first but after a very labored effort and the full utilization of E’s Chinese skills we ended up with our supper, we almost ate with dirty chopsticks before realizing our mistake when the waitress brought us fresh sets. We fully earned our supper that night.

Eating oustide

Everyone seemed to just throw their empty water bottles, napkins, cigarette butts and other garbage onto the street making the sidewalk filthy. (Our waitress was walking around barefoot though!!!) There were also cars driving up on the sidewalk directly next to us as we ate our food. Everything just seemed fun and comfortable though, it felt good to be sharing these experiences with E and to be able to laugh at everything happening around us.

A bad habit that I have fallen into has been talking about things/ people /places that stick out to me as I see them rather than waiting till I am out of earshot. Having the language barrier makes you feel like an observer in another world and somewhat invisible. All of a sudden you have a freedom with your words that you don’t normally have at home. You can admire someone’s shoes, or groan at traffic patterns, or yell out in frustration and culture shock and no one is the wiser. Having a friend to share these moments with makes exploring Shanghai that much more fun.

So much traffic at 11PM
All lit up at night

The Bund was crazy busy. It was around 11PM and there was still non-stop traffic. Walking on Nanjing Road made me feel like a fish swimming upstream, everywhere we looked there were streams of people going in one direction. It was the most organized I had seen the city! There were lots of people from all over the world there that night admiring the skyline. Everyone was taking pictures, meeting friends and filling the night with a lot of laughter and happiness. It felt safe and comfortable and a good place to spend the next couple of weeks.

At exactly 11PM all of the lights went out in the buildings signalling everyone’s bedtime. I’ve talked to other people about this phenomenon of turning the city lights out at a certain time of night and almost everyone agrees it is to give the impression that there is no nightlife. The lights might have been out but the buzz in the air certainly remained alive- Shanghai seems to have a very keen nightlife.

On our way back we stopped into a Miniso which is a very fun all purpose store with household items, toiletries, food, electronics and stationery. I don’t know why I was surprised but the store was packed. I bought coloured pencils and dried sweet potato. They were both mediocre in their own ways.

The subway had shut down by the time we were ready to head home so we hailed a cab and had a peaceful drive back to the hostel. The streets outside the hostel were lined with small vendors selling vegetables, meat, and stuffed eggplant! Very intriguing.

What a perfect day.

Language Lesson:
duōshǎo qián / 多少钱 
: How much does it cost?