Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shanghai: A Few Days in Our Lives [September 23, 2007]

We've been here for about two months, meaning we have had to figure out how and where to get our hair tended to. Mine was perhaps a little more daring - an unexpected stop at a barber shop we passed when searching for a hardware store. Once we saw the oversized spinning red thing (I guess its a universal symbol), we had to stop. After confirming that no one in the place spoke English, I sat in a chair, made a few hand gestures, and waited to see what happened. That blue stuff in the bottle, with all the combs in it that supposedly sanitizes them - it doesn't exist in China. It is somehow gross when it is there, but missed when its not. Anyhow, after a few passes with the clippers, a mumbled and tardy comment from Karen that it looked pretty short, me declining a close shave with a seemingly unsantitized straight edge razor, and parting with the equivalent of $1.32, I walked out with a fresh buzz to deal with the Shanghai heat.

Karen's hair experience was a little more polished - a visit to the gay Malaysian hairdresser in the clubhouse of our apartment complex. She went shorter, got some highlights, and came out looking good. I think she payed a bit more than $1.32, but clearly it was worth it.

How Big Is It?
Last weekend, we went down to Shanghai City Planning, which is essentially a museum dedicated to the relatively amazing scale of urban planning and deliberate growth that is modern Shanghai. The most impressive part of this museum is a huge scale model of Shanghai, including what seems to be every building that currently exists, as well as those that are planned for construction between now and 2010 in the central part of the city. It is pretty amazing.

The first picture is of the model, taken from the perspective of our apartment. If you can see it, look at our actual apartment building in the red oval at the bottom/middle of the photograph. The picture is looking northwest across this miniature Shanghai. The next picture is of the Huangpu River, more or less looking north. The area to the left is Puxi and the area to the right is Pudong. The red arrow points to the direction of our home. Lastly, the other picture is of my hand and a closer shot of the model, just to show the ridiculous detail of this creation.

Is It Crowded?
I have been asked, with good reason, if it is really that crowded in the country with the largest population in the world. The land area is comparable to that of the US, but China's population, at about 1.3 billion people, is over four times that of the US meaning the density is quite a bit higher. The density in Shanghai (and other eastern cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzen) is even more impressive as 70 or more percent of the population lives along the eastern coast of China. Here are a few pictures to show what it looks like when we wander around in Shanghai on the weekends.

It is insanely crowded almost everywhere we go. People are out, walking in every direction, smoking, arguing, trying to sell their wares, buying stuff, spitting, spoiling their only child, and trying, next to us, to hail a cab. There is a distinct and noticable shortage of taxis in Shanghai, although (in my non-scientific estimation) they constitute about 40% of the four-wheeled vehicles on the road. In busy locations, they attempt to go off meter with negotiated and inflated fares, but there is a way to deal with this. It goes like this: 1) when you can, jump in the backseat, even if the guy is trying to ask you where you are going before you get in; 2) play dumb, like you don't understand any Chinese (not that much of an act); 3) tell him where to go and ask for the meter; 4) when he says no and tells you to get out, don't and start dialing the number on the back of the seat to report the driver's misconduct; and 5) wait for him to grunt and give you a disgruntled ride wherever you are going, on meter. A short ride costs about $1.40 and a 30 minute ride across town costs $4 to $7.

These pictures are from last Sunday on a shopping trip to Puxi. The top one is simply of a crosswalk on a busy street and the second one is of the entrance to some relatively non-descript shopping mall. Next, we have a shot of Nanjing Road (Nanjing Lu), supposedly and likely the busiest shopping street in all of China. This is a normal day - nothing special is going on here.

Finally, in terms of crowds, there is a picture of the ever faithful McDonalds, which, as you can see draws crowds and sells ice cream even here. Actually, I think the people that work at McDonalds here are considerably less miserable and grumpy than the people in the same jobs in the US - it is probably regarded as a pretty decent job to have here. Also, McDonalds sells green bean pies for dessert, offers a spicy cucumber cheeseburger, and won't sell you a cheeseburger meal because only the double cheeseburger comes in meal form (not even for the same price). Customization and substitutions are almost too challenging and unlikely to try in China.

What Does It Look Like?
Shanghai looks busy, dirty, interesting, modern, old, and chaotic. It often smells, and grosses you out by dripping on you, bumping into you, or splashing you somehow. As I've said before, we live in the newer and more western (although it is east) part of Shanghai. Here are some shots of the other side - Puxi. Here is what essentially every taxi in Shanghai looks like - they are all Volkswagen Santanas - more or less like an old Jetta. Interestingly enough, all the cabs in Beijing are Hyundai Elantras, as it is much closer to and developed some automotive technology partnership with Korea. Above the taxi, you should take note of the crazy number of power lines, the messily installed exterior condensing units (for air conditioners), and the laundry flapping in the wind. These things, especially hanging laundry are ubiquitous here - no one really has or uses clothes dryers (except us, I guess). The apartment building itself is typical - fairly run down and generally not a place you would eagerly enter, but certainly functional and probably home to more than you would guess. There are bikes everywhere - pedal bikes, electric bikes, cargo bikes, etc. Here is a picture of a guy maneuvering his cargo-bike with a huge piece of pipe through traffic. Things like this, although scary, are not really surprising - you just get used to it. Next there is a very typical row of junky old single-speed bicycles on the sidewalk, with people walking everywhere, and clothes hanging from a ragged apartment building overhead.

This story wouldn't be complete without including something on street vendors and food. Pirated DVDs and, less so, CDs are for sale everywhere. In the back of shops, out of boxes on the ground or mounted to the back of bicycles, in giant stores - it doesn't really matter. The quality ranges from perfect to a handheld recording in some other language in a movie theatre, during which people actually get up and walk around in the the theatre - you can see their silhouettes! The prices go from about $0.80 to maybe $3 for a good quality one, which is always a gamble. You haggle hard and see what happens when you pop it in the player. I guess its illegal here, but you wouldn't really know it.

This guy has a hot-plate cart with skewered squid or something on it. The air around this cart stank, but obviously someone buys these snacks. And finally, an amusing food advertisement we passed the other night - when you come to visit us, maybe we'll take you to dinner at The Farmyard - we've heard good things.

Who's Getting Old?
We are. The unsettling reality of turning 30 has hit us, here in Shanghai. This past weekend was our big birthday weekend. Scattered thunderstorms (per the internationally incorrect weather resource of kept us from having our celebratory BBQ on Saturday. Nonetheless, it was a weekend of worthwhile reflection about getting old and being in this funny place. The primary objective of the weekend was to have some fun and avoid my greatest fear at a time like this - becoming old losers.

Fortunately, we narrowly escaped this curse (maybe next year) and took care of each other on "our" days. There was the Friday morning fresh fruit and pastry breakfast, during which Karen was presented with her latest addition to her global jewelry collection - a set of pearl earrings and a pendant from the South Seas (China is a good place to buy pearls!). I think she liked it. We went out that night and had some good Thai food and a bottle of Australian red, followed by some Starbucks.

Then it was my turn. First, an all I could eat 'hot pot' and sushi and all I could drink (Chinese beer) dinner - the deal of the year at $13. This was followed by vastly overpriced beers at a cheesy German brauhaus rip-off in the ultra-trendy tourist trap of Xintiandi. See that giant beer in my hand? It honestly cost $16. And Karen's cost $10 - ridiculous and not worthy of a second round. The next morning (my real birthday, China time) - Karen made me a nice breakfast which included blowing out the "3" and the "0" candles stabbed into a fried egg sandwich (check out the blurry picture). Not exactly a birthday cake (I guess that fell apart - literally), but a good birthday meal nonetheless. Today we wandered around and had ice cream sundaes to top off the inaugural weekend for our fourth decade of life. Cheers!


Manu said...

Belated Happy B'day Singletons!

About being old losers - wait till you have kids and have to stay at home on weekend nights for pretty much an entire year.

PS Yes, someone actually read your blog ;)

David S said...

Hilarious haircut story! In a foreign country, it's always those mundane things that turn out to be the most random! Thanks for sharing!

Jantine said...

Karen: Great haircut!!!!
It looks good on you!
Nice to see that you celebrated your B'day's!!!!

Ulle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ulle said...

Beautiful haircut, Karen the American. Praise gay men.
Matt, why is there not a photo of you and your new haircut?

Perdita said...

Great work.