Friday, December 19, 2008

A Flood of Memories and Images of China

We lived one year in Shanghai, from January 2006 or February 2007.

We moved there in a whirlwind amount of time, giving away stuff, storing stuff, selling our house, driving out to Ohio to say goodbye, vaccinations every week for 3-4 weeks, passports speeding our way, and a quick respite in DC with my family....then a big gulp and the kids and I jumped on a Korean Air plane from the 22 hour exodus to meet David there. We had no prior particular interest in China or Asia, had no cultural training, and had never been there. And we were so busy trying to get ready in record time that we didn't read or absorb much about the culture ahead of time.

David ran an office there staffed entirely by Chinese nationals, and 2 westerners, though he hired another westerner along the way. We touched down in Pudong airport, grasped a big glorious bunch of flowers, climbed into a tiny van, and were suddenly living in a high rise in what looked to me like the biggest, sprawling-est, noisiest, poorest, richest, smelliest, fantastical city of lights.

Jetson towers and trains and a sitting beggar with no legs and a wide grin. Next to the Coach store knelt a woman selling cartoon-decorated shoe inserts off a folded sheet on the curb. The brown and wrinkled and work-worn man who cut hair and cleaned ears out (with a bit of wool on a stick -- shared between customers) worked alongside the granite and marble facade of a high class high rise. Chock-a-block concrete apartment hovels squatted by gleaming gorgeous lobbies and fountains and sleek high rises.

When the kids and I would head out to explore and wind down the back street hutongs -- narrow off-street alleys geared to locals -- we found little close, tinkling shops with very clean dirt or concrete floors -- ears, clothes, hair may not be fresh, but floors are always clean as can be -- selling goldfish, cigarettes, crickets, art scrolls, statues, pots, key rings, cages, puppies, plastic washbasins, raw meat, familiar and unusual vegetables and fruits, Hello Kitty baubles, tea, and red paper decorations and silken pillows.

I would point to a given bauble or symbol and shrug my shoulders and point to gesture -- what does that mean? Always the answer: "Lucky." (After a few months I stopped asking. I shared a joke with a western friend -- "If anyone shows me something that means 'unlucky' I will surely pay mounds of money to buy it.") This was a special afternoon treat and mini-adventure, to take a detour down one of these hutongs, though it was easy to get lost in the teeming centers of every colossal street block.

We decided to settle in a complex populated mostly by Asian expats (Taiwanese, Japanese), a few westerners (a Brazilian family, an Australian family, one-two American families, a Brit family), and a very few wealthy Chinese -- so we were with other foreigners, but not to the point of living in "little America" or "little Britain." I didn't want to move to China to live in an American-style home with other Americans, but I knew we weren't ready to plunge into a sheerly local area having had no exposure before to this part of the world other than an art history course in college.

The kids and I were thinking back yesterday on our more vivid memories...

...We remember the man across the street who would fix our bike tires for 1 rmb -- the equivalent of 2o cents. He worked outside in his spot on the corner no matter the weather. He wore a hundred layers of jackets and caps, and on cold dreary wet days in January he was steadfastly out there with his little folding chair, grocery bag of tools, and big wide smile. David always insisted on paying him more than he asked, and that plus the 3 children always made him happy to see us. That is him at the top of this page with Will. I hope that man is doing well.

...He worked next to the Family Mart, where we paid our utility bills and cell phone bills in cash and bought Dove chocolate bars and Nestea in bottles. We could have purchased green eggs fermented in lime in the ground, or pigs feet, or eggs boiled in tea, too. But we didn't! I have eaten duck foot and cow brain, but I personally draw the line at questionable eggs. I never have figured out why we paid all our bills there but the rent. I just don't know; it was basically a 7-11. I always had so many questions, that when we'd come across a knowledgeable westerner, I was tongue-tied and stymied and forgot them.

...Don't let the English writing confuse you, rarely would a shop clerk or taxi driver or anyone on the street speak English. It's a trick of the eye -- having an English sign is a cue that a place is or wants to be considered hip and upscale. And the translations can be abysmal -- we shopped regularly at a bookstore -- with signage, cards, flyers, bags -- all printed boldly with the words "Chater House." I suppose a Brit or a Kennedy said "Charter" and the Chinese wrote down what they heard.

...I think, I see China the way a child looks at the world. I half-understand. I see how things are done before I understand why they are done that way. And I want to know why and what.

...What are the carts that drive around ringing bells with flattened boxes in the back? (picking and delivering old appliances) Why is that woman carrying bundles of trash on her bike? (hopes to sell the things somewhere -- findings from trash cans) Why don't the people follow the traffic laws at all? (only follow the rules if the authorities enforce them, otherwise don't bother) Why do I pay for my electricity at Family Mart? (still don't know) And what the heck is that pan of meat doing sitting by the heavy traffic on a muddy day on the dirty curb? Is no one concerned? (apparently not) Why do the restaurants cut up all of their vegetables and meats out on the sidewalk at night? (it's cooler outside and less crowded) And what exactly is bean curd, after all? (not sure, but it tastes good) And why do they rot the eggs before they eat them? (ancient Chinese tradition, I guess)

...We paid our rent in the office of our apartment complex. We paid it in cash, a large wad of bills which I would put in an envelope, and they took the large sum and put it in a tin box. They wrote out a receipt for me on paper with carbon under it, and inscribed what we'd paid in a lined ledger, by hand. There were computers in that office, but apparently they weren't used for these huge rent transactions, and there were always 4-5 workers in uniforms in that tiny room and a work table with a dressy cloth banquet skirt on it. Everyone smiled and nodded as I paid while one person handled the transaction. Then they would give my kids a hard candy, make much over them, and we'd be off.

...In China, everything is handled by Informal Committee, but the rulings are firm. Any dispute, any simple question, any car accident, any injury, any repair -- requires large numbers of workers and onlookers to involve themselves, listen to the parties, heatedly argue or joke with one another as well as those involved, and agree on a plan of action. (It's interestng, everyone seems bent to get to where they are going in a mad hurry careening and whizzing all around, until they happen upon an event of even small magnitude -- then everyone is most eager to stop and discuss. I have seen Committees consisting of a hundred people when there is a big traffic accident.) You must bend to the Committee's decision. I wasn't afraid to drive, but I didn't, because in any car accident, the foreigner always somehow is the one to blame, according to the Committee and and police. In fact, we were in a few car accidents, one medium-bad-ish one, and as the kids and and I sat as one does, a bit stunned and baffled in the short moments immediately after the impact, the taxi man urgently waved us to get out and hurry on away -- before the Committee arrived, I assume. I was happy to oblige.

...We remember how on hot summer nights, all of the cramped families, grandparents especially, would come out onto the city sidewalks, unfold tin lawn chairs, and sleep, or talk, or maybe dance -- ballroom dancing on the corner by the one department store, Ba Bai Ban.

...Caught in the pouring rain, cold and wet and no taxi to be had, far on the other side of town leaving FuDan Children's Hospital, the children and I are crammed under a storefront. It was one of those lonely, fatiguing moments. Then... a stranger gives us his umbrella. A generous act in western countries, this is a magnanimous and really huge act of kindness in a country where basic needs are never taken for granted and incomes are severely limited.

...Eating at Element Fresh every Sunday morning (church was in the afternoons) at the "Super Brand Mall" (with a shrine to the Buddha out front -- that's the mall up top decorated for the Year of the Pig) -- hot western style coffee (ie NOT nescafe powder), smoothies, and the kids would order bacon by the platter, and astound the Chinese at the hugeness of their appetites!

...Everywhere, people shouting across the street or murmuring as they passed -- "SAN GA HAI ZA!" -- my pigeon pinyin Mandarin spelling for "Three Children!" Women and men -- strangers - hugging and even taking up the children to embrace them. A few times I was asked, "All from your belly?" "Ooohhh." Camera's flashing at every national holiday and tourist-y area, and posing with strangers. One lady said, through a translator, "Your children have eyes like Bambi."

...White collar, English-speaking women coming up to me and saying to me -- sometimes matter-of-factly and sometimes -- no other way to describe it -- forlornly: "In China -- only one child."

...We remember the smoke and flying papers from Chinese New Year, slapping and pluming against our living room window, and becoming so thick we couldn't see out our window anymore on the 15th floor, which was actually the 13th floor (since the 4th floor and 13th floor were so unlucky, the builders just skipped them when they labeled the floors). We remember that the next morning the city workers -- one per block, with bamboo brooms -- had cleaned the city streets so effectively, that you would never have known of the chaos and papers the night before. No other firework demonstration will ever compare to that one we watched casually out of our living room window.

Chinese New Year is coming, so we wish you all, Gong Xi Fa Cai...Happy New Year!

No comments: