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Saturday, October 08, 2005

A trip home

That's what my last day and a half in Shanghai felt like, a trip home. I went to stay with a guy I knew in Taipei, who has been teaching in Shanghai for awhile now. He's a younger guy, trained to be a teacher, and he's for the moment pretty much ready to go wherever he can get a reasonable job (although now that he has been teaching young kids for a few years, he is hoping to find something more in line with his training, and I wish him luck with that--it can be hard with the kids sometimes). Anyway, Jon just moved into a new place last week, in a nice apartment in an old building in the French Concession. He is only paying a few hundred RMB a month for his place, which has a small but nice living room in front, and then a large bedroom in back, off of which is the bathroom on one side and the kitchen on the other. There is also a courtyard in back. As he put it, this kind of place should be a lot more expensive, but the person renting it had allowed it to become coated in dust and didn't realize how nice it could be. In his neighborhood, you can find buildings that might fetch upwards of 10,000 USD a month to rent, and apartments that might go for 5,000. It is a nice neighborhood, the streets all lined with trees and quiet (in a relative sense) and with plenty of things within walking distance.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was raining an awful lot in Shanghai, an effect, I think, from the recent typhoon in southern China and Taiwan. After arriving at his place, we watched a bit of TV and chatted, had a cup of coffee and so on. Then we headed out for a cafe that he was quite keen on, for some food. It was a very nice cafe, with wireless and good Western food, including a delicious sandwich on whole wheat bread. We chilled there for awhile, and then went back out. [Check out the link if you have a moment: Wonder Bread is going against its grain.--ed.]

After dropping things off at his place, we went walking, in search of a DVD market he knows about. The DVD market was full of, well, DVDs. New movies, old movies, television shows (all the CSIs, Lost, Law and Order, Simpsons, etc.) all for about 10-15 RMB a disc if it is coded for Asia and 20 RMB if coded for the West. I ended up not buying anything (I could say it was about conscience, and pirated stuff, but really it was about practicality, weight and cost as I was going to buy the first season of Lost and the last season of 24, but they were a bit big and 80 RMB per season). Jon picked up a bunch, though, and was wondering why he was when he still had so many at home he had not watched. I can understand, though, when none of these movies or shows will ever be shown here.

Then we went out again, now to a few markets. One was full of art, some of which was quite nice. The other, the big market, was famous for its cheap knock-off goods. Again, I hesitated to buy because I am just that way when thinking about buying things. I did end up with a pen. Jon is a very good bargainer, though, and I watched with great pleasure as he took things down from 180 RMB to about 30. He also beat me to the one things I might have gone for, a hooded zip-up jacket. The people in the market are not shy about coming up to you and offering "watches. No watch? How about DVD? I have sex DVD, too. Come, look look." They were more desperate than normal, perhaps, because of the rain and the small crowd making its way through the maze of narrow paths running between shops, and as Jon said, it was a perfect time to go.

As we were leaving, Jon gave Papa John's a call. Yes, Papa John's is in Shanghai now, and I was thrilled at the prospect of having a real pizza. [Papa John's is online, too. Perhaps they will want to consider a sponsorship deal with Alan, so I'm going to plug them: That garlic sauce, though decadent, is really tasty! Alan, we can discuss my percentage later.--ed.] Jon was on the phone for several minutes, and I could hear his voice rising above the din around me. When I asked him what was going on, he explained that because he had moved his old Papa John's did not deliver, so he had to call a new one, and even now he was not sure of if the pizza would come. He had given his phone number 5 times and his address about the same number and it seemed doubtful it would come.

On the way back, and by now we had been walking for about three or four hours, we picked up a few beers for just in case the pizza came, and then we settled in to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is bloody hilarious. After an episode, we called the pizza place again, and this time I talked to them. They said it would take an hour for the pizza to get there, and I said, OK. After hanging up, Jon, the super-bargainer said, you should have told them we won't pay full price. Right, he was, and so we called again. This time, I said we wanted it cheaper. They said they could give it to us for 97 RMB. They also said we would have to pay for the taxi to bring it to us. What? No. We are not paying for a taxi. We've already waited more than an hour, and you aren't giving it to us for free, and you want us to pay for a taxi. So the woman I was talking to kept going to her boss to figure things out, and this all on Jon's cell phone, so it was getting all the more expensive already. We are not going to pay for a taxi. Then it will be an hour and your pizza will probably be cold. Hang up. We need to change phones. Call back. Now, can I tell you something, I said, do you know that in America, if a pizza takes more than 40 minutes to deliver it is free? A few minutes to consult with her boss, come back. 97 RMB. Jon took the phone. Here is my address. We will pay 97 RMB. Bring it. Hang up. (English)

We hung up doubtful that the pizza would be coming. After two more episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jon said he was going to take a shower as we were going to head out in 20 minutes. And then, as I was putting a Simpson's DVD on, the sound of what seemed to be knocking from the door. Hey Jon, I think someone is at your door? Think it could be the pizza. Holy...I can't believe they brought it. More than 2 hours after we first ordered it we are paying 12 dollars for a large supreme pizza. Well, it was worth it.

Note for Papa John: you may want to give your Chinese staff some training if you want the expat community to be happy, and the new Chinese customers need to be clearer on what to expect.

So then we headed out, after the pizza. First we went to a street lined with bars, many of which were magnets for hookers. A gin and tonic for the first time in months. Talking to Jon's expat friends, two of whom are working with law firms (one of whom is fluent in Chinese), and the other a teacher like Jon, but also involved with businesses in Canada and China. Learning a bit about the expat thing here, I learn that: there are some very attractive foreign girls living in Shanghai (not so many in Taipei). The bar scene is all right, but expensive in most places. Generally felt that Shanghai girls have more style than Beijing girls, but that they are not as pretty, and are quite keen to dip into your bank account. It is a pretty segmented thing, the expat scene, both from what I saw and what they said, and I think of things I have read about the Shanghai of the concession days, when there was very little interaction between Chinese and foreigners, unless it directly involved money or sex.

From this bar we went to a club called Mirror. Mirror is the exception in Shanghai. It is cheap to drink, about 10 RMB a beer. This is also why it is popular, especially with the younger crowd (I also ran into a few people who had been staying in my hostel the night before). The bar was also a dank, stinking, sweaty darkness slippery with spilled beer and loosened hormones. Morals forgotten. Cynicism, desperation, soul-seeking, and just plain want-to-fuck horniness joined in a bar as predictable as the conversations, the flirtations, the sloppy kisses, and the blank, saddened drunken eyes cutting in and out of visions and sound fields.

In Mirror, I danced a bit and watched a lot. I helped translate some conversation between guys and girls. I watched beautiful girls gear up to make mistakes. I talked to some other girls about why they wanted to have foreign boyfriends so badly. The answers were never clear, though. Usually involved English and the thought that they might be nicer than Chinese boys. Do you know a lot of foreign guys will just want to get you into bed for a night or two? I asked (these things were in Chinese, so sometimes I had to use hand gestures which was a bit embarrassing). Yes, I've heard that. But I am careful. And I sighed because these girls are so wonderfully and dangerously innocent. They are so naive and they are begging to be taken advantage of. (I should note, though, that as Jon mentioned, there are plenty who are not so naive, who know exactly what they want and if you don't have it adios). I guess it is all a game that has been going on for a very long time now.

This scene was contrasted in a nice way the following day, or was it two days later? Well, you see I had 28 hours on a train to Guilin, and once I got there, I said, oh, what the heck, what's another hour on a bus and headed down to the backpacker enclave at Yangshuo (home of all those crazy pinnacles sprouting up out of the ground like so many odd shaped penises and a whole lot of western oriented cafes and restaurants). Anyway, during that train ride, a mother and son (a very spoiled and obnoxious son, I might add, but that is but a digression) were playing cards and started laughing like crazy. They could not stop. And a little boy who was staying in the next set of beds over came over to look. He was resting his hands on the ladder and watching them unnoticed, and he started to smile and he looked like he wanted to join in with them so badly. He disappeared for a moment and then was back, secretly sharing in their happiness. Except that I saw him, so it was not so secret, and it was watching him be happy that gave me a little secret happiness which I am now sharing with you.

Today I rode around the countryside and came damn close to breaking my leg, but that story, and others, will have to wait for another day.


Anonymous Mom said...

Nice to hear about the dailyness of your life a little.
I read a book about Jewish refugees who went to Shanghai to escape the Nazis in the 1930s. They lived in the French Concession (sound s a lot nicer now!).

10:26 PM  

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