Confusion and Contradicton in Shanghai, China

James Paisley

Shanghai August shimmers on the pavement. “No Fishing” reads the sign in English and Chinese characters next to the man with the pole in the water, “No Gambling” on a pillar of the waterside pavilion beside the mahjong players, “No Steppin” with a frisky, toe-down boot within the fence behind the sleeper on the bench in a city park. I imagine it means “do not ‘step to,’ that is ‘confront,’ the man sleeping on this bench. He is very tired and under these trees is a nice place to nap.” This is the only sign I do not see being openly flouted as the man sits folded, managing by his furrowed brow to look fierce even in unconsciousness. Tall buildings try the depths of every pool of water.

I can hardly hear from my unpopped ears when I get off the plane after fitful sleep with an inflatable pillow around my neck and knowledge of the length of my own legs keeping me from reclining my seat back. I say nothing below the volume of a shout to Jena, my friend who has been here teaching English for a month and a half before my arrival.

Something is very different, which I automatically perceive as wrongness, during the taxi ride to the Jinjiang Inn, the hotel where Disney English, Disney’s language program for kids, has put her up. Traffic’s still on the right, but I cannot fathom why the driver is crossing the intersections when he does. Later, reading a travel guide to China, I learn that traffic laws are understood like the signs in the public park, and only one in five drivers in the country has a license. I do not cross any big roads for a while.

Walking down the sidewalk to the nearest subway stop with Jena, I feel I should have brought a fanny pack to complete my worn-t-shirt-and-cargo-shorts-shabbiness in comparison to these cosmopolitans and their clothes that fit. I wonder if the tiny boutiques along the walls of the subway station (that I feel too large, unlearned in Mandarin, and untutored in fashion to enter) are responsible for Shanghainese fashionability. I will never go in one for the three weeks I am here, which is just as well, since the prices of clothes in American stores usually set me to wide-eyed scoffing, these are boutiques and likely have boutique prices, and haggling, expected in China, has never been part of my skillset. I cried at a yard sale when a man offered me a dollar for my VHS tape of The Three Caballeros, clearly marked at three dollars. I cried a lot as a child.

The air-conditioned subway car is shiny and crowded, and I hover my hand over my wallet in my front pocket, no doubt showing all potential pickpockets where the gold is. The smell of body odor and food breath is very different from what I’m used to. I’m surprised, half-gratified and half-disappointed, that I’m not the tallest person standing up. A little woman squeezed to three-quarter size following a little girl on the plane, had made me think that I would stand out. A few young Chinese men have a head or two on me—malnutrition is less common now, and folks’ growth doesn’t get stunted as much. Old folks and people from the countryside are still littler. Height is an immediate marker of social class.

I still catch eyes that don’t waver when met. There’s no category in Confucian philosophy, which is still part of the Chinese social fabric, for relationships with strangers. There are expectations of behavior and understood dynamics in Confucianism between colleagues, parents and children, family members, and friends. I wonder where the other fits. Maybe behind the eyes, they’re wondering too.

Off the subway in gathering dark, Jena and I search for a restaurant on Nanjing Road, a neon walking street closed to cars. I end up eating frog legs I have to hunt for in a bowl of bright red chilies. The meat-to-bone ratio is low, and Jena tells me about the dexterous tongues of the Chinese people who wiggle their mouths for much too short a time and spit a pile of bones into their hands.

After dinner, we walk the Bund, a promenade along the Huangpu River, where the Customs House, a relic of trade with the West, sits lit up like Britannia reborn. Across the river, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower’s bright ball glints on the water, and a bent little woman tries to sell us a fake rose. We demur several times, but she ignores our apparent disinterest, convinced we’re courting.

Wŏ búyào!” says Jena. “I don’t want (it/that)!” Or at least that’s what she tries to say. The lady chortles and brays whatever Jena said after us until we’re a ways away.

On the taxi ride home, Jena tells me about the young man who sat next to her on the subway as she was headed back to her hotel after staying late at the Disney English language school. I imagine the conversation going something like this.

“I am a nice boy. My sister lets me wash her feet.”


“I could be a nice boy for you. I would wash your feet.”

“No thank you.”

“You are my Disney Princess. Snow White.”


And then he kissed her. Several times. She didn’t stop him. Didn’t want to be impolite.

The next morning, I go downstairs to the little restaurant. A buffet is set out with baozi, which are steamed buns stuffed with meat, and dumplings filled with meat or pickled vegetables. I read a phrasebook while I eat. The middle-aged waitress will try to help me with pronunciation over the course of my stay, to little effect.

Romanized Chinese, which is to say rendered into the Latin alphabet, has four diacritic marks that accompany vowels and determine how they are spoken. You can say the sentence “Did mother scold the horse?” using only “ma” in different ways. Baidu Baike, Chinese Wikipedia (since the Great Firewall of China blocks many Western sites), came up with the “Ten Mythical Creatures of Baidu Baike,” which plays with this facet of the Chinese language to protest censorship. “Cao Ni Ma” or “Grass Mud Horse” can also mean “fuck your mother,” depending on the use of these diacritic marks. Another winner is “Fa Ke You,” “French-Croatian Squid.”

I spend most of the day in Zhongshan Park, watching. There are couples walking hand-in-hand every ten feet. Children play on slippery rocks across water features that strike me as lawsuits waiting to happen. Old folks sing karaoke with live accompaniment on tambourine and erhu, a violin-like instrument you may have heard on Kung Fu movie soundtracks. On a wide green lawn, kites fluttering closer and closer to trees; in a showcase pond, a hundred lotus flowers; stone lions moved from a temple now under a dammed lake. I wander out and into the subway.

I hop off a few stops from where I got on and go into an enormous vertical mall. From a place with a picture menu for which I thank God, Japanese curry fills my belly. Upwards of a certain point in the mall, the storefronts are empty. I remember a story Kai Ryssdal told on NPR’s Marketplace, of getting into an elevator in a Chinese industrial city and hitting a random floor. When the doors opened, all was rebar and concrete and barrenness, the outside windows polished to a mirror-sheen. He stepped out to explore, and when he returned to the elevator, he found there were no buttons on his side. Walking down the thirty flights of stairs, he had time to consider this as a metaphor for China’s construction boom—it created a hollow illusion.

I have to use the toilet for the first time outside of my hotel, and find a working bathroom on one of the more populated floors. There’s a urinal-looking porcelain affair laid flat on the floor. English-speaking expats call these “squatty potties.” You’re expected to lower your pants or hike up your skirts and squat over top of it. I have great difficulty keeping myself from falling in. There’s also no toilet paper in almost any bathroom. Folks keep packs of tissues in pockets or purses for the purpose and throw them away in tiny, stinking trash cans in every stall. It takes some getting used to, but I later read that it’s better for you to poop this way. Most every animal squats, and humans used to too.

I head back towards my hotel, stopping off at the Carrefour supermarket in the subway station. I buy a bottle of “Suzhou Laojiao Erqujiu,” “Suzhou Old Barrel 279.” I will regret this decision. It is a testament to the intestinal fortitude of the Chinese that they drink this stuff. It smells like nail polish remover and rotting peaches. It feels oily in my mouth. I end up pouring out most of it for the hungry ghosts.

The Chinese calendar is lunisolar, with holidays on many of the full moons. I have come in August, which coincides with Ghost Month this year, though not every year. Early in my stay, restaurants advertise couples’ specials for Qi Xi, the Night of Sevens, sometimes called Chinese Valentine’s Day. Once a year, on the night of Qi Xi, Altair and Vega, imagined as lovers, a herdsman and a weaver girl, are allowed to meet by the Celestial Emperor, who split them up for being too much in love and failing to do their work. If it rains, they do not get to meet. I expect more celebration than I see, but Qi Xi is a more intimate holiday than others.

The Hungry Ghost Festival gives Ghost Month its name. The barrier between our world and the spirit world is imagined to become weaker and weaker over the course of Ghost Month, and the point when the barrier drops is celebrated with offerings of oranges, incense, and food for the hungry ghosts said to walk the earth during this time. Joss Paper, a kind of papier-mâché, is burned, gold for the Celestials and elder ancestors, silver for close relatives, ancestors, and river and earth gods, and lesser varieties to deposit in dead ancestors’ spiritual banks. Bureaucracy and corruption are so much a part of Chinese life that all people are imagined to go to the same place before rebirth, wherein they use money just like we do, and must bribe the officials to speed their exit from the place of the dead.

Typhoon warnings keep me from a beachfront music festival I bought a ticket for before my arrival. I spend most of the next day inside, eating breakfast and lunch at the hotel restaurant and venturing out in the strange storm-light only briefly for four big bottles of Tsingtao beer and my favorite drinking snack, a package of peanuts with dried chili and Szechuan peppercorns that numb my mouth and make the fizz of the beer dance on my tongue. I sit on my bed and flip through the channels, feeling most comfortable watching a soap opera that I don’t really feel like I need the words to understand. The China Daily, an English-language newspaper, reports widespread flooding in old areas of Shanghai the next day.

I’m restive after being cooped up inside, so I jump on the subway headed for Jing’an Temple. I pay my admission and enter through the wooden gate. Tall walls surround a courtyard with tall structures, possibly bells, of hollow metal that children and adults both are throwing coins at, trying to get one to stay inside for good luck, I imagine. It’s a wonder nobody’s gotten hit. I try for a long while, but I’m not sure I ever get one in. Sticks of incense sit on a table near a small metal coal burner. I watch people light the incense, hold it in front of them with two hands, and bow to the four directions. In attempting it myself, I nearly set my eyebrows on fire.

The statue of Buddha sits, ivory skin softly glowing, within the sanctuary at the top of the steps. On the walls are hung ribbons and wooden plaques that probably have something to do with ancestor worship. Wooden carvings of dragons and country scenes serve for windows. A mural probably tells a story from Buddhist scripture. I’m most surprised when I enter a room below, and see fierce statues wielding weapons. This isn’t the crunchy California Buddhism I’m used to. This is a militant religion that sets itself against demonic evil: peace and war two sides of the same coin. Monks walk in, chanting sutras. I listen for longer than I think, and by the time I’ve left, an hour and a half has passed.

When Jena gets off, we head to a movie theater. The line for the tickets is more of a crushing cone pointed towards the ticket counter. We watch the last Harry Potter movie with Chinese subtitles, forgoing popcorn or drinks. Our fellow patrons talk and text the whole time—I guess it’s not like they have to listen to the dialogue.

Outside the theater is another big park where a marriage market is in full swing. Very animated aged parents attempt to make matches, and entrepreneurs rent out space on racks to hang pictures and résumés of single people. If I could read Chinese, I might know that they enumerate certifications and degrees, job, height, and apartment size. I get a few considering looks as I walk through, but all I can say to the old ladies that question me is “wo bu ming bai,” which I hope is understood as “I don’t understand” and not “your daughter is very lovely.” Jena gets a few bites too. She blushes and we walk on.

We meet one of her English teacher coworkers at a hotpot restaurant. I insist on ordering the spicy broth, and soon two low, wide pots of broth bubble on the table. Raw meat and veggies arrive and are dumped into the broth to cook. We stir thin slices of beef with chopsticks in the boiling broth, losing them from time to time. I eat several of the slices Jena’s friend leaves in to cook by mistake. She’s upset.

I order a bottle of baijiu, Chinese liquor, which her friend refuses to drink with us. Jena doesn’t like the taste, and I’m young and see wasted booze as sacrilege, so I end up pretty drunk. We cross a few roads after the meal. I don’t know where I’m going, and I tell them so. I hope the Wandering God shows us something beautiful, but her friend hails a cab and demands Jena leave with her. Jena wants me to get in the cab, but I show them my back and walk on.

A few blocks later, I find myself at a barber shop. It’s full of really femme guys. I’m already in a chair, reading the price list, before I remember what I read about hairdressing and prostitution. Xiaojie, young girls, sit in front of salons and are available for more than haircuts. There’s a very expensive option on the menu. I don’t think that’s in my budget or life plan, so I choose the second-least expensive option. They agree with me wholeheartedly and take me behind a curtain where I receive the best scalp massage I have ever received. The guy fills his hands with some kind of clear gel and slathers my head with it. I’m floating in a sea of baijiu and scalpstroking and I will never feel this way again.

The pretty boy takes a little off the top, washes the gel out, and sends me on my way. I find a subway stop a few blocks away, and head back to the hotel to sleep it off. Jena returns later in the night, fluttering at me through the fog of sleep. She can’t believe I would do that/she was so worried/what if something had happened. I mumble something, and she takes it as a sign to hold forth until she runs out of steam. She’s gone to work before I get up.

I sleep off my hangover until ten and walk out in search of lunch. There’s a KFC with curious red sauce on menu items I do not recognize from my limited KFC experience, an Ajisen ramen shop with porky tonkotsu broth and fresh noodles, a Haagen-Dazs with ridiculous prices, and a place with a cartoon depiction of the Gorton’s Fisherman with a pipe and yellow rain slicker called Papa John. I’m searching for xiaolongbao, dumplings filled with soup that are a local specialty. I will not find them today.

I strike out for the Yu Yuan Gardens, built for by a son for his father after the son failed the civil service exams. A high wall surrounds manmade pools and zigzag bridges constructed crooked because of the belief that ghosts can only travel in straight lines. Through wide windows, I see green, white, and yellow jade—some in shapes like coral or molten aluminum poured down anthills and left to cool—exhibited in buildings open to the air. I have trouble imagining work being done in them, though carved wood chairs and desks from dynasties I do not recognize suggests writing or accounting being done. I retrace my steps several times, looking for secrets or trying to understand something altogether foreign to me. The crested ducks and koi follow my meanderings over the bridges. I’m decentered, melancholy. Maybe it’s the nearness of the past, maybe I need something to eat.

In the nearby tourist market, three girls shyly ask me to take their photo, then to take a photo with me. I’m so flabbergasted that I don’t ask them to take one with my camera. I buy some art, four of the same scene in different seasons, from a woman who saw me coming a mile away. Pink blossoms on cherry trees for my aunt, uncle, and younger cousins; blooming wisteria for my mother and stepfather; the fire of leaves soon to fall for my father; bare branches and snow-covered ground for my two remaining grandparents.

The nearby City God Temple I remember most for its depictions of what I assume are Taoist or Buddhist saints arranged in tableau on both sides of the hall to the holy of holies. A restaurant I assume is somehow connected to the temple serves vegetarian fare with an emphasis on things made to look like meat. I order three dishes: mushrooms, choi sum, and mock duck, surrounded by empty white-clothed tables in the period after lunch but before dinner.

Back at the hotel, I meet Jena. Her friend wants to go out drinking and I am invited. Jena says this is her friend’s way of apologizing for hailing a cab and leaving last night. We go to a bar in the French Concession, territory ceded to and occupied by the French in the age of colonialism, where shots of absinthe put colored-ball pins on a world map to mark the drinker’s country of origin. The U.S. is a pincushion, as are Western Europe and Canada. It strikes me that this is more than just an expat bar—this is an English teacher bar.

I have come to understand since that English teachers in China and Korea are a distinct group in expat society. They flock together, often ostracized by other expats because they are seen as drunk, vapid vacationers. Korean co-teachers have complained that foreign English teachers are often unprepared for their classes. Foreign English teachers reply that some co-teachers do not have much of a grasp on the English they are meant to help teach.

The lady drinkers strewn across couches court the attentions of Chinese men who were likely students of English programs in years past. Watchful older men play pool. I feel less like I belong than anywhere else I have been in China.

In the taxi to the hotel, the women talk about work. I resolve to spend as little time as possible around them from then on. I am not barfruit, and spending my limited time in a foreign country in places constructed for homesick expats does not make much sense to me. After Jena goes to bed, I take the Shanghai guidebook to the toilet and mark gardens, parks, and temples until my legs fall asleep. Tomorrow will be better.