Yup, those maraca-shaking insects--Shanghai crickets--are back with a vengeance. After nearly two straight weeks of rain, the sky is (mostly) blue and semi-cloudy, and the crickets seem to say tianqi hen hao--the weather is good.
After trying for over an hour to locate a European cafe I'd often passed on my walks to and from the Bund (but never noting the exact address), I settled for something closer to home. I was sitting at the only outdoor table at LePause Cafe on Haining Lu, sipping a reasonably-priced vanilla latte (bing de, of course, given the heat) and a cold 11-oz. bottle of Hawaiian water--ridiculously priced at about $3.
This hot and semi-frustrating search had revealed something a bit sad to me--my neighborhood in Shanghai is not especially known for its outdoor seating. Oh, sure, there are 5-star hotels with outdoor patios on their 8th floors--and the 5-star prices to match. After living here for a year now, hanging at a hotel with a bunch of tourists who are unknowingly (but willingly) overpaying for their refreshments doesn't exactly tickle my fancy.
What had was my jaunt up and down Wulumuqi Lu yesterday. I'd been trying to find the Avocado Lady, the famed hole-in-the-wall spot that catered to foreign tastes. I'd heard about the place months ago but had always had other duties or distractions whisper "Maybe next weekend." But when my chiropractor suggested posting my sign there, I had to go check it out.
The sign was for Gipsy Danger--the calico I'd inherited from my friends. The man had been in my intake group but had returned to London about five weeks ago. His now-wife had just returned to Guangzhou. She planned to join her hubby when her visa cleared in September, but for now she was visiting her mom, who's not well--and who already has a dog.
The north end of Wulumuqi was someplace I'd never wandered. Like a lot of Shanghai, there was the ebb and flow of run-down areas, with people tossing their garbage onto the sidewalk without a glance at the pedestrians who might be hit with this trash, followed by mansion-like apartment buildings catering to the rich. I saw a local guy and his friend hop into a racy-looking Audi that was the outrageous color of a shiny blue beetle's wing. Ten minutes later, I was dodging dog poop, garbage, and lugees again.
Just like the neighborhoods, there's a wave-like motion to the traffic that I've come to recognize. While still maddening to my American sensibilities, the seemingly chaotic scramble of busses, taxis, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians does have a certain rhythm. Oh, yes, people still walk five-wide on the sidewalk, forcing me to step into the street. Near-silent electric scooters still sneak up behind me and beep their horns, making me jump like a paranoid squirrel. I could honestly go on forever, but I am one person amidst 20-plus million, and my frustration won't change their habits one iota.
There are times when I can be zen about it (thank you, Peace Corps!). If I'm not ravenously hungry, I can usually force a laugh or shake my head, or even find something entertaining about it all. Sometimes, I even enjoy it!
It's not always easy, I'll admit. But it wasn't always easy to love New York City or Spokane, either. I'm finding more and more that the things that irritate me about some place or some person are sometimes the very things I miss later: the habits of loved ones, for example. Or the way people say hello to you so much when you're a foreigner. Today I actually told a guy No hablo Ingles because I'm tired of people approaching me and making assumptions. Next time I'll try speaking Pohnpeian, watch their face, and laugh.
But it's that very stuff that I inexplicably miss when I'm back in the States. Overseas, I always get lots of attention--some of it negative or unwanted, but at least I feel noticed. In the U.S., especially out West, I might as well be invisible. I look and talk just like everyone else. No one knows about me (or even tries) and no one cares.
I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but there is a feeling of celebrity that comes with being an American in China, even in a place like Shanghai (supposedly accustomed--ha!--to the presence of foreigners).
People--men and women, young and old--still turn around to stare, or sometimes smile, at me. Some even do double-takes. Two days ago, in the elevator leaving work, a cute little girl shrieked "Laowai!" (foreigner) when she saw me and two of my American co-workers. The girl's little brother promptly hid behind his auntie's legs. There's an old man I see on my daily walks to the subway. He always wears a suit, although he's most certainly retired, and smokes cigarettes. The first few times we made eye contact, he stared so hard at me I felt insulted. It wasn't a leer--it was more like an analysis. Finally I got sick of this and pulled that old Peace Corps trick--smile and nod. Brightly, I said, "Ni hao!" and waved. Man, you should've seen his face. It lit up like a Chinese lantern, pushing wrinkles back into his hairline as he grinned and waved back. Now we smile and nod at each other every time like old friends.