Yin and yang koi by Xinje

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Opposites Attract?

They say opposites attract.  There are songs about it (Paula Abdul's comes to mind).  Sometimes I look at my relationship with my sister, or at my parents' relationship--very different individuals who love each other and get along--in spite of driving each other up the wall from time to time.
Yet in my family, I also feel there is a deep connection between us--a love of nature and animals, a willingness to protect the environment, to learn about everything...a compassion and a curiosity about our fellow humans.  And of course, there is our shared time in Qinghai--an intense, difficult time of survival-bonding.
Plunk an American like myself down in China and it's like oil and water--but which is which?
Watching my dad nearly pull his hair out in the 80s when having business dealings with his Chinese counterparts prepped me better than some ex-pats:  I knew in advance how frustrating China could be.  I knew Shanghai in 2015, with all its bells and whistles, was still China.
America and China are COMPLETE opposites in so many ways!  Just a few examples:

business cards traded at the end of a meeting
911 is the emergency number
"you lucky dog"
business cards traded at the beginning of a meeting
119 is the fire department number
"you lucky cat"

The ideas we have about customer service are completely different as well.  Unless you're at the DMV in NYC, speedy, short lines at any register at any store make us look efficient, organized--and well, like we know what's going on.  In China, as it's been explained to me, a long, slow line makes the store look popular and desirable.  A small store will have 50-60 customers on a Saturday afternoon, and there will be a dozen staff sweeping the floor, rearranging displays, and just standing around--while two cashiers methodically ring up customers.  Whenever I've worked retail in the past, sweeping and display arranging were something you did when NO customers were around!  And yet my students have told me repeatedly that the motto of most businesses is "The customer is the Emperor", "The customer is a god".  The way the two cultures show it is completely different.

To get heavier now:  in many Western cultures, there's also a sense of absolute right and wrong--morality is black and white.  We've got that Judeo-Christian thing happening in a lot of our legal structures, regardless of the separation of church and state that some countries have in common.  If someone breaks the law in Europe, the States, Australia, they're caught and punished.  I'm not saying the system is perfect.  In the U.S., rapists are let free after serving 5 years, and go on to rape again.  There are cops shooting unarmed black teenagers.  But the American justice system is far more predictable, and, well, just, than China's.

With a history over 4000 years, China has rarely had one central government.  For thousands of years, the law depended upon the whims of corrupt landlords, crazy warlords, invaders, Triads and other gang members.  There's a saying in Chinese that's one of my faves:  Tian gao, huangdi yuan--Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away.  It's China in a nutshell, even today, 100 years after the last emperor.  The rules changed constantly.  Bribing was the order of business, because it wasn't safe to gather, to demonstrate, to speak out against whoever was in charge because they would kill you and your family. 

As if multiple political leaders weren't difficult enough to figure out in China's past, there were multiple religions and philosophies trying to guide the way:  Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor worship, and local religions I don't even know the name of.  It's amazing any Chinese person knows what to believe!

In most Western countries, the Word of God is IT.  A Jewish person, a Muslim, and a Christian have this in common--there is one God and one law.  Not everyone in the West belongs to one of these religions, but the idea that there is one way or the highway influences our culture and our beliefs about right and wrong and how society should deal with problems. 

But in China, it's a buffet table.  "Take what you want and leave the rest," as Egg Shen said in "Big Trouble in Little China".  Morality is situational in China.  Something might be illegal, but if a friend of yours is doing it, you look the other way.  Students can bribe the right person in order to move up levels. 

I'm not saying China's is the only culture that does this.  To a certain extent, it's a human thing.  But in China it happens so often, it seems!


"Why are dragons bad in Western cultures?"  one of my students asked.       

We'd been discussing movie genres and had gotten sidetracked by fantasy--particularly "The Hobbit" and a certain dragon named Smaug.

"In China, dragons don't have wings," another student chimed in.  "They are like snake but can fly."

I was a bit flabbergasted.  I hadn't been prepared for this question, in spite of teaching this lesson around 20 times before--it had never come up.

"Well...I guess it goes back to Beowulf,"  I said, pulling up the internet and showing them some pics from the Angelina Jolie movie.  "It's the first story in English.  The monster was terrorizing [grade your language!]...um, eating...all the people and causing problems."

Was Grindel a dragon?  I wondered.  I wracked my brain.  The last time I'd read Beowulf had been 17 years ago.

King Arthur and other Brit Lit has knights slaying dragons all over the place.  Hell, it was how boys became men.  It's how they impressed women.  What about China?  There are dragons in Journey to the West, a famous Chinese tale, colloquially known as The Monkey King or simply Monkey.  My memory of them in the 1986 CCTV version, and the two translations I've read, don't exactly portray dragons as angels.  However, bargains could be made with dragons, or assistance acquired in exchange for treasure.  I certainly don't recall any dragons running (well, flying) around terrorizing villages or sleeping under vast piles of gold.

What did these flying giants represent to our ancestors?  The unknown?  Death?  The natural world?  Whatever the symbolism, it seems to me that Eastern cultures were more willing (at least in literature) to make a deal with a clever beast (the local warlord?!), whereas in the West, these beasts are greedy and/or mad, and it was a hero's duty to destroy them (the American Revolution?! the French Revolution?!) Only deeper exploration on my part will help me understand what the difference is, exactly, and why.

Thinking about all of these differences between East and West made me search for an easy analogy to describe them.  But if I say "evil twin", who is the evil one?  If I saw "fun house mirror", which culture is the distorted image.  Why is it always so easy for humans to point and say, "Well, they're messed up, but not me!"

But we're not completely different. 

China and the U.S. seem to hold family in a position of high importance.  While China's idea is still very nuclear (mom, dad, kid) and the U.S.'s is more fluid, I still feel we've both got a loyalty to whoever we call family--our loved ones.

There's also this strength China seems to have--adapt and survive.  Survival was maybe more important than revolt.  Bending your ideas or beliefs to agree with whoever was in charge (at least on the surface) was how the Chinese people have had such a long history.  And while the Pilgrims may have clutched at their "One way to Heaven" ideal, the ability to keep going on that pioneer trail--losing belongings out of the covered wagons, burying loved ones along the way--exists in the U.S., too.

Amy Tan published The Joy Luck Club around the time my family returned from China--1989ish.  In it, she writes about a song she learned to play on the piano as a child, later discovering a second part to the song as an adult.

I feel like Amy Tan's character right now--discovering things about China as an adult that I didn't know or care about as a 10-year-old.  I feel closer to this culture now, in spite of the fact that there are days I want to pull my hair out.  China will always be a part of my life, a big part, and I can't fight that.  I love watching kung-fu movies.  I like sayings in Chinese.  I like Chinese traditional art and music.  I like the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai.  And while a lot of Chinese cuisine turns me off, there are some foods I really like.  I like the civilized delicacy of eating with chopsticks, too.

Perhaps it's not so much that China and I are opposites--but that we are (as Tan wrote) "two halves of the same song".

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Sick" doesn't mean "cool"

Trying to find information about China's health care system (without a VPN, at least), is confirmation of how much media the Communists control over here.  I had several issues accessing a South China Morning Post article online entitled "Patient ratio too high, say doctors".  After five tries, all I'd managed to see was that Hong Kong has one of the highest doctor-patient ratios in the developed world.  Then the site would boot me off.

I did find a website (www.gulfmed.com) that stated these doctor-patient ratios:

1: 950                    China

1: 390                    U.S.

1: 170                    Cuba

Yes, Cuba--that home of the Bay of Pigs and Castro--has the lowest doctor-patient ratio in the world, according to socialmedicine.org and bigthink.org.

If you've seen Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko", you already know about Cuba, so I won't go into details.

And according to asianresearch.org and the World Health Organization (WHO), China ranks lower than Iraq for medical care.

I had a small class of four students the other day, one of whom is a doctor.  When the doctor said he sees 200 patients a day, I guffawed.  Surely he was joking.  But his normally jolly face was serious, and the other three students confirmed it.  There are a handful of articles online that confirm 100-200 patients per day being the norm in China.  When I told my mother this, she did some quick calculations.  "That's like 2 or 3 minutes per patient."  And we complain in the U.S. if we see the doc for 15!  Of course, I still think 15 isn't enough time, especially if you have some serious issue(s) to discuss, but after speaking to my students, 15 minutes seems positively luxurious.

A friend of mine who recently had knee surgery here confirmed this also.  Her first diagnosis came from a harried Chinese doctor who told her in under five minutes that she would need surgery--with just a glance at her x-ray and a tap or two of her knee.  When friends urged her to get a second opinion, she did--at the expensive foreigner hospital, paying triple the price.  Interestingly, the diagnosis was the same:  "You need surgery"--but the doctor--a Chinese woman--took about 10 minutes with a model knee to show my friend exactly what the issue was.  Eight extra minutes for peace of mind, but you must pay triple for those 8 minutes.  That's how serious--and expensive--the situation is here.  My friend teaches at an international school, and had purchased her own private medical insurance to cover the surgery.

Next month our healthcare over here is changing.  Rather than one option, EF English First (the company I work for) is now offering three:  a low-priced, a mid-priced, and a premium.  One of my co-workers, an American with stomach issues, has already chosen the premium.  With the regular low-priced insurance, it had taken him weeks to straighten out a claim the last time he went to a doctor--sometimes relying on our Chinese co-workers in the office to interpret over the phone.  Because his stomach problems are chronic, this man isn't taking any chances.

I'm debating:  it's a draw between the mid-priced and the premium for me.  On the one hand, I've only been to the doctor once in the 18 months I've been here, at the expensive foreigner hospital.  Then, when I had the flu last winter, my boss at the time generously allowed me to stay home and rest until I was well.  My current boss has different policies.  That is to say, he has no bedside manner and no sympathy.  A co-worker, recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, was told by our current boss that she had to stay at work when she was painfully ill.  When he wasn't looking, another co-worker sent her home and took over her class.

The Celiac co-worker has a friend who was recently involved in an accident.  She was sandwiched between a taxi and a scooter.  Foreign employees of EF currently have emergency insurance for just this kind of thing. 

Due to the Chinese system, however, this poor woman was required to straighten everything out with the police and the insurance companies BEFORE she received surgery to fix her broken arm--two and a half weeks later.  AND no pain meds, either.  Knowing China, and knowing my tolerance for crap like this, my response would've been "Who do I have to bribe around here to get some morphine?  Huh?"  In China, bribery often works.  No matter how often people say it's against the law, the majority of people do it, and few people get caught.  I could see myself saying, "Come on, I'll give you 100 RMB for a Tylenol, just give me something!"  Now that I'm counting down the last six months of my contract, I could just see myself having some kind of accident if I choose the low-price insurance.

My friend with the knee surgery and the young woman who'd been in the accident are both foreigners, with medical insurance.  I'm not sure what the insurance situation is for Joe Q. Shanghai Resident, but I'm guessing it's worse--a lot worse.  Without the status of being a foreigner, and without the money that often comes with it, the average Chinese person probably waits hours to see a doctor, who makes a one-minute diagnosis before sending him or her on their way.

I know the healthcare scenario in my own country is kind of a mess these days, but it seems like heaven in comparison.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Grinch

This post is rather religious.  I've tried not to be preachy, but if you'd like to avoid this topic, I'll understand.

"We have Christmas in China now," one of my students said several months ago, tossing her long, silky black hair over a shoulder.

"Do you believe in Christ?"  I asked, curious.

Silence.  She looked caught off guard, uncomfortable.  Then:  "Well...no..."  She trailed off.

Then, just a week ago, my students were working on their "bucket lists".  When I told them to imagine they had a month to live (and would die December 14th), one of my older students exclaimed, "But that's right before Christmas!"

I remember laughing.  "But you're Chinese!"  I said.  "Why do you care?"

He looked crushed.

I felt like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings--Christmas is mine!  My own!  My prrrecioussss!  It wasn't the Christmas spirit at all, but I couldn't help it:  It seemed to me as if my students were acting excited about Christmas because Westerns were doing it--plain and simple.  Like wearing Levis or drinking Starbucks.  But there didn't seem to be an understanding that the very word referred to Christ, to Christianity.

When my family lived in China in the late 80s, there was no church for us to attend.  Qinghai Province was a hardscrabble place, where survival was good enough.  Any Muslim or Buddhist pilgrims bowing their way across the desert were kind of laughed at out there. 

There are Catholics in Shanghai, believe it or not, openly worshipping the Virgin Mary and saying the "Our Father".  But China’s government is officially atheist—Communist Party members are forbidden from belonging to a religion.  So of course, Catholic priests must be approved by the government in Beijing (Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, says:  “All worship must legally be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which does not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.”).  In the past, those who disagreed “were subject to oppression, including long imprisonments as in the case of Cardinal Kung, and torture and martyrdom as in the case of Fr. Beda Chang, S.J." (again, Wikipedia).  According to the Pew Research Center, only about 5% of Chinese people declare themselves Christian.  China never ceases to amaze me with its ability to say one thing and do another:  A non-Christian country that has imprisoned Christians for spreading the Word now has citizens that want to celebrate Christmas! 

Just because they put up some decor doesn't mean anything, I've grumbled inwardly, more than once.  But isn't that what happens in America?  Can you honestly tell me that ALL of those light-hanging American present-slingers think about WHY?

"There's wealth associated with Christmas," one of my ex-pat friends said. 

She had a point.  Thanksgiving weekend sees a whopping $50 billion in retail sales, according to the National Retail Federation--that's 20% of total annual sales—possibly more. 

"It's a sign of status to spend and to do what foreigners do," my friend continued.  She'd lived in Shanghai a bit longer than I had, so her information was usually good.  "That's what they care about.  It has nothing to do with beliefs."  I agreed that she was probably right, but I still felt like a child unwilling to share her favorite toy.  Here in Shanghai, I find myself ungenerous with my own religion. 

I also find myself unable to attend church most of the time.  Teaching working adults means that I work Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings.  My days off are Monday and Tuesday, and most of the time I am running errands--or hiding in my apartment, away from 23 million people, watching Netflix.  I don't make the effort to ride two subways over an hour away to go to a quiet weekday mass.  I've probably attended church three times here since I arrived in July of 2013.

My unintentional Scrooginess with my students has forced me to take a good hard look at myself and my beliefs.  Whether Chinese people believe in Christ or not is not really for me to judge, is it?  Will Christmas lose its meaning for me just because millions of people blindly celebrate Christmas?  Sometimes I'm afraid it will.  Then...the problem here is with my own faith--not with what other people do.

It would be so much easier to stay angry at my students, and to even blame them somehow, no matter how irrational that sounds.

However, rather than making an opportunity to invite Chinese people to discuss Christmas, to learn about what it means, I've been shutting them down.  I've been shutting the door.

Is that what a good Christian does?

I keep coming back to Matthew 7:5.  I'm worrying about the behavior of others--judging it--when I should deal with my own shortcomings.

Americans consider blowing half a year's savings on Christmas a sign of status, too.  We want that perfect Disney-Hallmark-Christian Christmas, when everyone in the family gets along, the meal is perfect, and the gifts are unforgettable.  We make ourselves crazy trying to make this happen.  "Keep the Christ in Christmas" seems like clich├ęd advice from a bingo-playing granny, but Granny has a point.  What's more important to me, to us:  missing family to work overtime so we can buy the latest gadgets and the hottest fashions?  Or having a smaller, less expensive holiday, but one in which we can actually spend time with loved ones?

The meaningful thing, the good thing, is usually not the flashiest.  A good Christmas is usually not the one we see on TV--we see the extravagant Christmas, the perfect Christmas.  And we all want that.  But is it real?

But some of my best Christmas thoughts aren't about gifts at all. 

When I was a child, my mom used to put a little nightlight in the bathroom for us at Christmas time, or in our bedrooms when we were sick.  The nightlight was a little ceramic house, maybe five inches square, painted like brown brick, its roof draped with snow the way a gingerbread house is coated with frosting.  A single small light bulb glowed from the house's tiny windows, shining through the holes ("ornaments") on the little tree outside the house.  So warm and so cozy!  How many nights did I fall asleep looking at it?

I also used to love to watch the tree.  My dad put the lights on a timer, and sometimes if I couldn't sleep I'd sneak out to the couch and stare at the tree while the lights were still on--the bubble lights gurgling, the silver horses dangling on their red cords, Mom's reindeer hanging from the prickly pine branches.  The little portraits my sister and I had made in preschool hanging near the top of the tree.  I have felt more peace looking at a Christmas tree--alone in the cozy darkness of my house--than I have almost anywhere else.

It occurs to me that both of these thoughts are about light, and how Christians are supposed to be the light of the world.

I am human and I have messed up.  I've been stingy when perhaps I can find a way to share.

I will try my best to change that this Christmas.

Postscript:  During a Current Events class about the American tradition of Thanksgiving, one of my students wanted to know the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I had to smile, because her confusion was understandable:  due to marketing and the media, everything between Halloween and Valentine's Day probably seems one big candy and gift fest.

Carefully, I told them that Christians believe Christmas is the day Christ was born.  Most of them nodded.  They've heard of Christ, and they seem to know the basics.  Some of them did seem to know that decoration and presents are just for show a lot of the time--no matter the holiday, no matter the country.

I'll admit when I saw IHOP's holiday pancakes commercial (online) right after Halloween, I felt a wave of nostalgia and homesickness.  People in the marketing business know exactly what they're doing, and we fall for it every time. 

Without trying to sound preachy, I told my students that the commercialism bothers me.  It does hurt me sometimes--here and at home--when people put up a tree or buy presents without thinking about why.  It's exactly like having a birthday party and not even speaking to the guest of honor--we wouldn't do that to a human person--why are we doing it to Jesus?

Christmas is in the heart, not in the other stuff.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A question of physics: How a city moves

It ain't rocket science; rather, simple physics:  two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Physicists would agree--check out Einstein or Pauli. 

But the laws of physics do not apply in Shanghai, arguably the largest city in the world.  Countless experiences with subways and elevators have taught me (and many other ex-pats) that Shanghainese do not believe in physics.

Let me elucidate.  Imagine it's the tail end of the morning rush, and you are on subway line 10, heading south to East Nanjing Road.  As the subway pulls in, you see people in single file lines, five deep, on either side of the sliding doors.  Ah, queues!  To most Westerners, an orderly line is probably one of the highest benchmarks of what we consider developed civilization.  And for two seconds after the doors open, the illusion holds.  Your right foot crosses the gap between subway car and station platform, but before it makes contact, you are suddenly pummeled backward, carried by the oncoming rush of 5'2" Asians, their families, their suitcases, backpacks, and trolleys.  But...but...what happened to the queues?  you wonder, fighting (as politely as you can at first) to get out at your stop.  The queues had scattered into chaos, like a platoon in the face of an enemy grenade.  Because, you see, this is China.  People don't do lines here.  When the train arrives, it's every person for themselves.

This is understandable if you look at the history of this nation.  Not even 50 years ago people queued up for rice, or whatever was on their ration ticket, or queued up for the train.  But tickets guaranteed you nothing, and neither did waiting in line.  It was always first come, first served.  You wanna eat today?  Push to the front.

I saw the train phenomena for myself in late 1980s Qinghai.  As foreigners, my family paid double or triple what a local would pay and secured a soft sleeper cabin--four bunks for the four of us.  We were lucky.  Our expensive tickets and foreigness seemed to let us escape some of the pandemonium.  For the Chinese, a ticket with a seat didn't mean the 30 people cutting in front of you respected that at all.  People pushed each other in through open windows, forgoing the line at the door once 50 bodies mashed together trying to get in.

To be fair, my mom lived in Florence, Italy for a year in the late 60s and said the Italians were just as bad.  So I'm not saying the aversion to lining up is strictly a Chinese thing.  But it does happen to be true for the 23 million Chinese people I move with every day.

The same anti-physics illogic applies to elevators and escalators as well.  With escalators, I'd always taken it for granted that people walk on the left, ride on the right.  And there are a few places where people follow this seemingly obvious logic.  But mostly people rush and shove to get on the escalator, and then they all stand there sedately until it reaches the top.  What was all the rushing for?  I always wonder, if you're just going to stand there?  The Chinese logic appears to be this:  Why take one minute going a flight of stairs when you can wait five minutes for the elevator to descend from the 26th floor to the first and then take it one floor up?  Why wait for people to exit, kindly leaving you ample space, when you can elbow, squeeze, shuffle, or cigarette burn your way in NOW? 

Well, I can't beat 23 million people!  So I've joined them, to some extent.  I'm not afraid to shove past an elderly couple (I jostle, I don't plow!) in order to exit the subway at my stop, and I've gotten over my friendly "I'm just a foreigner" ways when some granny tries to cut in line at the grocery store.  As a second in line, I've actually put out an arm past the person in front of me to the counter and said "No way!"  I don't care if they don't understand English.  My glittering eyes and body language say it all.  The longer I wait in line, the more protective I am of my place in it.

People in China are extremely kind if they know you.  If they don't, you're just the 20 millionth piece of meat they've pushed past today to get home.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Go go umbrella!

I support Hong Kong.  That’s probably not surprising coming from an American—our love of freedom and all.


For those of you not in the know, students and others in HK have been protesting the government on the mainland since late September.  The BBC has been blocked off and on for months.  Chow Yun Fat’s movies have been banned because he supports Hong Kong, too.  Even Kenny G has had to backtrack on his pro-HK stance, in order to keep his mainland fans happy.  Of course, YouTube, Google, and many other websites have been blocked for the entirety of my residency here in Shanghai.  Heck, I need a VPN just to post on this blog!


In 1997, when HK was handed back to the Chinese by the Brits, Beijing politicians agreed to a “one country, two systems” idea of government.  This means that HK has a different political system than the mainland does, even though they’re now considered the same country.  Actually, Hong Kong (“Fragrant Harbor”) is now known as “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Peoples’ Republic of China”.  You have to admire the specificity of Communism, you really do.


In spite of the fact that HK has been reintegrated for 17 years now, the former British colony still enjoys many privileges that the mainland doesn’t.  For example, internet censorship regulations are different.


But after 99 years under the Brits, this isn’t good enough for many in HK.  When the announcement was made that candidates for the 2017 HK Chief Executive election must be screened and approved by Beijing first, all hell broke loose.


There has never been a crackdown on people wearing the British or U.S. flag here, though.  While many of my students and most coworkers say wearing the Chinese flag on clothing is illegal, I’ve been unable to see it specifically stated.  (Check out flagspot.net or search “Chinese flag law".)  It’s quite common to see the Union Jack decorating motor bikes, and the Stars and Stripes decorating chests, shoes, and even the seats of one’s trousers.  


 I see Chinese people, possibly hot-blooded Communists loyal to the PRC, people against the right to choose their own leader, proudly draping themselves with that symbol of freedom, Old Glory.  I don’t get it, and I find it kind of disrespectful, actually.


But back to my point.


I am proud of HK.  I am proud of the U.N. and Amnesty International for supporting them.  I am proud of the protestors:  wearing Guy Fawkes masks, calling the movement Occupy Central With Peace and Love.  They carry umbrellas to defend themselves against tear-gas-toting police and triads (yes, even the Chinese mafia have been called in as enforcers)—hence “The Umbrella Movement”.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Spa Day

I was naked.


Without a stitch on, as they say.


As a blue jay, as the day I was born.


I stood next to the locker I’d just closed and, with my left hand, briefly clutched the plastic bracelet around my right wrist like it was a talisman.  The locker could be reopened by swiping the bracelet over the magnetic panel on the locker door.  I had a brief, ridiculous desire to re-open the locker and put my clothes back on.


Somehow I’d had two minutes to myself in this row of lockers to get undressed and mentally prepared.


For the staring.


Due to the fact that Gokurakuyu Japanese Bathhouse was way out in Pudong (or “Pu-Jersey”, as I liked to call it), I was the only non-Asian in the entire facility.  Constantly being stared at has been part of my overseas adventures since I was 10 years old, and now that I was buck-a*& nekkid, I was certainly glad no one would be able to carry their cell phones (with camera) into the spa.


Or would they?


I took a deep breath and straightened my spine.  This wasn’t my first bathhouse experience, I reminded myself.  I’d gone with some classmates to a Turkish bath while studying in Greece.


So this trip would be my second.


I walked out of the bank of lockers.  I passed a few women about my age or younger.  They were clad in pink and yellow floral p.j.s, on lend from the spa.  They were deep in conversation, cheeks flushed and giggling, hands fluttering like birds.  There was not one flicker of an eyelid my way.


Whew.  So far so good.


As I approached the carpeted and towel-layered stairs up to the baths, I spotted an old lady.  Her hair was gray, thin, and short, plastered wetly to her skull, her pink scalp showing through in places.  Her spine was slightly bent from osteoporosis; I doubt she’d have stood higher than my shoulder.  She was dabbing at her age-spotted skin with a towel.  Her eyes moved over to me—here it comes—moved away, and she continued about her business.




The glass doors at the top of the stairs whispered apart as I approached.  I stepped onto the wet stone floor.  There were at least 40 women in various baths, and I gathered myself for the staring of at least one of them.




To my left was a row of tubs, each one deep and short (but about long enough for me).  With their cement and hollow steel handrails, they looked like tanks used to water cattle.  I quickly found one that was empty, with unoccupied tubs on either side.


I let myself sink into the gloriously hot, slightly bubbling water, dangling my painted toes out the other end.




I closed my eyes, breathing relief.




The journey here had been somewhat arduous.  I still underestimate the size of Shanghai—a map never does it justice.  It had appeared that the spa was in walking distance of the subway.  I expected to walk 10-15 minutes.  Unfortunately, there was massive construction happening along the main road.  Road signs were missing, or few and far between.  Pudong was not Puxi (my side of the river, the older part of Shanghai and more tourist-friendly).  I probably ended up walking around in circles, passing Muslim noodle shops and run down caves where you could get a haircut for under five dollars.  The construction overflow made piles of rubble, including glass and nails, as well as puddles that I had to skirt around.


After 20-30 minutes I gave in.  I had no idea where I was or which direction I needed to go, even with the map app on my smart phone.  I went to a busier street and flagged down a cab.  Luckily I’d printed directions to the spa in Chinese.  The cab ride was less than 10 minutes, but it was worth it.


The contrast inside the spa was startling.  The floors were pristinely clean, partly because you were asked to remove your shoes immediately.  The lobby was filled with small, pleasant ponds and plenty of comfy chairs.  Soft Japanese music—flute and harp, slow and tranquil—floated over my head like cherry blossoms.


The woman renting out pajamas was unable to explain anything to me in English, so we had a bit of an issue.  I had to get the pajamas from her, then go to another desk to get my bracelet (which I could scan for food or spa treatments, rather than carrying paper money), and then go into the locker room to change.  We figured it out, though.


Everything was pristinely clean.  Along with the p.j.s were disposable slippers, and the toilets had about 20 buttons.  There was plenty of t.p. and soap, and even small bottles of “seat disinfecting spray” in each stall.




A small section of baths (shallow, natural-looking pools) were outside, and I sat in the warm water, sinking my butt to the stones and leaning my back into the sunlight-warmed rocks behind me.  I had this area to myself.  Many Asian women are extremely fond of white skin.  They carry umbrellas in all weather to keep their skin spotless.  (My freckles must freak them out.)  They buy expensive whitening creams.  Sunscreen costs double or triple what it does at home.  And they certainly won’t sit in the sun.  But for me, sitting in my birthday suit in semi-privacy, in the hot water while sunshine cloaked my shoulders, was a fabulous novelty.  I had no qualms about adding to my freckle count.  Japanese music sank into me, relaxing my back and slowing my mind.


As I begun to realize that there’d be no staring, I happily immersed myself in hot pool after hot pool; a “milk bath” (actually tiny bubbles, lending the water a milky appearance); a super-hot bath, a warm bath, the stock tub baths.  There were old ladies and girls under 10; there were a few plump ladies, but mostly thin ones—the Asian frame tends to be quite petite.  Every size, every shape of lady was here, and although there was not the German “here’s my fat butt” attitude, I didn’t get the sense that there was anything Puritanical about the place, either.  No one seemed self-conscious.


There was a room where I gave myself a salt scrub, and a back area where I had my first seaweed wrap for 60 RMB (about 10 bucks).  The lady tried to tell me to sit on the table five times without miming it clearly, speaking louder each time, until I finally understood her.  After being coated with the blue-green stuff (like a clay mask), I was wrapped in a huge sheet of saran wrap. 


The room was hot and steamy.  My whole body throbbed and sweated as I stared at the ceiling or closed my eyes.  I think I almost fell asleep once.  I must’ve waited 30 minutes for the woman to come back.  The suspense was killing me, but I was also oddly relaxed.


After the baths and the wraps, I was warm and calm.  I’d been chugging water (as many signs around the spa recommended), and now it was relaxation room time.  I got some cookies and xiguazhi (watermelon juice) by scanning my bracelet (“Your money’s no good here,” I wanted to joke to someone).  I draped myself over a leather lounger—just like the 100 other men and women in the room.  Some were chatting quietly, some watching TV, some sleeping—one guy was even snoring, and I tried not to laugh as he snorted from time to time.


I had some ramen at the restaurant later, with a small bottle of sake, and felt pleasantly snug, serene, and perhaps even a bit Japanese.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

16 Oct. 2013

Come morning, Shanghai roars to life.  The horns from the busses, taxis, and cars merging at the intersection of Haining Lu and Henan Bei Lu make one constant hooooonnnnkkk!  Pollution begins to rise from the horizon up into the atmosphere.  Construction--the whine of the concrete saws, the zaps of welding, the teeth rattling sound of jack hammering, and the rumbling of big Japanese pavers--resumes.  As I head to work, crossing Qipu Lu, people intent on shopping push me aside, shouting to their friends or into their smart phones, stopping at the fruit stands for fresh-pressed pomegranate juice or cantaloupe on a stick.  Every other person drags a trolley laden with black plastic garbage bags, each one stuffed with cheap clothing and cheap shoes.  People eat as they walk and then toss their trash unceremoniously onto the street, scarcely caring if the vinegar from their dumplings ends up on your clothes.

When you live in a city that's, like, 90 times the size of your own, it's easy to think you'll never have a moment's peace again.  One thing that's great about my neighborhood in Shanghai is that after about 9 pm, the whole place shuts down.  Most of the stores on Qipu Lu are closed, the rumble of trolleys and the call of vendors silenced.  The streets are littered with the day's trash--skewers from street barbeque, half-full Styrofoam bowls of ramen noodles, watermelon rinds--but it's quiet.  Quieter than New York City, less quiet than Spokane.  There have been a few times when I walk home from the subway, from work, and I can actually hear crickets, softly chirping in the bushes.  It's past ten, and the sky is black, the surrounding buildings brightly lit, like stars.

My morning walks to the Bund have been like a renewal for me:  a reminder that yes, peace does exist in spite of Shanghai's chaos, that the water in the river still flows and that the lotus still blooms, even from the muck.

As if pulled by the same idea, I see couples taking their wedding photos there all the time.  Just two days ago, I saw nine different couples!  Other than the Catholic Church in Xujiahui , Waitan (the Mandarin word for the Bund), is the most popular spot in Shanghai for wedding pictures.  New beginnings.

I always see something interesting on my walks.  One morning I saw a man flying a kite, a black fish about five feet long, high up in the air.  Kite-flying is popular on the Bund, but this huge kite was the most amazing I've ever seen.

This morning, the interesting sights continued:  I saw four different groups of uniformed practitioners of martial arts.  The first group was in light pink, dancing slowly with their swords near the Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes.  It was all so beautiful that I paused on their stairs:  A breeze rippled the loose pink clothing, swirled the tassels on the hilts of each sword.  Seabirds glided over the Huangpu River; tourists walked by, some taking photos.  Each pose, each movement of the practitioners seemed Zen, unhurried, knowing that a consistent gentle push might be more persuasive than a hard shove.

Not wanting to disturb them, I did an about-face and descended the stairs.

Below the Bund is a small garden, twisting and turning paths woven into the trees.  There is even a small wooden bridge near a waterfall, with lotus and lilies blooming up from the ponds.  Latticework arcs overhead, woven with trailing vines and filtering the sunlight.  Classical Chinese zither music wafts from small portable radios.  Retired people are there every morning.  Some just sit, almost as if meditating or just allowing themselves to wake up.  Some do taijiquan or other light calisthenics.  Some stand and talk with one another, the men with wrists clasped behind their backs like old scholars, looking like they're trying to balance themselves between Confucius and Chairman Mao.

As I made my way through this garden, I could hear more music, flute this time, and spied two long lines of people practicing another form.  Tai chi?  Wushu?  Kung-fu?  I knew a lot of the names, but not enough about the forms to identify them quickly.  Their uniforms were white satin rather than pink, but they were just as graceful.  Carefully I edged around them, thankful they were without swords.

It's hard to believe that modern Chinese people still practice these ancient arts--thousands and thousands of years old--but it's still a part of them.  It makes me feel good to know that the Cultural Revolution wasn't able to take everything away. 

China seems to me to be a nation of survivors.  The battles between warlords in seemingly every dynasty; 60 years of invasions by the Mongols; World War II…I can understand why bamboo graces so much of Chinese art.  So strong it's used as scaffolding, Chinese bamboo can hold the weight of many men, but it can also bend in the slightest wind.  The Chinese talk about being descended from dragons, but sometimes I wonder if they didn't spring up out of the bamboo, ready to bend or to be strong, whatever the situation required. 

Unlike the first Americans, who took that bold step into the unknown--and escaped--the Chinese made a stand.  Perhaps, if they'd been living in Europe, surrounded by ocean in many cases, taking a boat far away would've made more sense.  Or perhaps they chose to stay.  I don't know enough about China or Chinese history to make a real guess.  I think both histories, in spite of their differences, should be revered, though.  It takes just as much bravery to start over as it does to stay; to try something new as it does to keep going through the daily grind.

I thought about how China had survived so much.  I thought about how America, in its own short history, had survived what it has so far.  Maybe both countries are made of survivors.  Perhaps stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, human beings just keep on going.