Saturday, June 5, 2010


Edited 6/7 for grammar and a French wedding.

Shanghai. In decades gone by, formerly known in the West as both "The Paris of the East" and "The Whore of Asia." Still arguably China's most international city - though Toby Lincoln (our "Urbanization in China" visiting professor this past year) makes a very reasonable case that no Chinese city can be considered international/global until the non-Chinese population actually becomes integrated into its fabric, which hasn't yet happened anywhere in China.

When I finally arrived at the city center after more than 24 hours of travel, the first thing I had to do was buy a train ticket for my next destination because travel to and from Shanghai is so difficult right now due to the World Expo. After a fairly harrowing set of interactions, during which I decided that the price on the automatic ticket machine was absurdly expensive for standing room only, I finally emerged from a different ticket window, the proud holder of a seat on a ~14-hour night train to Jinan. This is the kind of thing that my China compatriots had to do all the time last summer while I lived a fairly sheltered life in Taipei, I suppose; it feels like a great triumph to me anyway.

Then I stumbled across a public phone, called David, crashed at his luxurious Bulldogs-in-Shanghai apartment (do I have an entire two-bed room to myself? indeed I do), and made the most horrible Chinese phone call of my life to my soon-to-be host in Jinan. It involved multiple massive misunderstandings, but with a bit of help from David and a second phone call, we sorted it out. If nothing else, it rounded out the evening with a reminder of what every day in a Chinese-speaking country is like for me: a thrilling but nauseating roller coaster of peaks and drops, as my pride and self-confidence are continually shattered and rebuilt.

Highlights from yesterday:

  1. Obtaining a SIM card and a bunch of cash. All of this turned out to be much easier than in Taiwan, where you had to be 21 to get the SIM card and getting foreign currency involved a whole mess of obnoxious fees. Note to fellow students: Get a Bank of America account now, and withdraw from ATMs at China Construction Bank [中国建设银行] for no fee; traveler's checks are also fine but unnecessarily bulky and you get a teensy bit less bang for your buck.
  2. A lovely walk in the park at People's Square, some spying on the young men in fatigues drilling martial arts forms in the compound next door, and a tour of the Shanghai Museum. It didn't strike me as very impressive considering Shanghai's size and the English translations were surprisingly spotty, but it did have plenty of beautiful seals and paintings, as well as one of the famous oracle bones.
  3. A trip to the Shanghai Library - I can't be staying in a big city and not inspect its library - where I decided I simply had to get a library card (for <1USD, who can blame me?) and take a look at some old maps of Shanghai in one of the reading rooms.
  4. Running across the end of a French wedding as the group made its way out of the consulate and the groom executed a few worrying turns with his new bride on one of these funky little cycles with sidecars in the middle of the Shanghai streets. It turns out that this was the same wedding party that later ended up at the restaurant Lisa is working for.
  5. The World Expo. I had been considering not going after a pretty disappointing review by my friend Shaun, but I didn't have any particular plans for the evening so I got a night ticket (also on Shaun's advice) and checked it out. While it was reasonably fun, I'm glad my expectations weren't too high. The Expo is basically place where each country (and, in China's case, province) gets to build or rent a structure - the word "pavilion" is definitely an understatement for many of these places, and in fact the architecture of these buildings is one of the principal highlights of the Expo - and then fill the place with a description of why that country is awesome. This is often done by an impressive entertainment system (e.g., a movie that plays on all four walls and the ceiling) and some interactive/high-tech systems which provide the highlights (e.g., Shandong Province as the home of the appliance/electronics giant Haier). Some pavilions have particularly good reputations - Japan's is supposed to be mindblowingly high-tech, and Saudi Arabia's has had the most money poured into it, and France's houses seven nearly priceless works of art - but anything in the top 40% or so had a line of almost 3 hours long at the very least, and since I was alone I just wasn't prepared to stand there for that long. So instead, I spent the evening patronizing authoritarian regimes: I saw some beautiful metalwork at Anhui Province, wove a stitch into a Persian rug at Iran, bought "The Life and Writings of Kim Jong-Il" for cheap at North Korea (I have to save a kitten sometime soon to atone for that), and visited the (fake) snow-and-ice room at Kazakhstan.
  6. Getting home was an adventure. I decided I didn't want to take the bus out of the Expo (it couldn't be that far, right?), so I ended up being the only human being on a stretch of 8-lane parkway that had been shut down for the Expo. When I finally escaped, I let some random guy convince me that the nearest metro station was too far and I should take the ferry instead. That was actually a lot of fun, but I ended up semi-lost on a dark street and finally caught the last train to somewhere reasonably close to David's apartment.
  7. My t-shirt: Rewon Child, it must be said, is a genius. His "老外" t-shirt ("laowai" is a slightly disrespectful term for "foreigner") is now #1 on my list of 'Things I Would Have Regretted Leaving at Home' - followed closely by items like 'my passport' and 'money.' Chinese people, it seems, think it's hilarious, and if I measure my success by how much laughter I cause in any given day, then yesterday was an epic win. Moreover, it turns out that having people laugh at a t-shirt has two excellent results for the wearer. One, it allows him to start a conversation: if I had wanted to make dozens of Shanghai friends yesterday, I'm sure I would have filled my quota. Two, it loosens people up: even the military policemen and subway security, whose principal duty seems to consist of looking tough and surly, smiled more often than not. In fact, the only photo we may ever see of me at the World Expo (I brought my camera along for the day only to discover that I had left the batteries in my backpack) was taken by an older woman who promised she'd e-mail me a copy.

And that's all, folks. David's finally come back with food from my favorite store in Asia (i.e., Carrefour), so we're going to have brunch soon. Later I'll go visit the Bund - the eastern, riverside end of the former International Concession in Shanghai - and take another trip to People's Square (apparently there's a 'Marriage Market'?). After that comes my train ride to Jinan, the centerpiece of my pre-class summer travels.

We'll catch up in Beijing.



  1. Loving the blog Ethan.

    Having worn "the shirt" twice now (once on the plane ride over, once on my first wild night out in Sanlitunr), I have to corroborate that it's effects can only be described as "legendary." It's officially the greatest shirt ever worn by a white person in China, and the Chinese people LOVE IT. It seems to have the biggest effect on those Chinese who would normally be the least likely to enjoy your existence: Chinese in official positions or service jobs who often don't speak English but are forced to have all these goddamn white people around all the time. It immediately sends the message "yes, I know, I understand and I'm terribly sorry for invading your country, but we might as well be pals since we're both here."

    Anyway Ethan, when do you hit Beijing?

  2. I'll be there on the evening of the 9th, if all goes well - I'm staying at a hostel for 2 days and then the HBA dorms open.

    I think I'd wear the shirt every day if I weren't worried about smelling really bad. (Also I got kind of sick of being asked for pictures after about half a dozen.) And anyway I guess we'd best not oversaturate the market.

  3. Haha, the effects of your lao wai shirt is somewhat similar to how I feel about the super couple shirts in China. It's kind of the super PDA couple's way of saying "yes, I know we are disgustingly cute"