Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pink Poodles and Rubbery Skin

Spring time has arrived without warning in Shanghai. The sun is shining and the flowers are opening their weary eyes. Like the hips of a Flamenco dancer, the blue sky teases people to come into its embrace. Children cavort on the streets and toss off their winter coats, vendors smile as their rusty and oxidized fingers get a respite from the elements, old weathered men gather around shaky card tables to gamble away their beer money, and women strut down the roads donning their new spring outfits as they flirt with anyone who is privy to their glance. There is a cheery quirkiness to all the peacock feathers, and even the passing poodle with its brightly dyed pink ears and feet induces a smile. A light-hearted breeze carries the dancing giggles of school girls from over across the road and one no longer feels as though, with each step, the grunt of the bruised wintry earth deepens. One is no longer weary and can grab at the world as it drifts by.

I met a friend for lunch at a local Chinese luncheonette. We passed the tins of boiled-basted-and-fried chicken feet at the entrance and sat at a rickety wooden table in the back of the room. Lunch hour was almost over and the remnants of past clients - cigarette butts, glass coke and beer bottles, chopstick wrappers, and food bits - were strewn throughout the room; peoples’ foot prints were embedded in the muck left behind. The old-fashioned divider under our table was not intended for our western physique and we struggled to fold them into-under-or-beside the table. The waitress’ smile was eager and friendly but her English was as weak as our Chinese was strong. Chinese restaurants tend to have menus where each dish is accompanied by a photo but this menu boasted no more than Chinese characters and we struggled to order our lunch.

Was there a menu which did have photos? All the elementary mandarin phrases which had been earnestly practiced and memorized ad nausea from 1-2.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays with my teacher Joyce seemed to ebb and flow in my mind. My arms flailed about without control as I tried to patchwork together random phrases but the poor girl eyes just got wider and more confused. I pointed to the one picture decorating the otherwise barren and dirt walls. The waitress turned to look at this crumpled magazine page that had been framed in a glassless unit and smiled, exuberantly declaring that the restaurant did serve chicken.

Oh yes, the photo was actually that of a farm scene and she thought we had pointed to our meal of choice. With sweat pouring down my brow, with the flush of shame glowing on my cheeks, I began to point at other things, at other people. There were still a few dishes with coagulated remnants on tables in the vicinity and she made a list.

After sucking on the chicken bones, spitting on the remains and relishing the last juices encrusted on their fingers, our neighbors began to stare at us. We were certainly more entertaining than their now empty plates. They lit some cigarettes, lounged back in their chairs and smiled, chatting to us in Chinese. The waitress tossed some plates onto our tables, the sauces flowing over the edges of the cracked mismatched plates. A plate heaped with chunks of hacked at chicken, its yellowing-rubbery-skin covering bits of bloody tendons, joints and bones. Since I was still being observed, I closed my eyes and began to gingerly search for pieces of flesh with my chopsticks, my fingers shaking as they rubbed against the rubbery mask.

Surprising, the meat was lovely.

I stopped into a vegetable market en route to my house and realized that I was no longer shocked by the different foods on exhibit and was actually mesmerized by the rows of baskets housing different kinds of eggs. Stacked in rows of three, with dirt twirling about in its environs, the Century egg (preserved duck, chicken or quail eggs in mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw; after the process is completed, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odor of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavour or taste) was a bit disconcerting but certainly did not compare with the Balut from the Philippines (Pre-hatched fertilized eggs that are allowed to develop until the embryo reaches a pre-determined size and are then boiled. The photo is disturbing

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Misnomer, Modernization

I draw my inhalation into the grounding of my feet and my body rises upwards quite naturally. My breath is deep, my heart rate quick, and my body invigorated. I exhale strongly, opening my eyes. They adjust to the light and my gaze drifts towards the windows, positioned diagonally from where I stand. The yoga studio is on the second floor and the windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling, enhancing the dimensions of the already large mirrored room.

The studio is based in an area called Xiantiandi (New Heaven and Earth), a collage of cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, and graceful tiled roofs that evoke a colonial era while lending it a Western cachet. Through the window I can see a man-made lake with a few token swans floating about. Surrounding the periphery of the lake are dozens of high-rise luxury apartments with personal drivers waiting in the parking lots. The tenants are diverse; some are wealthy Chinese who became rich by working hard, some are wealthy Chinese who became rich by engaging in illicit businesses, some are wealthy Chinese who became rich by oops!, accidentally having access to stakes in recently privatized businesses, some are wealthy foreigners, but most are foreigners whose companies pay for their housing as part of the expatriate package.

What is striking is that in the mid-ground are old, dilapidated buildings from the 1930s that are waiting to be razed (to make room for more high-rise buildings), and in the foreground are temporary blue and white flimsy apartment blocks that house migrant workers (who raze the buildings to make room for more high-rise buildings). Note the irony?

Maybe one day we will see a graceful melding of old and new as Shanghai steams toward its third decade of hyper-growth. In the interim, I stare at the old buildings - crumbled bricks scattered on the roof top, gardens dried and withered, windows shattered and replaced with shreds of tape, and neighborhoods no longer. I suddenly see a few pieces of recently washed laundry flittering in the wind and smile, knowing that at least one family is fighting to maintain its home.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Secret Room

Josie and I entered one of the local fake markets under the naieve premise that a foreigner would be permitted to stroll about leisurely, window shopping. This is a dungeon where hundreds of tiny stalls were crammed with bags, shoes and clothing, blatantly dismissing intellectual property laws. Even to my neophyte eye, it was clear that all the items were reproductions but nevertheless, vendors often tried to convince us otherwise. A few of the vendors were amusing as they marketing their wares in a plethora of languages.

We rode the escalator to the second floor and were surprised by a gaggle of women waiting to pounce on us, because of course all foreigners are wealthy and willing to spend. Vendors consistently and constantly grabbed at our elbows or pulled our sleeves, and some even ventured to block our path as we walked down the aisles, shouting memorized phrases in broken English while releasing wafts of smoke from their half burned cigarette butts.

Despite every ounce of my moral core telling me otherwise, I could not resist a pair of brown suede sneakers for the price of $11, down from the asking price of $30. It seemed that I had been catapulted quickly into good friend category after negotiating the price in Mandarin. It is an entertaining game really: the vendor gives you a ridiculously elevated price, you feign shock and offense, she says “Ah, you not German – German peoples always pay high price” and decreases her price a bit, you walk away and she decreases a lot, you cross your arms and insist that she is cheating you, she concedes to your price but grumbles and curses in Chinese all the while. Mind you, under her breathe while still smiling at you.  

Once the vendors saw me pass with a shopping bag, they could smell that I was a victim and their vulture level of aggressiveness increased. Some began to pull on my sleeve or even block my path; for those who are aware of my overly stimulated temper, this invasion of space is not appreciated. Note to self - have someone translate ‘Take your hand off me before I bop you in your nose’ into Chinese? 

There were not many foreigners in the market however those who were present had purchased enough to fill a few small carrier airplanes. As they ran down the aisles looking for bargains, they dragged behind them enormous garbage bags filled with their purchases. One could see their eyes glowing, the saliva collecting at the corners of their mouth as they searched eagerly for the next fake scarf. I could not help but laugh when I wondered what they would do with 97 wallets made of fake silk or 42 fake Adidas sneakers. Maybe the discount associated with bulk buying was somewhat addictive.

The number of vendors greatly outweighed the shoppers; a very clear trickle down effect from the global recession had begun its course. The center itself was simple - three massive warehouse floors had been divided into small stalls the size of a middle class American bathroom. Each stall had thousands of products either crammed-stacked-piled onto the shelves or tied onto the makeshift door with bits of string-rubber-band-and-wire. Some stalls had more than one vendor but most had one person calling out ‘Cheap price lady’ while waving a calculator in the air.

Intellectual property laws were clearly dismissed in this market but to my untrained eye, many bags-clothing-belts-accessories reproductions seemed real. Others had the title of pseudo real since they had either ‘fallen’ off legitimate distribution trucks or had been manufactured illegally in legitimate factories. For example, client X wants 500 bags and as such, factory produces 700 but only gives client the requested amount. This is quite sneaky eh?

There were a few unwritten laws associated with buying an item in the market. One finds an item, sniffs about pretending not to be that interested, asks the price, listens to the response, and then pretends to be shocked, shaking ones head, one laughs, becomes very serious and offers a price about 70% lower. The vendor will scream, shake the calculator in the air and spew out a string of phrases in English including but not limited to bankrupt-good-quality-you stingy-real (insert - cashmere, cotton, or name brand). They will also grumble in Chinese but I imagine that these words precariously rest on the border of vulgarity. One will leave the stall and if the vendor is interested, he or she will follow. The bargaining shouting match will often take place in the communal aisle with onlookers taking part. However, such interactions rarely become violent and are merely part of the developed-practiced-and-honed game, taught from generation to generation of Chinese and passed down from one expatriate to the next during tea time.

I bought a scarf at one of the stalls; the asking price was 560rmb and I paid 60rmb. The vendor was a young woman who spoke English quite well. She laughed and said that we obviously lived in Shanghai because the German-British-American-and-Japanese buyers would have paid 450 and walked away happily. She took us to another store where she sold bags. Looking over her left shoulder and then her right, she quickly pushed aside a bag on a shelf and pulled a lever. What seemed to be a stand for bags was actually a trick door behind which was a hidden room. She pushed us into the mouth of this cave and we were suddenly surrounded by luxury bags, most of which fell into the ‘pseudo real category.

How would we get out? If this were in Johannesburg I would have already given away my wallet-phone-bra-shoes and soul. We looked about oohed-ahhed-tsked-and-tucked but walked away without any new additions to our wardrobe.

Leaving shortly thereafter and after swearing never to return, we had lunch at a fabulous rooftop restaurant downtown called Kathleen’s where the ambience was welcoming, hip and sophisticated.  For $15 I devoured a salmon salad starter and a monkfish main. 

Our chardonnay lunch had a calming effect on our shattered nerves and we were keen to shop again. While female, my shopping gene never fully developed and I have a desire to shop once every six months when a raging but unanticipated urge arrives. We ventured to a small shopping and gallery area on Taikang Lu. The area cannot be seen from the main road and we, after taking a sudden left turn into an alleyway, found we were falling down a quixotic rabbit hole where commercial and overpriced galleries pretended to be avant-garde. Quite suddenly we found ourselves away from the commercial insanity, exploring the winding labyrinth populated with cafes, boutiques and galleries. 

The rain continued so we stopped for a glass of wine at an outdoor café called Commune. The bathroom had a sign, in English and Chinese, which stated: “This toilet is only for #1. Do not do #2 because you will block up the entire neighborhood sewage system.”  Imagine being wholly responsible for such an atrocity? 

If you move forward a few years you will find that this area has become no more than a commercial venture, almost all creativity sucked away.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentines Day and Parental Match-Making

Seated in a booth at a café on Nanjing Lu, I sipped my coffee while watching the Chinese embrace Valentines Day outside. People were passing out flyers, electronic boards flashed their messages, and store fronts were plastered with advertisements. The messages were diverse - Buy a box of chocolates and get one box free, buy an overpriced sort-of-real Gucci bag and a girl will love you, buy a tube of whitening cream to make you more beautiful so that a man will love you, buy virility tea to make your more potent so that a woman will love you - but they all made a direct correlation between commercialism and the eternal happiness. Of course, such happiness can only be found on this particular day and one would be wise to dismiss the other 364.

I sighed and looked around the café, taking a magazine off the rack. I wondered whether anything related to Valentines Day would be posted but alas, I was disappointed to find the standard array of special-massage-dancing-talking services advertised. However, the following personals were amusing: (1)Seeking Large Shapely Lady - I’m seeking an Asian or foreign lady based in Shanghai from 20-50 for mutual pleasures, kissing and cuddling. I’m a fit and well-endowed man seeking a hygienic woman…… (2)Friends -…..For sure I still desire to meet someone must be deep inside. We are not animal though sex is a very good part of our life. (3)Looking for Lose Weight Partner - I’m fat, young Chinese girl. I wanna lose weight, but my mama always said that I lack perseverance so I need a partner, that we can help each other, and pushed each other to win. We can get up early and running in the park.

The waitress came by with the special menu and I declined the heart shaped hamburger.

The moment I opened the door of the cafe to exit, I was accosted by numerous street vendors encouraging me to purchase cheap-locally-produced-teddy-bears-with-giant-hearts-on-their-bellies. Since they were pulling along a massive trolley about 20 feet high and laden with an array of stuffed animals (almost all had some association with Hello Kitty), I was able to escape quite easily. As I walked away a woman came bicycling towards me - and towards traffic - waving her free arm and ferociously shouting “Buy flowers lady.” I had seen her before on our road, always dressed in the same torn plaid jacket and animal patterned pajama bottoms. Her skin was darkened and its texture was cracked and course, her fingers short and calloused, and her stout muscular legs were bowed. When she smiled she did not cover her mouth, revealing her missing bottom teeth to all who passed. I looked at her flowers and was not surprised to find that each was individually wrapped in red cellophane paper.

I considered traveling to People's Park to witness the weekly parental match-making festivities. Chinese parents gather in the park to exchange photos and personal profiles (yes, they print and distribute explicit information). For example, a mother who is searching for a wife for her son may include his salary and car model. If he has passed the ‘expiration date’ she will openly accept a divorced woman. Parents run amuck, notebooks in hand, jotting down notes regarding their children’s potential suitor. Often times the child is abroad and unaware that he or she is being bargained away under the umbrella of the plum trees. There is an interesting clash between those who remain sentimental to the past and those who embrace Western ways yet still absorb the weight of their past lives.

That evening Andy and I, along with Amai and Kaspar, were invited to Cristina and Inigos home for a ‘Jamon Serrano and Foie Gras’ party. I was pleased to see that Cristina did not serve heart shaped foie gras.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Caution: Yoga is in Mandarin and Fake Breasts

I rushed towards the yoga room but open realizing that the class had already begun paused by the door. Of course, my abrupt stop coupled with my lack of grace made me stub my toe; it took all of my inner-postive-karma-energy-ying-and-yang to keep from shouting out a string of vulgarities.

I took a deep breathe and tip-toed into the classroom, exhaling only once I was seated cross-legged in the back room. The studio was fairly large with about 20 mats distributed throughout the room. A large mirror served as the main wall and the air was quite thick with the lingering scent of students past.
I closed my eyes and smiled, ready to relish the Yoga Flow class. The teacher began to speak but the sounds were foreign to me. She continued in Mandarin and beads of sweat began to collect on my upper lip as I considering all my options for escape. I then thought, ‘when in China do as the Chinese’ and began to copy the teacher’s postures and flow.

There are few foreigners in the class and the Chinese are urban women who can afford to pay the inflated rate charged by the studio. Yoga has become trendy in Shanghai and the studios serve as high-end and chic coffee houses. The traditional organic-holistic-spiritual components derived from a yoga practice have been replaced with a desire to burn a few calories while prancing about in low-cut-skin-tight-coordinated-outfits-imported-from-Paris. I observed the students around me and was amazed by their tiny structure composed of tiny-teeny-bitsy bones. Most of the women did not have even a subtle outline of a potential blossoming breast and the ones who did had clearly undergone an operation. One woman in particular must have only recently had surgery to enhance her breast size since she struggled to keep her tiny frame from toppling forward as she positioned from one sequence to the next. I gigled when realizing that, if one of her fake breasts slipped out of its confined area, she would not even realize. 
25 years ago the ban on cosmetic surgery was removed but in 2006, the government banned cosmetic surgery advertising on television after hundreds of women were maimed by unsafe implants. The ‘magic gel’ used in the implants leaked into the body and even caused flesh to rot; the substance is banned in the West. Um, was regulating the industry not an option? Nevertheless, they also banned the production of counterfeit watches and purses but vendors continue to stand on street corners aggressively marketing their wares, grabbing onto the elbows of people passing by and shaking their plastic leaflets dotted with photos of the merchandise. Advertising for surgical breast enhancement thrives but it is mostly relegated to the videos playing in the taxi head rests. Less invasive treatments are found in spas. For example, this is one treatment I recently saw: Bust Treatment; For sagging of mastatrophy, after acupuncture pint massage, it will help nursing the mammary gland to be in perfect and solid condition, and to be effective for chest organization. Including the mammary gland element biochemistry extract phosphorous resin sac, helps with circulation and enhance birth solid chest forms, may also eliminate obular hyperplasia and prevent cancer. Ahh, and another office called itself a "Breast Maintenance Center."
Enough said.

After class, I passed by a group of Western women gathered in the dressing room. Since they were chirping away quite loudly, it was impossible not to overhear their conversation. And once I realized that it was interesting, I did not rush to apply my makeup and leave. However, the woman next to me began to blow dry her hair with intense ferocity and I no could no longer hear which-husband-slept-with-which-neighbor-and-who-bought-a-new-car-and-who-had-a-driver-or-nanny-who-was-lazy. I packed up my things and left since the only other option was to watch as the Chinese women ran around naked, had conversations with one another naked, cut their toenails naked, used the blowdryer to dry un-conventional parts of the body naked, and engaged in a series of other doing VERY private things to themselves in a very public space.

Enough said.
After class, I passed by a group of Western women gathered in the dressing room. Since they were chirping away quite loudly, it was impossible not to overhear their conversation. And once I realized that it was interesting, I did not rush to apply my makeup and leave. However, the woman next to me began to blow dry her hair with intense ferocity and I no could no longer hear which-husband-slept-with-which-neighbor-and-who-bought-a-new-car-and-who-had-a-driver-or-nanny-who-was-lazy. I packed up my things and left since the only other option was to watch as the Chinese women ran around naked, had conversations with one another naked, cut their toenails naked, used the blowdryer to dry un-conventional parts of the body naked, and engaged in a series of other doing VERY private things to themselves in a very public space.

After class, I passed by a group of Western women gathered in the dressing room. Since they were chirping away quite loudly, it was impossible not to overhear their conversation. And once I realized that it was interesting, I did not rush to apply my makeup and leave. However, the woman next to me began to blow dry her hair with intense ferocity and I no could no longer hear which-husband-slept-with-which-neighbor-and-who-bought-a-new-car-and-who-had-a-driver-or-nanny-who-was-lazy. I packed up my things and left since the only other option was to watch as the Chinese women ran around naked, had conversations with one another naked, cut their toenails naked, used the blowdryer to dry un-conventional parts of the body naked, and engaged in a series of other doing VERY private things to themselves in a very public space.

The teacher speaks with a posh British accent, dreadfully expensive highlights, and wears blacks tights and a t-shirt which has been purposefully torn by its certainly-fabulous-designer. The hum of her words put me in somewhat of a trance and I laughed as I thought of the teacher in the Snoopy cartoon who was never seen but only heard saying blah-blah-blah-blah. 

There is a fascination with plastic surgery in China, especially with respect to the widening of the eyes or the enhancement of the breasts. Surgery is offered as the main prize on many mainstream gameshows and as a birthday present for an aging wife. Women tend to be open about the fact that they had surgery but then again, women in China tend to be very open with everything associated with their bodies. This was further exhibited when the women took the liberty to release from 'all-ends' when the teacher said 'Exhale.'

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Massages

Sundays are a brilliant invention. And even more brilliant when one enjoys a brunch, a neighborhood stroll, and a massage by a guy whose name is Peter and is charming even though he cannot speak a word of English. Our Sunday brunch menu reads as follows: No rice, no curry, no stir fry and no dubious body parts. After a late brunch comprised of eggs, bacon, cheese and baguette, we walked towards Huashan Lu. It was gloriously warm but I was still surprised to see dozens of pink flowers bundled and blooming in their terracotta flower pots across the road. After all, it was only February. I approached the corner to look more closely and found dozens of counterfeit flowers. It lends the question - what is real in this town?

Ignoring the watch-purse-coat vendors who began to loom en masse, we continued to stroll towards the massage center. Andy had been traveling all week negotiating payments with existing clients, haggling over prices with vendors, trying to generate new business, and refusing crocodile tidbits in Taiwan. He was tired, stressed and needed a massage. I, on the other hand, had no just justifiable reason for a massage but skipped along very pleased to be going.

The parlor was new to us. Upon entering, a dour woman grudgingly looked up from her newspaper, sighed heavily, rolled her eyes and stared. I might have foreseen some pleasantries in the form of a welcome but of course, new clients were an obvious imposition. We asked to book two massages and she grunted, waving us towards the chair. Yes, one chair. I had a slight déjà vu of past interactions with postal workers in the United States or bureaucrats in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

A few minutes later another woman came out, exchanged our shoes for slippers and beckoned. We followed her down a dark passageway that was decorated in a flurry of tastes, styles and patterns. A small bridge made of glass had been awkwardly placed in the center of the passageway and we gently traipsed over it, aware that our frames were slightly larger than the Asian woman we followed.

The room was stoic and medicinal but the scattered candles were oddly romantic. As the shadows pounced upon the dusty gray walls, our eyes adjusted to the dim light and we changed into the paper thin white uniforms given to us. The two masseuses marched into the room, halted and saluted. Yes sir, face down I shall go. Chinese opera played softly in the background and my masseuse seemed to synchronize his movements to the rhythm of the music. As such, there were drastic shifts in pace and intensity throughout the session. At one point, when the music reached a crescendo, he was passionately rotating-flipping-twisting my legs in huge circles and I feared they might snap off.

The massage was lovely and I felt my muscles melt under his professional pressure. Although the bottom of the spine (read - top of the bum) has important pressure points, I was not thrilled when he positioned his thumb and pushed. Ouch. Shanghai is one of the lustiest cities on earth, a 1930s missionary said "If God allows Shanghai to endure, he will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.” So I am pleased that when wandering into this potentially dangerous zone he did not take any erotic liberties. 

We walked home with a bounce in our step, feeling as though we were significantly younger-lighter-and-more-limber. Interestingly enough, we passed a shop on a main road in the French concession boasting an enormous sign which read “Good Sex Health.” Curiosity overwhelmed and we approached it to find - through the rose colored transparent windows - a gray haired woman playing with her cell phone in a very explicit-raunchy-gauche sex shop.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Outdoor Sculpture Gardens

We ventured off to the Shanghai Sculpture Garden, a tiny oasis from center city replete with quiet cafes and a few shards of dried out grass. One often longs for green and open spaces in this city. The sculptures are scattered throughout the garden and inside the older warehouses that have been converted into galleries. Most sculptures are modern in scope (read – have a startling resemblance to the artwork found in a kindergarten classroom) and need some sort of erudite-philosophical-exaggerated-social-commentary explanation to justify their existence. One can either read the elaborate explanations or simply stand, stare and create ones own story.

My favorite gallery had two identical 4 foot tall iron sculptures of a naked Chinese man with stereotypical and almost cartoon like features. His eyes were partially closed, his smile drunken, his head tilted towards the ground, and his body slightly bent forward as if he were bowing to someone. He was painted bright red; wink wink. It was the first thing one saw upon entering and the last thing one saw upon exiting. Honestly, I almost instinctively returned his bow when leaving.

We wandered about the few cobblestone paths and entered a café, lumbering up to the second floor on the wobbly ancient sloping staircase. Was this also meant to be an art statement?
There was no one inside save for one man seated alone. He was dressed in a colorful fashion with strands of baubles and stones strung around his neck, Indian style fringed boots, tight fitting acid-washed jeans, and a blouse with ruffled edges. He kept twirling a strand of his thick hair around his finger; flirting with the waiter it seemed. His massive mane was wildly swept to the left side of his head, as if he had sprayed lacquer as the wind had come towards him from the right. Andy laughed as he peered down at his button down plaid shirt, loafers and corduroy pants.

That evening we joined a group of friends at a bar near our home. They were celebrating a birthday in a private room on the second floor. The room was decorated in mahogany wood and leather and I felt as if I were visiting friends at their country home in the south of Spain. The group was mixed in terms of age, ethnicity, sexuality and religion, and I was introduced to a new drink called the ‘Moscow Mule.’ I remember that it was delicious but not much more of the evening.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


With a slight bow, a twinkling smile and a cheery “Good Morning Lady”, a bell boy sweeps opens the massive doors for me. I peer through the door cautiously and am astonished to find a veritable fairy tale land. I have neither crossed the wardrobe into Narnia nor fallen down a rabbit-hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar creatures however; I have found a hospital that bears an eerie resemblance to an exclusive day spa.

I tip-toe inside and find perfectly coiffed, manicured, and slim nurses and welcoming receptionists who twitter away in perfect English. Perhaps, during their breaks, the nurses drink Green Tea and follow a government regulated Pilates DVD while the receptionists conjugate verbs, chanting together in a synchronized fashion. Where is the nurse who drinks diet coke, wipes her mouth to remove the remnants from her cream-filled donut, calls you honey and forgets to conjugate her verbs? For a moment, I expect a director to emerge form the shadows, snap his fingers, and have everyone break into a choreographed dance routine.

The receptionist glides towards me and I back away, fearful that she will insist on cleansing my pores, injecting my cheeks with cortisone or offering me a rose petal filled bath. Rather, she graciously offers me tea and a seat by the window where a large vase of orchids shares its sweetness with the guests. I sink into its warmth and watch CNN on the enormous television screen. I am soon distracted by the receptionist who asks a woman the following: “After giving birth, would you like the sushi-champagne or the beef-wine meal option?” Will she be offered some liposuction and cannabis for dessert as well?

The government hospitals are not quite as pleasant but of course, their prices are a miniscule fraction of those charged in the private hospitals. My first experience in a government hospital was upon our arrival. Chris, the Human Resources assistant at Andy’s office, picked us up from the hotel at 7.20am to escort us to our physical exam. One needed to take the exam and prove to be a ‘healthy’ person in order to receive residency papers and yes, being gay is considered a disease.

The receptionist had not yet arrived but Chris took a firm stance in front of her desk. Other patients began to trickle in, some taking seats and some milling about the receptionist’s desk. Intrigued with the woman seated next to me who was stuffing entire hard-boiled eggs into her mouth while talking with her friend, I did not notice the arrival of the receptionist until my toes were crushed by a sudden stampede of people. She ordered everyone into a cue and they hesitated but obliged. Was this part of the cultural training program imposed by the government in preparation for the Olympics? Order only lasted for a few minutes and people soon began to push one another, shouting and tossing papers. Somehow Chris managed to register us, get our numbers and usher us into the second reception room.

The staff, who wore ready-for-aerobics-baby-pink jumpsuits and face masks, gave us blue material slip-ons to place over our shoes before spraying us with a sanitizing spray which had avery-sweet-nauseating-sweet-fruity-flavor. Seated at a table encircling an enormous-bizarre-circa-1950 fish tank, I wondered why this smelly tank with offensive bits and pieces floating in its interior was considered sanitary whereas our shoes were considered unsanitary. In conveyor belt style, I was shuffled from one room to the next for a blood check, X-ray, EKG, ultra-sound and eye test, occasionally passing Andy in the hallway. After each check, the medical practitioner would bark through his/her face mask, sign off on my sheet and point me towards the door. I would bow my head, mutter ‘thank you’ in Chinese and scuffle away. However, one doctor seemed to be quite sweet since she smiled, right before flipping me off the table during her very brusque examination.

My second experience with a public hospital was yesterday afternoon. In October, Andy and I had taken Sandra to an ear doctor in a private clinic downtown and I needed to bring him some updated documents. However, I had misplaced his business-card-telephone-number-personal-data-strand-of-hair and struggled to track him down. I frantically scoured the internet and scribbled down an address I thought sounded familiar.

The entrance seemed familiar but the similarity ended there. There were thousands of people were pushing towards the windows tellers, some with wads of money in their hands and some clutching sobbing children. Many people were aggressively pushing forward whereas others had their eyes closed and allowed the stream of people to push them forward. Any attempt by hospital staff to form cues was dismissed. A group of people had miraculously managed to carve away a space for themselves and their plastic containers of food, spitting out bones as they laughed aloud. Traipsing over the discarded skeletal remains and sloshed soup on the floor, I aimed for what seemed to be an information desk since, according to the internet our doctor had rounds at this hospital as well.

I tried to make my way through the crowd by chirping out a meek “excuse me” every so often but after an octogenarian shoved me while screaming and wagging her finger, this tactic was quickly replaced by a strategic use of the elbow-knee and hip. Panting, dirty, bruised and exhausted, I made it to the information desk and pointing to my paper, I asked the receptionist if she knew Dr. Wang (yes, this is like asking for ‘Mary’ or ‘John’ in the United States). As she began to answer, a woman pushed her way past me, elbowed me and began to talk to the receptionist. I waited patiently until she was finished and then, in my broken Mandarin, continued to speak with the receptionist. I was interrupted two more times by two different people in the span of 4 minutes. On the fourth occasion I felt impatient-annoyed- agitated-and-overwhelmed-by-a-desire-to-be-violent. I did not smile at the fourth woman but rather, shoved her back with my flat palm on her shoulder, smiled and said “no, you wait.” I paused, fearful that this woman would come barreling down on me with all her wrath and physical ability. To my surprise, she blinked, smiled and turned away.

My heart still beating, I wandered about aimlessly in search of the Ear Department. All the signs were in Chinese and I wondered whether the squiggly line on the 5th floor or whether the square with a cross and a hook on the 7th floor referred to the ear department? I looked down to see a child peeing, the urine surreptitiously sliding towards my foot and I left.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Job Search

In a moment of desperation, I even applied for this position:

Salary RMB 1,000 per month
My girlfriend, whom I am supposed to be marrying is off on a trip over the holiday. She says she is traveling by herself, yet a friend informed me she is with another man. I want to have someone take her picture with her companion as they come out of the customs area.
There is a bonus if you can get the guy's name and business card.
She will arrive at Pudong Airport late this evening.
I can provide you with her picture and a description of the guy she has been seen with by my friends from time to time.
I will pay half up front and the balance plus any expenses you have after I get the picture. This is a one time job...

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Men, Purses and Tea

At first glance, it seems strange to see men carrying purses (not masculine-leather-man-bags but strappy-pink-suede-glittery-tassled-large-and-female-bags). After a few moments, a woman will inevitably exit a clothing shop, saunter over to the man and toss a few shopping bags in his direction. On occasion, one will see her return his credit card but it normally remains comfortably in the back pocket of her slim jeans. If her shoe lace comes undone after having had run up and down the aisles of the clothing shop, she will toss him a curt phrase and he will kneel on command. And yes, she will often place her foot on the thigh of his clean trousers to facilitate his tying her shoelace.

Less-urban-wealthy-imposing women lumber past, their arms filled with children-shopping-laundry-a-purse-and-a-briefcase. They will glance over their shoulder longingly as their husband calmly walks a few paces behind them, concerned only with opening a box of cigarettes while shouting into his cell-phone. And yes, he spits his gum onto the sidewalk along with the plastic wrap from the cigarette pack.

Please note that the joke in town is that a man who was born in Shanghai will carry his wife's purse, whereas a man who was born outside of Shanghai will have his wife-girlfriend-concubine-carry everything but his over inflated ego. Of course, this is a gross generalization. The man does not always accept her reign and a power struggle can ensue, transcending to entertainment as we saw on Saturday night.

We joined our friends Josie and Gregor for dinner on Saturday and afterwards, we ambled along the cobble stone streets of Xintiandi in search of a bar with live music, stiff drinks and no prostitutes. We found a great anonymous bar squeezed in between a Starbucks and a corner alley. Our timing was perfect and we had a table right in front of the band which hailed from the streets of New York City. The gender of the singer will be debated endlessly but nevertheless, her/his voice was tremendous and she/he could certainly twist her/his hips in a very inviting fashion, the shirt’s tassels shaking wildly in tune with his/her hair extensions.

A not-very-discreet argument broke out at the table to my left. Two couples had entered (the men carrying the purses for their partners) and sat down at the table directly in front of the band. The wives had ordered tea with milk for their obviously inebriated husbands but one of the men loudly protested this choice, disrupting the band. He stood and waved towards the waiter, shouting for some beer across the room. He laughed at his wife, who was tugging his coat sleeve in an effort to pull him back into his seat, and shrugged off the coat and his tie as he started to perform the drunk-man-who-also-has-no-rhythm-when-sober dance. Since everyone’s attention was on the ensuing power struggle between man and woman, the band was struggling to captivate the audience. The man helped resolve the issue by trying to climb onto the stage, pull the microphone away from the singer and wrap his arms around the singer’s waist.

Now, wouldn’t it be funny if the singer really was a man?

Later that evening we walked home from the bar and, although Andy offered t carry it for me, I preferred to carry it myself.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Bad news travels fast. I am sure one could find a few women in China who would also enjoy membership to the newest shallow-superficial-demanding-self-centered-never-worked-a-day-in-her-life-NYC (um, came over the bridge?)-girl-group.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

My Alley and Chinese New Year

The alley behind our building is a glimpse into daily life in Shanghai, a place where old and new world collide. There are no cars but thousands of pedestrians and bicycles filter through this narrow passageway each day. The streets are filthy, scraps of paper, plastic bottles and lettuce heads are scattered.

I watch as the lady selling fish throws a bucket of water into the street, choking the antiquated sewage system with the scales and guts of the fish she just sold. The heads are not disposed of but rather sold to those who appreciate its delicate meat. A woman approaches the man selling roosters and, interrupting a woman who was speaking to the man, pushes her aside and points to the roster she wants. The man grabs a rooster, plunges it into a cauldron of boiling water, pulls it out, slices the neck, and scrapes off its feathers into another drum. The wind sweeps away a handful of feathers and they scatter in the road, collecting and swirling as roaming alley cats swipe in the hopes of catching something worthwhile. The butcher, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, wipes his brow with his hand and continues to hack away at the meat. He does not wear gloves and I note that he forgot to squirt some disinfecting Purell on his palm (note the sarcasm). The meat is laid out and the stall has no false ceilings, allowing dust and dirt particles to settle on the meat. A woman walks up to the stall, picks up a slab of meat, inspects it, bring it to her husband across the road, he then handles-pulls-and-inspects the meat, rejects it, and she tosses it back on the butcher’s wooden board.

He claims to sell beef but I doubt this is true since my friend photographed the slaughter and skinning of a dog on this very corner.

Dangling above the vendors are dozens of dried fish and chickens. The chickens have been pressed flat before being salted and dried, and they have taken on comic features, resembling the rooster from the Road Runner cartoons. The former range from 1-6 feet in length and are hooked onto the window sills with bits of string. The heads are dried and hung separately, and their eyes seem to peer at the baskets of swirling water snakes and snails found below. The baskets share the road with burlap bags of frogs whose bounce diminishes with the passing of the day.

The garbage collector peddles by, collecting and weighing items as he passes. He draws his cart behind him, filled high with stacks of paper and even a small refrigerator. Children run behind him, tossing pebbles and shouting recriminations. His muscles bulge under the strain and he looks straight ahead, a glimpse of sadness reflected on his face that has been aged by the sun.

There was no activity in the alley the day of Chinese Lunar New Years Eve.

Days before the New Year, however, every family was busy giving his home a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away any bad fortune to make way for good fortune. People often paint their doors red and decorate them with paper-cuts and couplets, symbolizing themes such as happiness, wealth and satisfactory marriage with more children and better s-x. People are even encouraging to wear red clothing and as a result, there are dozens of overstretched red underwear hanging from the makeshift clothing lines along the road. But the silence found on the roads today was a bit disconcerting.

That evening I waked home after enjoying a dinner party at my friend Clancey’s home. The 4 inch heels - which had seeming so fetching earlier that evening -were, after a 75 minute walk, about to be donated to the nearest garbage bin on the road. I limped along on roads that were normally rife with horns honking, thousands of cars racing, vendors shouting, and the daily cackles of life vibrating. I normally have to look-both-ways-run-and-pray before crossing the road whereas tonight I stood in the middle of the road watching. It seemed like a war zone since the streets were virtually abandoned except for two groups of people a) those setting off firecrackers and b) those or running away from the pyromaniacs-in-training. The police laughed as the 6-packs of roman candles that were stacked in the middle of the road were lit by the flick of a cigarette of someone passing, unknowingly causing an explosion and a cacophony of car alarms. The few cars and scooters that had taken to the streets swerved to avoid the sparks and explosions.

The dust began to settle in my throat. I watched as children searched piles of firecracker shells in the hopes of finding one that had not been detonated, their parents too consumed by the communal sense of celebration to take notice. Perhaps the government could limit to the explosion of ungodly quantities of techni-color gunpowder but only allocating ONE FIRECRACKER per family?

I made it home and climbed onto our terrace where I could see the fireworks stretching towards the Bund. I started to film but suddenly - yelp - had to return inside to avoid the firecracker fragments that were falling onto my feet. Yes, on the 21st floor. I pressed my nose to the glass and watched as the firecrackers competed with the millions of lights emanating from the created-by-a-comic-illustrator-from-the-1950s skyscrapers and the 50 story high futuristic electronic billboards.

After having had lived in Johannesburg, I associated bangs and booms with gunfire and its respective criminal. As such, sleeping was impossible and I tried to read in bed. This also proved impossible. I tried to watch some television but even at a maximum volume with the television actually vibrating, I could not hear the dialogue. I was left with no option and trudged to the sink to fill my balloons with water.

The city began to awake the following day and with each day, the activity on the streets increased. On the last day of the lunar spring festival one assumed the dragon has already been scared away. It seemed that the celebratory agenda still has milestones that needed to be reached and the explosions continued. I was startled by the simultaneous explosion of thousands of firecrackers while making dinner and the stir fry catapulted onto the ceiling, crawling down the walls like millions of spiders onto the floor. At the same time, my husband’s passionate and indignant shouts (directed towards Federer who was losing the tennis match) alternated with the staccato sounds of the last few fireworks. 

There are a number of traditions associated with this evening and I was amazed at their ability to multi-task; while guessing the riddles found in the lanterns, they set off firecrackers with one hand while eating yuanxiao (rice dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling) with the other.

Since the last day is called Lantern Festival and is meant to show respect to the Buddha, people carry lanterns and allow them to drift into the sky. I had hoped that this would be done silently, without the accompanying cacophony of the firecrackers, so that neither Buddha nor the rest of the neighborhood would be disturbed. However, people did not feel that their firecrackers had paid proper homage to the Buddha and a few seconds after the first explosion, they set off a thousand more. And this continued every five seconds for the next six hours. It was lucky that I was not in a chatty mood.