The same real estate agent, David, met me at our serviced apartment early Monday morning with a spreadsheet of apartment listings for my viewing. He gave me the sheet and I wondered what I was meant to do with the pages of Chinese script? Our driver Mr. Sheng was also waiting outside the building, a cloud of smoke surrounding him and a pile of cigarette butts at his feet. Mr. Sheng’s three words of English coupled with our two words of Mandarin led to a conversation that consisted of an inordinate amount of bowing, clapping and smiling.
In normal circumstances, only the rich and famous have a full-time chauffeur but in many emerging markets, hiring a driver for a manager is actually a strategic decision on the part of a multi-national company. In this way their staff is protected from car accidents, thefts and potential lawsuits. Anybody who spends a day in Shanghai - where 95% of the traffic signs are written in Chinese, 80% of the people ignore traffic signs and another 20% do not understand them, and 87% of people drive as if they had overdosed or a speed-crack combination - quickly understands how practical, rather than decadent, it is for a foreigner to engage a fulltime chauffeur.
As we drove through neighborhoods, I was tossed from one side of the care to the next as Mr. Sheng swerved away from oncoming traffic, bicyclists, people, and a lone vegetable wagon. The congestion was especially intense at crossroads; as people rivaled one another for passage, I could see smoke rising from their feet as they scraped the pavement in preparation for a light change. The rules of engagement on the road were absolutely foreign to me - cars forced their way into bicycle lanes, weaved in between lanes without signaling, mopeds drove on the sidewalks and bicycles passed by the dozens, almost as if they were all attached by an invisible wire. Since cars did not stop at pedestrian cross walks, people ran across in absolute terror and desperation, tossing baby strollers to the other side of the road.
In an interesting twist, while taxi drivers wear white gloves when driving, they also spit from their open car window at every opportunity. The overdose of stimuli from the city streets was reminiscent of a science fiction film and quite dizzying. I closed my eyes to rest them from the flashing advertisements and covered my ears to drown out the constant honking and blasting radio.
David took me to see six apartments but each was less appropriate than the last. Before entering the first apartment I was asked to remove my shoes and was given a pair of filthy dog-eared pink Hello Kitty slippers. I obliged – throwing away my socks later – and shuffled behind the real estate and his entourage of 6 who had appeared at the building. Most apartments came with built-in furniture modules and well, I could not see myself living with a glitzy painted chandeliers or life sized tiger sculptures. I mean, the latter would be hard to hide in a cupboard. One apartment was quite lovely but it was located in a big-mac-sized modern complex that consisted of dozens of towers. How would I orient myself in this maze of identical flats? I was quite enamored by a traditional 4-story high lane house in the French Concession but I knew that Andy would never agree to meander though the narrow passageways, pushing away the neighbor’s hanging laundry and stepping over the turtles being sold by the neighbor to get to our house.
And no, the turtles are not sold as pets.