Friday, February 8, 2013


Early Sunday morning we walked towards the Metro station and the streets were replete with people, carrying on as if it were any day of the week. Was this not meant to be a day of rest or was that a silly thought reserved for other countries? There were certainly no children prancing along dressed in their Sunday finest. Most shops in the French Concession were open and the food vendors were chopping-stirring-and-packing dishes into take-away containers. One of my favorite restaurants is run by Chinese Hui Muslims, identifiable by their crisp white cotton caps. Miniscule, is it not particularly descriptive as there are no Central Asian murals painted on the walls and no blasts of music accompanying diners. There is something bold and sweet about the these men who pulling dough into noodles from morning to night, seemingly grumpy from afar but boasting lovely and generous smiles when diners approach. They are accompanied by a petite young girl, hair covered with a colorful shawl and dressed in conservative slacks coupled with Hello Kitty sneakers, who runs about serving food to diners while an infant rests on the crook of her hip.

Hungry and impatient customers are seated on makeshift tables and plastic chairs, both of which are scuffed, chipped and wobbly. The steaming aromatic bowls of Langzhou lamian are overflowing with noodles, slices of beef, coriander and shallots. There is a similar noodle shop next door but the staff is gruff and their floors are filthy. It seems the later remained open through the night serving the Saturday night revelers. The server’s hair was in disarray and her pajama bottoms dragged along the pavement, across the heaps of sunflower shells and cigarette butts disposed. Rubbing her eyes I could not know whether she had just awoken or whether she had never gone to sleep.

Many small shop owners live in the back room of their shops and their belongings are limited. The rooms measure only a few meters and are windowless and humid. A mattress rests on the floor, a splintering wooden stool, piles of newspapers, an ancient and rewired television set, and stained rice cooker. A chamber pot rests by the door next to a chipped plastic cup bearing Mickey Mouse that holds a frayed toothbrush. There is an unassuming pile of clothing piled next to the stool and the rest hangs on the street, drying on wire hangers swinging from telephone wires. In the lane off the main road, I often passed an elderly man taking down his laundry from the wires with a wooden pole, a hook on its end. Giggling when I saw him remove a large bra from the wires, he looked at me and laughing said “Maybe this is better for you than me!

In the same lane was a shop that sold bits and pieces of everything that were crammed into hundreds of beaten up boxes that were then shoved into what seemed like a large closet. The inventory fluctuated and ranged from foldable mattresses to tools, flip-flops or sacks of rice. One thing that did not fluctuate was their daily schedule - they sat on the street all day selling but still going through the motions. They made their lunch and ate it while standing, shoveling the soup in with chopsticks, slurping loudly in appreciation. In the early evening they brushed their teeth in their Hello Kitty pajamas. Yes, mom and dad both wore pink Hello Kitty ensembles throughout the year, changing the traditional concept of his & hers. There was no privacy in their lives - did they mind or did they not know anything else? Their daughter was often found doing her homework on the street, perched over a small table and balancing so as not to fall off a chair that was too small for her growing frame. At least once a week I could hear her shrieks and howls as her mother furiously scrubbed her hair clean, rinsing it on the pavement as people walked by. In this neighborhood - the French Concession - the rich and poor mingled, the old world melted into the new world, the foreigners and the Chinese lived in the same buildings or lanes. Friendships were not readily made between people who came from each of the world the various worlds but people could not help be aware of one another and were generally cordial.

The exception - in my neighborhood - would be Yong Kang Lu. This street is a roaring example of old meets new and old does not appreciate new. The top level of buildings house small, dark, moldy and subsidized apartments built during the Cultural Revolution whereas the bottom level has been completely renovated and boasts modern and trendy bars-cafes-and-shops. When customers at the bars trail into the streets, continuing to laugh and enjoy one another’s company, people living in the top levels have been known to drop pails of water onto them. One hopes that the pails are filled with water.  

So, I deviate from my description of our Saturday meandering.

We entered the Metro station and were immediately tussled about until we were blocked amongst all the other commuters. Unable to move my arms or legs I looked about and was amused to see a number of very large signs that stated, in English and Chinese, ‘No Spitting.’  Another ‘Your mobile phone on your waist seems like the gifts for thieves.’ Or ‘Polite Language and No Noising.’ When we finally inched towards the platform there was a glass shield protecting the track and, in light of all the pushing, I imagined the shield was meant to prevent accidental suicides. When the train doors opened people on the platform surged ahead, literally ramming into the passengers desperately trying to exit the same carriage. In fact, the petite and elderly clothed in Mao like suits were the most vicious, their elbows flailing and fingernails clawing as they heaved forward. The carriage was overcrowded but the doors eventually closed with the help of a man who was pushing people inside. My mouth agape, I later read that the Shanghai Metro system had hired staff to “shove” passengers into the carriage so that the doors could close, allowing the train to move. Needless to say, we did not get into the carriage and waited, now strategically positioned and crouched like Rugby players, anticipating a fight.

Not only did we ride the train but we also managed to transfer twice without getting lost. Both female and male passengers stared at me and did not look away, even when I blatantly caught their eye. I wondered if the men found my Western features attractive or terribly ugly. And what were the children thinking when they pointed and giggled?

We paused near the Metro exit and, quite courageously and on a whim, stopped for a 60RMB (equivalent to 10 USD) haircut. WE were seated and a young girl squirted a mixture onto my head and began to lather it. Taken my surprise, I realized that she was washing my hair and giggled as I transformed into Bart Simpson’s wife. I worried that she might attempt to rinse out the shampoo while I was seated but she invited me to the sink. After this I was given a glorious neck, shoulder and head massage and wanted this woman to be my new best friend. Come live with us I mumbled…..

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