Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Shanghai: Part I

There are plenty of downsides to being severely underworked, but at least I have time to travel. Back when I was at the cram school, I was overworked and underpaid, and there was no such thing as vacation or sick days. Half the time I was there, I had classes six days a week, so I had to look on with puppy-dog eyes as the JET ALTs went on their weekend excursions to totally fun places I would love to go to if I only had the time. But asking for days off to travel anywhere was always out of the question, because I had completely fallen for the Japanese company loyalty thing. Everyone else was working hard, harder than me, and they never got to travel. Yoshiko and Sayaka always told me that they were so unimaginably busy now and didn’t even have time to eat or sleep because it was time for midterm exams/entrance exams/post-entrance exams/graduations/preparation for the new school year/summer school/English programs/winter study-camp and so on until eternity. After having been there for a full year, I realized that these times that everyone was so busy their heads would explode could actually just be described as spring, summer, fall, and winter. It was all the time, just different reasons, and as soon as entrance exam season was over, something new would come up. So now I’m underworked and underpaid, and not only do I have time to travel, but because of my sketchy visa situation, I have to. Lucky for me, Colin is underworked and overpaid.

For my most recent pond-jumping adventure, we wanted to go somewhere that was cheap, close, but interesting. We’d already been to Korea, so we decided on Shanghai, the next closest metropolis. We had a full two days there, so we planned on making a mini-vacation out of it. I was really excited about going to China, and had learned some Mandarin on the awesome language-learning game on the plane. I annoyed the shit out of Colin as we were waiting for the Maglev by repeating “Wan an. Wan an. Tsao an.” Oh, and let me tell you about the Maglev. It’s a train, and the name stands for magnetic levitation, which is exactly what it sounds like. It doesn’t actually touch the tracks, but hovers smoothly above them—magnetically. It’s one of the fastest trains in the world, with speeds up to 430 kilometers an hour. We took it from the airport to the subway station, where we were to get on the train toward Nanjing Road, where our hotel was located.

Just from being in the airport and train stations, I was able to gather a number of first impressions about China. People spoke loudly and expressively, and favored rushing ahead of people over the line, which is Japan’s best friend. Maybe it’s just me, but I found it fascinating that the women weren’t clompy and stumbly in their high-heeled shoes, and the only knock-knees I saw the entire time were on a Japanese girl. Grace noted in her blog that many women in Japan seem to walk like they’re mildly disabled, and I often wonder why that is. I also saw hardly any short-shorts, and some women didn’t wear makeup.

I was still happy and eager to experience Shanghai when we got on the subway with our backpacks and one piece of checked luggage. At each stop, more people poured through the doors, and we found ourselves being pushed further away from the exit. More people came aboard, and I was pressed uncomfortably against an old man. I had told Colin to hold his backpack in front of him for the train ride, because China wasn’t safe like Japan, and I was glad because soon a group of shady-looking guys had flooded aboard and took their place directly behind Colin and at a vantage point where they could gawk at me. I reminded Colin to watch his stuff, and tried not to look worried, which I definitely was. They were staring hard, at me, then at our duffle bag, then at me some more. I became even more conscious of the fact that we were the only white people in sight, and as such, clearly looked like money. Moreover, as the train became more packed, we wondered how we could get to the door in time to get off when we kept getting further away from it.

In a state of fret over reaching the door through the crowd and avoiding getting robbed by the sketchy guys behind us, we decided to exit through the doors of the next car, which we had practically been pushed into anyway. After observing the natives wordlessly shoving their way through the crowd of people in the course of getting on or off the train, we made a plan to get to the door by any means necessary. Once our stop came, I plowed through the crowd, repeating “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” as I pushed through the wall of standing humans with literally all my strength. I would have knocked people flat to the ground had they had any room to fall. But it wasn’t enough, as the doors closed while we were just feet away “Shit!” I said loudly.

We were stuck in the new car, several feet from the door, unable to move, and we had just made a huge scene. We were waiting uncomfortably in the midst of a sea of people we had just attempted to knock into oblivion. Then it happened.

I got molested on the subway.

My line of work really lowers the boundaries you have with your body. I have kids climbing on me all the time, sometimes, as I've frequently discussed, grabbing some private areas. I don't necessarily notice anything out of the ordinary if a hand is resting on my butt on a train so crowded that everyone is touching everyone. When I sense fingers applying rhythmic pressure to my ass-cheek, I think it might be the vibrations of the train. I announce to Colin, “I’m possibly being molested,” and turn my body away from the offending hand. But the hand finds me again. I look at the guy next to me. I become fully aware of what’s happening to me, but I wonder if it might just be easier to let some perv fondle my ass until our next stop. Maybe just stay in a state of denial.

Our stop is the People’s Square, and it’s a popular one. There’s one last definitive squeeze before everyone begins flooding out the doors, and I elbow the guy standing next to me hard in the sternum.

When we get above ground, we’re encountered with futuristic scenery straight out of Blade Runner. I’ve been to Tokyo, but Shibuya Crossing’s got nothing on Shanghai. We rolled our heads back in a daze as we saw buildings crawling with lights and advertisements (so much for communism) and skyscrapers that literally disappeared into the fog. As soon as we stepped foot on Nanjing road, the pedestrian shopping street where our hotel was located, we started being accosted by touts trying to sell us watches and bags. I’m usually unnecessarily nice, and smile and say no thank you, but I was so traumatized from the subway ride that I just looked at them blankly and shook my head.

When we finally found our hotel, we were checked in by the front desk staff of harried Chinese women. There aren’t the same trends of service people being nauseatingly polite to customers as in Japan, but I don’t mind. Actually, the Chinese don’t even bow very much. Between this, the ease with which the Chinese have conversations that other people might be able to hear, and a few other things, I realize that Japan really does have a stick up its ass. I’ve been to a few other Asian countries now, and none of them are as weirdly rigid as Japan. I love Japan, but right now it’s sort of like a love you have for a family member that annoys the hell out of you.

Even though I’d rather curl up in the room and hide for the rest of the night, we set out looking for food and to see the famous view of the river at night. I felt numb and in a fog. I’m too sensitive. But it wasn’t just being groped, it was the cumulative experience on the subway that had affected me so much. First worrying about those shady guys who were staring at me, then having to shove all those people only to fail and be forced to stand with them until the next station. It was against all of my Midwestern sensibilities; we don’t push, we say please and thank you and excuse me, and we’re uncomfortable in conversations where people interrupt each other. Plus, I was beating myself up about elbowing that guy, when there was no way to tell who was actually groping me. Sure, it probably was him, but I may have assaulted some random guy, who had just seen me violently shove through all those people like some crazed white barbarian. Really, getting molested was just the icing on the pile of shit.

After wandering a bit we settle on a restaurant with an English menu, which turns out to be pretty high end. But high end in Shanghai means a meal costs about twelve bucks, so it wasn’t a big deal. It was one of those set-ups where you order a lot of dishes and share them, and since I was confused, we took the waitress’s recommendation, which looked like some kind of shrimp or fish in the picture. The food was pretty decent, except the waitress’s recommendation turned out to be fish eye-sockets. You're supposed to eat around the ring of bone and savor the soft, fatty area, which I guess is a delicacy. It was gross.

We walked to the Bund, and saw the view over the river. More people aggressively tried to sell us things. We met our first child-beggars. There’s a picture of me that night, looking lost and despondent against the dark city backdrop. After that night, I didn’t know if I could get past the experience and enjoy China. But over the next day and a half, miraculously, China redeems itself.


Blogger Natalie said...

heeeeeeeeey cassie cassie cassie cassie guess what?!

... ok I dunno either. But China came up on the radio today and I was like, "HEY MY AWESOME SISTER WAS THERE ONCE." Also I just read an online novel that some guy wrote as a serial and now they're turning it into a movie directed by the same guy who did Bubba Ho-tep. Did I inflict that on you yet? Anyway you can totally do that. I mean, maybe not the movie right away because yours doesn't have as many exploding aliens in bikinis and anyway you don't want to sell out, but you are way more polished than this guy. Anyway here's the site for that:

it's kinda like Kafka meets Lovecraft meets Bevis and Butthead. You can tell me if it's any good cause you are a literary expert.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Natalie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Natalie said...

link still doesn't work!
dammit, i'ma get this html code right if it takes me all night... no, seriously, I have nothing better to do.
raw address here:

2:41 PM  
Blogger BilabialBoxing said...

You need to hurry up and give those Shanghai friend dough twist omiyages with fresh eye socket bones to people or I am going to eat the crap out of them.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Micah said...

From a four-year Shanghai resident who found your weblog through a random search for "shanghai metro" (I keep this weblog), my advice is that if you get molested like that again then don't save the elbow for the end, just let loose as you possibly can. There's guys like that everywhere in the world, but the Shanghainese are very proud of their cosmopolitan image and if they realize that a visitor was defending herself from a molester they will go to bat for you.

Hope you enjoyed your stay in our city, besides that incident.

12:40 AM  

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