November 17, 2004

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Shanghai managed to single-handedly reaffirm my faith in the belief that not all of China is a collection of industrial-looking buildings, crumbling roads and staring locals. Well, maybe that's a little harsh, but after more than three months of living in a backwoods, dirty, concrete city, visiting Shanghai was like returning to civilization. Pedestrian crosswalks? Taxi drivers who don't blow smoke in your face? No feces on the sidewalk? Heaven. Actually, I felt like a hick coming to see the big city-like coming from a town in the middle of Alabama to see New York City for the first time. Shell-shocked at the astronomical prices, and a little awestruck. Saturday night we all went to eat at a Brazilian BBQ restaurant. I never thought the sight of a salad bar could bring tears to my eyes...

I realized for the first time just what an impact location has on one's experiences in China. My perception of China is vastly removed from that of the hundreds of foreign teachers who live in the big cities, like Shanghai and Beijing. I could live so easily in a city like Shanghai, and probably forget at times that I was in China. You can't walk five feet without bumping into a foreigner. Everything felt so...normal. We went out to some bars-an Irish pub and a jazz club to hear some live music.

In some ways, I would love to have all of these aspects of Shanghai at my disposal. And in other ways, I am far more grateful to be where I am. My city is remote, my students are from the countryside. The fireworks industry, which serves overseas clients, makes English a viable means of self-betterment in the form of higher paying jobs. My relationships with the people I know are stronger and closer out of necessity, and I am immersed in Chinese life every single day. I am privileged to witness the staggering growth of a small city in the middle of China. I'm sure that Liuyang as I know it will be almost unrecognizable within the next 15 years.

My time in Shanghai passed by in a blur. After an 18 hour train ride, we arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour that didn't let up until the morning we left. After all of the conference events wrapped up, we finally had a little free time for exploring. I spent all afternoon at the art museum on Sunday, couldn't get a cab anywhere because it was raining, and got hopelessly lost trying to navigate the bus system. Melissa and I wandered into a corner convenience store that strangely enough sold both sex toys and tofu on a stick, and asked for directions. The women who worked there spoke no English, but managed to convey that we should get on the number 36 bus and get off after 10 stops. I still have no idea where we ended up.

In a moment of desperation, we went into a China Mobile store to plea for help. We must have looked totally pathetic-drenched, carrying plastic bags full of books that we had bought at the museum, dragging dripping umbrellas behind us and clutching our Lonely Planet book like it was the Holy Bible. Note to other travelers: when going to Shanghai, please do not rely solely on a 8x8 inch Lonely Planet map to navigate a city with an area of 2,448 square miles. Didn't really think that one through. The guy behind the counter who spoke broken English started laughing when we told him we had tried to take a bus. We realized how pathetic we truly were when we couldn't even say "I'm lost" in Chinese. Back to those Mandarin lessons...

We managed to resurrect the night when a taxi magically pulled up at our darkest moment and whisked us away to the Bund. We took a ride through the Bund tourist tunnel (kind of a weird Willy Wonka-esque trippy tunnel with a light show) to the other side of the river to look at the skyline in all of its lighted glory. The next day, I woke up early to walk around the Old Town section of the city, complete with twisty, walled-in streets and pagoda-roofed buildings. Shanghai is a crazy, complex conglomeration of the old and the new, traditional and Western. Ancient temples and ultra-modern sleek towers, migrant workers and wealthy businessmen, tiny corner noodle shops and five-star hotels. Definitely worth a return visit, if I have the time and the money.
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