Gan Bei!!!

Trip Start Aug 21, 2009
Trip End Sep 09, 2009

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Timi's Couch

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

My head is threatening to explode, my stomach is in knots and I stink like a dirty ashtray, but I couldn't be any happier about it. Last night was the reason I came to Shanghai. I met up with a family friend named Jim whom I hadn't seen for at least 12 years. The last time I saw him he was a little boy, but he's all grown up now and is currently looking for a job in China. He is fluent in Mandarin, having participated in an intensive language program for four months in Harbin, an industrial town in the far North of China. The program was very strict, mandating that he only speak in Chinese, and frankly, with outside temperatures averaging -15F and with absolutely nothing else to do, studying Chinese was really his only option. There was no cheating as all of his course mates adhered to the no English policy, not surprising since three of them were members of the CIA, with the rest being ivy leaguers.

Until last night I hadn't seen the real China. Timi prefers to frequent the westernized expat restaurants, which is somewhat understandable since if she were to go to a Chinese joint she would just have to guess at what she is ordering, so I hadn't really had much of a chance to eat real Chinese cuisine and interact with the locals. Jim changed that. We wandered the streets until we found a place that looked suitable, a grungy three-table restaurant right off the street. He immediately became a spectacle, as it clearly is not common to meet a westerner that can speak Mandarin. The woman at the table behind us instantly struck up a conservation with him, part of which focused on his inability to speak Shanghainese, the local dialect. Everybody here can speak Mandarin, but when two locals converse it is in Shanghainese.

Jim ordered for us and we were delivered several heaping plates of food. One dish consisted of delicious eggplant and green peppers, while another was filled with chicken bits, chopped up bones and all. Luckily it is not considered rude to spit food back onto your plate, otherwise I would have swallowed a lot of bone. The third dish was unbelievably tasty, which came as a bit of a surprise since it mostly consisted of diced donkey bits. If you ever get the chance to eat donkey do not pass it up. 

I was introduced to the drinking rituals in China, and I must say, I was a quick study. The owner ended up slogging them back with us, and he made it his mission to not only teach me their customs, but to also put me in a coma. When you order a beer it comes in a big bottle and you pour it into little glasses, no bigger than two of our shot glasses. You don't fill your own glass but instead fill up your neighbors'. If your neighbor is three sheets to the wind you try to fill their glass so full that they spill on themselves, which is considered li hai, very devastating. Pretty much anything that is impressive or funny can be described as li hai. When it comes time to toast you can either clink glasses or touch fingers, and then shout, gan bei! If you only touch fingers you can sip at your leisure, but if glasses touch they must go bottoms up. There wasn't a whole lot of finger touching going on last night.

We spent several hours in the restaurant chatting with the owner, whose name I can't recall, not that I was I ever able to pronounce it correctly anyway. Jim and I kept pouring him drinks, and he would fill us up in return. I also made it my duty to sneak up to the waitresses and fill a glass for them, which they were then obligated to drink. The more drunk they got the more they made fun of the owner, but he was too hammered to care. He continually offered me cigarettes, which I despise, but I smoked them anyway because it would have been rude not to. Most of the time I just held them while they burned, which I am pretty sure went unnoticed. I must have let half a pack go to waste.

The restaurant did not have a toilet so we eventually had to make our way to the public park. Using these facilities is not rude or illegal here, it is just the way of life. You must be careful not to micturate in any park called a “people's park,” however, as this would be the equivalent of disgracing every man, woman and child in China. Jim got a surprise under the first bush he picked, where there was a couple getting it on. Since everybody lives with their parents more or less indefinitely, this is apparently very common.

We spent an hour or so in the park, sharing beers with a man who had introduced himself to us and was curious about where we were from. Jim and him chatted, while I listened to a group of locals singing in harmony next to a magnificent moonlit pond. It was beautiful.

All in all it was a fantastic night. It became clear to me how wrong I had been about the Chinese. I had only experienced the aggressive, and often times outright rude attitudes of the people on the street. Common courtesy does not exist here and it is not unusual to be randomly shoved out of the way or hit in the head by an unapologetic umbrella. It has given rise to a term used by expats here: China Rage. I have experienced it myself when you just get fed up with the dog eat dog mentality. But that is only one side to the people; their other side consists of warmth and welcomeness. They embrace foreigners and want to make us feel comfortable here. They are generous to a fault and insist on sharing everything with you. They are curious about our culture while being fiercely proud of their own. I am going to make it a point to go to a Chinese place every night from now on, even if it means going by myself and communicating via charades.

I have been keeping pretty busy during the day as well. I spent an entire day in the Shanghai museum, an homage to the early art works of China. The bronze and jade collections were brilliant, and the currency exhibit was fascinating. They actually used to manufacture coins that were shaped like knives. Tre cool. The museum of contemporary art, MOCA, was one of the weirdest places I have ever been. The current exhibit features artists of India, and it felt like some kind of bad acid trip. I have never seen so many grotesque displays in all my life. Even the bathroom was whacked out, with the tiles being covered in the most offensive English language profanities you can imagine. I have included several photos of them for your amusement. The last museum I visited was the Shanghai art museum, which was just ok. Some of the exhibits were inspiring, but most left me bored.

Ok, sorry for the novel but I had a lot to say. Timi and I head to Nanjing in a few days so I probably won't write until I get back from there.

Please visit my photo site,
Any photos you buy will help further my traveling and volunteer work, not to mention they make a nice and extremely cheap gift.

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