Monday, August 22, 2011

A return to Shanghai: Part I (Lengthy)

Side note: new toy at the bottom of the page: a map of countries and states I’ve visited.

At the tender age of 16, I hopped onto a plane and spent several weeks at a Chinese study program in Shanghai. I lived there for a few weeks with a Chinese family, attended Chinese classes with a group of mostly Korean college students, and explored Shanghai and environs. It was a sketchy program, but I got to go to China. Anyway, by the end of that summer in 2008, I was quite familiar with Shanghai. Furthermore, my dad’s been to Shanghai many times on business over the past twenty years – more on that later – so the city’s also basically paid my dad’s salary for quite a bit. So when I got the internship here in Shenzhen, there was no question about it: I was going to go to Shanghai, for however briefly, to have a nostalgia trip and see how the ever-growing city has changed in three years. Even though the school shut down during swine flu, and my host family immigrated to Canada, I still felt that I had a lot to see there. So I went.

Shanghai street scenes. The first is in a more residential area, the second is in a denser area closer to the downtown area.
I flew out of Shenzhen late on Friday night. My flight was delayed by an hour, so I only arrived at where I stayed at about 2am. I fell onto the bed. Even then, it was nice to be back.

I stayed at a rather cheap hotel – it only cost $15/night more than the hostels, but had a locking door and bathroom. China has several chains of cheap, clean low-frills hotels that are quite decent. If you’re travelling in China, I strongly suggest you take a look into staying at these types of places. It is very much worth the money.

I got up at 8am, cleaned up, and then went to my very favorite tourist trap: Xintiandi.

Xintiandi: land of the moneyed tourists
In 2001, a very rich developer took a ton of old, colonial-era Shanghai houses and refurbished them into boutiques, restaurants, and a tourist area. This area also happened to include the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party. So it became even more touristy. The old houses of Sun Yat-Sen and Zhou Enlai aren’t far away either.

I walked around, had some cheap noodles, and bought some presents. I spent a few minutes inside a nearby store specializing in products from Xinjiang. The area hasn’t changed much, but has become a lot more of a traveller’s spot. There are many more white people now. I saw more non-Asians than I had seen in two weeks in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, if I see white people on the Metro, I think “why is there another white person on the train?”

Either way, Xintiandi is very posh and pretty, and the neighborhood around it is quite interesting too. Chinese people in Shanghai are a bit taken aback if a white person speaks Mandarin – a lot of expats don’t speak any, and tourists usually don’t. In Shenzhen, it’s less exotic.

More Xintiandi. It's a pretty good example of urban historic redevelopment.  Particularly in a country where it gets messed up 98% of the time.
I also went to a nearby city park that I really liked back in 2008. It’s built around a memorial to Marx and Engels (this area is great for CCP nerds and for Sosc addicts), but has a lake and a tea room and gorgeous trees. In China, people gather in city parks on the weekend to practice traditional instruments and sing in choirs. It’s a pretty awe-inspiring experience to watch a group of people suddenly gather, pull out hymnals, and start singing 1930s patriotic songs. (It should be noted that Shanghai is by far China’s most patriotic city).

By the tea room in the city park, a choir sings an ode to a beauty.
Then it was off for some Maroon time.

My friend and classmate Michelle is awesome. She’s a Cantonese-American from Texas who pretty neatly bridges Chinese and American culture. She’s also a crazy-brilliant mathematician and wears heels of heights that I didn’t know you could walk in. She’s also working in Shanghai this summer. So we met up.

I met Michelle and her friends at Zhongyuan Park in the west of Shanghai: a nostalgia trip in and of itself. Zhongyuan Park used to be my Metro stop. Since then there has been a ton of construction and the Metro station more than doubled in size. Wow.

Anyway, that neighborhood is a giant shopping neighborhood, with tons of cheap stores and malls of stalls. Michelle and her friend bought some phenomenal shoes, and I got more presents for people, and an inexpensive suitcase. Shanghai is cheaper than the west and is a clearinghouse for tons of great present-type things. I bought more than half the gifts here. It’s still pretty pricy for China though. I spent more money in 12 hours than I did in a week and a half in Shenzhen.

Fake Swiss Gear bags with the label "Swiss Win." Very win. Also, consumer capitalism galore.
Then, we ate.

No Chinese social occasion is complete without at least one embarrassing spree of gluttony. Sort of like Jewish occasions. Anyway, the five of us traipsed off to a Sichuan restaurant, where we talked and ate ridiculous amounts of food. Sichuan food is spicy, but good spicy.

Mishi and I caught up, and I talked for a while with Michelle’s friend-colleagues. We also ate a ton of food.

Part of our gluttony. That fish dish on the left swimming in the chili peppers is  among the best fish dishes I've ever had.
We had chicken, mushrooms, more mushrooms, vegetables, noodles made of carp, fish braised in broth with chilies and bean sprouts, and other food. The others had some bull frog, which I, being the good kosher boy, did not partake in. Each of us went crazy on one dish. Mine was the fish. 

Thankfully, there weren’t any carbs, so we didn’t feel too heavy, although our food comas were pretty epic. Michelle and I talked a bit about Chinese food culture, and we all went at length about the pitiful quality of American vegetables. Chinese veggies are amazing. Michelle noted, “it’s best just to keep eating and not think about how much you’ve eaten.”

Then we did some more shopping – found some awesome edible presents for people , and also visited a KTV booth, where some of us made total fools of ourselves singing songs. Karaoke is awesome.

I headed back later that night and took note of my acquisitions. The next day would be pretty busy as well. It was great to be back.

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