Time-Travel in Shanghai

Although it’s more appropriate for a Throwback Thursday, today, I’m returning to one of my most memorable moments in Shanghai.  Where old and new, Asian and Western, and poverty and wealth collide.

Thursday Time-Travelers

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bill and I have spent the last few Thursday nights on the town, while the kids stay home with Ayi.  This past week, we had an errand to run before we went to dinner.

Bill is traveling to India in July, so we needed to turn in the documents for his visa. Once we arrive at the necessary office, they directed us to a side street across the road, so Bill could get the correct passport size photos taken. Mr. Tao parked the car, and he and Bill went to the “cubby hole”  which was the “photo shop.”

As I waited in the car, I watched the local activity, smacking myself for not having my camera with me. We were on a street that looked like we had teleported back in time to the 60s or 70s in China. Much farther in the States. We sat by an ancient two-story building, lined with doorway after doorway, only 10 feet apart. Older Chinese men and women, sitting in front of their homes, on bamboo chairs, sharing each other’s company, in the late afternoon sun. Beside one of the doorways, was a cabinet holding what appeared to be a number of family’s wares.  Next door, a gentleman closes up his “shop” for the day, putting away the homemade sign with a handsaw drawn on it. Taking down the worn kettles and pots that had hung on the wall. Upstairs, someone sits close to the open window, resting their elbows on the sill, and leaning out into the fresh air.

Two school boys walk up to the car, one staring in at the console. The other slapping him on the back and telling him, “Too expensive,” in Mandarin. They then walk to the back of the car, where I notice they are now looking at it from the rear. They are so entranced by the car that they have no idea I am watching from behind the tinted, rear windows. Our car is one of thousands of silver, Buick minivans which travel the streets of Shanghai everyday, but it would seem that none have ever been so close.

Once BIll and Mr. Tao return, we head to dinner, a mere five-minute drive from the small side street. The restaurant is one of about six or eight expensive, modern, and chic locations on the Huangpu River which runs through the city. They serve gourmet international cuisine and fine wine, with panoramic views of the cityscape. They spare no expense in dinnerware, furniture, or staff. It is a well-known and frequently visited location in the life of the wealthiest Chinese, and the expat community, but not one of the people on that side street that has endeared me today, could ever imagine.

Bill and I are early for our reservation, so we enjoy a glass of wine in the bar one floor below the restaurant, where we meet and chat with the owner of both.  She is Australian, and was the first to open a restaurant overlooking the river. She is directing her staff in rearranging the furniture. It’s early, so no other customers are there. Later, it will be packed.

Once we are seated on the terrace for our meal, we order a few starters of lobster and salad. When it is time to order our main course, I order “Veal Faggot with Sweetbreads.” I am initially deterred by the word “Faggot,” because I don’t know what it means, then decide it is probably just the way it is served, and veal sounds good, besides, “Sweet Bread” sounds delicious…..I like “sweet” bread. Bill goes with steak.

Before the meal arrives, Bill gets a “swimmer” in his wine, and we let the waitress know. I think she will get him a new glass, Bill thinks she will “fish” it out. BIll wins. She brings over a spoon, cloth napkin, and a new, empty, wine glass. She fishes it out, puts it on the napkin, tells him “good wine,” and asks him if he wants the clean glass. Meeting the owner already, I know she would not approve of this, but we let it go, chalking it up as one of the quirks of living in China. The waitress leaves, and Bill decides he doesn’t want the tainted wine after all, so I chug it down for him. The wait staff chuckle behind us at his facial expressions.

Our meal arrives and it is tasty, but mine has a funny texture, and where is the sweet bread?! I learn later, online, that the “faggot” was the giant meatball that was on my plate, and is made up of all the “extra” parts of the animal.  The other half of my dinner, which had a strange texture, but was fabulous, was the “sweetbread.” Not at all “bread,” but instead a dish made of glands from around the heart and neck. Who in their right mind would call this “sweetbread?!” Towards the end of our meal, fireworks start going off across the river, and the skyline is lit with the lights that make Shanghai, Shanghai.

Two different worlds, only minutes apart. Both scenes are beautiful. Both scenes forever engrained in my memory.


The American Gawker

I don’t think there’s any getting around the natural curiosity of people. Everyone at some point or another, will be interested in what someone else is doing, buying, reading, wearing, eating, saying, etc. In most cases, it is not intended to be malicious, something has merely peaked interest for some reason or another. Below is my version of the American Gawker.

The Incognito Gawker- This person is out in a public environment and the weather is such that they have sunglasses on. When something out of the ordinary catches their attention, they realize that they can place their head so it does not seem they are watching, while moving the eyes to an effective viewing position.

The Tourist Gawker-The Tourist gawker is also out in a public place, usually with at least one other person in their group. In this case, the gawking is usually caused by an unusual appearance or activity that could be easily captured in a still frame form.  One person will pose for a picture in a manner where the subject of interest is in the background, allowing a photo to be taken without it appearing suspicious.

The Morbid Curiosity Gawker- This gawker, or gawkers,  are either a secondary cause of a traffic backup, in the case where the accident is at least partially blocking traffic, or the main cause when it is not. As he or she slows down to try to identify the possible injuries or deaths, cause of an accident, damage done, and vehicles involved, they cause the remaining traffic to have to slow, or stop.

The Dart-Eyed Gawker- While watching a person, or group of people, this gawker will get caught in the act. This causes them to dart their eyes in another direction, as if they were actually in the process of turning to look at something else all along. It rarely works. Busted!

The Gap-Mouth Gawker- In this case, whatever the situation that is grabbing someone’s attention may be, it is so shocking that even though they will not walk right up to it, they will be beyond the worry of being noticed, so caught up in their amazement they are in a full-on stare.

The Background Gawker- This person is usually at a family event, a party, or wedding, and sits along the side of the room, or in a corner, watching events unfold. Rarely, does anyone even realize this person is still there. Hidden in plain view.

The Modern Technology Gawker- This gawker initiates a texting circle among friends or neighbors to find out what is going on with a mutual friend or neighbor. In most cases, these are started once a police car, ambulance, or other emergency vehicle is seen near, or at the subject’s house. It can also be caused by unfamiliar car observances, loud noises, or social activity.

The Small Town Gawker- This gawker will come out during the same situations as the Modern  Technology Gawker, barring snow, rain, hail or cold (these conditions would fall back to the above method),  and drift toward the subject of interest. Once finding another neighbor who may have information, they will gather at a distance and compare notes.

The Social Media Gawker- This person may, or may not be, a “lurker” who rarely posts, but reads news feeds and checks the home page of anyone that may peak their interest. This can happen on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, or any other similar social sites.

The Foodie Gawker- This most commonly occurs in restaurants where someone sees an interesting dish pass by on a tray. This person wants to know what it is.  If they still have a menu, they will immediate start scanning to find the item. This also occurs at ethnic restaurants. When one wants to find the tastiest and most authentic food or dish, they will find a restaurant with the most people who appears to be from the nation that the food is from, and then watch to see what they order.

The American Gawker usually does not want to be identified. They prefer to gawk on the sly. This happens for a number of reasons. One is because we are (correctly) taught that “staring” is not polite. We also don’t want to appear to be “nosy.”  In many cases, such as the Foodie Gawker, and once the situation has cleared, the Modern Technology Gawker or Small Town Gawker, they could just ask the person involved. This, however, is usually avoided due to embarrassment, lack of relationship with the subject, or fears of how the questions will be received.

Human curiosity is not going anywhere. Inquiring minds want to know. The gawking will continue, the methods will change and evolve with time. Who knows what it will be next!