The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Shanghai: The Good, The Bad, and The Chinese

It’s been about a week since I celebrated another one of China’s many national holidays (complete with four days paid vacation—gotta love this country) in the nation’s famed “Pearl of the Orient.” Armed with my plane ticket, 2000RMB and next to no comprehension of the Chinese language, I set off  bright and early on a foggy Saturday morning for the Dalian International Airport to begin my great Shanghai Expo excursion…except that planes  don’t fly in I actually ended up spending the next six hours sitting in the Dalian International Airport waiting for any coherent word about when my flight would actually take off…though, it was in fact a good thing my flight didn’t actually take off at the time it was originally scheduled to since about two hours after checking in, I discovered to my very pleasant surprise that the genius at the check-in desk had typed the wrong gate number on my ticket…then, I spent the next hour asking various flight personnel through a series of points, broken Chinese and exasperated grunts where the frick my gate was. Most responded by pointing to the gate number on my ticket even after I told them (in Chinese) that it was incorrect. Then, I would proceed to repeat once again that the gate number on the ticket was incorrect and try to suggest that, perhaps, it might make more efficacious to…oh, I don’t know…look up the flight number in that there magic computer box of theirs... at which point they would all respond the same way “wo bu zhe dao” ("I don’t know"), because apparently, in Dalian, working as a flight attendant at an airport requires no actual knowledge of said airport or its outgoing or incoming flights. In any case with the aid of an English-speaking Israeli man who happened to have an English-speaking Chinese friend, I eventually located the correct gate to the correct flight, and just a short four hours later I was on a plane…and only a brief hour and a half after that I actually took off in that plane. And then, FINALLY, headed for the grand city of Shanghai.

Now, had this been my first and only experience in China, I must admit it may have very well led me to some rather derogatory notions about the country and its people—like that its run by a bunch of people with the intellect and competency of mentally-challenged five-year-olds.  But I suppose by that same logic, an outsider might also conclude the very same thing about Americans after spending a day at a post office or clinic in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. But I am not so ignorant as to subscribe to such a narrow-minded view, and thankfully, this was not my first nor will it be my last experience in China, so I know full-well that this fine country is filled with plenty of intelligent, insightful and incredibly helpful people…none of whom work at the Dalian Airport.

Needless to say, by the time, I arrived in Shanghai and boarded a coach bus from the Pudong Airport to my hostel, it was pretty late and I was more than a little irked that I had pretty much spent all of Day 1 of my vacation in an overcrowded airport. However, all the irritation subsided the minute I looked out the coach window at the glittery, glamorous wonderland that was downtown Shanghai at night. The mix of palm trees, gleaming skyscrapers, and flashing light beams of blue, purple, gold and pink are somewhat similar to what I imagine Las Vegas looks like at night, except much more tasteful in design (although, I’ve never actually been to Las Vegas). And as we glided over a rainbow-lit bridge toward our final destination, I even got a glimpse at the breath-taking exteriors of the Expo pavilions and the thousands of people floating in and out of them.  At that point, that sight alone could have made for a sufficient trip. It was really too amazing to put into words...and a scene I totally would have missed had my flight departed on schedule. So I guess it was all worth it…well, that is until about three hours later when I spent about an hour or so with one of the hostel workers trying to figure out which bed I was supposed to sleep in. 

“I sink i’s ok,” he said and pointed to a bed, “Use zhis one.” 

“Umm, but it kinda looks like it’s still being used,” I replied pointing out the fact that there were still books, toiletries, folded clothes and a pair of glasses on it.

Pause. “No, I sink i’s ok. You can sleep zhere. No problem.”

Found out about an hour later it was, indeed, still being used by another understandably annoyed patron. But in the end, she got a bed, I got a bed and all was well in Shanghai.

The next two days were spent doing all that touristy stuff that tourists do…visiting the art districts, markets, novelty shops, taking pics at the famed “Bund” (a strip along the river that provides this beautiful mix of ultra modern sky-scrapers and turn of the 20th century Victorian-inspired architecture), posing (and not posing) for “Yes, I am American” photos taken by random Chinese tourists, contemplating the meaning of life at the Yu Garden, and spending too much time waiting in lines at Expo pavilions for five minute demonstrations…All culminating with a fabulous night on the town in one of Shanghai’s fabulously fancy (and overpriced) restaurants overlooking the city’s gorgeous nightline, followed by a walk along a trendy little strip of restaurants, bars, and bistros and riveting conversation about race relations, the NBA, Obama, and Oprah with three lovely young Chinese gentlemen—actually, they weren’t very young at all (and were most-likely married) and our conversation was rather limited given the fact that they only knew about 10 English words and we knew about five Chinese phrases. So our exchange went a little something like this:

Man 1: Oh, so you, uh, American.

Us: Yes, American!

Men: Yeah, American girls good!

Us: Yeah! (Everyone cheers)

Man 1: (Looks at my two friends, looks at me,) Uh, you all American?

Us: Yes.

Man 1: (Points to my two friends) You two white. (All three men look at me) Uh, you…

Me: Black! (Everyone cheers)

(Men pause...look puzzled, ponder this for a minute, then, lo and behold...the epiphany.)

Man 2: NBA! (The other two nod)

Men 1 & 3: Ah, NBA!

Me: Yeah, NBA! (Everyone cheers) 

Me: Obama! 

Men: Obama! (Everyone cheers)

My friend: Oprah! (Everyone cheers)

And thus, a fitting and profound conclusion to my soul-searching journey through the concrete wilderness that is Shanghai. Sure, there are plenty more tales to be told, but perhaps I will save them for another time (or maybe, I’ll save myself the carpal tunnel and just post the pictures instead.) In any case, Shanghai is an absolutely awesome city. They say it’s the New York of China—and in some respects, that’s very true. In some ways, it pales in comparison to NYC (as do most things), yet in others, it totally outshines it (figuratively and literally, ha!) I recommend anybody living anywhere remotely close-by visit it. The fact, alone, that I can even say I went to the World Expo, in itself, is pretty darn cool. I think it’s a great testament to one’s life to be able to mention any monumental international or historical event and utter the words “I was there” in the same breath. I pray everybody is afforded at least one opportunity to do so in their lifetime. So here’s mine: In the summer of 2010, Shanghai hosted the largest World Expo in history...and I was there :o)

Popular Posts