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China

I thought I might write a little blurb as I go, so that all our friends and family can know what we’re up to while in China and how we feel about it, etc.

My first impression was kind of difficult to describe.  You know what it’s like when you’ve been flying for a long time and you get somewhere.  You just want to sleep.  The problem with international traveling is that the flight takes forever and then when you get there, you have to deal with whatever country you’ve stepped into, when you are utterly unprepared to go through that kind of mental exercise.  In our case the flight was about 13 hours, but given that I’ve done ten hour flights like 20 times, and I’ve even done a 15 hour flight a couple, it was acceptable.  I took two benedryl and passed out for about four hours of it.  But let me just explain my trip.

First, we had to get off the plane and find our luggage, which I did with a very serious looking Chinese policeman standing right over me, partly due to the fact that I accidentally grabbed a bag identical to mine that was in fact someone else’s. The owner of said bag came running over and fussed over it.  We were the only two with matching luggage, but the cop was like, fixated on me.  Next we had to get a cab.  Now I did not know this, but apparently, the airport in Shanghai has a deal with cab companies.  You pay them about a hundred dollars and they find you a cab.  Never mind that the nearest cab is probably only about 30 yuan, but I so did not feel like negotiating or trying to figure it out.  The concierge at the airport did all that for me.  Anyway, we took the cab to the train station, and I learned my first lesson: distances estimated by google maps are bullshit.  Our cab ride to the train was seriously like an hour long, and on the map it looked like five minutes.

At night, the city of Shanghai is not lit, except for tall buildings.  There are dozens of back alleys and buildings, but you’d never know it, because the lights are downcast. The freeways are elevated and you see vague outlines of building like shapes no matter whre you look.  The impression created is that you are spending an hour on a bridge, over a sea of people.  The tall buildings loom out, lit with neon that destroys your ability to see into the dark.

The train station is a GIANT place with no English signs.  The travel guides tell you to use the automated ticket counter, but that’s crap.  There’s an English speaking porter at the info desk, and an English ticket counter.  Now, if you’ve never used public transit, it’d be effing scary.  However, we have used BART and British rail enough times to know that the ticket will have a car and seat number in the upper right corner.  One thing that was interesting is that there were two gates with the same number, A and B.  They were on opposite sides of the station and we were confused until we went to the train.  We realized the trains are quite long, so the A side is the front portion and B the back.  We took the high speed rail train, which goes like 200 mph and got us there in less than half an hour.  It cost about 12 USD.

We got off the train and followed signs to the taxis, but noticed that people were running to the stand.  We found out why, shortly   The cab stand was fully a 30 minute wait.  A quad-coiled line that looked like a line at magic mountain, mostly filled with kids and elderly.  Our cabbie was seriously insane.  He began shouting almost immediately because our GOOGLE MAP was shit.  It took a semi-english speaking cab stand porter to explain that the hotel “pan pacific” was actually the “sheridan” and that he should take us there.  He was pissed off the whole time.  It’s funny, because it immediately made me realize that the locals DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. Which I knew, but in my experience people at least pick up a few words. I’m not language centric, I think it’s appalling that Americans only speak English, but given that the radio stations here have American and Britich music, the television stations have English programming, and the Hollywood movies are advertised everywhere, you’d think words like “OK” and “Here” would be understood, but no. There is no attempt on their part to even try.

After this, as is quite understandable, we felt a bit put off and uncertain.  When you travel internationally, you have to be willing and able to look like an asshole and an idiot. Be prepared to be laughed at, and enjoy the humility, otherwise they’ll scowl at you and potentially let you starve.

We got to our hotel at about 8, and the people there walked us out of the main lobby and into another building.  Ben freaked out, thinking we were about to be cheated, but the hotel is insane.  It’s like what you might think of as a Chinese palace.  It has three giant wings and several others, gardens and courtyards, and we are placed at the far extreme of the leftmost building.. Our cab drove up a giant wall, serisously, like a ramp built into the great wall of china, just to get to the check in desk.

Our room is amazing.  An office space, a king sized bed, and a ginormous bathroom with a spa tub and a rain shower.  There are buttons, speakers, and luxuries gallore.  It is the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, because of quality, but also because of service.  And we’re only paying 80USD a night. I’ve been trying to soak it up, because I know that our hotel in Japan is the opposite. It’s cramped and tiny.

The staff is amazing.  They not only book things like restaurants and taxis for you, they also write information in Chinese, so that you can show the card to any cab or attendant and not get lost.  Unless, you have the experience like we had last night.

A lovely concierge named Sandy, booked us a table at a “traditional Suzhou” restaurant in the old town. She told us it would be about 400 yuan a person and that they only took cash. Not unusual here, though the price is quite steep for china. What she didn’t tell us was that it was a 300 year old house, that we’d be the only people there eating at one of five table in the whole place, and that it would be impossible to find.

The Chinese don’t eat there. This means that not a single person we talked to knew where the hell we were going. The cab driver dropped us off at the end of an alley alongside a waterway. He got out and went into the nearest business, came back out and pointed. We got out and walked. And walked. And walked. We passed lots of people, businesses, etc. But we did not find OUR place. Finally I called the hotel and unfortunately spoke to a woman who asked me insane questions like “where are you?” and “Can you spell me the signs?” How am I supposed to spell Chinese characters for you. If I could do that I wouldn’t be lost! Eventually, we got Sandy. She called the restaurant and had them send someone out for us. Simultaneously, we found a hotel that had a gentleman who did not speak english, but was damn willing to help. He pantomimed to us and then walked us halfway, until the waitress found us. And by waitress, I mean like head hostess.

They walked us into a door in a wall. No wonder it was impossible to find! Then through two buildings and courtyards. Finally we got to our table, only to find it was in a bedroom, with the bed still in it. We had a private waitress. She stood and watched us eat. It would have been odd if she wasn’t young and completely unable to understand anything we were saying. The food was amazing. Like ten little dishes, all delicious. They just kept coming. And finally Ben and I gave up.

I have to say, Suzhou food is amazing, but simple, full of savory and earthy flavors. There was no rice. There was no sweet and sour. But it was trully a great experience. Even the out house squat toilet had it’s charm. Though if you have ever tried to use one in a formal dress in high heels, you understand that you are about to work off every calorie you just ate with a thigh workout that vengeful body builders designed on a day when they were coming off the juice.

All in all, while I like a lot about it, I have to say that I’m not sure I like it here.

I have noticed the older people HATE speaking English.  It’s not that they don’t know it. It’s that they will not even try to communicate in any way with you once you indicate that ou don’t speak Chinese. Cabbies pass you by. Street vendors wave you off.

Normally, when you’re in a foreign land, and are a traveler with some experience, you feel the requisite amount of shame at not being able to bridge the linguistic gap.  You ache to communicate, so you find ways to make it happen.  And you bow the whole time.  But here, there is no understanding, no patience.  You can indicate that you speak no chinese, try to gesticulate, and an older person will just repeat the same phrase over and over, and refuse to make eye contact.  They will not help you.  So you must do it yourself.  One thing that has served us well is an iphone app I downloaded that immediately translates english into chinese, both verbally and in audio.  So you have instant conversation, however, you must be able to talk around a subject.  For example, certain phrases are simple and thus easily translated, like i want to go to…, but others are more difficult.  i had to retype and rehrase the idea of “do whatever you want to my hair because I trust you”, like ten times.  Finally I won with…”I am going to a party.  Curl.  cut sides. I don’t care what you do.  Price is not important.”  Luckily, my stylist had an iphone and was young enough to understand completely.

Ben left his business card in an ATM. He has to go to the bank of china home office today and figure out whether or not he can get his card back before we have to leave. He’s going to wish he had that app.

One thing that has been invaluable and always is to a foreigner, is finding that on haunt that is a little bit of home.  Now you may be ambitious and say to yourself, “I don’t need home.  I came here to get away!”  But if you’ve been around abit, you know that any time you come to a place COMPLETELY foreign, you must find that one haunt in order to have a touch stone.  Across the street from the Pan Pacific Sheridan Hotel is a bar called “Blackjack”  It is owned by a chinese woman named Leona, and her American boyfriend Bob.  It is a hole in the wall, one room, with a foyer-less bathroom, but it doesn’t matter.  The staff is friendly, the liquor is chosen to appeal to foreigners.  There are numerous English speaking staff and patrons, and the whole place just feels awesome.  The music is rock and punk from the 80’s and a pool table takes up the floor.  every Staurday is Hamburger day.  My advice, stay at this hotel and try this bar.  you will not be disappointed.  it will bolster your confidence, give you a sense of belogning, and Leona can tell you which attractions are truly amazing.

I cannot recommend Black Jack strongly enough.  They are struggling, and they shouldn’t be, because they are amazing.

We’ve wandered, as you should always do when you’re traveling.  We’ve had street food.  been corrected a billion times by normal folks.  had perfect strangers translate on behalf of our ignorant asses.  We’ve ventured into hair and nail salons, bought me a anda sweater that shinjuku will go nuts over and managed to get our laundry done.

China is not for the faint of heart.  The food is incredible, but not anything I haven’t had before, though ben did eat a duck head last night.  The clothes and fashion are right in line with US, the alcohol is interesting.  The young kids are fun and interesting.  But honestly, there are enough old, staring people that it makes me not like the place.

Paint is peeeling everywhere.  Rust and dirt on every surface.  Outside the immaculate hotel, the world is crumbling, and no one seems to care.  If you are white, you will be gawked at.  If you are of an odd persuasion, i.e. blond or mohawked, or pierced, prepare to be eyed.  But you will be surprised, given this immediate impression, how many times the shared humors and sorrows of humanity save your ass.  Last night , when I bought a sweater, I was so happy with the panda hood and its zipper mouth that the whole staff was laughing, by the time I left.  Ben got a street vendor to crack up at his lust for spicy chili.  It can be done, but be prepared to suffer failure, shame, and even misery.

Just know that the pool and Black Jack are waiting.

By the way, we went to a Chinese spa last night and got massages. I have to say, NHI did it right. There was not a single thing done to me that I did not know or expect. Two one hour full body massages and two one hour foot massages, $100 exactly.

The difference in price really helps put into perspective one reason why they might dislike westerners. They no doubt get a lot of travelers who come and make it their playground. I encountered that in Thailand, and it seems to be the case here. I can’t help it if I have the resources here to do the kinds of things I’ve wanted to do at home but never gotten to. I just want to eat everything and see all the old stuff. I don’t want to exploit!

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