January 20, 2008

The Price of Tea in China

Well that last post took me an hour to write -- hopefully this one will be shorter ... although probably not :-)

Friday after work, I hung out with Tim, Herbert, and Tony. Tim's wife is in this cooking club and one of her friends invited her to this concert/sale/fashion show at High Street Lofts. Before that, we went to dinner at Dong Bei Ren ("Northeast People"). They serve (get ready for it) Dongbei cuisine. Pretty yummy, especially the appetizer dish of cucumbers, cilantro, onions, and sesame seeds. Very zesty. This is the first time since my arrival that I've had Dongbei cuisine, and like all the other cuisines I've had here (Shanghainese, Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunanese), I really liked it.

Anyway the four of us got kind of lost on the way out there, which resulted in probably an hour's worth of walking. We met up there with Megan and a friend of hers and proceeded to order. There was a game of snooker on the TV; unfortunately the TV was right next to my head so I was probably blocking a bunch of people from looking at it :-)

The food was great, but the high point of the night was this: halfway through dinner, we heard shouting and clattering dishes from upstairs. Megan, who speaks / understands Chinese very well, told us that somebody had just swore a couple times. So we were kind of giggling at that and just wondering what was going on. For like 10 minutes, we heard people shouting, some bottles breaking, and more cussing. We all just thought it was some kind of fight. All of a sudden, four guys come walking down the stairs -- and they're carrying, literally, a heavier guy who is completely passed out. Hahaha. I guess he got a bit drunk and obnoxious. They carried him outside and propped him up against a wall. We were all laughing at this point. Tony and Tim even had the balls to break out their cameras, open the door, lean outside, and take pictures of the scene. I don't think they got any good shots, mainly because they were smart enough to stand well away from the guys. But the idea was funny enough.

After that we hiked it down to the High Street Lofts. We cut through a dump, like, literally a dump on this plot of land in between two ritzier streets. People were carting things around. That's Shanghai -- the old right in there with the new, the poor jammed up against the rich.

We end up inside this shopping mall and take the escalator up to the second floor. Everything's very white. There's a group of guys and a girl playing djembes and other kinds of drums in the middle of the floor. Clustered around them are photographers and other hangers-on, mostly expats, who look like they do belong in a fashion show. There are several photography sets scattered around the place, and people are fussing with lights and clothing and cameras and sound equipment. We're in the center area of a 5-story shopping mall. Of course the space is circular and not very acoustically-minded, so there's a lot of crazy echoing going on. There's nothing much to do, so I take the escalators up to the highest levels and walk around looking for something interesting. I find nothing of the sort :-) All the stores are either women's fashion, bridal wear, or furniture. That, plus a couple cafes and stuff like that. So I'm not too disappointed when we all decide to leave like half an hour later.

On the way back to the subway, we cut through Maoming Lu, which is supposed to be this famously pre-Guliani Times Square place where lonely expats and prostitutes mix. So we're disappointed when we walk by the strip and all we see are like six bars with nobody doing anything interesting. One girl outside the New York Bar (which is playing techno, natch) yells at us to come inside. We laugh it off and keep moving. Apparently this place used to be far more of a den of sin, but the city appears intent on beautifying it because they've shut down many of the bars. At the end of the road is the House of Blues and Jazz, which Tim tells us is moving to a new location. How disappointing.

It's late now, by subway time anyway, so we rush to the station and hear a train arriving. Huzzah! Unfortunately it takes off before we can get there, and an attendant tells us it's the last one. Bu hao. So it's off to find a cab, which, given the cold and rain and the fact that it's Friday night on Huaihai Lu, is no easy task. It takes maybe 45 minutes of walking, walking, hailing cabs, walking, and more walking. Finally we find out and pile in. Night complete.

Saturday I awoke to rain. Given what everybody tells me about the Shanghai weather, I'm surprised it's taken this long into my visit to rain steadily. I'm still intent on sightseeing, though, and I walk to Da Mu Zhi to get coffee and breakfast. On my way out I duck into Carrefour and pick up an umbrella. This is the first umbrella I've owned since college, seriously. Because that's the last time I ever had to do this much walking :-)

Still intent on going out, I head for the subway station and exit at Lujiazui. My intent is to visit the Pearl Tower and do all the dumb touristy things inside, like the museum and the sightseeing deck. But after waiting in line for tickets for like 10 minutes, I decide to forego that plan and attempt to see the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum in People's Square.

Unfortunately I don't quite make it :-) The museum is on my map but I cannot find it in the park at all. Instead I find the MoCA, which is where I ended up spending my time and taking all those neato pictures. That took about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It was pretty cool. I think the last time I was in a museum was for a project in my senior year of college. And before that, I can't remember -- maybe when my dad took me to the Smithsonian when I was a kid? No idea. I guess I am just not that interested in "art" or maybe I just don't consider it something that I'm interested in, so I don't go. Who knows :-)

But for whatever reason, I really enjoyed the exhibit at the MoCA. The sculpture of the girl and the eggs was really fucking amazing. I'd pay money to have that installed in my house :-) Upstairs was really neat, with hundreds of folding fans and decorated bags all over the place. Some of the prints downstairs were also really cool. I may have to re-think this whole anti-museum thing :-)

After that, I planned on heading to the Bund sightseeing tunnel, so I packed up my camera and started trekking across the park. On my way out, I passed two Chinese girls holding an umbrella. They said hello, and I said hello back, and like that dude on Nanjing Dong Lu, they stopped and begun talking to me. I figured they just wanted a chance to either a) talk to a foreigner or b) practice their English or c) all of the above. They were really nice and they asked me lots of questions, like "What's your favorite color?" Hahaha. Since I really had nothing else better to do, I walked around with them for like 20 minutes. Our walk took us outside the park onto one of the main roads, I think Fuzhou Lu. The sidewalks were incredibly crowded and because it was still raining, everybody had their umbrellas. I kept having to raise my umbrella up so it wouldn't hit either somebody else or a fence or pay phone on the other side of the sidewalk, haha.

Anyway we walk and talk for like 5 minutes and we get to one of the side streets when they say something like "Hey, come with us - we want some tea because it's cold out and that'll warm us up." Immediately I'm like: scam! I'd read about it way back in January 2007 when I first was thinking about taking the trip to Shanghai. Ah, good ol' brain, you come in handy sometimes. So I declined and said something about wanting to keep walking, or that I wasn't hungry, or some combination of the two. They politely excused themselves and went off down the side road.

At the time I felt kind of bad, I mean, who knows, maybe they were just looking to make friends? But I figured I've been here two weeks and don't know the lay of the land just yet - it's better to just decline anything like that, especially when I've read about it beforehand. And I'd rather not have my ass kicked by goons shaking me down for tea money that I don't have. It sucks, because the logical extension of that philosophy is that here in China, anyone who approaches you like that wants something from you (most likely your money) and is willing to put on false pretenses to get it. It makes me want to keep my guard up, which also sucks because lord knows my guard is up enough as it is. But hey, you know, that's just how it is.

When I spoke with Tim today, I told him what had happened and he was like "You did the right thing. I know plenty of people who've gotten taken in by that scam." So that at least made me feel better and that I'm not just some paranoid lao wai who's terrified of experiencing China, haha.

He even congratulated me for wasting half an hour of their time - "Way to take one for the team," he said, lol. But I was just trying to be friendly :-)

I went home after that, and that's pretty much the extent of my Saturday. It rained all night and morning. I left the apartment to get dinner on Saturday night and again this afternoon to get some grub. I had braised beef, asparagus, and deep-fried pumpkin cakes -- yum!! So delicious. Great breakfast :-)

Tonight I just got home from Cotton's where there was some improv comedy going on. I went with Tim and Herbert, who wanted to check it out because he's a stand-up comic. But it wasn't that funny. Part of the problem was the venue -- Cotton's is a bar with three rooms connected via open doorways. It's not a traditional stage-and-audience venue. So the announcer and his troupe were wandering from room to room, doing the same sketch in here as they did over there but with a different premise. I couldn't see the performers half the time. They were going for a Whose Line is it Anyway kind of deal with a lot of audience participation, and it kind of worked, but the performers weren't that good :-) Before that we had dinner at Vedas, an Indian restaurant just down the street. That was pretty good - actually, the tandoori sea bass was awesome. And at the show we sat next to these two women from Holland. They are in Shanghai because they have degrees in hotel management and Shanghai has an inordinate number of five-star hotels, so they're working their way up the ladder, haha. Also, they want to land Shanghainese men - "to carry [their] purses." I thought that was funny. Apparently though, they're in the right place. Shanghainese men have a reputation as being pretty meek. And Shanghainese women have the opposite reputation - they're stereotyped as manipulative, materialistic, and all that. Hahahaha. I wonder how those dynamics evolved.

So that's about it for now. I really need a haircut, and I really need to sign up with a gym. I haven't worked out in forever. But for now -- you guessed it -- I'm going to sleep :-) Finally caught up with my blogging ... woohoo!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love reading your blog, Ry, as always. I have some info to update your 'museum' memories. When I visited you in Austin we went to an exhibit (ok it wasn't a museum but at a college, I think) on The History of Writing. You took notes for an article you were writing. Remember? I have pix:-). That said, I'm not much on museums either though as I have gotten older I'm more interested! Much love, Aunt I.