Shanghai (and afterthoughts concerning Beijing)

On the 29th of Aug. I flew from Taipei to Shanghai, marking my first visit to mainland China, which felt rather late for someone who has been studying the language for the last 4-5 years. My girlfriend, Lianting, would be flying in on the 1st from Japan to take me to her hometown in Shaoxing. In the meantime, I was entertained and toured around by members of her extended family. Her uncle, Tu Guanda, was in charge of setting me up with lodging and cooking fantastic meals for me, while two cousins, Tu Ying and Tu Wentian, became my willing tour guides to the sights of Shanghai.

My first day of touring began at the Bund. It was an overcast day, not ideal for taking in the views, but it was still nice to visit one of those I've-only-seen-it-in-pictures spots. The fake Rolex racket wears on one's nerves after about the 11th offer, so it was nice to escape the Bund for another touristy spot that was somehow free of street hawkers, the Cheng Huang Miao, or City Temple area. Chinese tourists outnumber the foreign tourists in this extensive maze of shops all done in traditional Chinese architectural style. The center of it all is the Yu Yuan, a classical Chinese garden that is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding stops a tourist can make in Shanghai. Like any good Chinese garden, it excels at offering layered views into intimate courtyards, and recreating the wonders of nature on a small scale. Latticed windows, winding verandas, laced tree branches, hanging eaves, and tilting rock formations always define the boundaries of your view, and obscure the object of your gaze, making you feel that in each adjacent courtyard, or around the next bend, is a hidden world that you can't quite reach. Often I found myself peering through a moon-shaped doorway, or through a lattice, amazed that there could be yet another perfectly tranquil, and sublimely evocative courtyard, only to realize that I had already been there. The genius of this garden lies not in the space it creates, but in the views into spaces, such that each view conjures your delight anew, even if it is something you're already seen, albeit from a different angle.

On the second day I hit the Shanghai museum of art, which is another must-see destination. For students of Chinese history, art, or literature, it will open up a portal onto the past. I particularly enjoyed the ancient bronze work and the brush painting exhibits.

Before you pack your bags for Shanghai, though, I feel I should warn you that manners and etiquette here are not as developed as I expected given Shanghai's reputation as a global city. Lining up behaviors seem to be good microcosms for understanding a culture's sense of manners and personal space. While in India, you could never even hope for a line, and simply have to join the tussle to get what you need, Shanghai seems to be in transition, such that there appears to be lines, but there is constant jockeying for position. I found this particularly disturbing because the semblance of well-mannered lining behavior is quite convincing, but as soon as your guard is down, someone cuts in. At Watson's, an international chain that sells daily necessities, I made it to the front of an orderly line, only to have the two customers behind me actually reach under my armpits, shoving their goods and money into the face of the cashier, who readily accepted them!  It seems that you line up in order to get within reach of the cashier, and from there it's a free-for-all. This is an monumental shock after coming from Taiwan where things can be a little loose at, say, a street stall, but once you get into a chain store, an upscale restaurant, or onto the subway, manners are top-notch.

When I was in Taiwan, my main issues with regards to manners had to do with personal space, as the Taiwanese are always friendly, but sometimes so insistently friendly that you feel that it is difficult to extricate yourself from undesirable situations. Shanghai is far colder, and every man for himself is obviously the main operating principle. None of this applies, of course, to every last person, as Lianting's family treated me with every courtesy imaginable, but is simply a statement about the feeling one gets moving through public spaces.

Previously in this blog I had attributed this aggression and lack of courtesy to China's complex history and particularly to the effects of the cultural revolution, where manners were considered a bourgeois relic that needed to be excised, and also the rapid, and unequal, economic development which has created very real fears of being left out of the boom, and stoked competitive instincts. However, now that I have visited Beijing, I feel I must amend my statements, and even apologize for any hurt feelings caused by such judgements. Certainly I should not have been so rash as to assume that I could understand all of China through the microcosm of Shanghai. Beijing, for example, is a warm and courteous place. I can't say it is orderly or that queueing behavior earns top marks, but it is a place with a heart, where the kindly interest of strangers more than makes up for the occasional tussles and confusions that occur everyday in traffic, in communication, and yes, in lines. Are the striking differences between these Chinese cities due to their differing histories, local customs, or to the effects of the Chinese government's Olympian efforts to update codes of behavior to better receive Olympic guests? Who could ever know? But as far as the casual visitor need be concerned, the Beijing Olympics theme song says it all: "北京欢迎你“ or "Beijing Welcomes You".


You Can't Take the Taiwan out of the Surfer

Well, I couldn't access my blog from the mainland thanks to the great firewall of China, so now that I am back in the States I will try to fill in what happened during my last days in Taiwan and while in China over the next few entries.

School finished on the 24th of August and I left for the mainland on the 29th, which left me a few days to fill. If you recall, my original plan was to seek waves in the South, but weather was not on my side. Reports came in that Kending, the main Southern surf spot, was flat. At the same time, Jason, the friend who braved the crowds with me on my last surf expedition, called in to say it was double-overhead in the North, an aberration for this time of year. I responded to this call-to-arms by hopping the train for Yilan, armed only my surf trunks and the phone number of Brother Song, owner of a surf-shop/dormitory that rents boards and beds for the night. A mix-up caused by poor cell-phone reception and a thick Taiwanese accent left me stranded at the wrong train station for an a few hours, worried that I might not get to the beach before sunset. Things worked out, as they do, and Brother Song's daughter found me and got me to the beach with an hour or so of sunlight left.

The swell had died down and the wind had picked up, making for sloppy head to shoulder high waves, with sets at perhaps one to two feet overhead. I rented a 7'6" fun board, as there were no short boards to be found. The paddle out was into the wind, and brutal. Out of shape from a summer of hitting the books, and unable to duck-dive the plank I had rented, I only made it outside 3 times. On the fourth paddle-out as I marked my progess against a jetty 50 yards up the beach, I realized I was going nowhere. I hopped the next inside reform back to the beach and called it a day. Overall it was fun to be in some bigger waves again, though they tended to die right after the drop-in, then reform further in on a sandbar. For those of you familiar with Mondo's, north of Ventura, you'll get an idea of the conditions.

After a night of sleep frequently disturbed by late-night arrivals of surfers from other parts of the island chasing the swell, I made a 6 am dash for the waves. The swell had further died, but conditions were clean and glassy: consistent waist-high waves with occaisonal head-high sets. I went with a 7'2" fun board this time, figuring I didn't need to duck-dive, and wanting the extra float to compensate for my weak paddling muscles. This turned out to be a great morning and I caught numerous waves, though it was really a day for long-boarders in the end. I swapped to a bigger board and upped my wave count for the final 40 minutes before completely exhausting myself at about 9 am.

A solid breakfast and a nap restored me and I contemplated another session, but the offer of a free-ride back to Taipei tempted me to return to the dorm to pack my bags. After an hour, my ride still hadn't showed. A stroll back to the beach failed to find him, as well. Finally, as I scoured the surf-shops along the narrow road that fronts the beach, I spotted him doing a little "bai-bai", that is, burning incense in front of a pile of food offerings and ghost money in front a shop owned by his friend. After the ceremoney he apologized and explained that it was the beginning of ghost month on the lunar calendar, and a friend had asked him to offer some incense for the success of his store, and to protect it from the hordes of roaming spirits would that flood the world for the next 28 days. He had no way to politely refuse, and no way to contact me, so he just went ahead with the offering, hoping I would still be around when he was done. While on the whole, surf culture is surprizingly stable the world over; surfers wear the same fashions, read the same magazines, watch the same videos; surf lingo is even consistent, or imported into Chinese via direct translation (inside/outside, shoulder/head high...) but there are still moments like these when local culture prevails, and even the most dedicated beach bum becomes a devotee of the local proctector gods.