There is no city outside of North America that reminds me of New York as much as Shanghai does. There’s a buzz, a vibe, a hum that’s a little more shrill, being in Chinese and all, but it does for me what the smell of pastry did for Swann… it reminds me of home.
For one thing, there’s Nanjing Road (East Nanjing Road, to be exact). Nanjing Road is exactly what you’d get if Times Square were four miles long. In many ways, though, it’s more impressive. For one thing, it’s mostly a pedestrian street—but it’s not like those charming European pedestrian streets, it’s like… well, it’s exactly like Times Square would be if it were a four-mile long pedestrian street: bathed in colored neon, flooded with people selling all kinds of illicit things (from sex to flapping plastic birds), lined with fast food restaurants and tacky stores. But Nanjing Road is crowded. It’s crowded in a way that even Times Square doesn’t know. It’s crowded all the time, and walking along it you will become amazed that there are that many people in the world. You’ll also realize that a great big proportion of the people in the world are Chinese. A Chinese friend once told me: “There are a lot of us. If you tell a Chinese woman she’s ‘one in a million,’ that means there are thirteen hundred people just like her in China.” You get a tiny taste of that on Nanjing Road, where the press of the crowd is intense and unremitting and relentlessly Chinese.
There are differences between Nanjing Road and Times Square. For one thing, Nanjing Road is a lot cleaner. For another, after midnight, it’s pretty much dead, at least during the week. Chinese go to bed early, because early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
That being said, it’s never been my impression that Chinese are all that concerned with health and wisdom. Wealth is another matter.
Americans tend to judge nations by their military might. How many times have I had conversations with Americans who disparage the French for the fact that they surrendered in the second world war (there’s a whole topic to be had about that, but it will wait). The average person in the rest of the world, however, tends not to care that much any more about the relative military strength of his or her homeland. Sure, the United States could probably still whip China in a war (we’d zap them with hi-tech killer robots or something), but the Chinese, as a whole, couldn’t care less. They want to control the world through commerce. You feel this in everything here—the buzz you hear in the street is the jingle of change.
Ironically, as I write this, I just came back to my hotel after a late evening walk down on Nanjing Road West, where Nanjing Road changes from Times Square to Fifth Avenue. As I was walking, I just happened to run into a friend that I haven’t seen for at least ten years, a Frenchman who lives here. Needless to say, we were both surprised to run into each other in the street in Shanghai, and we went out for a beer to catch up. He explained that he had started a company here in China importing French products, and had done quite well. I asked him how he liked it here, he replied: “If I were a devout Catholic, I’d want to live in Rome, if I were a fervent Muslim, I’d want to live in Mecca, but I’m a businessman, which means that I want to live in Shanghai!” That about sums it up.
Take T-shirts. There is evidently a vibrant T-shirt market here, and one that is entirely impervious to what the writing on the front actually says. Surprisingly, most of this writing is in English as opposed to Chinese and I have to imagine that many of the tee-shirt manufacturers, in an effort to save cost, do not bother getting native English speakers to come up with the phrases. A brief sample includes:
- “MUSIC SING MY LIFE”
- “MS. CAUCH”
- “LET’S ENGRAVE VIVIDLY FOLLOW OUR EYES”
And the cryptic:
- “DIARY AVE TO AVE TO DIARY”
I would have marked down more, but I learned that when you spend too much time staring at women’s chests, you get some very nasty looks in return.
All of these phrases may seem strange, but remember that this is a country that seems to thrive on strange English translations. In my habitual boarding house in Beijing there is a sign in the elevator that says, IN CASE OF THE EMERGENCY, DON’T BE PANIC I love that. I once told the woman downstairs that I am never panic, but of course she didn’t have the slightest idea what I was talking about.
It should be said that most Chinese don’t speak any English at all. I understand, I don’t speak any Chinese at all. It is a very, very difficult language. The most frustrating thing about Chinese is that with all those tones, the very same syllable can mean entirely different things depending on how you say it, which means that you hear a simple sound and repeat it, thinking you’ve said “milk” and instead you’ve said something like “toe jam”, which can really put a kink in your day. Even simple things, like tea (cha_) never seem to get understood because you should be singing it in some weird way (_CHAaaaAA?).
When [fellow McSweeney’s contributor] Roy Kesey used to live in Beijing, he and his family lived in an apartment complex called The Garden of International Friendship. I learned how to say that. I studied it. I tested it. And whenever I said it to a taxi driver he had no clue what I was talking about. I always had to call Roy and pass the phone to the driver. Once, I got in a cab and said my version of “The Garden of International Friendship”; the cab driver nodded and shot off in the wrong direction. I was pleased that he had understood, but concerned about the direction. I queried him (as best I could) but he just kept nodding and driving, until he finally dropped me off at a second rate hotel with a big sign saying: “International Friendship Hotel.” I was thrilled… my Chinese was improving.
I always figured that if I could steep myself in Chinese culture, that would help. This is one of the reasons that I’ve been adventurous in terms of food. Last night, for instance, I decided finally to try two Chinese dishes that I have never quite stoked up the will to try in the past: jellyfish and duck tongues. The good news is that since I can now describe them for you, you don’t have to try them. Jellyfish is served cold and it is crunchy. What the hell kind of jellyfish is crunchy? Duck tongue is far worse though. I thought they would be these delicate little strips of duck meat, but it turns out ducks have bones in their tongues. Why do ducks need bones in their tongues? Why do they need tongues for that matter? How can anybody believe in intelligent design when ducks have bones in their tongues? Sure, dogs have bones in their dicks, but that you could understand. Many men wouldn’t mind a bone down there. Anyway, what’s even worse about duck tongues is that around the bones are these little pockets of duck fat that squish out onto your own, boneless tongue, when you eat them.
But I hadn’t come to Shanghai this time to stare at women’s chests or to eat jellyfish and duck tongues. I had come to go to the Universal Expo. How could any travel writer not go to the universal expo? You have the whole universe exposed together in one place! What a way to save time and travel expense, you just walk from one pavilion to the next. At the expo, they even give out these little fake passports; you can get them stamped at the different pavilions and then proudly show your friends that you traveled across the entire street!
So it was that I ended up in Shanghai with the intention of writing a dispatch about the expo, but here I am with an entire dispatch already written and I haven’t even gotten to describing the expo yet. I think I’m going to have to split this one into a multi-parter. Stay tuned…