Saturday, October 22, 2005

Submissions Being Solicited

[NOTE: I started writing this post last weekend, got a good chunk of the way through it, and then it disappeared off my screen. I resisted the urge to throw the laptop out the window, and have now calmed down sufficiently to go on. If it happens again, somebody at Sony (Because Caucasians Are Just Too Damn Tall) is gonna get hurt.]

Here's the deal, people. I have waited far, far too long to finish writing about my trip. My notes are sparse and largely indecipherable. And my short term memory isn't what it used to be. In short, I fucked up. So I'm gonna give you what I can figure out and invite all of you to make up the rest. It's kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, or the FanFiction which I understand is popular among 40 year olds who live in their parents' basements (Ha! I've got 10 years to go and mine don't even have a basement!!!) Here goes:

No, Sloth, I did not puke on the plane. But it was NOT out of the question. My flight from Singapore to Hong Kong was rather uneventful, thankfully. The only real issue I had was with the meal. I was in no real mood to eat anyway, but the FA came over and offered me the following choice: "omelette or carrot cake." Now, a nice light slice of carrot cake sounded like something I could conceivably keep down, and I knew I had a decently long trip ahead of me, as I had to switch planes in HK for the flight to Shanghai. So I accepted the offer of carrot cake. People, in Asia, carrot cake does not come in slices. In fact, it's not "cake" at all, and I didn't see any "carrots." Apparently, "carrot cake" is something involving eggs, shrimp and tofu. It would have been excusable for me to have been surprised, had Monkey, Spacecake and I not had a discussion about the very topic the night before. Of course, that was before the bartendress poured that tequila down my throat.

I survived the carrot cake (though I sure didn't eat it), and landed in HK. To find out that my flight to Shanghai had been cancelled. I was prepared to be stranded in HK for days when they told me that, but, compared to dealing with the US airlines, China Eastern was a pleasure. They gave me the choice of taking either the flight before the one I was scheduled on, or the flight after. I had time to clear security, so I took the earlier flight, and that was that. The flight itself was pleasant enough too, and the coughing and spitting and phlegm noises were stereotypically fantastic!!

[Here's where my notes read, as best I can tell, "Dunhill insists on mylar." If you think I saw a man dressed as a European cigarette carrying a bunch of balloons, turn to page 35 . . .]

I was, I admit, a bit disappointed upon arrival at the Shanghai airport. Here I was, an American arriving in Red China. I was kind of hoping to be greeted by a bunch of serious looking uniformed Army dudes staring at me suspiciously, generally making me feel uncomfortable and making me fear being brought into a back room, interrogated in Mandarin with no translator, and suddenly finding myself on trial for the murder of a beautiful Chinese woman. Instead, I found myself waiting in an immigration line of entirely reasonable length, surrounded by a bunch of fat midwestern families with obnoxious kids. I thought my plane might have been diverted to Orlando.

I took the supercool superfast maglev train from the airport to the city, even though it meant dragging my ridiculously heavy bag about 3 miles through the airport and switching to the subway to get to the area near my hotel. It's pretty amazing. You fly past the highway traffic like they're going in reverse (or maybe I was still confused because they drive on the wrong side of the road), and you do feel a little bit like you're weightless.

Got to the hotel, which was in a pretty awesome location right on Nanjing Lu, the main pedestrian street, which is a hell of a scene. A lot of my Shanghai pics didn't come out so good, which is why I chose the one above, but I'll put some more up with subsequent posts. It's truly a shame I took this long to write about this, because Shanghai was my favorite city, and I really don't remember the details as well as I should. But I'll do the best I can.

Dropped my stuff in the room, which was decent, but not worth the money I paid for it (not to mention the criminal $21/night for internet access). Was a bit tired and still not feeling so great, so just figured I'd wander around the general area of the hotel. I was very popular with beggars and children. I'd been in the city for about 6 minutes, and had been approached by at least 42 people asking me for money, or trying to get me to buy something from them (most often, "Rolex, sir?"). These two youngish people, 1M 1F, came up to me and told me they were art students in town from Beijing, and would I like to come see their exhibition. Now, I wasn't foolish enough to think there was no catch, but I figured what the hell, what's the worst that could happen?

2 minutes later, having been led down the street and into an old dirty building, whisked up to the 6th floor in an ancient elevator, ushered into an apartment where two other Chinese dudes were waiting, and had the door closed behind me, I answered my own question as follows: "Oh, the worst that could happen is that I could have my wallet stolen, be stabbed repeatedly, rolled up in a carpet, thrown in the back of a truck and dumped in the countryside on the outskirts of Shanghai never to be heard from again."

But instead, they started showing me the paintings that were on the wall. They asked me to sign their book with where I was from, and kept making a point of telling me that the pictures on the wall were not for sale. But kept asking me which ones I liked. I said they were all beautiful, and was ready to make my exit. That's when the scam was revealed. While the large paintings on the wall were not for sale, the small versions of them that were in the albums on the table were. Long story short, I spent $10 on a piece of art that was average at best, but left with all my internal organs. I wouldn't have minded the scam so much -- God knows I bought enough crap I didn't really need on this trip -- if it didn't take so long; I wasted like 1/2 an hour with these people. And the girl had a pretty serious mustache too. If you're gonna try to sweet talk tourists, go for a little wax first, honey.

After escaping the art exhibition, I went for a walk along the Bund. I was certainly not the only white dude around, but we are apparently still enough of a novelty that some people point and whisper. And, by "whisper," I mean scream and laugh. I figured it out though -- twice while I was in Shanghai, families stopped me and asked me to pose for pictures with their kids. I realized that while white people aren't such a rarity in Shanghai, these were probably tourists from elsewhere in the country where they don't get a lot of us. Can you just see it, 10 years from now this Chinese girl will bring her boyfriend over to meet her family, the parents will break out the photo album: "Here's our sweet little girl pulling her pet kitten along in a rickshaw, here she is cooking her first dinner of General Tso's Chicken (note the cat doesn't appear in subsequent photos), and here she is posing with some random sweaty white dude when we were on vacation in Shanghai!"

Anyway, walked around for a few hours, don't remember the details. I did try a couple of random street foods. And by random, I mean I actually just pointed to stuff, having no idea what it might be, and bit in. It was all so cheap, worst case scenario you just chuck it and try something else. I found one I really liked - it was this pastry thing with some sort of sweet gelatinous paste inside, that I think might have been red bean-based.

Back to hotel, showered and decided to go in search of dinner. I wanted to stay in the neighborhood, and it was kind of overwhelming. But I also wanted to get something authentic. I walked down an alley-like side street off Nanjing and into a restaurant. It was a little shady looking, but not too bad. There was one group which included some white people, but other than that, the place was full of locals. They brought me to a table upstairs. To say the staff was rude doesn't come close to capturing the feeling. I (and no other person in the restaurant) was given cheap, disposable chopsticks as opposed to real ones, and a plastic cup for my beer. And I don't mean plastic cup like acrylic. I mean plastic cup like the one they give you at the dentist to rinse and spit. There were some really really great mistranslations on the menu, including several kinds of "crap" dishes. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed they meant "carp," but I sure wasn't gonna chance it. I think I ended up ordering some fried pork dish and some vegetable that I saw on someone else's table that looked really good. It was a satisfying meal. Walked back toward the hotel, stopped for some little custardy dessert pastry things and an iced green tea, and went to bed.