The Man Next Door

December 9th, 2011
Location: My bedroom
Time: 4:12 pm

I have a neighbor whom my roommate has dubbed Inspector Gadget.

I have no idea why.

But Inspector Gadget, well, he’s an enigma to me.

He’s a tall, lanky man.  His hair is a nondescript black, with just a dusting of gray. His eyes sink back into his skull, his nose protrudes, and his cheeks are hallowed out.  He wears his pants high on his waist, so that the bottoms always barely brush the tops of his brown leather oxfords.  His shirts bag on his slight frame and are always tucked into his high-waisted pants. I have only ever seen him in browns, blues, and greys.  He dresses like an old man too tired for this world of color and life. I would put his age at an early 40.

Every morning around 6, I wake to the sound of the Inspector clearing his throat.  Deep, resounding hawking noises fill the courtyard between the rows of lane houses. Seven or eight times he reaches deep within his chest and forces all manner of garbage past his lips.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, he takes turns making these noises with a fellow cohabitator of the courtyard and I awake to the symphony of spit hitting the pavement and gravely, throat clearing exercises.

Mid-afternoons I can find the Inspector outside his house.  He sets up a rack that is about four feet high, triangular, and holds 4 large plastic bowls.  I usually find him washing these bowls at the sink positioned outside his kitchen. I don’t know what these bowls contain or what purpose they serve.  All I know is that the Inspector needs to clean them every day.  

The first time I saw the Inspector, he was seated on a chair in the middle of the courtyard.  A round mirror held in his left hand and a razor in his right.  He slowly stroked the razor down his face and stared intently at himself in the mirror.  He sat there shaving for nearly two hours.  And he did this the next day. And the next.  And every day after.  I’ve never seen the Inspector with so much as a 5 o’clock shadow.  After all, he is Chinese.

And so you’ve met my neighbor.  If you happen to visit me and see the Inspector sitting outside, don’t be too put off if he doesn’t respond to your ni hao.  He doesn’t like me either.

WTF Shanghai?

November 1st, 2011
Location: Wagas, Xujiahui
Time: 1:29 pm

I’m feeling particularly droll today so I thought it might be time for a blog post.  It’s the perfect state of being for writing.  On the walk here a man almost hit me with his car as I was crossing the street.  I stopped and just stared him down. I just stopped right in front of his car and didn’t move for a good five seconds.  Then, I accidentally dropped my phone on a woman’s foot.  I apologized but she gave me that stony stare women in this city have perfected so well.  God forbid anyone actually bumps you in this city of how many millions?  I didn’t retract my apology but I fixed her with a look right back and asked whether her injury was critical?  Did it kill you, lady?  Does your foot need to be amputated? I didn’t receive a reply.

One of those days. 

I think I’m too tired to get really angry or fired up about anything but I’ve got some things I’ve been ruminating on for a while and now is as good as ever to put them to paper.

This is kind-of a bewildered rants and rave blog (except I’m writing void of any passion or emotion, so not really a rant and rave at all) that could be summed up as follows: WTF Shanghai?

First off, what’s with the blatant refusal to turn on your headlights at night?  Are you trying to conserve electricity? A confused attempt at a green initiative?  Nope. Doubt that.  Simply don’t know how to turn them on?  Very real possibility.  Total lack of self-awareness?  Ding-ding.  I think we have a winner.

Dudes who hang out at on the steps of the metro.  Don’t get it.  I know that little towns develop odd hang-outs.  Walmart seemed to be the place at a small town in Idaho I once visited.  Liquor stores, mini marts, bowling allies.  Whatever.  Little towns, not much to do, you work with what you’ve got.  But this is Shanghai.  There’s not a legal drinking age (that I know of, or is enforced at any rate).   Bars and restaurants are open until the wee hours of the night.  All Days, Lawsons, Kedi Mart – all 24 hours.  But the entrance to the metro?  Here are my theories: you’re hoping that some cute girl will fall down the slippery stairs and you can be the hero to help her.  Oh, wait.  That’s probably not it.  Let’s not forget about little Yueyue

Theory two: you need a busy place to show-off your hair. The metro is your proverbial soap box, if you will.  It took 45 minutes to get your hair looking that fly and you want the world to see it.  This theory has potential. 

Theory three:  Much like me, you have absolutely no idea why you are hanging out on the steps of Shanghai Circus World.  Your ipad/iphone/game boy has died and you are at a complete loss of what to do with your life.  You know where I never see these boys hanging out?  The entrance to a library.

Street sweepers.   Basically the bottom ranks of the social class.  Paid next to nothing for thankless, dirty work.  By all worldly standards they should be miserable, nasty cretins. Nicest people EVER.  A couple weeks ago I was struggling to get some cumbersome packages down the street.  My local street sweeper saw me across the street, set down her stuff, took my heaviest box and insisted on carrying it all the way to my door.  When I tried to pay her she literally ran away.  And back to Yueyue.  Who helped?  Oh, that’s right – the ayi.

But being nice doesn’t always mean logical.  Tell me this Shanghai – why do you insist on doing activities in the middle of the day that just get in the way?  Let’s stock these shelves.  After the store has closed?  But why would we do that?  The store is closed and everyone has gone home.  No.  Let’s refill all of our product at 6 o’clock on Friday night – our peak shopping time.  And those stairs look dirty.  Let’s "clean"  them on a rainy day right before rush hour traffic.  That way, we not only get in the way of all the people trying to go home en masse, but their millions of feet can spread the filth and mud throughout the entire station. Brilliant plan, Stan.

So, there it is.  A short-list of things that I question almost every day living in this city.  I’ve lived here for 438 days excepting vacations, and I have a feeling that in another 438 days there will be only more ponderables to add to this list without any answers.  Although, I think there will be bigger questions to answer if in another 438 days I’m still here. But let’s shelve all the metaphysical questions for April.  

Dead babies at Decathalon.  NBD.

Here's Looking at You, Whitney

September 23rd, 2011
Location: My couch
Time: 8:56 pm

If you ever move to this city, I offer you this one piece of advice: beware of the DVD man.

My DVD people sit on the corner across the street from the Metro.  They share the space with an established food hawker’s stand and when it rains they set-up a red tent so that customers can browse without fear of getting wet.  Piles of DVDS are bound up in rubber bands and stacked upright in shallow plastic tubs with newer releases laid atop for easier access. My DVD man charges 4 kuai a disc, or 5 for 15.  

Four yuan per movie. Four.  That’s like 50 cents. 

That’s like giving away crack-cocaine for . . . fifty cents. 

I read somewhere that the average expat acquires 500 plus DVDs for every year they spend in this city. Reputable source? I don’t remember.  But judging by the collections I’ve seen, it’s probably true.

500 DVDS with the average movie being 90 minutes means 750 hours of TV viewing. That doesn’t even include television series, where each episode is around 40 minutes and there are 10 or so episodes on each disc.  That also doesn’t include the DVDs you swap with your friends or those that your roommate amasses. 

I’ve had DVDs sitting in my drawer that I bought months ago and still haven’t opened.  I’ve bought DVDs knowing that they will probably be awful, but hey, only fifty cents.  I have DVDs in Russian, German, Chinese, French, and Italian – some of which don’t have English subtitles.  I have DVDs with bobbing silhouettes walking across the screen.  I have DVDs with watermarks embossed in the lower right-hand corners displaying network affiliations.  I have DVDs with watermarks that crop up every so often with warnings of ownership and copyright infringement.  I have DVDS that say one thing on the title, but are a completely different movie once popped into the player. I have DVDs with only half a movie.  I have DVDs with audio that lags a second or two behind the action.  

I have a lot of DVDs.

But what I really have is a problem.

I find myself saying things like “make it work” and “ferosh” and using similes such as “she looks like a hooker who got lost in the forest and mated with a bear.” I mean, who talks like that? Crazies on Project Runway – that’s who.  And me now.  Apparently.

I blame the DVD man and his glossy DVD cases that cry out to me as I walk past. Dealer.
And I blame my friends and their DVD hoarding ways.  Enablers.

What this city needs is a good DVDA chapter.  The only real problem I foresee is that there won’t be anyone available to be a sponsor.  That, and I don’t think anyone will join.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Crack is whack, yo. Just say no.
Putuo at Night

Chinese Charades

August 30th, 2011
Location: Wagas, North Shaanxi
Time: 7:24 pm

I had an entire conversation yesterday that did not require a single word.

When people ask me how I like Shanghai I usually reply that I enjoy it, but would probably like it a whole lot more if I spoke the language – the language being, of course, Mandarin. Not to be confused with Shanghainese because that’s a whole other snarl of trouble, and grating on the nerves to boot.  But while I don’t speak that particular language I have honed the fine skill of an even more useful manner of discourse – body language.

That’s right Ursula, I have not underestimated its power in the least. 

Need some ground beef?  Here’s what you do:  You point to the slab of beef.  You point to the ground pork.  You create claws with your hands and make circular motions while growling in the back of your throat.  Butcher man points to the grinder and replicates your noise and body language.  Good to go. Half-pound of ground beef into the basket and you’re off.

I’ve actually been working on this skill for years.  I remember sitting in front of the full-length mirror in the hallway of my childhood home making various faces.  I have one distinct memory of tucking my hair up into a blue beret and enacting plays with different voices and facial expressions for each character.  I tucked my hair up because those characters I was doing?  Yeah, all dudes.

Nope, not an only child.  Just weird.

But that’s what you gotta do in this city. Not the pretend you’re a guy part, but be willing to make a fool or yourself and be prepared to be laughed at. A lot.  Because they will laugh at you.  Often. But guess what?  I got my ground beef, suckas. No pork burgers for me.  That crap only be good if sweet and sour precedes it.

But you want to know what body language and funny throat noises get you when you try to ask for another month of internet? 

Blank stares.

I guess I should consider signing up for Chinese Pod. Or something.  Whatever. 

Riding the Bus

Not a Good Plan, Stan.

August 23rd, 2011
Time: 4:11 pm
Location: Wagas Jing’An

Yesterday I walked out of my bathroom clad only in a towel and received an awkward wave from a young Chinese man.  
And so I dedicate this long-awaited post to the art of re-expatriating. 
The life of an expat goes something like this: decide to move to a foreign country, have friends, family, colleagues, bosses, etc., provide copious amounts of information about culture shock and how to adjust to it.  Go live in decided country and become accustomed to it. Finish your stint abroad and return home where once again you are inundated with information on how to adjust to reverse culture shock and what to expect as you undergo repatriation. 

What no one ever talks about is the life in the in between: what happens when you go home for 4 weeks on an extended vacation and then return to your country of residence.  

Re-expatriating.  It’ll mess with your mind.

Here’s the conundrum – you go home for just long enough to settle back into the mindset of your old life.  You expect lines, rules, order. And then you go back to China, knowing full well to expect chaos but still clinging unconsciously to ingrained habits and expectations from your old life.  You are returning to China without 2 things: Number 1: the first-timer’s expectations. When you’re a newbie expat, you’re so chockfull of information on culture shock that you expect everything to be new and different.  Number 2: That callous that builds up from everyday life in Shanghai.

The chasm between expecting the crazy and living the crazy is no mere puddle jump.

You are going to do things that you know you shouldn’t do, but you’re going to do them anyway despite the mental and physical health risks. Here is a shadow of that list:

Wear flip-flops.  In a city where people treat the common thoroughfare as a personal toilet, shoot snot bombs from their noses at death-defying speeds, hock lugees the size of Georgia to great lengths, and lose their lunches after a long night of baijiu, not to mention the possibility of amputation on a crowded metro carriage, exposing your feet to the streets is not a great idea.  Multiply that 10 times over when it rains.  You’ve now got urine, mucus, vomit, feces, and all other manners of filth running over your bare feet.  I don’t care that it’s 100 degrees outside not including the humidity – Just. Say. No.

Expect obedience to traffic laws. You know, you know, that the taxi coming at you is not going to stop, despite his red light. You know it, but you’re going to eye him down and keep walking. The China part of you is telling you to stop, but the piece of you still stuck at home is willing that driver into submission.  I’ve heard being in traction for 6 months provides ample opportunity for self-reflection.  I hope to God you’re not an ESL teacher.

Become irrationally angry at the lack of order and regulation. The first go-around you probably wrote a pithy email about this back home.  Oh, those silly Chinese. This time you know it’s there, but you’ve just returned from a life of order and you liked it. You liked it so much that you still haven’t let go of it. So when people step in front of you at the grocery store, you’re going to get mad and you’ll probably go into some silent rant.  Let it go, my man.  It’s just giving you high blood pressure.

Yell at people and /or talk about people in English. You’re never understood when you want to be but whenever the urge to mouth-off overcomes you, one of those Chinese people around you knows exactly what you’re saying.  Every single damn time. And as you well know, Chinese people don’t shy from a good bout of fisticuffs. And those Shanghainese women know the value of a strategically placed ice-pick heel.  Go home and write a blog about it unless you’re itching for a good slap fight.  If that’s that case, have at it.  But call me first because I’d like to place my bets before the action begins.

Eat street food your first week back. Yeah, you missed your 3 kuai pot stickers. I get it, I do. But don’t kid yourself.  You’ve got some serious adjusting to do, and your stomach has got enough on its plate as it is.  Don’t add to the misery.  Just give it time.  No reason to go through your Cosco-sized bottle of Pepto-Bismol the first week back. 

Stare at the man rubbing his exposed belly. Let’s be real.  You don’t want to see that. I just wanted to cement that image in your mind so that you can well and truly realize you’re back in good ol’ Shanghai.

As for that guy standing in my apartment gazing at me half-naked?  All I can say is I’d better be getting my whole deposit back from my landlord.

Your Local Purveyor of High Fives

July 6th, 2011
Location: Wagas Jing’An
Time: 1:53 pm

I’m about to drop some knowledge on you:

Anne Frank was born in Belgium and her father was a Nazi sympathizer.  She also played bass (although not well) in a British punk rock group before dying in a New York hotel room in 1979. 


And that, my friends, is why team “Faking It” rounded out trivia night in a solid 4th place most every Tuesday for the past few months. 

At some point back in February, Miles sent out a mass text attempting to lure all us graduate students into a night of beer, food, and trivial knowledge.  I demurred at first, recognizing that my trivia skills were pretty crap and not having a desire to put my lack of knowledge on display.  Eventually, the barrage of text messages wore me down – all two of them, and I agreed to join the team.  

When I say team, what I mean is Miles.  I agreed to join Miles.  Every week we had drifters that hung around the table and threw out the occasional answer but the core team was made up of Francesca, Miles, and myself.  And while we all had our parts to play, Francesca and I were mostly second-fiddle to Miles and his ridiculous knowledge of geography, history, and most importantly – women’s tennis. Miles, who listens to “Stuff You Missed in History Class” podcasts and downloads hours’ worth of classical music. Miles, who went to the National Geography bee.  My friend Miles – the man, the myth, the legend.

High fives all around!

If not for Miles and his enormous brain, I would never have come to appreciate what it’s like to have something to do on a week night.  If not for Miles, I would not have taken up reading the paper again (or at least the headlines).  If not for Miles I would not have started perusing Wikipedia for random bits of information.  If not for Miles, I would still only be reading the fiction section of the New Yorker.  If not for Miles, I wouldn’t know the high that comes with actually definitively knowing an answer to a question.

High fives all around!

And it’s that high that kept me coming back.  By and large, I was pretty much dead weight on Team Faking it.  My one area of expertise was in the Who Am I portion of the first round and this leads me to consider whether I have a knack for stalking.  I mean, why have I retained facts about Lee Harvey Oswald that I didn’t even know I’d learned?  At what point in my life did I find out that Nicole Kidman was born in Hawaii and why, of all things, did that stick?  But know it I did and the ability to whisper a frenzied “It’s Einstein!” on the 10 point question made all the other crap that I didn’t know fade away into obscurity.  I knew something!  My teammates liked me! They really, really liked me!

High fives all around!

But, alas, they are all leaving and now I have to attempt to fake my way into a new group of friends with egg-shaped heads.  Hopefully my knowledge of Anne Frank will be enough to impress.

And they’d better like high-fives because trivia also taught me another thing – I am apparently really big on high-fives. . .