Friday, February 22, 2008

Entry One: Shanghai

I am happy to report that the flight, while grueling, was actually quite encouraging. I sat next to a middle aged Chinese woman and we talked for quite a while. My Chinese was better than her English (which isn’t a good thing), but we talked and talked with the aid of some books I brought with me; including a phrase book and a few picture dictionaries with Chinese characters. We used these books as a base for conversation for probably 2 hours. I learned that she is a pediatrician who was visiting her son in Chicago. While her trip was great, she was excited to get back to Shanghai and visit her parents. She preferred coffee to tea (a rare thing, except in the very West-friendly Shanghai), and thought it was great that I was a teacher.

I have discovered that with some patience my Chinese is not as bad as I had feared. I am not a strong speaker yet, but I know more of the language than the stewardesses on the flight, and helped my Chinese friend change her dinner, get the right drink, and stow away her luggage. I think I will make progress so long as I refuse to become shy and embrace the likelihood that I will make mistakes. After all, as the Chinese expression goes, failure is the mother of success!

My first experience upon arrival was to have the taxi ride of my life.

I had practiced on the plane how to ask the driver to take me straight to the hotel, as I was tired. Apparently I was clear enough, and he took the request to heart. We dodged and weaved through traffic, onto medians, and played a heart-thumping game of chicken with a blue truck.

The next day I walked around Shanghai, hoping to find my legs after sitting on a plane for so long. I came across a nice little shop that had coffee, and since they also had a picture menu, I was hooked. I sat alone and ate a bowl mushrooms with noodles and slowly savored a decent cup of coffee (that, mind you, I bought at an indecent price; coffee is still quite a treat in China.)

Outside the café window a Chinese couple was taking pictures in front of a new bridge, and with the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (one of the tallest) in the background. The couple appeared to be just returning from America, and quite proud of it. The woman, in her 60s, carried a bright green purse with a 7up logo. The man was wearing a D.A.R.E. windbreaker and a black hat displaying a bald eagle. Much like the city itself, they were doing everything possible to get noticed.

As I left the coffee shop, it struck me how eager the two tourists were to demonstrate they had been to America. As I walked around Shanghai I realized how in American products and advertising take center stage. Many here, and throughout China, consider access to American products as a sign of modernity and prosperity. As an American History teacher, this reminds me of how a young America once looked to Europe during our development.

Not quite recovered from the jet lag, my day ended quickly as I needed a rest. I was woken up a few hours later by deafening burst of fireworks, as the Chinese New Years Festival was in its grand finale. The sights were beautiful from my hotel window, but I couldn’t quite keep my eyes open long enough to see it all. It is a pity, this is such a beautiful city.

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