“You won’t survive a day without WeChat, Get WeChat!”
“Have you heard the term, I got Shanghaied?”
“You’ll eat such good foooood.”
“The highways have potted plants on them.”
“Everything is in LED.”
“You’re going to the future!”
“Shanghai is great if you have money (times two).”
“I’ve been here 22 years and I am still discovering this city.”
“You will grow to love it.”
“It will grow on you.”
How does one write about a place she knows almost nothing about, 28 days in?
I carry in myself all these received impressions from people who have lived in or visited here. I am in an unfamiliar place confronted by unexpected unknowns. The expected unknowns of course: of people unknown, language unknown, its script so evocative yet indecipherable to my eyes, its efficient metro system, moving throngs of people in this most populated city in the world in calm, composed ways.
People management at its finest, leaving no room to move against the flow. I’m in China, I have to remind myself. Shanghai. I know this, but really, I don’t fully know this. The Shanghai of my mind’s eye, and the way the city presents itself don’t seem to mesh. And I don’t have the words, yet, to describe this gap I am in.
But it’s a new relationship. I’ve had my share of them with cities – Calcutta, Delhi, Boston, New York Florence, Mexico City, Moscow. The mind as it does with new relationships, draws comparisons, she smiles like Calcutta, she carries trauma and is exhausting like Moscow, there’s nothing of NY in her, oh god why did I leave! She moves like DF, maybe there’s something to explore there, her museum reminds me of NY’s dimsum restaurants, she’s a water sign, just like Florence. I am unsure, even tepid in this decision to move continents, what was I thinking leaving NY, why am I so restless, such a drifter What’s my problem, like really?
Nothing like a new city to pit you against you. Nothing like a new city to reveal yourself. Calcutta raised me, Delhi schooled me in the ways of the world, Boston showed me discernment, Moscow taught me to dance again. Shanghai, what are we going to do together you and I?
Like a great explorer, I open the DiDi app, summon a taxi to pick me up from the tree-lined housing complex I live in, in the western flange of the city, join the metro riders at the end of the line at Eas Xuxing, pay with WeChat (China seems cashless), and ride the subway to the city center, to People’ Square. I take one of 12 exits – my choices being going through a Korean Mall or a simulacrum of roadside eateries and juice stands. Above ground, I open Apple maps, panging for NY again where Google maps worked just fine. I walk in circles, trying to cross Renmin Lu (The Peoples Way). Swimming through the humidity, I arrive at the entrance of the Shanghai Museum. But alas, it is a three hour line to get in, and the museum shuts at two. Despite the math, there are people standing at the very edge of the line that says, “4-hour line starts here”. Hope, determination, or a different logic work? I can’t tell. But am here now, so let’s go explore, maybe some lunch.
Food, now everybody knows Chinese food. There are Chinatowns in all the cities I’ve lived in and loved. But being a stranger in this city, trying to get a simple cup of hot black tea or dumplings on the street presents challenges. The point-and-order technique works well enough, as long as you can trust yourself to know the difference between string-bean and a sea cucumber when tossed with whole chilies and oil, or can tell the texture of snake from duck when dry roasted and doused in a dark sauce. All wolves in sheep’s clothing then. If you even eat sheep.
In these few weeks in Shanghai, I’ve had starchy potato noodles, and a haptic understanding of why noodles are slurped not chewed, lukewarm rose tea with a layer of cheese on it, buns stuffe with…stuff, been handed a dumpling the size of my head with a straw in it. But it’s the picture-menu presented at local restaurants that take the dining experience to another level. These food pictures come with explanations in English, which are really unhelpful in telling me anything about what the dish is, but say so much about what the dish aspires to do! It also gives me an inkling of the very poetic nature of Mandarin as a language.
Some written examples from the menus themselves (and what my eyes make of the images): Kung Fu handheld devices (diced, wok-fried chicken with red and green peppers). The Fungus Wang Ho jumps over the wall (a variety of mushrooms, fanned out, floating in a porcelain soup tureen). Several kinds of delicacies with halogen (shiny, some might say slimy looking cold cuts, minimal presentation), Potatoes Burn Turtle (a war scene of sorts, a turtle, head, shell and all, surrounded by whole large yellow potatoes, served on a cast iron footed pedestal), Boiled Wool Blood flourishing in hot chilli oil (fried sheep skins in Sichuan peppers and oil).
Other descriptions leave me making fanciful leaps between the food object and what’s left unsaid. Sauerkraut refers to the ear side, and often the bolt sea cucumber or the complete baffler- which might be an expression of national feelings, with a pinch of condescension, towards the cuisine of the invading powers during WW2 – German salty, shoe boiled yam.
These poem-like descriptions which may read like a failed case of Google Translate are, I’d like to think, an expression of a sensibility that knows deeply the transportive quality of an exquisitely mad dish, or a perfectly turned phrase. They tell me that I’m in a land of lotus (root) eaters, a hedonists city, whose love for food and poetry might just keep us talking, awhile.