Feeling loose and relaxed as we left the Shanghai massage parlor two weeks ago, Mickey and my friends and I compared notes about how we communicated 'too much pressure!' to our Mandarin-speaking masseuses. We laughed at my cowardly approach: praying that squirming, gasping and scratching the linen with my fingernails meant 'please go easy on me' in international body language. Though my young Chinese masseuse didn't speak English, he probably would have understood if I had said plainly, 'that's too hard.' But I didn't because I was afraid; I was afraid to admit to my friends and even to myself that I was too sensitive for China.
We planned this trip months ago when we knew that our friends Andrew and Alyssa would be teaching at an international school in Shanghai. They had a week off and generously offered to spend it showing us around their new hometown. The summer Olympics had inspired us to fly to Beijing and spend a couple of days there in the middle of our trip. Realistically, it should have been easy. Shanghai, a modern, westernized city of 20 million and Beijing, a city that had prepared for years for an influx of visitors like myself could be called 'China-lite.' The language and culture are Chinese, but these metropolises also offer the comforts of the west: cornflakes, Zara, high-speed trains, etc.
And yet, even when I was getting a massage, an experience that is meant to be relaxing, I felt beaten down by China, overwhelmed by the pressure. I felt like there was danger and trouble at every turn; if you weren't alert, you would get pushed, ripped off, run over and/or mocked. And in a nation of 1.3 billion, no one would notice or care.
The lack of rules and anything goes mentality was terrifying to me. I actually started crying on the way through security in the Shanghai airport because I was so stressed about not being able to reach the check in counter. The Chinese are notorious for not queuing and I was worried that we'd get pushed so far that we'd never make it on the plane. Though we made it just fine to Beijing, it was the return back to Shanghai that deserved more worry. Our reservation was mysteriously canceled and we had to purchase new tickets on a later flight.
The pushing and reluctance to form a proper line were aggravating, but the anything goes approach to driving was outright dangerous. Most taxis didn't offer seat belts, most drivers treated traffic lights as mere suggestions and most bikers didn't wear helmets. It's a wonder that the roads weren't caked with blood.
During the first half of my trip, like the massage, even the positive aspects of traveling in China made me feel like a fool. One of these is the low, low prices for goods and services: $15 for a two hour massage, $6 for a season of your favorite TV show on pirated DVDs, $.50 for breakfast on the street, nothing to complain about, right? Well, I'm the kind of woman who doesn't often refuse a bargain so I felt like a fool for not taking full advantage of China's scarily cheap stuff. (I don't really need a Folex, but it's only $5!) Then, when I did actually decide to purchase something and attempted to bargain for it, I'd feel like an even bigger idiot for settling for the 'stupid foreigner' price. Anyway, I didn't feel a lot of satisfaction from my first couple of purchases.
Containing special economic zones, Shanghai has been open to the west for decades. Thus, the Shanghainese don't find it strange to cross paths with someone like me. In Beijing, on the other hand, my blondish hair and round, blue-green eyes made me somewhat of a novelty. At first, it was flattering, some people asked if I'd pose for photos with their kids while others surreptitiously snapped pictures while I was fighting the crowds. Is this a fraction of what celebrities feel? I imagine they must feel admired, but I just felt like the joke was on me.
At the midpoint of our trip, my mood had fallen and it couldn't get up. I had arrived in China looking forward most to our day in the Forbidden City, but when I got there, I was devastated by the crowds. The Gate of Supreme Harmony might as well have been the Gate to Tourist Hell (it didn't help that we went on a national holiday). It was hot, crowded, polluted even by LA standards and I was desperate for a western toilet (I hadn't yet consigned myself to using a squatty potty). I didn't care what gate I had to go through: Supreme Exhaustion, Heavenly Crowd Surfing, I just wanted to get out of there.
After exiting through the north entrance to the Forbidden City, we'll call it the Gate of Extreme Holding It, there were no western toilets to be found. After several cabs passed us by and right before Mickey unsuccessfully attempted to bargain with the rickshaw drivers, is when I started to sob on his shoulder. He realized this was no Chinese fire drill, this was a genuine spoiled wife emergency. So, he rushed me to the nearest fancy hotel, as any good husband would, where they had clean toilets and wretched, over-priced hot chocolate. Still, I sipped it gratefully while drying my tears and discussing the philosophy of travel with Mickey.
Is it worth thousands of dollars to literally travel outside of my comfort zone in order to learn about a new culture and expand my horizons? Might our money have been better spent on another trip to New Zealand where I could enjoy natural beauty and a warm Kiwi welcome? I have a BA in Anthropology for christsakes, the answers should unequivocally be YES and NO respectively. Still, I was trying to be really honest with myself and with Mickey. At 26, should I look inside and be realistic and unashamed about my travel limits, or, should I push myself to grow and change?
Well, my mood had hit a Great Wall and there was nothing to do but turn it around. (Note: when I wasn't complaining, I was cracking jokes far worse than this at the Forbidden City. 'Can we go in here or is it... forbidden?' I asked more than once). Alyssa helped me see the funny side of the anything goes mentality as it applies to fashion. It is totally acceptable for men and women to wear pajamas, the type where the shirt and pants are the same fabric and print, out on the town. It is also fashionable among young couples to dress alike. We'd give each other people-watching points if we spotted a couple in the exact same shirt and extra if their trousers and/or shoes matched and a bonus if the man was carrying the woman's purse (also okay in China). The winning pair of the whole trip was a couple whose orange T-shirts read: his - "our love will," hers - "go on forever." Their kid was also wearing orange. Elsewhere such a fashion statement would be ridiculously corny, but in China, it worked.
However, while these couples could express their commitment with their apparel, public displays of affection are taboo. In this case, I could not adopt a 'when in Rome' attitude despite my reluctance to attract even more attention or offend. Mickey is too irresistible not to be hugged and kissed.
Another diverting people watching game is trying to find the cart or scooter carrying the most unusual or precariously balanced load. Once we saw a motorscooterist with a houseplant and a desk chair (and another passenger) strapped to his bike. Later, we saw a man with a humble cart carrying more Styrofoam boxes than could an F150.
China had shoved me around, but I was learning to push back. I became a bolder and yet more cautious pedestrian. Twice I threw my 'STOP' hand up like a New York City traffic cop and to everyone's surprise, the driver waited for us. Maybe that's the protocol when a strange white woman jumps in front of your car.
And though I've complained about roller-coaster taxi rides and feeling swindled, we were always safe and treated fairly in China. When travelling in Spain or Italy, a woman has to worry about her handbag (and a man his wallet) and ignore catcalls and stares from local young men: "rubia! bella!" Sure, in China some wanted my photo, but no one disrespected me and we never felt that we had to hang on to our wallets with a death-grip. In China, there's a stricter penalty for stealing from a foreigner than committing the same crime against a local.
Of course the highlights of the trip were trying new foods and spending time with our brave, gracious hosts, Andrew and Alyssa. They took us to a range of local restaurants and encouraged us to sample everything from scallion pancakes and caramelized hawthorn berries on the street to the freshest Taiwanese noodles I've ever had to spicy Cantonese and Sichuan favorites. Then, when we tired of sauce-heavy Chinese food (even my fruit salad had a sauce), they treated us to the best of the west. I devoured the tastiest burger I've had all year in Xintiandi, a western-style shoppertainment center, slurped multiple glasses of fresh watermelon juice and stuffed myself at brunch at Azul in Shanghai's French Concession. We couldn't get over the quality of the blueberry pancakes and fluffy banana muffins. I also had a second course of huevos rancheros plus a fresh juice and a tea for a grand total of $18.
Yes, China offers eastern and western food and fun at every price range. As Andrew and Alyssa's colleagues have proudly confided to them, 'I've lived here for seven years without a word of Mandarin and I can get by just fine.' However, Andrew and Alyssa don't want to surround themselves with only western words and comforts and I'm so proud of them for that. Could I ever do the same? Having spent ten days in China, Mickey wound up with a tummy bug while I suffered a 120 volt culture shock. It's good to alter your routine, open your eyes to something new and learn how other people live. The Chinese may wear pajamas while not holding their boyfriends' hands on the street and actually prefer a squatty potty, but inside, I bet they're the same as me.