Saturday, January 24, 2009


People's Square-- and a stupidity tax

OK, I decided after 6 weeks of grueling 15-18 hour work days, that I was going to take a whole day off. After all, I'm in Shanghai, and for all I've seen of it, it might as well be Cleveland or Tampa.

Click the link above for the big album.
a few more pictures from the park at

A week ago I took half a day off and saw some of the old city, but the next day I was so sick that I barely made it to the local equivalent of a Wal-Mart for soup and cold meds before I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. I am still coughing, and my voice is not my own, but today was the clearest, sunniest day we've had since I arrived (the rain has washed most of the smog away for a while) and, though it was COLD and windy, I couldn't stand being cooped up in my high-rise hotel any longer.

So, I bundled myself up, packed the Nikon and lenses in my shoulder bag, and headed for People's Square.

Sounds very Cold-War Mao Era, right? Think again. It is a very capitalistic beehive of shopping, theaters, art museums, and New Shanghai Architecture. It is Chicago's Miracle Mile (Complete with Brooks Brothers, Adidas, Reebok and Nike stores) meets Atlanta's Buckhead. That's been the biggest revelation to this 50+ visitor to China in 2009. For someone who grew up on images of folks in Mao jackets living and working in a "Communist Country" the reality of the PRC in 2009 has taken some getting used to.

The people I've met here are delightful, well-educated, curious about Americans (everyone I've met here has asked me what I think about our new President), gracious, ........once you get past the cultural differences in regard to personal space and what is, and is not, appropriate chitchat with a virtual stranger.

During yesterday's walk around the square, I was repeatedly approached by young couples in their late teens or early 20's. They all wanted to practice their English with an American, and in exchange, would be delighted to show me "their" Shanghai dressed up for the big holiday. ("There is a folk art exhibit over there. Would you like me to explain it to you?" "There are singers performing in the mall. We are on our way. Would you like to join us?" "You should come back to the museum tomorrow morning. There are special exhibits for the holiday, but it takes a long time to see them properly. My friends are coming tomorrow. Would you like to join us? I am an art student, and my friend is studying to be a history teacher." "There will be fireworks tomorrow near the river. If you like, I can tell you some of the best places to stand to see them.")

If I'd been approached by someone like that in an American city, I'd be clutching my wallet and camera a little closer, and looking for the nearest cop. These were just sweet kids who, seeing a fifty-five year-old Caucasian woman with a camera walking by herself, wondered what the heck I was about. When they found out I was from the States, and I worked in IT, and was...well, instructional designer is always a little tough to explain, so I opted for "teacher and technical writer" you would have thought I was a long-lost auntie being welcomed home for the holiday. I politely declined, but the whole process was fascinating.

But shopping in Shanghai is still very stressful for me. Oh, I've mastered the currency and the exchange rate, but even when I have my Mandarin-speaking friends along the bigger issue is the Chinese sense of personal space-- they don't believe in it. In shops and on street corners, absolute strangers crowd right up against you. And if I hang back a bit to allow some space between myself and the person in front of me, three people squeeze into the gap. I'm sure I must make people nuts here. I leave what they would consider way too much room between myself and other people in the grocery, or on escalators -- and- oh, God, elevators. I never realized how freaked out I would be by this. The other day at the office I found myself shrinking back against the back wall of the elevator because there were so many people in the small confined space with me.

But now for my "stupidity tax" story.....

I thought I had mastered the "I don't speak Mandarin, but I need a taxi" deal. I had the bilingual guys at the concierge desk write out the places that I wanted to go for me, and I put them in my pocket. To get back to the hotel, I had that nailed, too! The hotel provides little business card-sized things that have "Please take me to the Ramada Plaza Pudong" in several languages on one side, and a street map with landmarks on the other. This process has worked very well.... up until today.

After spending a few hours wandering around People's Square, I hailed a taxi to go back to the hotel. I handed my little card to the cabbie. He smiled and started to drive. Suddenly, nothing looked familiar. I thought maybe he was taking a different route to avoid traffic at first, but the sun was in the wrong part of the sky. I tried, unsuccessfully, to make him understand that we were going the wrong way. But his English wasn't any better than my Mandarin. 45 minues later, we pull up under the porte cochere of the Ramada Pudong Airport. Thank heavens, the bellman there spoke flawless English, and I asked him to explain to the taxi driver that we were at the WRONG Ramada. That I needed to be at the other side of the Pudong district. The cab from People's square should have been about 45RMB ($6.50) Instead, it cost me about 150 RMB to get to the wrong place, and another 100 RMB to get back to the right hotel. Not the worst thing that ever happened to anyone, but a good reason to learn to speak more Mandarin.

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