S.J. Culver recently went to Shanghai.
Edith Zimmerman: Shanghai! Why?
S.J. Culver: I went for a work conference, which was awesome because I never could have afforded to send myself, nor would Shanghai have been my first choice for my next big trip, but it ended up being the highlight of my 2012. It was also a good trip structure for me because there was the psychological safety net of conference attendees I could latch onto if I got tired of being alone or if I had a problem, but in the end everything went swimmingly, and I only went out with other people once. I was there 10 days.
Do you speak Chinese?
Nope! I can say “hello” and “thank you,” and a friend taught me “don’t want” before I left with the slightly ominous caveat, “You’re going to need it.” I was too timid to ever say it (plus it turns out head-shaking is universal, duh). I said “thank you” one billion times a day. This was my first time traveling in a place where I had pretty much zero grasp of the language, and I found myself really trying to imbue “thank you” with a lot of different meanings.
“Thank you” = “Seriously, thank you.”
“Thank you” = “This congee is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten”
“Thank you” = “7 a.m. is an insane time to want to clean this hotel room.”
What was one of the loveliest moments you had there?
I did a lot of walking tours and had a couple of really amazing moments realizing/appreciating how much history there is in a city like Shanghai. It just boggles the mind the number of years things have been happening in this particular part of the world (especially compared to the young cities of the U.S. I know). I also found myself thinking a lot about imperialism and Eurocentrism and Edward Said and a lot of other things, too. I think a lot about place and identity in the U.S., so it felt lovely to me to be having that particular response to a new place. Maybe a little nerdier than something that would happen in an Ethan Hawke movie, but lovely to me.
In that vein, I had a great time one evening touring a museum of Shanghai history and comparing the language on the displays (which made continual reference to “the abyss of semi-colonialism," "Shanghai's vicissitudes" etc.) to the language of my western guidebooks. If you only read those guidebooks, you’d think Art Deco architecture was the coolest thing about Shanghai (colonial buildings were "beautiful" according to the guides I had, which would then start griping about contemporary Shanghai’s jazzy skyscrapers). Feeling freed from the tyranny of the guidebook and its western lens in that museum, that was excellent. Also there were a million dioramas.
There were a lot of stressful things! Like when the Google maps directions to my hotel ended up being slightly inaccurate, and its placement on the guidebook map incorrect (seriously, Lonely Planet, hire me), and my cab driver and I shared no common language. We found it eventually though (“Thank you” = “Thank you for not dropping me off at the side of the road and leaving me to locate the Renaissance Shanghai myself”).
I was also on a weird high-low stress rollercoaster the whole trip because it was the week before the U.S. presidential election, and it was also the week before the CPC’s leadership transition. A lot of U.S. media had been blocked by Chinese censors for reporting on the extent of the wealth and assets of Xi Jinping, who was about to take over as the party’s General Secretary. So I kept vacillating between “Thank god I can’t check the New York Times five times a day, I’m on vacation,” and “Oh my god, seriously, how is Obama doing? Why is CNN blocked???” And obviously the U.S. election isn’t so exciting in the PRC, so I felt a little like a crazy person. They called the election right before I boarded my flight back to San Francisco. I was extremely relieved and emotional, and everyone else in the international terminal was like “Wo ist die Wechselstube?”
Please describe the food!
The food was fucking great. Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) are the famous Shanghai snack and OMG, so good. The person at my work who processes expense reports probably thinks I’m loony because I submitted multiple receipts entirely in Chinese characters where I just scrawled “dumplings.” Sometimes, “dumplings!!” You bite off a corner and slurp out the soup and then eat the rest. Heaven.
And the drinks! (Beer story???)
Ha, so, I was researching restaurants on some ex-pat websites and read about this amazing Sichuan place near People’s Square. It’s apparently really popular and very difficult to get a table without a reservation, so I decided I would show up right when they opened at 5 p.m. and see if I could get in. Just to set the scene, this restaurant is on the fourth floor of an office building (floor 2 is a jewelry store; floor 3 is being renovated) on a block that’s pretty non-commercial looking. So I ride up three escalators thinking, I hope this is it or else I guess I’m trespassing, and on floor 4 there is indeed a restaurant.
Of course there’s only two other people there at 5 p.m., so I get a table after successfully convincing the hostess that it is just me that will be dining (she has a hard time accepting this fact). Just me orders a tea-smoked duck, mapo tofu, and something else I’ve forgotten, and then I also asked for a beer which went like this:
Me: (pointing) Tsingtao?
Server: (looking concerned) [Something something something something]
Me: Thank you!
Server: (annoyed) [Something something something!]
Me: (apologetic) … thank you?
When the beer came it was a 40, so I guess that’s what she was trying to tell me? I didn’t mind, and I only looked a little crazy all alone with my giant beer and dinner big enough for three people. One of the best meals of my life, despite the looks I got.
Shanghai is the largest city in the world, which I absolutely knew off the top of my head and didn't just look up on Wikipedia — did you feel dwarfed? Pleasantly/unpleasantly?
Very pleasantly dwarfed. The city is almost incomprehensibly big. The urban core alone is like ten Manhattans. I sat at my hotel window every morning drinking Nescafe and feeling like an ant, watching the other ants down on the street riding motorbikes and shopping and doing t’ai chi. The nice thing about feeling like an ant is being relieved from the pressure of significance. Like, I’m an ant, it’s okay that I don’t have everything in life figured out. I’ll just keep carrying this crumb.
Did you break any rules?
None I’d like to document on the internet!
Where to next?
I’m going to Phoenix in June. What is the soup dumpling of Arizona?
Previously: A Month Alone in India
S. J. Culver is a writer, teacher, and tenant's rights counselor in San Francisco.