Thursday, February 21, 2013


Ten Days Alone In: Shanghai

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.

Stressful moments?

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.

52 Comments / Post A Comment

hahahaha, ja.

My family's from a city near Shanghai, and my favorite thing to do when we go back is to sit in a cafeteria-style restaurant near the West Lake and eat xiaolongbao forever and ever.


The soup dumpling of Arizona is the chimichanga. Bite off one end and suck out all the filling. (Just kidding, eat it with a fork and tons of guacamole and sour cream.) And instead of a 40, get a michelada as your beverage. I'm already jealous of your future delicious meal!


@FlufferNutter Yes on the chimichanga OR just a bean and cheese burrito from a 24-hour drive-thru. The cheese is nuclear orange, the tortilla and beans are full of lard, and it's the most delicious thing in the world.


@FlufferNutter The soup dumpling of Arizona is ALSO the fry bread taco from The Fry Bread House.

There are many soup dumplings of Arizona, and they are all fried in some way or another.


@FlufferNutter Fresh tortillas at Carolina's (the south of downtown location.)


@TheCheesemanCometh CAROLINA'S!!!!!!!!!!! Mmmmmmmm.


@Emby I just got a celiac diagnosis last summer, so no more Carolina's for me, but seriously, SO GOOD!! If you have the misfortune of being here in the summer, you definitely deserve it!


@aeroaeroaero I love Whateverberto's.


@FlufferNutter Guys, I am crushing on this Arizona restaurant thread. Let's keep it coming.


@cei-face I am crushing on it, too. I moved to NY two years ago and I have yet to find a real Mexican restaurant. Items I miss most include: green corn tamales, caldo de queso, avocado enchiladas, caramelos (quesadilla with carne asada inside!), real honest-to-goodness made from scratch tortillas, etc etc etc.
@aeroaeroaero Every time I visit home (Tucson), my first stop is Los Betos or Nico's to get a gigantic bean and cheese burrito! There is nothing like it.


This was SUCH a good view! @n


Ah! I was also there in 2012 and I think Shanghai is an interesting place with a very unusual vibe. It left a huge impact on me, and I would love to go back someday.

The effects of imperialism are written all over the city (for example The Bund, a major tourist attraction, are embassies from the colonial era) while Shanghai also plays hosts to the cultures of many different Chinese provinces. In addition, the recent boom years and construction have resulted in incredible, colorful LED-lit skyscrapers and elevated highways/pedestrian walkways. All of this tends to make Shanghai feel less like being specifically in China and more like Blade Runner.

To me, it is a place that still seems to be searching for it's own identity. I know it has been seen as the birthplace of the new, Modern China, but I couldn't shake the feeling that that no one really knows what that is yet, which leaves "what does it mean to be Shanghainese" somewhat unanswerable.


"Boulter also suggested that he meet the girls in person to engage in sex acts and to get married"

WHAT?! The "get married" is just...it's hard to imagine how that came about.

It's also hard to know whether to be madder at Arizona voters for repeatedly electing this guy, or at the USDOJ for not moving faster with litigation. Fortunately, I've got a lot of rage to go around.


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll We're not all moronic, I promise! He's just worshipped (seriously, like they think he's the second messiah) in the retirement communities ringing the Valley.


@TheCheesemanCometh And everyone in those retirement communities is from somewhere else. I blame America's grandparents for Arizona wackitude.

fondue with cheddar

My mom lived in Shanghai for a couple years! Sadly, she came home unexpectedly before I'd had the chance to visit her. She sent detailed, weekly emails to everyone in the family and shared a boatload of pictures online. I've been meaning to make a book out of it.


@fondue with cheddar Aw, that would make such a lovely gift!

fondue with cheddar

@shannanigans That was the idea! Unfortunately, they took the web album down so the only way I can get all the photos is to ask them, which sort of ruins the surprise.


@fondue with cheddar Maybe you can tell a lie for good? Like say a friend is thinking of going and you wanted to show them all the pictures?

fondue with cheddar

@professionalmess That's an idea, but she'd probably only give me some of them. We're talking about a LOT of pictures. I'm gonna have to come clean. Also, I no longer have access to the email address where she emailed all the weekly letters. I've got nothing!


I loved the story of going to the Sichuan restaurant alone! I lived in China as a teenager and returned for an extended stay in college, and was the eccentric foreigner eating alone so many times. Just because sometimes you want to try something, dammit, and who cares if everything is family style and you're going to look like a lunatic?

Also I learned to drink on 40s of Tsingtao so now my nostalgia is in full bloom.

miss olsen

Oh man, I spent a couple weeks effectively alone in Shanghai about five years ago and it was fascinating and shaking and really good for me (not to reduce a vibrant city to its effect on me me me). Your perspective on what the art deco-y built environment actually means is great -- that didn't occur to me as I wandered around the French concession.

All the food is wonderful, but I especially loved the roasted sweet potatoes you could get from guys with coal stoves in pushcarts. Those remain the Platonic Form of sweet potato to me and I have never been able to recreate them at home even though they are literally an unadorned baked potato.


"I’m an ant, it’s okay that I don’t have everything in life figured out. I’ll just keep carrying this crumb."

thank you so much for this! I feel like I keep dropping my crumb, but I'll get there one day.


@iceberg I feel like I keep ... eating my crumb before the time is right ...

that was a stretch, wasn't it. well I'm definitely dropping my crumb, right there with you.


We have a food truck in the area that makes dumplings like that! Now I'm going to see if I can track them down for lunch. Mmmmm....

Lumpy Space Princess

Phoenix in June? Air Conditioning is the soup dumpling of Phoenix, in June. Sorry about that.


@Lumpy Space Princess Yep. I'm from there, and I try to make it home about twice a year to visit my family. Once during the holidays, when it's gorgeous, and again 6 months later... which is hell.


@Emby Absolutely (but July/August is sooo much worse.)

Lumpy Space Princess

@Emby Ah, I'm from Phoenix too! I only visit in the winter now!


This was such a wonderful interview. (Not just the interesting content but it seems well spoken and well edited too!) I really, really, really want to go to Shanghai now. I could read museum placards like that one for hours upon hours.


Gaaaahh this sounds awesome. Want to go to Shanghai pretty bad. Well, anywhere in China really.


Don't expect a Hairpin Pinup. You would think that out of 1.3 billion people ...


Ahhh, it's true about the "thank you"! I did the same thing in Korea, using "thank you" for eeeeeeverything. A lot of the time it would be food-related. Somebody gives me something to eat and I'm all, "Thank you!" Then they hand me some more food, and I'm like, "Thank you!" Then they hand me more food and the scene repeats and repeats until I don't know how to say I was full half an hour ago and then KABOOM goes my stomach and there's kimchi and rice cakes and parts of what was once my body all over the ceiling.


@werewolfbarmitzvah Ha, I did the same thing in Russia (and Indonesia and Japan, etc). "Thank you" and "sorry" and a smile will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go in most parts of the world.


The soup dumpling of Arizona is Navajo fry bread OR if you can find it, a Navajo taco. And that prickly pear gummy candy is fucking delicious and I would fight someone for a piece of it right now. Although I have delicious Chicago hot dogs, etc.


Definitely get some fry bread, as per others' recommendations, especially in Navajo taco or Apache burger form. If you have a lot of time to kill, even better would be to drive up to the Navajo res and get a mutton sandwich from a roadside stand. Just remember to take some time out to think about how fucked up the history that resulted in all of that is.
Also while you're in Phoenix, if you want to have good food, great snickerdoodles, and also an offensiveness/racial issues meltdown, go to Chino Bandido.


I've been to China alone a few times, and I loved the tiny little bit of Shanghai that I was able to see.
S.J.Culver is so right about Lonely Planet's maps - should be taken with a grain of salt plus a bag of MSG. I'm suspicious as to whether their mapmakers have ever actually been on site.
You really start to understand the cultural difference between East and West when you try to eat alone. I've had complete strangers sit to talk with me so that I wouldn't be eating alone (very kind of them!).


the fried version of those soup dumplings are boss too: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g308272-d1533218-Reviews-Yang_s_Fry_Dumpling-Shanghai.html

Yankee Peach

I spent a summer up the road a bit in Beijing and I would like to give a shout out to those amazing breakfast crepes -- jian bing -- that you can get from the street vendors on every corner. They are the most delicious thing in the world ever and I believe with the exchange rate when I was there the cost was less than $1.(http://travel.cnn.com/shanghai/eat/diy-jianbing-breakfast-served-828924)


@Yankee Peach
You can get street jianbing in Shanghai, too, even if it's more a North China thing.


oh, i want to be there now, and eating that now. agreed on Shanghai being a hard place to send oneself (so expensive! visa's!) but i also have fingers crossed for a work trip.

that said, can the dumplings of Argentina be dulce de leche filled churros? because i definitely bit/slurped/devoured a few (=too many) of those.


Aaaah I love this one the best!!! I just found out there's a place in Austin that makes soup dumplings and am really excited.

Also how in the fuck can I get work to pay for me to go to China! My work sends me to Phoenix (which, CONDOLENCES IT IS THE WORST) and Silicon Valley. Speaking of, Hairpin, if you guys want to read "6 Days Alone In A Santa Clara Business Hotel Feeling Like A Weird Work Travel Ghost While Taking Network Training" just you LET ME KNOW.



HI there, I'd due to head to Shanghai in December (brr) what's the name of the Sichuan restaurant you went to by yourself? What did you order food wise - I'm always looking for recommendations!


AHHHHHHH Shanghai! I live here! And I get so super excited when other foreigners like it here, because I love it so much and want everyone else to love it too. I really just want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life dragging visitors around the city and forcing them to try ALL OF THE FOODS (I am seriously a xiaolongbao evangelist.)

By the way, beer normally comes in 40s in China (with the result that whenever I go back to the States I find the beer really adorable); the waitress was probably trying to ask you if you wanted it cold or room temperature.

Emmylou Who

Awwww, my sister lives in Shanghai and this made me really miss her! She loves it there and every day I wish I finally had the crazy amount of money needed to go visit her. Alas, this is taking forever because everyone I've ever met has decided to get married.


I saw that first picture and got really excited, and also jealous because your trip sounds fantastic! That was the first place I had soup dumplings in China, and it was awesome. Old Town Shanghai is funny, because the old buildings are all actually KFCs and Dairy Queens. But then there are the legit places, like that one. I only spent a couple of days in Shanghai, but it is a crazy big city with endless highways full of terrifying drivers. Somebody needs to start a driving class entirely intended to teach people how to merge and use their blinkers!! I even got in a minor accident while driving in a taxi and picked up a couple of insults.

Also, I would bet a 40 that the beer in your 40 was only 2-3% alcohol, because that's how they do it! So drinking one by yourself is not really a big deal. I went to a hot pot restaurant that had free .5% beer, and I was very amused.


XLBs are basically my reason for living.


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