Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pedaling “Strong”

I mentioned a few weeks back the idea of buying a bicycle, and as you can see from the picture, I’ve got a snazzy new Walmart special, a baby-blue model complete with a generous white basket and “STRONG” emblazoned on its frame. I don’t really know why I decided to join the throngs of bikers, except for the adventure and the independence; all other signs point to “Are you crazy?!” For one, the traffic is mayhem, untethered by stoplights or lanes or limits on just what kind of speculative vehicles can be driven or pedaled. Technically, there are “bike lanes,” but not only do they merge at some points with bus stops, but they are traversed by motorcycles, electric bikes, and people pedaling tipsy loads of all sorts in both directions. It is not uncommon to see a family of five coming at you head-on on one motorbike, babies held football-style by mothers riding side-saddle. And then there are the vendors, with vats of soup or watermelons or live chicks strapped ingeniously to the handlebars or racks at the rear. Actually, the commute to work is a daily circus show in itself, and I recall how traditional Chinese-style circus arts include teetering balancing acts and fitting multiple people on unicycles or in tiny barrels. It’s true, raw entertainment.

Don’t worry, though, I’m careful – ultra-vigilant really. The most dangerous part of biking for me is that I am an absolute spectacle on the road. People slow down to stare at my shiny new wheels, shout at me as I pass, and honk incessantly at close range, all of which adds unnecessary risk to my ride. Still, it’s fun! At night after work, I can zoom through the less-crowded streets along the smelly river to the deafening sound of insects, often swerving to miss frogs on the path. (If I wanted frog soup I could find freshly decapitated ones at Walmart any time).


Unsure if peace and quiet is a valid request around here, I’ve been shushing the combative conversationalists seated at the table to my left. I’ve brought my computer over to Thumb Plaza, a shopping center close to the Cirque site that offers a nice locale for an aspiring writer and relief from the sweltering heat in the form of an enormous, air-conditioned Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. (And why am I drinking hot coffee on a day when a cactus would wilt? I am sorely addicted, and I don’t mind a bit.) While I may be escaping the unbearable weather, I cannot, it seems, get away from incredibly loud and pugnacious dialogue that assaults my ears at every turn. I’m coming to realize (or trying to convince myself) that people are not perpetually apoplectic, but that it’s merely my interpretation of the tone of Shanghaiese. I have to laugh, really, to look around this café and see pairs of men engaged in fiery discourse in between sips of their froufrou iced Frappacinos.

Maybe I should invest in some earplugs, though they would do little to solve the inevitable and disturbing dispute that I encounter almost daily with Shanghai taxi drivers. For every jolly driver I get (and there are some out there), I find myself facing irate old men who all but refuse to take me where I want to go. I’ve begun to employ the hotel concierge to explain my destination, and let the two of them duke it out, but it’s still not the kind of thing that inspires confidence in customers. Usually I am told by the concierge, “I’m sorry, but this driver does not know his way around, so I will tell him.” Uh-oh.

On a positive note, I am here now, having made it to my destination intact, which is something I should remember to be thankful for.

After prodding from yours truly, Andy has enrolled in Mandarin lessons through Google. I’m so proud of him for tackling such a daunting language with its counter-intuitive intonations and incredibly difficult pronunciation. The only thing is, when he visits in August, I have doubts about how far his Mandarin will take him in Shanghai. The city really does have an accent all its own, so strong a departure from Beiing Mandarin that it verges on a separate dialect called Shanghaihua. Maybe it’s somewhere along the lines of Alabama drawl vs. Scottish brogue.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sick Day

I’m angry, in an irrational way, at the germs that are ravaging my body, exotic little bugs that precipitate a sore throat, rashy skin, and an array of gastrointestinal woes. I am vexed at my immune system’s pathetic attempt to battle this scourge of infirmity, and I picture lazy pompous blobs of my own white blood cells surrendering to viruses sharp and cunning as kung fu masters. Short of refusing all food, water, and air for the next six weeks, I am left with no option but to expose myself to these unfamiliar pathogens and hope for the best.

Some days ago, as I was starting on my way to this full-blown viral infection I’ve got going, I took one of the infamous Shanghai cabs out for a quick errand run. Admittedly, I was also nursing a slight hangover from my birthday celebration the night before, which I will write about later on, so after handing the cab driver my little card with the Sheraton Hotel’s address on it, I lay down in the back seat to wallow in my misery (and to avoid witnessing the harrowing traffic). Minutes later I found myself being yelled at and motioned out of the car by the driver, to which I responded with an argumentative “No! I said the SHE-RA-TON!” Out of necessity, I have grown used to arguing my way through the city, but in this case, it seemed there was more to the story than an irate driver… I soon realized, ironically, that I had been driven, headache and all, to the Shanghai General Hospital. As it turns out, my little Sheraton instruction card was double-sided, with the opposite face stating that I was indeed requiring emergency transportation to the nearest hospital! Lots of apologies on both ends (Dubuqi! Dubuqi! Sorry! Sorry!) and I eventually made it back to the hotel.

But as disgruntled as I may be over my illness, I am still shocked and dismayed at the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on its lax and corrupt food and drug administration. In an extreme act of retribution meant to assuage the public’s fears over product contamination and forgery, Zheng Xiaoyu, director of food and drug oversight, was convicted of taking bribes and approving fake pharmaceuticals. He was executed. Now I would like a non-poisonous apple as much as any Snow White, but does the death of one wicked witch necessarily ensure the safety of all dwarves in the forest??? It will take more than this publicity stunt to ameliorate the safety issues that prevail, issues that are all wrapped up in politics, economics, and the push-push-push to get ahead in rapidly developing China.

Sometimes being personally embroiled in a problem serves to drive home the severity of a situation. While in Peru for a World Health Organization project in 2005, I spent a month studying the complex and abysmal food, air, and water conditions in the shantytowns surrounding Lima. Remaining an outsider was not an option. We did not need to see the e. coli under the microscope to know it was causing dysentery, since we American students with our wimpy immune defenses knew all too well the plight of the children we were striving to help.

Now that’s not to say that I have been poisoned by fake medicine or spurious groceries here in China, or that I even fully comprehend the safety crisis since I can afford to shop at the best available stores. But being here during this series of events has made me realize the extent of the problem, a case study that could have been ripped from the pages of one of my college texts on nutrition, globalization, or public health. If nothing else, I’m recalling my passion for these subjects, my outrage at how governments and corporations can play games with populations’ health like they were meaningless rounds of cards.

Everything here is at risk of being counterfeit, which is good and fun when you want a faux Gucci handbag or 20 pirated DVDs for five bucks, but when the paper currency, infant formula, and aspirin are shams, it becomes more than a little annoying. It’s my belief that this corruption does something to a society, infuses individuals with suspicion and distrust that is hard to shake, and if all you have ever known is dishonesty, often to only way to survive is to continue in the same vein. Nearly every day as I near our Cirque du Soleil tent, I am implored to buy fake Quidam tickets and merchandise. That is one well-oiled machine, since our show has been here all of maybe two weeks!

Regarding our audience, there is something wacky going on. In all cities the seats in the Big Top are divided into categories, with the highest-priced being the front-and-center VIP tickets, the so-called “Tapis Rouge” (“red carpet”). In the U.S., these average about $200 and include access to a decorated tent where guests can lounge, drink champagne, and be dazzled by Cirque décor and music. Tapis Rouge may be exclusive, yet the demand is always there; wine-woozy corporate types and chicly dressed couples stare up at me from the front row nightly. Here, though, as I release my hoop and come to bow at the front of the stage, I am met with a spooky absence of warm bodies – just empty, privileged seats.

I’ve asked my director about this, as it does nothing good for our morale as performers. Not only are the front rows empty, but the back and sides are full of people carrying on conversations loudly, using cell phones, and flashing their cameras impetuously. I’ve been told it’s got a lot to do with the current transitioning economy and repercussions of communism. The wealthiest of customers who can afford Tapis Rouge are such a teeny tip of the pyramid and the ushers are terrified of promoting others (who didn’t pay the full price) up to the front, lest there be anger and chaos at the unfairness and inequality. Paradoxical, no?

It’s time now to switch on the idiot box (I really rarely watch TV) for some sick-day indulgence. I’ve made myself some luscious miso soup from scratch with tofu, fresh ginger, and a hodgepodge of vegetables sure to be healing. Despite my problems with this country, they sure know how to handle a soybean, and I’m in heaven with the wide variety of tofu and vegetarian products here. Though I have yet to sample it, there is a whole category of cuisine that specializes in meat-like vegetarian dishes, i.e. soy spareribs, wheat-gluten duck liver, and vegetable protein pork belly. Kind of goes along with the whole forgery trend, but it deserves a try some day soon.