I think it’s my own interpretation, or impression, but the most immediate way to experience and learn about a new culture is by exiting an airport in a new country and entering into a taxi cab. It’s a tiny window into a life I’ve never known, animated by an automobile and one’s relation to the road in front of them. Yes, I might live in a place where driving a car often times signifies recklessness, but nothing could compare me for Shanghai, China.
I had read about Chinese drivers. But reading and experiencing are two entirely different states. And Chinese driving is fucking insane. Upon exiting Pudong Airport, I entered a cab. I handed the cab driver a piece of paper with Mandarin directions to a Howard Johnson, and sat back. From there, we proceeded on a 45-minute drive into downtown Shanghai. The driver tore out of the airport, flashing his high beams at anything that stood in his way, cutting off everything, squeezing into places that we probably shouldn’t, riding in the shoulder, never signaling and speeding the whole way. Along the way, I noticed several roadside collisions being attended to by the police, several groups of men pissing along the roadside next to their still-running vans, and cameras every 100 feet or so taking photos of the roadway in three second intervals. Personally, I’d have slowed down while nearing the cameras, but I’m not Chinese. Besides, we would have lost the race on the roadway. The race doesn’t actually involve winning in China though; it’s more about improving.
Ultimately, we arrived at a Howard Johnson in downtown Shanghai. Aside from the given name and the room’s amenities, the hotel was far from Americanized, but well on its way. I dropped my belongings in the room, grabbed a Tsingtao beer from the refrigerator, and relaxed for the first time in 24 hours.
It had been a long day. Starting in Newark, NJ at around 7 AM, I entered Newark Airport. It was a Tuesday morning, and for an airport that’s normally packed with business travelers, it was empty. To be honest, I’ve been hearing that word “recession” for a few months now, but this was the first time I had witnessed it in action. The airport was utterly empty. Between rising gas prices and the fact that Northwest Airlines had just canceled over 400 flights a few weeks ago, they were clearly feeling the brunt of business conversations that ended with “Hey, we can just handle this over e-mail…” I grabbed a Wall Street Journal and waited at the gate. The first page I opened to read “Concern Rises Over China Visas,” and it made me glad. You see, almost four weeks prior to the day I left for China, I applied for the Visa, which I was told took two weeks at most. The week before leaving, the Visa Agency and myself became close friends. “We don’t know what the problem is Mr. Tunney. This isn’t normal,” they’d say. I took that to mean this pseudo government agency didn’t give two shits one way or the other, and hoped that my passport and attached visa to China would arrive when promised. The first time, no. The second time, no. Finally, on the day before I was to leave, my passport arrived. Reading the story in the Journal eased my dismay with the Visa Agency. It turns out that they didn’t know what the problem was. China was getting strict on handing out Visas, and I simply became a victim of international paperwork. All that cursing for nothing. Sorry Heather.
But I was still glad. The flight was near empty and I spread out with the first of one month’s accrued New Yorker magazines. Three-quarters of the way through, we landed in Detroit. I walked down the terminal to the Tokyo gate and waited for about an hour, trying not to read anything in my bag as I was about to embark on a 14-hour plane ride. The longest flight I’ve ever taken, from San Francisco to Hong Kong, took about 16 hours. It was pure hell. The movies sucked, I couldn’t sleep and I was stuck next to two Muslim women who covered their faces completely on account of me and what I’m assuming was my whiteness. While they slept, I struggled to remain occupied, and when I had to use the bathroom, I climbed up and walked over their sleeping bodies via the arm rests. Detroit to Tokyo was a little different. I had tons of reading material, an aisle seat, two less hours to kill and was going on just four hours of sleep the night before. I didn’t take into account the elderly, overweight Japanese woman next to me. She couldn’t read, didn’t know how to order food. and by way of cultural differences, already had a different sense of personal space than myself. This meant, quite bluntly, that she slept on me, and very close to me when I pushed her head off mine, snoring loudly with her mouth open. Two hours in, I took it like a champ. 12 hours in, I was ready to kill her. I managed maybe an hour’s sleep on the ride, and read steadfastly through four New Yorker magazines and into an enthnographic history of New York’s Lower East Side. Finally, we landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. It was around 5 PM in the afternoon, 11 hours ahead of what I was used to. I didn’t care, I was simply glad to be out of the plane and stretching my legs. I cleared Japanese customs, headed for the Shanghai gate, exchanged some dollars into yen and bought two cans of Sapporo beer for my troubles.
Shortly after finding the Shanghai gate, two friends embarking on the same journey as myself showed their faces. We caught up with each other and exchanged travel tales. Through a mix of the two Sapporos and a fine case of jet lag, I entered the plane in a half zombified state and found my seat. I don’t remember the take-off or the flight; my body had finally given in to exhaustion. That seems to be the only way in which I ever sleep on airplanes. “Damn those people with their prescription sleep medications,” I thought to myself as I laid down to rest in the Howard Johnson at Caida Plaza in Shanghai, with Chinese television blaring in the background. It had been a long 27 hours, and the only glimpse I had spied of Chinese culture thus far was on the road from the airport to the hotel. But like I had said before, it was a glimpse into a life I had never known, and I was very glad for having survived the ride.
Normally, when you thrust your body into the hell of intercontinental travel, you don’t sleep through the night too pleasantly. But I somehow managed a good eight hours of sleep on the first night. Upon waking, I showered and headed downstairs to the breakfast buffet. Breakfast buffet affairs at hotels in Asian countries are pretty easy to explain. Take a food you might normally eat at home for lunch or dinner, and serve that as breakfast. Add typically American breakfast foods, some tropical fruit and top it off with some chicken heads for decorations. I gorged on watermelon, hash browns and lo mein, steered clear of the chicken heads and then quickly packed a bag for the black market. Surprisingly, I still didn’t feel too tired.
We entered another taxi cab at approximately 9:30 AM. I figured that driving through downtown Shanghai during a typical business morning would require a slight more amount of discretion than allowed the night before, but I was wrong. The international high beam flash to signify “Hey, get the [insert local dialect’s expletive here] hell out of the way” simply transformed into its daytime companion, the horn. Weaving through buses, throngs of bicyclists and even more pedestrians, we honked, squeezed, narrowly avoided and just missed on our way to the black market. And when we arrived, we didn’t even make it out of the cab before local black market guides were thrusting sales circulars for cheap mobile phones in our faces. They were literally sticking the sales circulars in through the taxi cab windows.
They were a pair; one man and one woman, hired by the markets to guide tourists to whatever they desired to purchase. They understood reasonably good english, and guided us through the maze of shops to purchase bootlegged DVDs and bootlegged clothing. The man kept asking, “You want seksh moody?” But we politely declined. I did try to purchase a t-shirt from a vendor. I shouldn’t say purchase. There are no purchases made in these kinds of China markets, only bargains. The vendor gives you a wildly exorbitant price which he types out on a calculator, you hit clear and enter your own price, and it continues until an agreement is reached. This particular t-shirt, which read, “I Come To Shanghai,” was offered to me for the equivalent of 48 US dollars. I offered back 8, and the vendor laughed, saying, “You cra-she!” His buddies all laughed too, and that was that. I walked away, and sure enough, the vendor came back with the shirt in a bag, holding the calculator with the number 50 on it, which was what I offered in the first place. (50 RMB is equal to about $8) I hate bargaining in any language. I don’t have the patience, I don’t like being called crazy for wanting to spend $8 on a shitty t-shirt and the jet lag was finally kicking some moodiness into me. I did get three bootleg DVDs for the equivalent of $3 each (Cloverfield, There Will Be Blood and The Darjeeling Limited). And by that time, we needed to head out from the market and get to the contest. We walked out of the market and down a crowded street filled with more on-street vending stands. Some also sold food too, including fried octopus tentacles, fried scorpion and quail eggs. Along the way, the smell hit us. I’m somewhat accustomed to the varying smells of an American city; the most prominent being Chinatown’s own brand. I can’t describe it, but I’d say it’s a combination of rotten vegetables and dirty sidewalks which intensifies in smaller areas such as alleys. For those of you not accustomed to Chinatown’s smell, I’d say to find a Chinese restaurant and stick your head in their dumpster for about 10 seconds.
Now when the Chinese first started settling in New York City sometime in the 1850s, they brought with them as much of their culture as they could, and made no effort to Americanize themselves. Until now, I hadn’t realized that the smell of a Chinese street had also emigrated to the U.S. They’re pretty similar smells. As a direct correlation, I’d tell anyone in the NYC area to go to Vanessa’s Dumpling House on Eldridge Street, then walk North to Broome Street. Now, breath in through your nose, but pretend you’re also inhaling a cloud of smog above a garbage dump that’s been pissed on. That’s Shanghai. I’m not knocking it. The city was founded during the 10th century and has seen a lot more human traffic than anything in the Western world. Of course, it’s gonna smell a lot more used. (And also, while you’re at Vanessa’s, be sure to get a sesame bread sandwich for $1.50. They’re real good.)
Anyways, we’re walking down a street in Shanghai near the Huangpu River. We wanted to get a few photos in front of both the river and the Oriental Pearl Tower, but we had to go through a tunnel to cross the crowded roadway. And that’s when it hit me; deformities. As we entered the tunnel turned toy bazaar turned makeshift respite from the sun, I noticed the first of many organ grinders accompanied by a deformed child. The first organ grinder’s child was a boy with no arms, listlessly standing next to him. The next was a lone man on a cart, with no body below his waist. And the third, after we had managed to cross through the tunnel with every type of street vendor trying to sell us cheap toys, I spotted the third, another boy, with half of a right arm, and a left arm completely missing, except for his hand, which was attached at the shoulder. He motioned for me to take a photo of him and then asked for a donation, but I was too, I don’t know what I was. I felt terrible and I didn’t want to objectify him or keep staring. I just threw some change in his cup and kept walking. The deformities had caught me off guard. There are 1 million babies born with deformities per year in China. That’s a harsh statistic that my ignorant American ass just isn’t familiar with.
Regardless, we got our tourist shots and made our way to the Kia X-Games. Insert BMX contest story here and never doubt how much of a badass Chad Kagy is.
Following the contest, we met up with Jon Byers and Mike Corley from Eastern Bikes, who were also in China on business. We started drinking beer, kinda early for both our bodies and the day. That led to more beer, more sleepiness and a meal at Papa John’s Pizzeria somewhere in the middle of it all. I ate potato wedges, bread sticks and Tsingtao beer. I guess I should also note that I can travel anywhere in the world and dive straight into drinking the local beer, but run like hell when asked to eat local cuisine. Chalk that up to beer being on most menus throughout the world, and dog not.
After leaving Papa John’s, another legless girl begged for money from us outside. I gave her a few yuan, and hopped into an electric bicycle taxi with Leigh Ramsdell. Electric bikes are everywhere in China. They’re quiet, fast, rechargeable and totally awesome. I only wish we were as smart as Chad Kagy, who paid off his electric bicycle taxi driver for beating us in a race, giving us the finger mid-race. (There’s a photo of it on my Flickr page…) When we returned to the hotel, it was barely 10PM. Despite everyone wanting to go out drinking, I passed out cold on my bed with Chinese news blaring in the background. Jet lag, five beers and bicycle taxi races had caught up with me…
At 4 AM, I was wide awake. I tossed and turned for maybe 15 minutes before I decided that it was a waste of time for me to be trying to sleep when I was already awake. I got dressed, grabbed my camera and walked out of the hotel.
The early morning was more quiet than I could have ever imagined. Aside from myself, some wild dogs and the few sidewalk breakfast vendors who were traveling by bike to their designated sidewalk breakfast location, the city was still. I was now free to cross the street without getting killed and take photos without 100 people stopping to try to see what I was seeing. Mostly, I was just curious. I remember doing the same thing in Tokyo about five years ago. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and walked around a park in the Shinjuku District, drinking beer and studying the makeshift shelters provided by the state to the park’s homeless population. Now I’m sure this isn’t the general rule, but I feel like the Western world has done a really great job at equating the night with evil. Whereas the cities I’ve been to in Asia, despite knowing that drugs, prostitution and crime do exist, feel really safe at night. Maybe it’s just my own ignorance, but a deserted street at night in Shanghai or Bangkok generally feels a lot safer than a street in Glasgow or Philadelphia. I can and do appreciate the un-safety of the nighttime city streets in the Western world, but I can and do also appreciate the ignorance which allows me to feel safe on the nighttime city streets of Asia. So I walked. Down deserted alleys, along abandoned railroad tracks, through the night. Nearby, a police car parked on the street housed two sleeping police officers.
As the sun began rising, the people of Shanghai followed. And by 5:30, the streets were teeming with activity of all kinds. Electric bicycles carrying everything from concrete to propane, buses and taxis carting people, pedestrians and wild dogs trying to evade traffic. I slowly made my way back to the hotel and passed what I had thought was a hair salon. In the window sat a woman in a low cut dress with her breasts almost pushing out, scowling into the blankness of the morning hours with a mobile phone in her hand. It wasn’t a hair salon, it was a brothel.
Back at the hotel, I showered and made my way to the breakfast buffet. This time, I kept it safe with watermelon, a baguette and espresso. I’m never going to be like that dude on the Food Channel that travels the world and puts whatever is handed to him in his mouth. He’s got more balls AND irregular bowels than me in that department. There were tater tots at the buffet that morning though.
An hour later, we started walking back to the contest. We passed a restaurant that served dog and sheep alongside chicken, beef and fish. The cuter animals (dog, sheep) were more expensive to eat. By now, the time was around 8:30 in the morning, and the city was bustling with energy. Big Island, aka Mike Castillo, was with me and Leigh on the walk to the contest. Big is a tattoo artist by trade, and his body is fairly covered in art. Tattoos have not really broke big in China. There were tattoo parlors, and mostly young people with tattoos in inconspicuous places, but no one like Big around. This made for an interesting walk. People would zip by on their electric bikes, rubber necking Big the entire time. One young man almost hit a curb while rubber necking Big, but swerved at the last possible moment. Big didn’t seem to mind, but me and Leigh thought it was funny.
Next to the contest was a Starbuck’s. I was already feeling tired again, so we went for coffee. Can you remember the last time you were in a Starbuck’s at nine in the morning on a weekday? They’re packed with people usually, and the lines move slow on account of the half-calf-double-decaf kinda drinks that take forever to make and are topped off with whipped cream. Chinese Starbuck’s was completely empty, but my small black coffee still took ten minutes to make.
Insert day two BMX contest story here. Well, the qualifying part anyways.
After qualifying, myself, Jeremie Infelise, Leigh and Big were dead tired. We either needed food, Red Bulls or some kinda caffeine. We crossed the street and made our way to an outdoor shopping mall with a Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonald’s and French bakery. The French bakery had chicken donuts and a Tunny sandwich named for the Tunny fish.
Afterwards, Leigh suggested Chinese Wal-Mart, and who was I to argue. Outside of the taxi rides I’ve had in strange cities, the supermarket is the next best place I can think of to experience a new culture. But nothing would prepare me for the meat market cum pet store that adorned Shanghai’s Wal-Mart. The meat market began with an aquarium section, housing toads, eels, turtles, snakes and fish of all types. I got scared and backed away, unintentionally backing into a table of chicken, dog and pig feet. I turned around, held my breath and got the hell into the produce section. Me no good with strange meat selections in China. I instead bought Pringles, which invariably taste and more importantly look the same throughout the parts of the world I’ve visited.
Back at the contest, I struggled to stay awake under the heat of the sun, through the jet leg and into the early afternoon. By 4 PM, we were done, and we started walking back to the hotel, grabbing a few beers along the way. I showered, changed my shoes and drank another Tsingtao.
The rest of the night was more of the same. Some drinking, some food at Papa John’s and some more donations to the legless girl on the cart. I don’t mean for that last bit to sound trivial either. I’m not rich, but I’m not homeless either, and if I can help someone get by on the short time I’m taking in the world around them, I’m gonna do it.
I guess I should also mention how much of a mess Papa John’s was. 15-20 BMX types, drinking and getting rowdy in a Chinese pizzeria, throwing bread sticks into the kitchen, getting naked and charging into the kitchen, shaking up beers, you get the picture. It might become a new reality TV show if Zack ‘Catfish’ Yankush’s plan of world domination comes to pass. The show, called ‘American Savages,’ would detail drunken Americans in strange cities around the world, causing trouble and being disruptive in places like Papa John’s. Hopefully, Catfish is elected president. The world needs him. And I’d love a job like coming up with wise ass ideas for a show called ‘American Savages.’
Afterwards, the group split in two. Legit and not-so-legit massages. I was part of team legit, and got a really cheap reflexology type foot massage while I drank a Suntory beer out of a straw. (It’s not safe to drink the tap water anywhere!)
On the way back to the hotel, we walked past the same hair salon with the same woman sitting at attention in the window. Same low cut dress, same scowl, same mobile phone. It was near midnight. I assume she had a long night ahead of her, as I had seen her that same day at around 5 AM.
A little while later, we said our goodnights and vainly attempted sleep. I was to leave at 6 the next morning. Knowing that I was in for yet another 24-hour trip back home, I tried to sleep as best I could. I think I managed maybe an hour before deciding to get up at 4:45 AM.
I wasn’t tired at all when I woke, only hungry. I took a long shower, packed my bags and made my way to the lobby, where I met up with Big and Chad Kagy, who were also on my flight to Tokyo. The ride to the airport was uneventful except for the fact that I kept noticing cars without their headlights on in the early morning hours. Turns out that Chinese drivers do that to avoid replacing headlight bulbs as often. Economical, green-friendly and very unsafe. See if you can find that combination anywhere else in the world.
Pudong was normal. French fries and salad for breakfast, followed by coffee and another Tsingtao. (I had packed one, but wasn’t allowed to bring it on the plane.)
Tokyo was a tease. I was there maybe 20 minutes.
And the flight back to the U.S, was uneventful except for some harsh turbulence. I had an open seat next to me, and managed a good 7 hours of sleep.
Detroit was a bore. And Newark, as always, was Newark. I exited the airport, boarded the train for Penn Station and felt exhausted by the time we reached Manhattan. The ten-block walk to Port Authority was a blur, and the shuttle ride back to West New York might as well have not existed. It had been 27 and a half hours since I left Shanghai, of where I had been for approximately 57 hours. When I compare the time traveled versus the time spent, time spent wins out by two hours. So yeah, my body was and still is feeling rhythmically challenged in a circadian sort of way, but the trip to Shanghai was still very worth it.
On the walk home, I stopped for some take out Chinese food. And as I passed the taxi stand next to my house, I watched a cab driver exit the driveway. He put his seat belt on and disappeared up the street. Probably headed for the airport.
Photos detailing the trip are here: www.flickr.com/briantunney