Saturday, September 10, 2011


To say that I was not excited about this business trip to China would be an understatement. I didn't particularly enjoy my previous China trip, and the only difference I expected from this one was that is is going to be a week longer. I spent the days leading up to the flight whining about China to anyone who would listen. It's hot and humid and muggy and crowded. And they don't speak English. And it's hot. And humid. And muggy. And it smells! And then I realized that I would be traveling on my birthday. Alone. In a foreign city. On my birthday. Not excited. At all.

Slowly, over the course of two days, I managed to readjust my attitude a bit about the trip.  Even got it to the point that I was enjoying being here.  It helps that I have two coworkers in the area, both of whom are Chinese, speak Chinese, and know what to order at Chinese restaurants.  One even recommended some places that I should visit if I have time.  So by Saturday (my birthday), I had a list of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to see.  A good start.

After a lazy morning, I grabbed a map, my camera, and a water bottle before setting out.  A study of the map showed that it would be a bit of a hike to Nanjing Road, but I had nothing better to do and all day to do it.  Plus, I promised myself an afternoon snack of ice cream.  I set out in a very balmy (but not so hot) afternoon and started down the street.  After several blocks, I realized that I was inadvertently stalking a short, middle-aged, white man with an umbrella.  The fact did not escape him, so he started a conversation.  His name is Francois, a French Canadian who spends one week every two months in Shanghai.  He was out for a walk on the doctor's orders. When I told him my destination, he said, "Oh, that's far!"  And for the next hour, we walked together through the muggy streets of Shanghai.  90 minutes after setting out, we had reached the mouth of my destination, 8km (5 miles) away and 4km longer than Francois had planned to walk.  Before leaving, he said that he was going to drop into a hotel bar for a drink and asked if I would like to join.  After buying me a Chinese beer (tastes like Corona), he took off.  That was surprising event number one.

I had no more than 10 minutes to myself, exploring People's Square, before I was approached by a tiny Chinese girl.  "Nice to meet you!" she said (a phrase almost all Chinese know).  I smiled and made to move on my way when her male friend struck up a conversation with me.  It included asking me where I'm from, what I'm doing in Shanghai, how long I'm planning on being in China, and the same information about the two of them.  They then asked if I had any plans and I mumbled something about wanting to see Nanjing Road.  They started listing things I should see, and then said, "Why don't you come with us?  We'll go this way and then back to Nanjing Road."  Since the area was full of people and these two seemed okay, I followed them up to the crosswalk and down a slightly-less crowded street.  We then turned down an alley way of sorts and walked into a dingy mall-like alcove.  As we kept walking, I started getting more and more nervous.  We turned and started up a flight of half-lit stairs and down a nearly vacant corridor.  By this time, my internal dialogue was saying, Oh Steph!  What have you gotten yourself into?!  This is not safe!!  I got a firmer grip on my purse and sized up my company.  We then stopped at what looked like a massage place.  A small Chinese girl welcomed us and showed us down a hallway.  A door slide open and I looked inside.  A handful of chairs were crammed around a table where several glass jars of questionable-looking grass.  They're going to drug me and rob me! The voice in my head screamed.  I sat down between Lily and Ji, the seat where they say new friends always sit, and they explained that they were going to learn about how to brew tea.  The small Chinese girl moved to the other side of the table and started heating water.  She showed us a menu of sorts, which calmed my nerves a bit, as it did look professional.  I agreed to the tasting and the lesson, and soon we were sampling our first tea, a slightly-sweet oolong.  The oolong was followed by a series of teas, all brewed slightly differently, all with distinct flavors: some sweet, some bitter, one fruity, one flowery.  Six teas in all.  By this time, I was almost enjoying myself.  Still very suspicious of my companions and not too excited about the bill (>$60/person, and I was informed that Chinese people always split the total evenly, even though Lily had been the only one to purchase tea), I started thinking of how I was going to shake them off when we left.  Lily then surprised me by buying me a small container of tea, and both of them exchanged email addresses with me.  We walked outside and they escorted me to Nanjing Road before taking off for their evening plans.  I took a picture of them and watched as they disappeared into the crowd.  By this time, I was almost sure that this day had been a dream.  That was surprising event number two.

Now, nearly four hours after I had set out, I was at my destination and finally on my own.  I meandered down the crowded pedestrian road towards The Bund, where I staked out prime property on the waterfront and waited for dark, taking skyline pictures along the way.  After I had satisfied my artistic side, I started back up Nanjing Road with my feet beginning to show signs of soreness.  More pictures and a stop for Chinese snacks preceded my hailing of a taxi.  Well, not so much hailing as jumping into one right after a family vacated it.  I successfully told the driver where I needed to go (I handed him a piece of paper with the address written on it).  

Now, as I sit here, enjoying a birthday ice cream and reflecting on the day, I'm still not positive it wasn't a dream.  This was not how I imagined spending my 24th birthday.  Heck, it wasn't even how I planned on spending my day this morning.  And yet, it turned out better than I could have imagined.  I don't think I'll ever love Shanghai.  I don't think I'll even like Shanghai.  But I did enjoy how I spent my birthday this year.  And I didn't spend it alone.

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