Monday, April 16, 2007

Some thoughts and some wanderings

Pretty regular day today. Had a walk in the park that was uneventful aside from Strauss’ Viennese Waltz that was broadcasting from the speakers along the path and a woman that was doing a combination of a sea shanty jig and a clog dance. The park is always a great source of oddities, even on a regular day.

I made it a point to walk past the caged birds and saw The Man in Black with whom I had had a brief conversation last week. He recognized me and I said, “zao shang hao” and he walked over to his Bulbul cage with me. We stopped and listened and I once again tried to tell him the bird’s song was beautiful (having expanded my vocabulary) and he smiled and said who knows what and thus we parted ways. At least he was smiling.

An uneventful day at work punctuated by a hot bowl of barbequed pork Ramen and a Mango tea from Starbucks.

After work, Matt and I decided to head down town to the Big Bamboo Bar (having visited the Little Bamboo Bar last December) and so off we went. Nothing novel came from that experience except for the fact that for once in last two weeks we were in the majority among the people in the place, it being stocked with expats. All of them being male, chain-smoking expats. So there we sat watching NBA basketball and women’s tennis drinking an Irish beer amongst a bunch of westerners with 60s AM radio hits playing loudly in the background. And I think the park is weird.

As we headed out I observed a Chinese man with his nose pressed up against the window, peering in.

Dinner was to be at another American hangout, Malone’s – just up the street and around the corner. Taking advantage of a break in the traffic we crossed the street and thus missed the opportunity to see what a squatting man was cooking in a gallon can with flames shooting out of the top.

The bar was stocked about the same as the previous one – chain-smoking white guys. The local Heineken social rep – a tiny Chinese woman dressed in the green and white Heineken colors flitted from table to table. We were drinking Tiger, so she dismissed us as “natives.” Matt had a burger and I had a chicken, cheese and mushroom sandwich with fries, the latter of which presented a semantic challenge to our waitress who was very cute.

Now it was beer, sandwiches, fries, smoke and soccer on the big screen.

A guy from another table joined us, having been shooed along in favor of a larger party of chain-smoking white guys. He told us he’d been in Shanghai for 15 years, didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin and stayed because, “I like the girlies.” His friend, a slick Texan joined us a bit later – black tee, slacks, silk sport coat and immaculate comb-over told us he’d been selling petroleum equipment locally for more than 25 years. He was fluent.

Dinner was over so we headed out for a walk and were almost instantly accosted by a local entrepreneur. With no interest in watches or bags, he offered us pretty ladies and told us he’d take us to the second floor where the ladies would give us a “choose.” Matt corrected his English and sent him on his way.

We were at the far, non-neon end of Nanjing Lu and wandered past some seriously luxe shopping. A watch store that sold only Chopard was next to a hotel featuring an outside BMW display, supporting some kind of sporting event that is going on locally. We went into a multi-storey mall called Plaza 66 that was loaded with very fancy stores – Kate Spade, Burberry, Fendi, Dior, Lagerfeld – continuing the contrast to life outside that keeps getting pounded home.

Back out on the streets, vendors were selling lychees and mangosteens, an interesting fruit that I’d not seen before. It looked like a big horse chestnut, the kind you buy roasted in Central Park. He sliced one open and inside was a white fruit that looked like a combination of garlic (big white cloves) and an orange (segments.) He pulled out a couple of toothpicks and speared a segment for each of us. It was a very sweet, tasty fruit and unlike anything I’d tried before. Grabbing a plastic bag, he was disappointed when we elected not to purchase one.



Finally deciding to head back we grabbed a cab and his driving style got me thinking about the nature of Chinese drivers.

These guys certainly subscribe to the notion of “just keep moving.” We might see lane swappers in the US, but they simply don’t compare to how it’s done here. Every empty space is always filled, sometimes by a couple of cars. They float in and out and take every opportunity that presents itself the moment traffic slows. Sometimes the choices are not so good, like taking an exit in order to bypass a jam on the elevated road and in turn ending up behind a garbage truck. When we drove to Suzhou on Saturday, Mr. Wu would angle across 10 lanes at the toll booth to avoid going through behind a single car. It’s just a style that must stem from the crowding and the busyness of life here. You see it in every crosswalk where you have a fluid dynamic of cars, scooters, bicycles and people moving across and intermingling, regardless of the color of the light. It even extends to elevators, where every rider gets in and immediately jams the “close door” button in order to keep the car moving. Perhaps in a place where everything takes longer, these little things grab a bit of free time back, time that would otherwise be forever lost.

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