By El Locaso
It’s 8am on the Hailun Road subway platform. Line 4 is the purple “loop” line which I have to take to transfer to line 6 to get to work each morning. I’m standing on a very clean and modern platform, there are waiting benches that have people calmly reading the free morning Chinese newspaper. It is a scene of absolute quiet and zen. Then the bells sound, a serene voice is heard over the station intercom announcing that the next train is arriving. The people calmly make their way to their positions like ballet dancers getting in their places on stage before the curtain rises. The gold markings on the ground indicate where the doors will open–arrows leading from the train tracks indicating exit, a couple on either side of these indicating where one should stand to enter—no surprises. I stand by the side. Three well-dressed professionals join me in queue and decide to stand right in front of the doors. The train now arrives like a white beacon of Shanghai mobility, packed to the brim with scores of commuters. The doors open and the calm dissipates into chaos, people rushing in, people rushing out, arms flailing, pushing, shoving, glares, occasional cries of discomfort, jostling back and forth, then it settles back to calm. Keeping my balance is key, my practice snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains paying dividends, heel-ball-heel, no flip-flopping down the slope here, although if I were to lose my balance I really have no space to fall. This is commuter intimacy at its finest, and like most Asian countries good, strong deodorant is hard to come by… it’s hot and humid, I’m sweating, I don’t think I can handle a summer doing this. The doors close and another adventure on the Shanghai Metro begins…
This scene of push comes to shove pretty much sums up Shanghai daily city life, touching upon a few of my perceived repugnant points of the city’s urban dwellers as well. My two years of Seoul-living didn’t quite meet such levels of perplexing pandemonium. Transit- goers were generally more cordial in letting fellow passengers exit vehicles before boarding them, although you were more likely to be run down by a pizza-delivery motor-bike on the streets of Korea’s metropolis than here.
There are millions living here, my first commute to school also included jumping onto an over-crowded bus, my mouth dropping as the doors opened and three Chinese jumped out while six people jumped and barged their way on, me included. Pressed against the doors, the bus ascended a highway on-ramp, the only thing protecting me from certain death was the bus door. I escaped that day OK, with some bruises and yellow paint on my jacket from said door, pride already down my esophagus. On other days and other buses I’ve seen over here, I wouldn’t have wagered on my survival.
I teach in the public school system of Shanghai at a school so large, it has two campuses and I alternate at each every morning of the week. Aside from not having any heat in the schools, the classrooms of about 40 to 50 students are equipped with large flat screen TVs and computers with internet. They help, especially when teaching your standard sing-along songs to Chinese first and second graders. I have a blast being this cartoon caricature of a foreigner teaching “BINGO” to these little Asian munchkins in their green school uniforms.
In the afternoon I teach at a run-down community centre with the only blast being the on-going construction and drilling so loud the little kids cringe during my lessons. I brought this up to my company and they reassured me by saying that there’s a lot of construction in the city these days due to Expo. I highly doubt foreigners are coming to visit my little dump of a teaching facility where I often find seniors singing English Christmas carols in my room minutes before I have to actually teach. As in Korea I have realized accepting the irrationality of situations such as these quickly and without giving them too much thought is the best way. After all I come from another world, with preconceptions that are as foreign to these people as I appear to them, yet I don’t glare at them as much as the natives here do at me.
You get the feeling that most Shanghainese have never seen a foreigner before. Although there are approximately 55 different ethnicities which encompass the People’s Republic, I get stared at so much I really feel different. Unlike a rather robust female foreigner who works for my company, who thinks she is justified in saying, “I don’t need to lose weight, I’m hot in China. I’m always getting looks and turning heads (!)” I feel like they’ve never seen a human quite like my sexy self. With the Expo coming and Shanghai promoting “Be kind to foreigners” rhetoric, I have a suspicion most tourists are in for a bit of the same hostile hospitality. At least they don’t do the fake smile and dance I grew reluctantly accustomed to in Korea.
Another of the drawbacks for a foreigner with little Chinese is the ordering of food on a menu without pictures. I recall the same experience when I arrived to Korea before I studied and learned the beauty and simplicity of Hangul. After a week, I could read any menu and know just what to order. In China it is tougher, since you have to learn over 5000 symbols to read a newspaper properly, a menu full of Chinese characters is met with puzzle and usually a disappointed stomach. When I get a chance to have a kimchi chigue from a Korean establishment I never hesitate, and there are many international restaurants in this big city serving the needs of this “renowned international hub” and its inhabitants.
For those on a budget in Shanghai, there are always some street vendors hawking chow mian or fan (fried noodles or rice) for 5 quai (less than a cheon Won), and those tasty skewers of vegetables and meat ready to be barbequed for cheap too. I truly miss the soju tents in Seoul though and enjoying salty pieces of soondae with toothpicks and downing extra green bottles of Korean spirits my body regrets the next morning. Overall, Chinese food tends to be more greasy and unhealthy than Korea’s which is why I eat out less and stick to steamed veggies to keep me in shape because I’m not as deluded about my appearance as some of the other people I work with are.
Facts and Figures:
As global metropolises go these two cities are nearly identical, consider the latest stats:
|10,421,782 urban, 24,472,063 metro
|Density (urban) 17,219/km2
El Locaso (Roberto Carlos Laso Salazar)
Holding an English Literature Bachelor of Arts from York University, El Locaso has written for such esteemed publications as Protem (Glendon College, York U), M-Pty Media website, and The Seoul Times. He has spent the majority of the last 5 years teaching ESL in Seoul, his native Toronto, and now Shanghai; all incidentally contain a large phallus-symbol/tower to “ooh” and “ahh” about. His hobbies include DJing, drinking, and football (soccer to y’all). Born in Santiago, Chile, el Locaso is fluent in Spanish, English, and French-Canadian–but those are mostly the curse words.