So, this trip to Shanghai...wait, did I mention I was going to Shanghai? Not on the blog, I suppose. Um, I went to Shanghai for Memorial Day weekend. [tries to remember why he would want to go to Shanghai...
...oh, yes, THAT's why]
As I was saying, this trip to Shanghai was very successful in most respects. One of my most significant goals, however, I failed to achieve. I had figured that in going to spend three days with Helen and her family, I would start to find out some of the things about the lady that I would dislike if she were to become a permanent fixture, and thus I could begin to factor those into my overall opinion of her. Alas, I flew out of Shanghai having completely failed to find out anything about the girl that I don’t like.
Okay, I admit, that’s something of an overstatement. I did actually find out something disconcerting: She is not ticklish, and as I am very ticklish indeed, it seems to me that this would give her an entirely unfair advantage should marital disputes arise. Because of this, I am having to reconsider the viability of the relationship. But if we assume that that one issue can be resolved...
[tries to force himself to be serious] Look, I said I wasn’t going to blog my dating relationships, and do intend to stick to that, though it makes it a bit difficult to write the ordinary free-wheeling travelogue a trip to China would ordinarily generate. I’ll just say that I liked Helen and her family much more when I flew out of Shanghai than I did when I landed, which is really saying something; but no logistical problems vis-à-vis her wanting to live in China and my having to live in Houston were resolved. (Not, I hasten to add, that I had expected to resolve any such issues on a three-day trip just a few weeks into the relationship.)
And I think she must like me quite a bit, because of what happened the morning I flew out. My Mandarin is still absolutely not to be trusted with cab drivers, and so Helen dragged herself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning or so because I wanted to be at the airport two hours before my 9:00 flight, and it’s a long way to the airport from the neighborhood in which one finds Helen’s apartment and (a five-minute walk away) my hotel. We got to the airport, and there was nobody at the Korean Air ticket counter. This surprised me; so we dug out my itinerary…and the reason I had 9:00 in my mind to begin with, was that I wanted to be at the airport two hours early, and the flight was scheduled to leave at 11:10.
Helen’s response was to glare at me for a moment (not in disbelief because she already knows me well enough not to have been even very much surprised) and then to roll her eyes and say, “I should have looked at it myself.” We go and get coffee and settle in on a couch at the coffee shop for the upcoming four-hour wait, and she says something about how she could still be in bed, and then I apologize again, and then instead of pouring her caramel cappuccino over my head she giggles and says, “Actually I think it’s pretty cute that you’re such a doofus”...from which highly irrational reaction I can only conclude that she is in love. I mean, otherwise, I get the coffee poured over my head, don’t you think? Any sane person under that situation goes the coffee-pouring route, is what I say. (Fans of The Devil’s Dictionary will remember Bierce’s definition of love: “A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”)
Having begun at the end, I will now skip back to the beginning. I managed – and I’m unapologetically proud of myself over this one – to go to Shanghai for three days and come back, having worn clean clothes every day, with nothing but a carry-on bag. And it’s a bloody good thing because Orbitz only gave me fifty minutes or so to make my connection at LAX, which involved getting off the Continental flight, leaving the Continental terminal, making my way over to the international terminal, going back through airport security all over again, and getting checked in at the KE gate...which I did successfully, but it defies belief that a checked piece of luggage would have. Otherwise the trip was long but uneventful, except when a very nice young Korean flight attendant was cleaning up after dinner and, thanks to a sudden and quite unexpected bit of turbulence, dumped the leftovers from somebody else’s orange juice onto my shirt and lap. I am now in a position to say that the apologies one receives from young and pretty Korean flight attendants are much more satisfying than the apologies one receives from the battle-hardened septuagenarians who serve travelers in the American skies. I think it must be the bowing that makes all the difference. (I’m actually serious about that – I’ve never been apologized to with literal hands-folded bowing before, and it is VERY effective. I may have to try it myself the next time I make some innocent person get out of bed two hours before they actually need to.)
It was fairly late when I got to Shanghai, and those of you who were hoping for an entertaining debacle at the first meeting will be very disappointed to hear that I did in fact recognize Helen at first sight; so that bad dream in which I talked affectionately to the wrong woman by mistake (because All Those Chinese People Look Alike) was in no way prophetic. – But you, Gentle Readers, do not all know that story, as I have not told it on the blog. I rectify the omission thusly: After making the arrangements to fly to Shanghai, I had a variation on the No-Pants-In-Public dream, only in this case, rather than suddenly realizing I was out in public without any britches on, I suddenly realized I had gone up to the wrong Chinese woman and started talking to her, much to the ire of the Right Chinese Woman standing nearby. From this I concluded that my subconscious was afraid that I would not be able to tell one Chinese woman from another. I wasn’t really afraid of this and thought it funny that my subconscious apparently was; so I mentioned it to Helen over the phone. Her response:
“Well, I do not think that I will have any trouble finding you...” I reflect that this is a reassuring point that had not occurred to me, but the reassurance is short-lived, as she continues, “...and I think that it will be a lot of fun to watch you and see how long it takes you to find me.” Hey, wait a minute – that was not the point I was trying to make...
Anyway, I recognized her as soon as I saw her because she was smiling and that smile is quite unmistakable. So there were no logistical difficulties, since she had already arranged for the hotel and everything. What’s more, the Seoul airport has free showers; and so I had been able to clean up and change clothes just a couple of hours before landing in Shanghai. This meant I was presentable enough for us to go straight back to Helen’s apartment so that I could meet Helen’s parents and her seven-year-old son Kai before Kai had to go to bed.
That went fine, at least as far as I was concerned (by which I mean I liked them very much and I did not seem to make any disastrous cultural faux pas); and then Helen took me back to the hotel to check in (her presence was necessary because the hotel staff did not speak English, this being a small hotel in a part of Shanghai that tourists rarely visit). And then we went out on the town for a couple of hours, but dates don’t get blogged, so we’ll skip to where Helen dropped me back off at the hotel and then I couldn’t figure out how to get the computer past a login screen where all the instructions were in Chinese. So I just went to sleep.
(Okay, okay, I know dates don’t get blogged, but I’ll just say this much: Helen OWNED that karaoke bar. As in, the owner came up to us and begged her to come back as a regular attraction. It really did happen at one point – I’m not exaggerating or making this up, it really happened – that I was watching the video and wondered why they had left the original voice track in, and was waiting for Helen to start singing, and then I glanced over at her and realized that “the original voice track” was actually Helen.)
The next day was Saturday. I woke up at 6:00 and went for a walk, and then around 8:00 or so Helen came and got me on her scooter (a sort of motorcycle with a golf-cart-style electric motor) and took me back to the family apartment, where I got fed very good Chinese food and entertained Kai with my very American handling of chopsticks. (Helen’s parents are incapable of seeing me without trying to feed me, by the way.) Helen was surprised that I hadn't eaten breakfast at the hotel, since it came free with the room; I was surprised to hear that breakfast came free with the room and made a mental note for the next day.
Since I’ve mentioned Helen’s scooter: it’s pretty funny to see this tiny little woman (five-foot-two, ninety-seven pounds) wrestling around one of the biggest electric scooters sold in China, which she handles with casual aplomb. Apparently Helen’s friends think it’s funny, too, because she told me she’s had to explain that she got the big one so that her mom and Kai could ride behind her when they go grocery shopping.
Here’s Helen and the family going shopping:
Oh, wait, no, that’s failblog...HERE’s Helen and her scooter
Helen used to play table tennis competitively on her college’s varsity team, though she hasn’t played in a long time; and so one of the items on the agenda for the trip was for her to beat me at table tennis, which would prove that I am a Sensitive Modern Man who is Secure In His Own Masculinity and who Is Not Threatened By Competent Modern Women. Unless I were to wind up beating her, of course, and thereby proving that I’m a Real Man By God Who Doesn’t Get Beat At Sports By Girls Like Those Wimpy Geek Dudes. Either way I figured I could impress. In the event it turned out that when we walked down to the neighborhood rec center, both keys to the table tennis room had been borrowed by persons who had failed to return them. But despite having lost the chance to impress Helen with either my Sensitivity or my Masculinity, I unexpectedly scored big with Kai, who was along for the walk.
Kai is seven and not a big seven (looking at Helen I doubt his genes run along Yao Ming lines); so it seemed natural to scoop him up into the air and plop him down on my shoulders, as I’ve done with little kids all my life since I got big enough not to be a little kid my own self. He let out a gasp and a screech (because I didn’t bother to explain what I was going to do first) and then started babbling to Helen in Chinese. So she explained to me, “He’s a little scared, but he likes it...nobody has ever done that for him before.” Now that is just so wrong – no child should reach the age of seven without ever having ridden on a grown-up’s shoulders. Anyway, a couple of minutes later we walked past the security guard, and Kai chirped out a greeting. Helen started laughing and told me, “He just told the guard, ‘Look how tall I am!’” Which is of course what every little kid getting a shoulder ride likes to say...there's you at least one thing that transcends culture.
Anyway, table tennis having failed to pan out, we moved on to the next item on Helen’s list: she took me into downtown Shanghai (took an hour or so to get there on the subway) and played tour guide. Mindful of my promises to certain friends back home, I made sure we brought a camera. And here is the first picture of me in Exotic Shanghai, China:
Yes, that’s right, I flew all the way to China and then promptly made a beeline for Starbucks. I thought of asking them to use soy in the mocha instead of the standard ingredients but…um, I actually wanted to drink it.
I liked the architecture in the part of downtown Helen took me to, which is People’s Square and The Bund.
But I really liked the park there at People’s Square, which sports, along with nice flowers and carefully trimmed grass and plenty of shade trees, a small amusement park…
…and a couple of restaurants that looked way too pricey for my budget.
But by far the most interesting part of that park, was the bit that that had lots of handwritten signs stuck on the walls, trees, pretty much anything handy – signs like this one:
Helen explained to me that all of these signs were basically the non-internet version of eHarmony – this park is widely known as the place to go when the object is matrimony. However, many, if not most, of the advertisements are placed there not by the young persons themselves, but by their parents, who are concerned that their thirty-year-old son or daughter doesn’t seem to be getting properly down to business, and who do not always get said son or daughter’s permission before putting him on the market.
Helen and I sat on a bench and watched the proceedings for a bit, and she explained to me what was going on in the picture that follows.
The parents with their backs to us had put their son on the market, and they had found an interested possible match…which is to say, interested parents of a possible match. And as we went past they were telling the girl's relatives, “But don’t tell him where you got his number...”
We stayed in the park until it closed, which was at 6:00 p.m. Helen still wanted me to see The Bund (we hadn’t really gotten away from People’s Square yet because I liked the park so much); so we struck out for it on foot, headed down Nánjīng Road, long stretches of which are pedestrian-only. There were just a few people in our way...
One thing I was struck by, I might mention, was how much less color a crowd in China has than does a similarly-sized crowd in the United States. I tend to forget what a wildly diverse place America is – every imaginable ethnic group and hair color and skin color all mixed up together, plus true individuality in dress comes pretty naturally to Americans…basically an American crowd is a riotous rainbow of color unless you’re at a sporting event and everybody is deliberately dressed up to match the home team. But in China pretty much everybody has black hair and the “Asian” complexion (which, whatever it may be, is most definitely not yellow), and there’s a whole bunch of black and white in the clothes. So I was really struck, actually, by how little color there was in the milling crowds, compared to the neon signs looking down on them.
As we walked along looking for a place to eat, we heard music coming from the middle of the crowd ahead of us, where lots of people seemed to be gathered around watching something. We walked up, and there, with the crowd gathered around them in a ring to watch, were several old couples dancing happily in pairs to the music. It was mostly just ordinary couples’ dancing, except that three people stood out.
This couple was in a completely different league than the others.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that in their youth they had been professional dancers; they weaved in and out and back and forth into and out of each other’s arms like flowing water, executing one intricate move after another with apparent effortlessness. The woman’s face mostly bore a look of deep and intense concentration, which occasionally would break into a beaming smile for the briefest of moments before the mask was back on. But the man’s face wore an unbroken expression of bliss that was practically beatific. You felt that you were looking at a man who was doing the thing he loved most in all the world, and that he could do it forever. Helen knows (thanks to having asked me an eHarmony-style question two or three weeks ago) that the two things that I most enjoy seeing in all the world are (a) an old couple deeply in love, like my parents, and (b) children laughing with that special glee that only the young and still-innocent possess. So without discussion we stopped and watched for several minutes.
But I mentioned that three people stood out. The third was this guy…
…who was eighty if he was a day, and who had no partner to dance with, and who apparently just said, “Like I care” – and who therefore proceeded to spend several minutes doing his best Michael Jackson imitation, to exactly the same music that the other couple was doing their swan-like slow-dancing to. I think I remember him attempting the moonwalk, though I don’t really trust my memory on this point; I was laughing too hard to be able to pay very good attention. The picture doesn’t do him justice; I needed a video camera. I might add that, unlike the couple discussed previously, this guy most definitely had not spent time as a professional dancer. But I certainly hope that when I’m his age (whatever it is) I am able to enjoy myself as fully as he, and with as little concern for the impertinent opinions of spectators.
We saw a sign for an “Italian” restaurant and decided to try it.
It took a while to find it – in Shanghai any seven-storey building may have fifteen different business establishments in it , with elevators that may or may not make it to all of the floors in the building so that you may go up a few floors in an elevator and then switch to stairs…and all of the business establishments will have a sign outside that essentially says, “Somewhere in this building you’ll find me.” If you’re lucky the sign will tell you what floor to look on, though not which elevator bank or staircase or combination thereof, will take you there. So from the point at which we were standing under the sign looking up at it, to the point at which we actually found the restaurant and signed ourselves onto the waiting list, was probably ten minutes – and that’s with Helen there to read signs and ask shop clerks for directions. You could have put me there first thing in the morning and said, “We’ll come back to get you when the sun comes down,” and when you came to get me I’d’ve been REALLY hungry ’cause I’d’ve NEVER found that restaurant.
Plus I would have missed seeing what has to be (from a Muslim perspective) the most blasphemous sign in Shanghai:
Look, don't ask ME to explain what Santa Claus was doing on that sign...on the 29th of May, no less.
Anyway, once we found the Italian restaurant, it turned out to be on the top floor so that we could wait out on the roof until a table could come free.
And the food was not at all bad, plus it was cheap; so by the time we got back onto the street I was well fortified for the rest of the night’s exertions.
We hadn’t gotten to The Bund yet; so we kept heading east on Nánjīng Road, which now that the sun had gone down was in full neon mode.
Have I mentioned that Shanghai has a lot of people in it? There were way too many people for the sidewalks; so even when we got to the part of Nánjīng Road that cars can drive on, the street was full of pedestrians, which the cars just had to work their way through inch by inch.
And when we actually made it to The Bund, the river levee was a solid seething mass of people, with the skyline of the Pudong district across the river soaring up into the night and the classic late-nineteenth-/early-twentieth-century European buildings of the old banks and trading houses holding their stately court in a long line off to the right and left.
The wall of the levee has been carefully covered with small flowers, and Helen informed me that the wall is known as “Lovers’ Wall,” making it mandatory for any couples promenading by to get somebody to take their picture:
Then you climb up the stairs and out onto the levee proper, and there is the Huángpǔ River with the Pudong skyline across the way and the neon-bedecked riverboats passing to and fro.
Of course any view is improved by the addition of a pretty girl…
…though not all additions are improvements.
We wanted to be able to say good night to Kai before going back out on the town; so we headed back to Helen's apartment. And the rest of the evening would have been a date (rather than, you know, touristy sightseeing) and hence unbloggable, except that Helen checked her e-mail...and then let out a screech of mingled dismay and disbelief and displeasure and other disses that might come to mind.
Helen, you see, along with another lady, leads the worship at her church on Sunday morning (you recall that she was reading this e-mail at about 10:00 on Saturday night), but she does not choose the music. She had not wanted to have to think about music during the three days I was going to be in town; plus the other lady was out of town and Helen was going to have to fly solo. So she had asked the Korean fellow who chooses the music every week to PLEASE be sure he did NOT choose any new songs.
He chose a new song. And sent it to her on Saturday night.
Now for you properly to appreciate just what a jerk he was being, you need some interesting cultural background material. Being a Christian in China is not at all easy, and Chinese Christians are very heavily dependent on foreign Christians for support. For example, Helen's pastor is Korean. For another example, the hymnals aren't published in China; they are produced and imported by missionary organizations from somewhere in the West. And the publishers of these hymnals thoughtfully translate the words into Chinese...but that doesn't solve the whole problem.
You see, when Helen was taught to read music in school, she wasn't taught to read a Western score. Instead she was taught to read numbers, where "1" corresponds to "do," "2" means "re," "3" means "mi," and so on (and I think some traditional Chinese instruments still use this notation). Now, because Helen wants to be more useful to her church's music ministry, she and Kai are both taking piano lessons and learning to read Western music scores; but they haven't been taking the lessons very long. So whenever the Korean music minister chooses a song Helen doesn't know, it doesn't do her much good that he gives her the page number in the hymnal where she can find the music -- she can't read the music yet. Instead she scours the internet and tries to find a copy of it she can listen to, and that's how she learns the song.
Well, having discovered that she has to learn a new song between now and tomorrow morning, she hits the internet...and can't find the song. She starts an e-mail to the music director, and it is not a happy e-mail; it begins something along the lines of, "I don't know this song!!!!!!" Then she starts to type something else, gets a few characters in, and stops. She stares at the screen for a moment and then says quietly but firmly to herself, "He is my Christian brother, and I love him." She hits backspace and wipes out what she has just typed. She stares at the screen a moment longer and then says something like, "But I TOLD him, I TOLD him, do NOT choose any new songs!!" She starts banging away on the keyboard again...and then stops. She says very slowly and carefully, once again, "He is my Christian brother, and I love him." She backspaces over what she just wrote. She stares at it a little longer.
I say gently, "Shū dear, [Shū is Helen's Chinese name and is what I call her most of the time], I can read the music. I'll teach you the song if you want."
She says one more time, crankily, "I told him to be sure NOT to choose any new songs." Then she signs her name to the e-mail without adding anything else to the "I don't know this song!!!!!" bit, and sends it.
So we wound up not going out on the town that night. Kai was already in bed, so I couldn't play it for her on the piano; but she explained to me how the numbering system worked, and once I understood that it was just do-re-mi with numbers, I helped her write the numbers above the notes. We took a wild guess at the tempo and then I sang it with her several times, quietly so as not to wake anybody up, until she felt better about it.
And we probably still would have had time to go out, but then we got to talking about the kindergarten English class Helen teaches on Sunday afternoons. Helen wanted to know if I would like to go help her teach, which of course I wanted to do; so then she asked me to help her think up teaching games we could play. They were learning the English words for various colors; so in the end we took a bunch of my white index cards that I use for Chinese vocabulary flash cards, and got a bunch of Kai's crayons, and made homemade "go fish" decks. We wound up the evening trying to pretend we were kindergarteners, playing one game of "go fish" after another, each time with a different set of rules, trying to come up with a set of rules that would be simple enough not to confuse the kids but not so simple that the game would be boring.
And by the time we had gotten prepared for church and school, it was time for bed. So, with me safely in my hotel and Helen safely back home, here endeth Day the First.
I got up Sunday morning around 8:00 and set out to find breakfast. Having the day before been instructed by Helen to remember the phrase chī fàn ("eat something"), I walked down to the front desk and said very carefully and politely, "Qǐngwèn wǒ yào chī fàn ba," which I think means basically, "I am hopelessly bad at speaking Chinese but I would like breakfast and I am doing my pitiful American best to be polite about it." (Actually Helen, having read this, informs me that I asked, “Please, I would like to know whether or not I would like to eat something?” to which the most reasonable response would seem to be, “How the heck should we know???”) The young ladies behind the desk were very amused, and after a brief consultation with each other, one of them smiled and said very carefully something that sounded a lot like, "Ninth floor."
I held up nine fingers and said hesitantly, "Jiǔ?"
They nodded enthusiastically and beamed happily.
So I strolled jauntily over the elevator, held the door open for a couple of ladies who also were going up, stepped into the elevator, and as the elevator doors closed I reached over to push the button for the ninth floor.
There were only eight buttons.
So after the ladies got off at the fifth floor, I rode back down, and walked somewhat bemusedly back to the front desk. The young ladies looked up, rather surprised to see me. I held up eight fingers questioningly. "Bā??"
They shook their heads furiously and held up nine fingers.
I put up a ninth finger. "Jiǔ? Really?"
They nodded emphatically. "Jiǔ!"
I turn and look at the elevator and try to think of the Chinese for, "But the elevator only goes to eight!" and settle for pointing at the elevator and saying, with as much confusion as I can manage to put into my voice, "Bā?!?!"
Light dawns. "Oh, oh, oh..." They look at each other, obviously trying to figure out how to explain it, and then one of the two takes charge: she marches out from behind the desk and motions for me to follow her.
We step into the elevator. She pushes the button with an 8 on it. I ask again, "Bā?"
She holds up one finger, eyebrows raised admonishingly, in the universal sign for, "All will be made clear in time."
The door opens. We march across the eighth floor lobby and she points to a sign which says quite clearly to any educated person -- which is to say, any person who can read Chinese -- "Breakfast is this way." She smiles as if to say, "I understand the issue you're having," and leads the way through a door and up a flight of stairs, to where there is another of those helpful signs with another arrow. We turn left and walk to the end of a little hall, make a U-turn, and walk up another half-flight of stairs...hey, look, I see food!
I say a heartfelt "Xiè xie!" and she gives me a cheerful Chinese equivalent of "You're welcome," and we part ways.
Two minutes later, as I carefully try to balance some steamed rice on my chopsticks, one of the Chinese hotel guests sitting at the next table smiles in amusement, gets to her feet, walks to the serving tables, comes back to where I'm sitting, and politely hands me a spoon. This would be a recurring theme for the day, I'm afraid.
Having finished my breakfast, I made my way out of the hotel (waving cheerfully to my friends at the front desk) and strolled down the street to Helen's apartment. Now that everybody was up, I could play the piano so that Helen could practice the new song with the piano, plus she suddenly remembered that she has a new karaoke machine with a lot of Christian hymns on it, and sure enough she found it, though in a different version from the one in the hymnal. So by the time we headed out the door for church, she was pretty well prepared.
I liked the people at her church, though I couldn't talk to very many of them. Several things were obvious. One, which was the one I was most interested in, was that these people who knew Helen very, very well, all obviously liked her very much. Second, they were all VERY interested in me, especially since Helen hadn't exactly let it be widely known that she had found a guy she was interested in...and then suddenly without warning this blond dude shows up in church who has come 7,500 miles for a first date. Questions had to be asked, clearly.
But the music went well; Helen does a very good job of leading it and they have a good pianist and a good sound system and some very, um, enthusiastic guitarists. And the new song went off without a hitch.
After the service it was time for lunch, which everybody always eats together there in the same room where the service is held. Biggest pot of steamed rice I've seen in my life (though I'm sure it was nothing special in China). Helen handed me a plate and a spoon. I politely accepted the spoon, but then stubbornly took two chopsticks out of the big box of chopsticks there at the front of the line. Kai and I found chairs in the back, and I set the spoon on the windowsill and began carefully picking up the food with my chopsticks, somewhat frustrated because it felt like I was having less luck than usual.
Two minutes later, the pianist walks up to me, gives me a polite little I-don't-speak-any-English bow...and hands me a spoon. I thank him politely, take a couple of bites, and then when his back is turned I set this second spoon down on the windowsill next to the first one and go back to using the chopsticks.
Helen breaks away from the interrogation squad momentarily and comes to sit next to me for a minute or so. She looks at me quizzically and then her mouth quivers with suppressed amusement, and she says gently, "Kenny, it's a lot easier to eat with chopsticks if they're both the same size." I stop and inspect the chopsticks and sure enough one of them is about two inches shorter than the other. Ah. I see. She gets up and comes back with a matched pair of chopsticks, and I set the two mismatched chopsticks on the windowsill next to my two spoons. Apparently I am a collector...
After church it was time for kindergarten English. Helen had equipped me with a list of commands that the kids had learned -- "Come here. Raise your hand. Put your hand down," etc. We had the homemade "Go Fish" cards. And I had carefully memorized a dialogue that the kids had been working on, which went more or less as follows:
"Hello. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, thanks. How are you?"
"I'm fine. It's nice to meet you." [offer hand]
"It's nice to meet you, too. [shakes hand] My name is Kenny. What's yours?"
"My name is Kevin."
"And who is this [pointing at someone else in the room]?"
"This is my friend Elaine."
So we were set for three games. First, there was, "Teacher Says," a variant of "Simon Says" in which I gave the orders. Second, there was Go Fish, which I had a lot of fun listening to...
"ELAINE": [in ridiculously cute, Chinese-accented little-girl voice, very carefully] Do you have...blue?
"KEN": [joyfully] Go fishing!
Last of all, they all stood in a circle around me with a toy. Helen would turn her back and start singing (which, as you know, she does well), as the kids played hot-potato with the toy. Then she would suddenly stop, and whoever still had the toy got to go through the dialogue with me (from memory). As a bonus, they learned how to do a high-five, which they found mystifying at first but quickly got the hang of.
From there, it was off to a movie. This is bloggable because I don't think it counts as a date if you take a seven-year-old along with you and watch a movie that is as non-romantic, and sucks as badly, as the painfully bad Iron Man 2, about which the less said the better; so we skip right on to the next part of the day, in which we eat at KFC because Kai loves KFC. But I don't love KFC and neither does Helen; so we quietly agreed to go someplace else to eat after dropping Kai off at home and neither of us ordered anything at KFC; and so when Kai's chicken sandwich was gone we took Kai back to the apartment and left him with Helen's mom; and the rest of the evening was a dinner date and is non-bloggable.
Which gets me to...
The original plan for Monday had been to take Kai to the Shanghai Expo, but this was nixed when we discovered that over half a million people per day were visiting the Expo, and that the wait in line to get into any single exhibit was two hours. So instead Helen and I decided to spend the day working on my Chinese in a park. I ate my breakfast at the hotel and then walked over to Helen's apartment, and...oh, I don't think I've mentioned that Helen's father's passion is fishing. He gets up every morning at 6:00 and goes fishing. I mean he does this every morning. At any rate, Helen let me in, and then Helen's dad called me into the kitchen so that he could show off the five or six fish (including one about seven inches long) that were swimming around in the sink.
I ate some corn on the cob (Helen's mother, of course, still found it necessary to feed me whenever I showed up at the apartment), and we chatted for a while, and then it was time to get out the scooter and go to the park. (I started off driving the scooter with Helen behind me, but this did not last long because Helen VERY quickly got tired of having to constantly say, "Slow down! Slow down!" She loves her scooter but she does not believe in being in a hurry.)
Now I'm not going to blog much about this day because we spent most of the day in fairly deep conversation -- I only had three days in Shanghai, and we had a lot to talk about. But I do want to describe "Thames Town," which is where Helen took me to begin with, and for which the only word is "surreal."
This is an immense built-from-scratch, custom-designed, 100,000-resident theme park of a town which is intended to make its Chinese residents believe they are in England. It has a huge Anglican-style church (which so far as I know is purely a prop and does not ever actually host any, you know, church services)...
...it has pubs, it has punting on a faux Thames river...
...which faux Thames is crisscrossed with lovely arched pedestrian bridges...
...it has villas intended for families to live in, it has teahouses, it has "old warehouses" (freshly built) "converted" (as they were designed from the beginning to be) into shops. Around every corner there is another bronze statue of some English politician or novelist or (bizarrely) fictional secret agent.
There is room, as I said, for 100,000 residents, and for all of the merchants and shops necessary to support them. But notice something about these pictures taken on Monday afternoon in Thames Town.
For comparison, here again is Nánjīng Road on Saturday night...
...and here again is Thames Town on Monday afternoon.
And the difference would be...wholesale alien abduction. At least, that's what it feels like. It's downright eerie -- the town is absolutely complete and yet utterly, ghost-town, the-rapture-came-and-everybody-but-you-was-Baptist empty. It was about the only time all weekend that Helen and I got to be out alone on a date; we could have snogged to our hearts content in broad daylight had we so chosen with nary a spectator's eyebrow to raise. I mean, there was one night when thanks to jet lag I couldn't sleep, and I went for a walk at 3:00 a.m., and as soon as I stepped out of the hotel there was a street vendor selling food on the street corner. But in Thames Town at noon on Monday, there was silence.
Now I gathered from Helen that the whole thing got built and then nobody was interested in buying the houses. That is not the story I get in this article, which claims that 95% of the houses have been sold but doesn't explain why 0% of the houses are being lived in. So I don't know what the deal is. I just know that the only people we saw in Thames Town were brides who had come there to get their picture taken, since there are lots of cool buildings to take pictures in front of, with zero percent chance that any pedestrians will wander by and ruin the shot.
At the far end of Thames Town there's a lake, with a hotel and a fancy restaurant and a pier from which hypothetically one could catch a boat and take an hour-long tour of the lake. Business wasn't exactly booming when we were there, which made it easy to relax and try out the timed auto-shoot function on Helen's camera.
But we did run into a few other people there, and that leads me to what is (since the rest of the evening was another dinner date and is non-bloggable) the last story I'll tell from this trip. As we strolled along the pier in the late afternoon sun, a small party of three locals looked up and saw us -- and got tremendously excited. Sōngjiāng is not exactly a tourist mecca, as I have said; but you would hardly expect me to be the first American these people had ever seen. Yet that's how they acted -- they rushed up and started babbling rapid-fire to Helen, who informed me that they wished to take their picture with me. Any man who has raised nine children is used to the occasional request-that-makes-no-sense, and so I politely said, "Sure." Instantly the middle-aged male member of the party beamed an ear-to-ear grin, reached up to draped his arm around my shoulders, and mugged for the camera.
But they paid us back by taking this shot for us:
And since the rest of the evening was a more or less traditional date and therefore non-bloggable, and since I've already told you about how I bedoofused myself on Tuesday morning, I think we'll declare this travelogue pretty much complete.
I really do like this girl, you know (not to mention Kai, and her parents). With luck I can convince HER to come visit ME in Texas, and then, since she has a blog too, you can read HER travelogue...if, that is, you can read Chinese.
All in all, a great trip.
UPDATE: Helen, having read this, provides the following additional comment about Thames Town:
95% of the houses are sold out-----ummm, if it's true, then I believe most people bought in as an investment, and they are waiting for the market to boom up to sell them. But prices there are too expensive compared to other villas in this town, so, not many people are buying for their own use. And that gives no chance to other businesses there except photo studios. Anyway, as far as I know, it's like that. So I do not feel strange when there are few people there during weekdays. I just enjoy the fresh air and all the greenery there a lot :-) But of course, whoever built this "Thames Town" did not expect this, I guess.
Helen also was telling me yesterday two things that interested Ex-Trader Kenny:
1. Real estate is ridiculously expensive in China -- even out in the suburbs where Helen lives and housing is relatively "cheap," it's 10000 RMB (roughly $1,500) per square meter, in a country where college graduates can expect to start out making maybe 1500 - 2000 RMB per month. According to Helen's best guess (which she warns me is not necessarily that up-to-date), a college graduate who gets lucky can hope to be making 10000 RMB per month ten years into his career. So, a country where a square meter of housing costs a middle manager's entire monthly salary...granted, Chinese culture rewards entrepreneurs disproportionately compared to America's employment-centric mentality, but still, you hear this and think, "How is this sustainable?" Which brings me to the second thing Helen said that interested me:
2. Real estate is a very popular investment in China -- it's not uncommon for people to own twenty houses, obviously mostly for investment purposes. Which goes a long way to explaining how housing prices can be so high relative to average income, but also makes my trader antennae quiver...can you say "bubble"???
I don't think I'd go buy a house in China right now, is all I'm sayin'. I mean, I might very well invest in China if I had money to invest, but it wouldn't be in Chinese real estate.