I don’t even know where to begin.
A little over a year ago, in the Spring of 2013, Melinda came home from work and said one simple word, “China?” It wasn’t a place we had been thinking about. After a 6-month assignment in New York City we were wishing we could spend some time overseas, but our thinking was more Europe than Asia; English-speaking Europe. London. We wanted an Expat experience, but nothing too “foreign.” Ha! What we got was a choice, Shanghai, China, or stay in Seattle. We love Seattle. we had recently moved into a one-bedroom penthouse apartment with a private deck that was bigger than the living room and it had views from Mount Rainier to West Seattle, to Bainbridge Island to the Olympic mountains. Oh, and the Space Needle, too. James was living on Capitol Hill and we saw him frequently, we had season tickets to the Sounders FC and Izaak & Melinda loved long walks along the waterfront. We had, to our way of thinking, the perfect Seattle life. But…
We chose China. Shanghai. A city of 24 million people. Hot, humid, smoggy, polluted, crowded, noisy, incomprehensible.
Now, after more than a year living along the banks of the Huangpu River on the Pudong side of Shanghai we are saying goodbye to this city and this country; On Friday, I will perform my last Time Lord impersonation, leaving Pudong International Airport at 12:40 PM and arriving in Seattle, Washington at 8:39 AM the same day. I will miss this city, I will miss this country and I will miss Asia. I’ll miss being an Expat.
The picture at the top of this post was taken shortly after we arrived last October, from the bar on the 86th floor of the Jin Mao Tower. At the time I was appalled by the color and texture of the air I was breathing, but soon came to agree with the barista at the local Starbucks that an AQI of 150 wasn’t that bad. I have seen days where the air has a greenish-gray hue, the AQI was 459 and visibility was less than 50 meters and I have seen bluebird skies, but mostly I have seen varying shades of gray; On sunny days it’s light gray, on cloudy days it is dark gray.
China has a serious problem with air pollution and it isn’t just the cities. Although Beijing is the worst and Shanghai is rapidly approaching the hazardous levels of the capital city, even the surrounding countryside is subject to dense smog from field burning and coal-fired power plants.
“Rat or Cat?” is how most people respond when you tell them you ate street food, and it is with good reason. There seem to be few laws governing food safety ans even fewer that are enforced. Yes, occasionally China’s version of the FDA catches Wal*Mart selling fox meat mislabeled as the more desirable Donkey meat, or a small company is busted for scooping used cooking oil out of sewers and dumpsters –gutter oil–and reselling it. They even bust a McDonald’s supplier for changing the date on old, expired packages of chicken, but those are he few that actually happen (and they are almost all western companies).
Nobody is regulating the guy walking down the street with blue, plastic netting dangling from each end of a wooden pole, holding metal bowls filled with turtles, that he is trying to sell to small mom & pop restaurants . Or the guy who netted some eels from a putrid canal and is selling them on the sidewalk. Gloves and hairnets in food preparation areas? When pigs fly! And speaking of pigs, a meat supplier was recently busted for selling pig’s feet that had been bleached white in order to make them more appealing. Yum.
Take Your Shoes Off At The Door:
After just a brief period of time in China it is easy to understand why this culture has developed the custom of removing your shoes before entering the home. A short walk anywhere will cover your shoes in more DNA than working in a CSI lab: pee, poop, phlegm, snot and spit, you name it and it is being expelled from people walking down the street in huge volumes! I have had the person behind me on the metro escalator sneeze so forcefully that my neck was covered in spray and my hair moved. Walking at my NYC pace, passing people sauntering along the street, I have had my shoes spit upon more than once as I pass someone on the street.
And cab drivers are notorious for stopping to piss almost anywhere on the street in broad daylight (Hint: never sit in the back seat with your leg touching the door, drivers will often open up the back door as a screen when taking a piss and the spray coats the inside of the door). I once saw an old man waiting for a bus outside the IAPM mall decide he needed to pee, so at 3 PM, in broad daylight, he whipped it out and watered the meticulous landscaping before boarding the bus.
I understand why they people in China are always hocking up a wad of phlegm, it’s because they are constantly breathing in filthy air, filling their lungs with microscopic PM 2.5 particles at hundreds of times the levels considered safe. And many of them smoke like chimneys. Everywhere; in cars, in offices, in restaurants, in bars, in airports, in train stations, in hotels, in bathrooms. Everywhere. A few weeks ago, Melinda, Trish, Larry and I were taking a taxi home from dinner and the driver was on a call via the speakerphone when we heard this ear shattering hocking sound that sounded like it was happening in our ears. Melinda, sitting in the back behind the driver, recoiled in horror, sure that they wad of phlegm was going to shoot out the drivers window and back in her window. Alas, it was the guy on the phone!
Not only are the sidewalks of Shanghai the receptacle for bodily fluids of all types, they are the lifeblood of the city.
It’s on the sidewalks that people live their lives: they cook, they eat, shop, play cards, gamble on mahjong, peddle their goods, repair shoes, cut hair, sew clothes, buy turtles, sell crickets, cage ducks, feed chickens and skin and butcher sheep. If you can imagine it, it probably occurs on the streets of Shanghai.
I had the Ayi’s set of keys made by a street locksmith. Melinda’s purse was repaired by a street shoemaker. We bought all our fresh fruit from a sidewalk vendor who parked her van on the sidewalk and sold out of the back. And I ate more than one “stick meat” of unknown species purchased on the street. If you can’t find it on the streets of Shanghai, you don’t need it.