Background, China, Culture


I was in an unfamiliar world, of smoky skies and stifling heat and humidity. Shanghai-the sky looked like a heavy thick fog that had blocked out the sun, but not the sunlight. After landing in Shanghai, and meeting Matthew in the morning, we first found a place to stay, at a hotel called the Jin Jiang, located somewhere in an impossible place to locate on my own, and then my son immediately looked for places to take me. Even though I slept on a plane for quite awhile during the flight, jet lag had a grip on me. I felt like I weighted 400 pounds traveling through a climate that struck to me like steam from a hot shower. It was the end of July, and though I am used to the dry heat of Southern California, China’s summer weather was more than I expected. Was it humidity that filled my lungs or something else? The sky looked like a heavy thick fog that had blocked out the sun, but not the sunlight. Every so often, I had to stop, as my son’s stride was faster than my body would let me go.

At times, Matt would stop and say, “Are you all right Dad?” He had a curious look on his face, one that acknowledged his surprise and concern. I tried to put on a good face, but after a few hours of walking, my legs felt like they were in quicksand. Shanghai, the Paris of the east, filled up all of my senses, and I was overwhelmed. I was used to traveling in more familiar locations that were easier to get around in, places that spoke the romantic languages of the western world. Though I could understand many of the signs about the city, since they used a form of English characters called pinyin, still I would be lost without Matthew as a guide on my first day in China. Shanghai seemed very foreign, and then I saw it, McDonald’s and Subway. American fast food companies felt out of place in this world surrounding me, but it did leave me with the sense that there was a constant in the world we live in – money and commerce. I would have much preferred to leave all traces of Americana behind, and escape to a place completely different. The longer I walked through Shanghai, toward the shopping district and the Bund, the less foreign life seemed. Was the world shrinking or were my views expanding?

It was my first visit to China, and though I had read a few books before I left about Chinese culture, I was still unprepared for the experiences ahead. There was no question that I was a foreigner, or as the Chinese would say we were “laowai” or foreigner, and “yang gui” or white ghost. These words separated us from the Chinese, and made it clear, that we are not all the same. But was it any different in America, “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”? Don’t we use terms to describe others who are different? In America, we use similar terms under our collective breath, while in China; it is spoken more as a matter of fact. Whichever side of the coin you choose to look at, words divide us from each other.  Still, I was a foreigner, and felt like it. Language barriers were certainly a problem, but the cultural differences were all around me. Just as how different parts of American interacted differently, so to was life here in Shanghai. People seemed closer yet just as distant. Mothers walked hand in hand with their mothers, and parents seemed to dote after their only child. Yet there was an insular quality about the city, as people moved in their own small worlds, among the thousands of people who all looked so different from me.

It was around six o’clock in the evening and it was getting late for me. With my jet lag weighing me down, and after a beer with some of Matthew’s friends, so I knew I was finished. Matt wanted to stay out with his friends, and arranged for me to take a taxi back to our motel room. After a few words were exchanged with the taxi driver, I was off, hopefully to bed in a few minutes.

I had about fifteen dollars, in Chinese currency in wallet, and after about twenty minutes of driving, I began to worry. Would I have enough to pay the driver? The taxi driver spoke not a word of English, which I found to be the rule in almost all of China. I was completely out of my element, and for a person that liked having some level of control of events around me, I was very uncomfortable. I had no choice but to trust the driver, but I was keenly aware of my vulnerability. At times like this it is easy to notice the differences in our worlds. The taxi felt less like a taxi and more like a typical older dirty American compact car traveling out of control on a wide twelve-lane freeway.

We traveled through a much older unfamiliar part of Shanghai, than what I remembered when Matt and I first got the room. The river was to our right, as we moved along a snake of concrete that was suspended thirty feet above another highway below. At times the city looked like parts of New York, giving me a sense of a place vaguely similar in a distant past memory, but I was in the new world. I was feeling more and more tired, stress and honestly concerned about whether I had made the right choice to go alone to a taxi with a man didn’t speak my language.

Suddenly I had this sinking feelings of being confused, trapped and lost. Why hadn’t I used a map to orient myself ? As the scenery kept changing around me, I felt a growing sense of insecurity, trapped in a cage on wheels, and heading to god knows where. I called out to the driver and tried to pantomime he question of where were we. The taxi driver saw a look of worry and the confusion on my face, like someone riding on a rollercoaster for the first time, you believe you will be okay but there is still the unknown ahead. The driver seemed concerned, and said a few words in Mandarin. Did he have a crazy laowai in his back seat?  The next few minutes seemed to go on forever, as I kept looking all around at the changing views of an unfamiliar Shanghai. As we dropped of the expressway, down the off-ramp to the street below, my hotel suddenly materialized. We had finally arrived at the Jin Jiang Hotel. The driver began writing down the amount of money owed, as I held my breath. It was a little over eight dollars in Chinese currency.

Never so grateful for the ride, I was so relieved to have enough money to pay the driver and thankful to be back at the Jin Jiang. The taxi driver through the language barrier seemed to understand my concern and was very polite, and at that moment, I began learning a valuable lesson. Differences can separate us, or bring us together, and trusting in others whether in China or America is a universal component of traveling abroad. My first day had held challenges, and through those experiences, I was gaining insights, and becoming intrigued with this different world. As I found my plastic room key, I headed to my room for a good night’s sleep.


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