Over the last year and a half I’ve spent a lot time walking up and down roads or riding my bike around Shanghai, but there is one road that will always remain in my memory and my heart–ZhangYang Lu. Each day (other than weekends, vacations, or holidays), I walk up and down this road whether it be in the dog days of summer, windy and cold winter, or the torrential downpour of the Plum Season rain. I take the walk twice a day, five days a week, at 30-40 minutes per direction. At a conservative estimate, I’ve walked approximately 1,920 kilometers or 1,193.033 miles along ZhangYang Lu. I wish I could say it has been glorious and beautiful but most days it is simply an adventure and lesson in survival. I’ve had to dodge dog poop, buses, motorbikes, people, falling debris, and traffic cops. I’ve walked through a flood, watched an apartment burn, seen multiple car accidents, observed lovers spat, been heckled, and watched a couple of fights (Chinese people are quite melodramatic; I’ve never seen anything come to fisticuffs). As a tribute to my beloved road, I’ve recounted some of my most memorable experiences, as well as general occurrences, along with some pictures below.
|At the intersection of ZhangYang Lu and Yuanshen Lu, 2012.|
Ever wanted to yell at police officers while they politely ignore you? Ever wanted to make a scene and attract a crowd? In China, you can argue with and shout at the men in blue. They don’t carry guns (although this has changed in Shanghai due to the terrorist attacks throughout China within the last year) and seem to be a quite peaceable force. I even saw a man push an officer once. They may heckle street vendors from time-to-time (a nuisance for vendors if they don’t have an official license), bug the occasional motorist for vehicular violations, write parking tickets, or respond to an emergency situation with little ambition, but on the whole, they seem quite hospitable.
The next experience will be a heavily disconcerting one to read for many reasons. Almost everyday I am confronted by a reality that is hard for me to accept and fills me with guilt. In China, the part of the population that is mentally or physically handicapped is often ostracized from society because they are not “normal.” They crawl around the city streets on pallets with wheels, play oriental music on flutes, they sing, dance, supplicate, solicit, plead, pray, implore, or simply beg for help. In China, there is hardly any room for those that need societal support (including those in poverty regardless of the reason). In China, criminal organizations will kidnap rural children and cut-off their limbs, send them to the cities, and have them beg for money on the metro or up and down the major city-streets. In China, anything that isn’t homogeneous is shunned. In China, families will use their children to beg for them in the cold, in the heat, and in the rain. I’m not saying that these cases are isolated to China but there are very few social programs in place to help anyone here. However, there is a worse entity out there and that is the charlatan. Those that exploit your guilt, exploit your emotions, and do so unabashedly.
Ever since the first day I decided to walk ZhangYang Lu, rather than take the bus or metro, I have passed by a begging duo: a mum draped under a blanket, lying still, the son begging and pleading for help. The first time I walked by I paused for a moment because the old lady looked as though she were dead and I thought that maybe the son needed help with the body. She laid on her back, toes and eyes pointed vertically toward her zenith. I stopped, not sure what to make of the scene, dropped some money, and went on my way. Thankfully, the next day I saw the duo farther down the road and breathed a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that the lady wasn’t dead although maybe she was slowly slipping away into that dark night.
Thus, the story went on for the next year and a half. I would walk by, the son would sit upright, slap his hands in the air, implore, and bring his torso crashing toward the ground, his hands slapping the cement with a hard, “Thwack!” Up, down, thwack! Up, down, thwack! So it went…
Then, one day something radical happened. A change. Walking down the street, I spied the duo in front of the FamilyMart on the same block as my school. Mom was sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, the son slowly rolling up her bedding and shooting her a quick joke. They laughed and I stopped. Mom and son stood up, grabbed their belongings, and headed down the street. They smiled and seemed in good health. Where was the grave expression, imploring cry, and look of hopelessness that made me question my humanity from as I walked by each day and did nothing to help them?
I still see the duo on the street. My instinct is to point and scream at them, to notify others on the street as they walk by that they are fakes, charlatans, impostors. Then I remind myself: What good will this do? Am I just trying to make myself feel better? What is their story? What do they have, what do I have? Everyone is struggling to survive however they can…
During my first year of walking up and down ZhangYang Lu, I always passed by an old man who sat at a crosswalk near Century Avenue and played his erhu regardless of the elements. Everyday, both in the morning and late at night, he would plug away at the instrument, the fingers of his left hand always sliding up and down the strings while his right hand moved the bow with subtle movements and flicks of his wrist. I was amazed at his endurance, especially considering his age and gnarled fingers, and his ability to create so much sound with very little movement. At times, he seemed as though a statue whose hands and arms moved in freeze frame, his face always set in a distant stare, the erhu in his lap. Was he playing for the money? Is that all he had left? Is that all he knew? I will never know….
There are a lot of banks in Shanghai so there are a lot of security trucks that move cash from bank vaults to government buildings each day. Each truck contains a security escort of 3-5 “officers” who give an intimidating first impression. However, after careful observance, you realize that these “officers” are just a couple of young men decked out in SWAT gear and armed with shotguns. Often, they have their shotguns looped across their shoulder, the gun bouncing along and being treated as if it were a clutch bag with their helmet sagging down in front of their face. At first, I was intimidated, then nonchalant, then scared because I realized these 20 year-olds have no familiarity with guns, how to use them around others, or how to react in the event of a “heist.” This was evidenced to me one day when I was walking around the back of a truck and bumped into one of the officers on accident, prompting no response from him, the truck driver, or the officers that were loading the cash into the back of the truck.
Freshly cut bamboo and pineapple shavings mashed together offer up a pleasing aroma to your olfactory senses…
I literally cannot count the number of times I have seen someone evacuating themselves on the sidewalk or in the bushes. Male taxi drivers have a tendency to urinate in the bushes on the side of the road or in the gardens that split the lanes of the major avenues. Children under the age of seven defecate or urinate in the middle of the sidewalk and will drop trou right in front of you. I’m sure my first experience with this phenomenon caused me to freak out while others probably looked at me as the crazy person. Cultural assimilation comes in all forms, people, and you learn to adapt. I once spied a girl defecating in the metro behind the automatic ticket machines and a boy peeing in a fountain with parental encouragement.
A strange reality I’ve observed while walking up and down ZhangYang Lu is that many of the apartments that are on the ground floor have grape trellises. Because they are largely hidden behind walls and most foreigners don’t walk to work, I don’t think many of us notice them. I’ve tried to snatch a couple but they are usually out of reach and it is hard to not draw attention to yourself as a foreigner when doing something other than simply walking down the street (which is enough of a justifiable reason for most Old Chinese to stare at you).
Living in a city long enough causes you to put up blinders while walking down the street. I’ve spent most my life in small rural towns where everyone does know your name or at least your face. You can’t get away with walking down the street without saying, “Hello!” However, in Shanghai there have been countless times when I have passed colleagues or students on the street in plain sight. Many times, I have waved, shouted, and jumped up and down to get someone’s attention, yet nothing. Before Danielle and I started dating, I once passed her on the way to the grocery store (she was on her way back carrying two full armloads of bags). After dating for a couple of months, I brought the incident up to her because I had always felt guilty that I hadn’t helped her and she told me that she had never even seen me. Dang….
Stinky tofu lives up to its name. ‘Nuff said…
At the corner of Minsheng Lu and ZhangYang Lu there used to be a street food cart that served a range of local dishes such as basic fried rice or noodles, fresh fish, vegetable and mushroom stir-fries, and even snails cooked in butter, oil, and spice. I would like to thank the husband-wife cooking team of this cart who fed me for the first six months of my life in Shanghai. They always tolerated my terrible Chinese with a smile and affectionate laugh.
I’ve seen many floods throughout my life-time. I’ve seen the underpasses of cities turn into rivers, creek beds turn into gorges, and boulders the size of a small house being pushed by the force of water. However, I’ve never seen a mega-city turn into a lake. I often forget that the Pudong side of Shanghai is actually an island that is separated from the mainland by the Huangpu River. This didn’t preclude the Puxi side of Shanghai from flooding either though…
That being said, the day of the 2013 flood was normal. My colleagues and I were preparing for the classes we would have later that night as we heard the pitter-and-patter of rain outside. After about two hours of rain, I looked outside the office window and noticed that the zebra-crossing was beginning to fill up with water, that there were traffic cops in the middle of the road (a rarity to see them in the afternoon or evening) wading through the water, and that everyone was honking their horns. Apparently Shanghai’s sewer systems had had enough and threw in the towel. For the next hour, my colleagues and I watched as pedestrians, motorists, and scooters slogged through the water. Buses would cause waves in the water as they ploughed through the intersection. The water was quite above the wheel wells and no one could see the road. Scooters kept crashing into the curb outside the Times Square building because no one could see where the road ended and the sidewalk began. Many times, the scooters would surge across the intersection, kicking up water in perfect parabolas; we would tense up knowing the inevitable was about to happen. Bam! The scooter would stop dead in its tracks, dumping the operator over the handlebars and into the water. I wish I could say that we didn’t laugh but we did, and a lot (karma would catch me later in the day though).
Determinedly and stubbornly, I refused to let the weather defeat me. I would walk home armed with my all-weather North Face jacket and outdoor experience. Everyone was soaked and no one was prepared for the downpour that day. Business people walked home or to the metro dejectedly as their suits clung to their bodies. I was safe. I was smart. I knew this road better than anyone.
I made it past Century Avenue and to Danielle’s nail salon before I was stopped from crossing on the north side of the street. The water was a foot and a half deep in the low-level crossings where the sidewalk intersected the side-streets (see the first photo below) making it impossible for me to pass. I snapped my pictures and decided to head to the south side of the street since there were no side-streets that led to any apartments.
However, this turned out to be the worst idea possible. On this block, the south side of the street is dominated by construction so the sidewalk is reduced to being about a foot wide. Moreover, because the north side was impassible, many people were attempting the same pass on the south side. Had I not been preoccupied with filming, I probably would have considered these variables but I was too determined to get home and too determined to catalog the event. As the crowd slowly crept along the narrow pathway, water would lap up over the curb and slide under our shoes. Some people went bare-foot while others took to tip-toeing. That was when it happened–I heard the all-too-familiar rumble of its engine, its air-brakes decompressing, and remembered that there was a bus stop only a few yards ahead. The words, “You shall not pass!!!” briefly flitted through my mind before I turned my head and saw the wave coming. I stopped, accepted my fate, and stood there like a statue while the rest of the crowd tried to surge backwards. I was stuck between the wave and the construction wall–fate and karma had laid out their hand and I had nothing to play. I was thoroughly doused with Shanghai sewage and water.
The pace of change in Shanghai is paralyzing. Store-fronts and businesses come and go with the ease of watching water drain down your kitchen sink. I’ve seen the interior of stores being removed at the beginning of the week, their carcasses laid bare on the sidewalk at the end. By the second week, workers have already begun construction of the new store. Buildings rise out of their foundations with a ferocity rivaled in very few places around the world. China is industrious and there is no question about the speed of infrastructure here (although quality can be questioned). Want to build a mega-highway, high-speed train network, or a metropolis? Want to build a country? Hire China.
I’ve seen a very strange phenomenon that many businesses participate in, especially if they are real-estate agencies. Managers will bring all of their employees onto the street, line them up, and reprimand (or I assume this is what they are doing) them by shouting and yelling at them. Once, a manager even forced her employees to stand in the rain while she stood under the eave of the real-estate agency and shouted at them. I observed this happening and proceeded to run up next to the employees, pop off a couple of salutes, and then sprint down the street. The lady was still shouting but I wasn’t sure if it was directed toward me or her employees…
The most striking realization for me is that I have become so accustomed to many of the experiences that I’ve mentioned above (and even those I haven’t mentioned). The act of bumping into people without apologizing has become customary. Dodging umbrellas is an art. “If obstructing walk-ways was an Olympic sport, China would win all the gold medals” (Thank you Brian for that amusing line). Despite all my chagrin toward most of my experiences on ZhangYang Lu, it has been a better teacher than anything I could have gleaned from a book or anecdote.