April 21, 2011

Playing the tourist

Last Friday I stood on my corner for 80 minutes looking for a taxi. I was at my wit’s end and I was wishing with all my might that Alex could magically appear from Korea and help me stake out the intersection.

It didn’t help that I had competition from two other people and it was pouring giant drops of rain tainted with Lord knows what kind of goodies picked up in between the clouds and the concrete.

I spent more time hunting a taxi on Friday than I did en route to Shanghai. For a few weeks now I’ve wanted to devote an entire day to playing a tourist in the city, visiting whichever sites and museums I pleased.  Last week I did just that.

Though I really had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do, I managed to make the most of my day in the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai by visiting the Shanghai Museum, The Bund, and Nanjing Dong Lu.

Shanghai is loaded with foreigners and I spent quite a long time people watching over a large cup of tieguanyin tea. It was easy to spot the expats from the visitors; the people who had been in China for a while carried themselves with a calmness that can only come after days and days of confronting pollution, crowds, and the general circus show that makes up daily life.

The rest of the weekend was nothing out of the ordinary; I just spent a lot of time with my friends enjoying the outdoors. We biked along the Grand Canal (or some canal that flows in to the Grand Canal – we couldn’t be sure) and enjoyed a massive group dinner that night.

On my way to the restaurant, I got into my first political argument with a Chinese person – and it was in Chinese (which was the shocking part). Two of my friends and I were on our way to the restaurant and the driver asked where we were from. We said we were American.

He started driving down a dark street in the wrong direction of the restaurant and we were trying to tell him that he messed up and should turn around, but he was more concerned with us being from America.

“Do you know Libya?” He asked. I replied from the passenger seat, “ Yes, I do know Libya. Do you like America?”

“No! America, France and England are all friends. They bomb Libya. That is very bad,” he said.

“What do you think of Qaddafi?” I asked him. I kept looking in the backseat at my friends to gauge their reaction to the conversation, we were starting to get a little nervous given his passionate tone of voice and the multitude of wrong turns he had already taken.
“I like Qaddafi. He is very good!” he said as he curled his bicep to make himself look strong.

At this point, we had finally convinced him to turn the taxi around and go in the right direction of the restaurant.

“But he is boom boom boom on his people!” I replied, making explosion noises since I didn’t know the word for “killing.”

“No! America is boom boom Libya. Do you know Osama?”

“Yes, I know who that is.”

“Do you know 9/11?”

“Of course,” I replied, “I am an American.”

“Osama vrooooom BAH! BOOM!” he said as he motioned planes hitting a building with his hands. “I like Osama. And Qaddafi is very good too. America is very, very bad.”

He had a crazed look in his eye and he kept staring at me even with a creepy smile if we weren’t talking. As soon as he brought up bin Laden, I wanted to get out of the cab. It felt like the three of us were Ron, Harry and Hermione from Harry Potter discussing Voldemort with one of the Death Eaters.

We agreed that we should probably get out of the taxi. One of my friends in the backseat dialed my phone and I pretended that we were meeting someone on the next corner. He bought our ploy and we quickly exited.

Rarely has China made me feel uneasy, even a city the size of Shanghai feels just as safe (if not more so) as Fargo. But that taxi driver got to my soul; as interesting as the conversation was, it made us all uncomfortable.

Lessons learned: I can navigate Shanghai by myself, but sometimes even regular old taxi rides are better shared with friends.

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