January 15, 2009

Shanghai, China

While the days of smoking opium under the watchful eye of Chinese gangsters is a distant memory for Shanghai, the city is not as sterile as the twenty-first century descriptions make it to be. While it’s focus has certainly been on new development knit with the yarn of Westernization, it’s core character remains uniquely Eastern; it’s as easy to stumble upon a small side street lined with mopeds, traditional housing and local food vendors as it is to grab a Starbucks coffee in the shiny new shopping center around the corner.
While I was digging deep for the historical roots of the city on my one-day stop over to visit my family in Tokyo, someone else was digging deep into the front pockets of my purse as I battled the pre-holiday crowds on the shopping promenade. My outer purse pockets, usually filled only with an international assortment of lip gloss and a tattered Xerox copy of my passport, was unfortunately, on this particular day, also holding the rather new point and shoot camera I had purchased after my original one was stolen four months earlier in Greece. Vrasta! (it means “Boil Them!” in Greek), Laoshu! (it means “Rat!” in Chinese). They did it again!
But who was “they”? My mother used to throw around a vague “they” in conversation, saying things like “oh well…you what they say…” referring to some phantom group of all-knowing individuals. When I was robbed in Greece, “they”, I was told by the locals, were most likely Albanian or Romanian. And for a moment in Shanghai, I had made “they” the entire 1.3 billion population of China, until I took a deep breath, irrationally thought about the situation, and then hastily singled someone out.
I remembered passing a mother and her young son asking for money on the street where I was sure I was pick-pocketed, and so, with my anger blooming like a fresh lotus flower, I did something completely out of character– I confronted this poor family with American arms waving and language-barriered accusations flying. My usual feeling of injustice concerning the economic and social inequalities of the global population was quickly trumped by the personal injustice at having a material object I can easily afford taken from me. As I watched this mother opening her jacket pockets and her sons’ diapered pants in a show of proof to deny my claims, I realized that I had finally tapped into the ancient history of the city. Shanghai had turned me into a gangster.
When I returned after the holidays, it was time to raise my guard again after letting it down for ten days in Japan, a place where my Brother was convinced that no one stole, cheated, murdered or committed any disrespectful offense whatsoever; his quick dismissal as folklore of the story his wife told him about a highly publicized murder trial in the papers didn’t seem unreasonable. After having Japanese waiters chase us down the street to return 1 yen (.0123 cent) in change, it seemed possible that a suitcase full of valuable jewelry left on the side of the road would be waiting for our return, cleaned and polished by the people who first found it.
I was walking a regular, un-populated street in Shanghai from the Jade Buddha Temple to the local art district with my purse secured tightly by my side, when I felt a strange weight on my shoulder. When I turned to investigate, I caught a young kid with his hand in my bag, grabbing for anything that the time frame allowed, which was, fortunately, only my water bottle. Vrasta! (Boil them!) Laoshu! (Rat!) They tried it again!
The “they” in this situation happened to be two well-dressed-zit-faced-bored-looking teenagers that so surprised me with their… boldness…that I initially thought they must be trying to catch the water bottle that had fallen from my tightly-zipped purse. Out of reflex, I looked and them and said “Xie-Xie”, which means “Thank You” in Chinese.
Xie-Xie? Thank You? What had Shanghai done to me? Here I was about to send a poor mother and her five-year old son to jail for a crime I didn’t see them do while I was thanking…thanking… two young punks that I physically caught trying to steal the entire contents of my bag.
After nine months on the road I started to think that I had become a savvy traveler, aware of and adaptable to the constant cultural changes around me, but Shanghai taught me that no matter how tightly your perceptions or beliefs are secured to your side, there is always a pocket, somewhere, that is waiting to b explored.


jess said...

bastards! that's it.. i am sending fozzy to guard you on your travels..

Oliver said...

Yeah, It's funny how we think that travel experience will make us wise, while there is always a new one. In this case I guess it was hiding in plane sight. Just reach in your purse


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