“What does turtle taste like?” we asked Leo.
We were standing on a street in Zhu Jia Jiao, in front of a line of stores selling fish. I was holding a hand roll of sticky rice and roast pork, still half wrapped in leaves, oozing with fat. I felt I needed it to recover from the drive – an hour from Shanghai in stop and start traffic, diesel fumes pouring in through the windows. Even before that – the diesel, the jolting ride – I had been feeling a little sick. The first time I stepped outside in China I felt the air sting my eyes, and then scratch the back of my throat. The AQI in Shanghai was 75 that day, or “moderate.” LA and New York hover in the 30s and 40s – American cities tend to put out warnings at 50. Not too long ago, the air in Bejing spiked over 600.
We were in Zhu Jia Jiao because of Jesse, the dependent children’s coordinator. His mother and a family friend met him in Shanghai and we had hopped along on this particular bit of their tour, to “the Venice of Asia,” a small city (one of many near Shanghai) built around canals, plied by flat bottomed boats with wooden canopies and red lanterns. I’m sure once upon a time they ferried fish. Now it’s mostly white people and Korean tourists. Leo, our tour guide, had just begun winding us through picturesque side streets, pointing out local architecture (much of the city is centuries old) and explaining Chinese farming practices, when we came across the bins of live fish and the bowl with the turtle in it.
Leo thought for a minute – “what does turtle taste like…”
“Chicken?” we offered. It always seems like everything tastes like chicken.
“No,” Leo experimentally kicked the purple plastic bowl covered in blue netting where one forlorn turtle swam, and the water quivered. The turtle looked up. Leo and the turtle regarded one another while he tried to think of an appropriate metaphor – one we’d understand.
“Oh!” Leo’s face brightened, he finally had it: “it tastes like, you know, bull frog!”
We told the students that Japan was a tester port for them. Sure, the toilets were overwhelming and very few people speak English, but it is the toddler-proofed playroom of travel experiences. A girl left her passport on a train and had it hand delivered to her, at her hostel, by a Japanese police man. Every case of food poisoning a student had in Japan turned out to be, on inspection, a hang over.
And then we came to China.
Most of the students pulled what I have discovered is their standard practice: a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred attempt to see everything in one week. I heard a girl on the ship, the day before we landing, pondering how she’d be able to get to Tibet and the Great Wall, while still having two days in Hong Kong.
I decided instead to play it low key – two days in Shanghai, eighteen hours on a train, and three in Hong Kong. That is what SAS has done to me. I really, and truly, believed that was a laid back itinerary.
I spend the first morning with friends – we walked down the Bund, the beautiful old British concession riverfront. The strip along the river is like a warmer London of stern, imposing late Victorian banks (they were, in fact, largely hotels. But British colonial architecture has a curious quality of always, anywhere in the world it is, appearing to be a bank.) We saw a park sign that told us that “Ethical and moral codes should be duly honored, visitors are expected not to urinate or shit.” We took six pictures of it. We sat on plastic stools in the street and ate note noodles with lamb from a Mongolian man cooking on a camp stove.
We wandered into the YuYuan “old town” shopping area – a recreated faux-China full of jade stores and Starbucks. We ate soup dumplings, which have got to be the world’s greatest and most dangerous food – steamed dumplings filled not just with fragrant meats, but scalding hot broth. The trick is to hold them carefully in chop sticks and bite the top off, creating a little dumpling bowl, oozing with spicy red broth that can now cool. They’re unbelievable. They were all I wanted to ever eat again in my life until I had some pork buns in a train station in Hong Kong that may, in the end, be the subject of their own post, since less than 1000 words could not do them justice.
After lunch I dove, alone, into the real old town: wandering down alleys, haggling poorly. (And, through a series of events I can’t quite trace, buying a Buddha head that I did not want. It sits on a shelf reproaching me now, reminding me that I’m an idiot.) I turned North and walked through streets full of men cooking BBQ and circulating smoke with bamboo fans, past lane communities with socks and dried chicken hanging side by side on laundry lines. I bought hot ginger and lemon and watched families shop for vegetables and fish. Finally I emerged onto Nanjing Rd, a huge, glitzy pedestrian mall, lined with Western brands at twice their European prices. I ate nut pastries and walked around People’s Square in the gathering dusk.
At eight, I went to dinner with expats – I met my dear friend from high school’s little brother, who was wearing a well tailored suit from work and standing in front of a two-story Gucci store. We turned off a street in the French Concession to walk through a small alley lined with bamboo to a sparse, vast and very modern Japanese restaurant. I listened to Zach and colleague talk about jobs, travel, Mandarin tutors and tailoring.
After dinner, Zach and I walked for an hour through the French Concession. We bought ice cream and he told me about working in China, and about living there for 6 years, about making local friends and learning to translate business practices across cultural divides. He told me no one likes to fire anyone – things are too good, so much better than they were forty years ago, that companies feel like families, and no one wants to trouble the waters much. For people who survived the Cultural Revolution, he explained, stasis is a gift.
The streets were darker and quiet, with couples and groups of students strolling under the trees that line the broad avenues. If you could convince yourself that the smog was mist, we were in the most beautiful of cities, cosmopolitan and elegant. I fell in love with it. “Yeah,” Zach told me, looking around a quiet street that curved off to our left, lined with villas, “this pretty much never gets old.”
The next night after I returned from Zhu Jia Jiao I wandered the French Concession again. I dipped into stores full of Chinese antiques and Italian wines; second hand stores and organic cafes. In a rush, I dropped into the first take away joint I saw – what turned out to be a Korean place, where I at Bi Bim Bap looking at kitchy prints of 1950s American comics and listened to C-Pop. I darted across town, spending 30 cents on the most efficient metro system I have ever encountered, and met the theater professor for a Mandarin production of Romeo and Juliet – all stylized black and white punk with little pops of comedia del’arte. The audience was elegantly dressed, students in trendy glasses and women in heels.
“It tastes like bull frog,” became the motto of many of my friends for China. An experience without metaphor, a place lost in translation. The tester port of Japan was over – this, they all said, this was real.
I recognize that I barely saw anything of China. I saw a tiny sliver of uber-wealth that hardly describes the whole of China, or even the whole of Shanghai, or even the whole of the French Concession – probably not the whole of the building I stayed in. On the other hand, we were there for a few days, so I’m pretty sure no one else saw much of China either.
But I’m not sure it’s just that I saw a China insulated by wealth and expats and Japanese restaurants and experimental theater that made me come away so much fonder of it than my friends. That’s may well me part – or even most – of it. And will I pretend that I didn’t struggle with some things. For an avowed lefty to discover her own unspeakably ethnocentric attitudes is off putting, and, yes, okay, fine, spitting is something I will have to come to understand better. Like really a whole lot better.