In May, 2012 I did the “Three-Countries-Three-Weeks-Three-Kids” tour. It was unbelievable! The first stop on my once-in-a-lifetime trip was to Shanghai, to visit my daughter. My first full day there I toured the grounds of the school where my daughter teaches, and then we went off sightseeing.
On my second full day there, my daughter again had to teach until mid-afternoon (after all, it is her job there) and I was starting to feel bolder. While I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, many of the directional signs on the streets were in English as well, I had a map, I had an iPhone with a ton of map and GPS apps. It was time to do a bit of walking around on my own. What could go wrong?
My first real “beyond-DUH!” moment occurred in the streets between my hotel and the school where my daughter teaches. We all know that China’s got a huge population and the cities are really crowded, right? But you don’t really know it until you see block after block after block after block of this kind of scene. By the way, I loved this street, it was really vibrant and alive to me. The street level of all of these buildings are shops, from phone booth sized to slightly-bigger-than-tiny. But I was fascinated by the jungle of poles and racks cantilevered out of every window. Clothes, towels, sheets, drying food, you could find just about anything up there.
Along with all of the tiny shops, you could also find vendors on bicycles, so overloaded that it seemed impossible that they could move, let alone move safely. This guy at least had balloons instead of dozens and dozens of boxes of food & merchandise.
One of the best things I found about Shanghai was how wonderful the people were. Even when I was being a geeky American tourist with a camera (I was dressed a little more sanely than I had been the previous day) who didn’t speak a word, they were invariably patient and friendly. In the Botanical Gardens, it wasn’t the plants that were the stars for me, but the people doing little things to enjoy their lives. For example, this group that was practicing tai chi.
I followed the sound of music to find this large group doing country line dancing. Yep, that’s “country line dancing” as in Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson boot-scootin’-boogy two-step line dancing. It was so tempting to join them, but that was probably pushing just a bit too far out of my comfort zone. (I should have done it anyway — opportunity lost!)
It was near here that I decided to get ice cream, which became an adventure. There were two ladies at the ice cream stand and they spoke zero English and I spoke zero Mandarin. They were laughing at my pantomimes, but eventually with pointing and gesturing they got what I wanted. Now it was time to pay. The lady held up two fingers. I gave her two yuan. She shook here head, gave it back, and again held up two fingers, her index finger and thumb, like she was pointing a gun at the sky. Now thoroughly confused I gave her five yuan.
Again she started laughing, shook her head, and handed it back, making the “gun” sign with two fingers. (The other lady was trying to hide how hard she was laughing at me, with limited success.) I wasn’t sure how much ice cream should cost, but at about six yuan to the dollar, I figured I was in the ballpark at least. So with the two nice women laughing at me, I gave them a twenty-yuan note and gave them the “universal” raised-eyebrows look for, “Is this okay?” She took the twenty-yuan note and gave me back thirteen-yuan in change. Who knew that the “gun” hand gesture means seven? I thanked them in English, they thanked me (I assume) in Mandarin, and we each had a story to tell.
After I had my ice cream I had to hustle off to meet my daughter and her friends for lunch, which was in a true “hole-in-the-wall” place on a street just like the one seen at the top. Boy, talk about “authentic local” cuisine!
One of my standing rules when traveling, especially internationally, is to eat anything and everything. It’s so easy to cop out and look for a McDonalds or to shy away from the local food because it’s unfamiliar and might smell different or look odd. I reserve the right to not try something a second time if I try it once and it really doesn’t taste good at all, but I will try just about anything. So when in a tiny upstairs room in a tiny local restaurant, with native speakers ordering for the table and saying, “Try this,” don’t ask what it is or how it was cooked — try it! It was wonderful.
Along those lines, if you get to Shanghai (and I’m sure other cities and regions of the Far East), there is a thing I saw (on that street up above) which, by Western standards, was “iffy”, but which tasted amazing. You’ll see people on the sidewalk in front of their 50-square-foot shops, cooking on the top of a 50-gallon drum. Not using the top of the drum to put a pan on — using the surface of an old 50-gallon drum as their cooking surface. (Yeah, let’s see you do that in LA!)
They pour a kind of egg batter on it and make something that’s like a cross between a really thin omelette and a crepe. You can add in meats or cheese or vegetables if you want. As everything gels into a sheet about the size of a manhole cover but almost paper thin, they start folding it over and over until it’s the right size to fit into your hand. You eat it kind of like a burrito. About two bucks US, maybe ten yuan, and worth every penny.
Disgusting? No, way! Try DELICIOUS!
You’re on a freakin’ adventure. BE ADVENTUROUS! There will be plenty of time to be boring, dull, routine, and safe when you get back home.