26 September, 2012

Saving Summer: Shanghai

After six weeks on crutches, doing physical therapy, in a general state of inactivity, I was free. I know I mentioned it once already, but that’s where this story begins: pure elation at finally being free, and a train ride.

After being a part of the new trainee’s site-placement announcement, I wanted to depart from Chengdu as soon as possible. This meant taking the first available ticket: a hard seat. The longest hard seat I had taken was Lanzhou to Chengdu, clocking in at twenty-one hours; this hard seat took a whopping thirty-two (if you’re curious about the inner-workings of my psyche, I wrote that sentence with an impression of Mo).

The train ride itself wasn’t bad. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wonderful about being in a train that long, but on the Scale of Awful (patent pending), it was more of a Can’t Get the Perfect Water Temperature for My Shower than say Waterboarding (or Listening to This on Repeat for Three Days). It always helps when I’m sitting around younger people, and this time I was. There was a kind lesbian couple on my left, and on the bench across was a hairstylist shuai ge, a nerdy looking undergrad and a little girl (I’m not going to guess this girl’s age because I’ll mess it up, but she was young enough that wearing tights and a tee-shirt was still okay).

Like most train rides, my little bit of Chinese and their little bit of English was enough to have some friendly conversations. The lesbians were shocked to learn I lived in Lanzhou; one (with a visible tattoo) even managed to say “Why would you live there” with an appalled tone in her voice. It was a stark reminder that I was heading east: I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The main reason the train ride was so manageable was because I played cards nearly the whole time I was awake. A year ago in Chengdu, my host family taught me to play Dou Di Zhu. I’ve played the game so many times since I learned; it’s probably been one of my greatest resources for integration.

If I have one complaint about the train ride, it was the young girl. The rest of us could have been our own Breakfast Club, but the little girl knew no boundaries. She was constantly loud. If anything excited her, she was shouting and laughing at the top of her lungs; if anyone politely offered her part of the food they were eating, she would take too much; if someone tried to correct or reprimand her, she would fly off the handle and scream angrily; she would constantly touch each of us; while we were playing cards, she would lean over our shoulders and tell us what to do; at one point, she was practically sitting in my lap because she thought she knew which cards I should be playing. Now I understand why people dislike me so much.

I finally arrived in Shanghai (insert a huge inhale and sigh of relief here). A couple friends were already in the city, so I hopped on the metro to meet them at People’s Square. Welcome to the developed part of China, where they have subway systems (their preferred nomenclature, like continental Europe, is Metro; I, however, couldn’t break the habit of calling it the Underground or the Tube).

The next day was a whirlwind excursion to some of the cultural attractions that Shanghai has to offer. In the a.m., we went to an art market. It was part art market, part Chinese knick-knack market. However, Chinese knick-knacks never cease to amuse me, so it was a win-win. To appeal to the tourists, Chinese and foreign alike, there was a bevy of restaurants peddling foreign foods. At my companion’s behest, we succumb to the temptation and had “New York-style” pizza for lunch. It wasn’t bad, but I assume after a year in China, my standards have been lowered considerably.

Unfortunately, there wasn't too
much to see, and it still looked
pretty similar.
Our first stop in the afternoon was a Confucian temple. This would mark the first time I was going to a Confucian temple. I’ve seen my fair share of temples in China, but until this point, they had all been Buddhist. 

These are some kind of prayer card.
While exploring the grounds of the temple, we found a shop selling every imaginable accoutrement and piece of paraphernalia for a traditional tea ceremony. Also on hand were a dozen young girls waiting around the shop for a customer. If we were interested, they had a short tea ceremony we could participate in to sample some of their teas. Free tea? Of course we were interested.

These were balls of tea leaves
that "bloomed" in the hot water.
They made for some delicious tea.
The young lass acting as our ceremonialist—is there a better word for that?—spoke a little English, and was relieved when we told her we spoke a little Chinese. As serendipity would have it, the girl was from Lanzhou. (I know! I couldn’t believe it either!) The ceremony was splendid. Anyone who knows me knows that I love tea. I have been toying with the idea of acquiring a nice tea set to bring home with me—partly to use as a fancy souvenir, but mostly as a tool to irritate my friends and family when I guilt them into drinking tea with me. (If any read this, consider yourself warned. We will drink all the tea when I get back.) This experience cemented it for me: I will get a tea set.

I will also get a long-sleeved qipao, so when I have tea
parties, I will look just like this.

I imagine that in some people's
minds, all of China looks like this.
It really was gorgeous around the
Another stop on See Shanghai Express was to the Yuyuan Gardens. We showed up in the late afternoon, and wandered around until closing time. The information we had at the time translated it as the Garden of Contentment. I can understand where it got that name. I felt perfectly content just relaxing there, enjoying the classical Chinese architecture.

As you all know, my camera's
pretty crummy, so this was my
best photo of the evening.
Travelling with other people has
lots of advantages. One that appeases
my narcissistic side: there's someone
to take neat photos of me.
As afternoon turned to evening, we met a local friend at a park on the Yangtze River delta. It was a bit too overcast to see a true sunset, but it was still nice to see the iridescence fade through the haze (that’s more or less a polluted-city sunset on most days anyway). It was a relaxing way to pass the time, conversing with our friend and some other locals attracted to the sight of waiguoren.

Our nightcap: heading out to the Bund. I am not a big fan  of having my picture taken in front of famous things, but after my alumni magazine wrote and article about me, demanded some and I had nothing to give them, I  decided it may be useful  down the road.

The next day in Shanghai I was flying solo. My friends had tickets to Beijing, and I knew there was more I wanted to enjoy. It was a rainy, dreary day, so I figured I should go places where I could be indoors. In the morning, I visited St. Ignatius Cathedral.

No photos inside.
So this is the last one I took.
When I saw that there was an honest-to-God cathedral (I can use that idiom in this context, and it’s not blasphemous, right?) in Shanghai, I was excited. It had been a year since I’d stepped inside a Catholic church. I have looked around a couple Chinese Christian churches, but this church was built before the Communist government banned Catholicism. (They’ve since allowed it to return, under the stipulation that practitioners do not acknowledge the Pope. For more reading on that topic, go here or here.)

The cathedral was beautiful. I don’t know if I have an accurate way do describe how I felt, mostly because adjectives I want to use I typically do in a hyperbolic way. It was a moving experience for me…

Religion is something I don’t often talk about, but it seems like this is as good a place as any to do so. (Full disclosure: I often fear talking about it, because so many people immediately associate anything remotely religious with the worst, most irrational Christian movements—like the people Bill Nye cussed out—I would prefer not to be associated with anything like that.) I’ve always found my faith to be a blessing and a burden. It became a point of strife between my father and myself when I was preparing for my Peace Corps service. He was worried about me, and the state of my religious life, if I was going to be living in a country where I could not be openly religious and could not attend mass on a regular basis.

While I understood his concern, my faith was always such a personal, intimate part of my life; it was never something I worried about. Plus, I can’t help but think being a Peace Corps volunteer would earn me some bonus points with the Big Guy.

All kidding aside, I was always optimistic. However, not being able to go to church for a whole year has been a bummer. I tried to go to a Christian church in Lanzhou for Christmas, but that ended up not at all what I was looking for and a huge disappointment. I guess I’ve learned I like praying in a church? There is something comforting about the brick and mortar—the building gives me a sense belonging (admittedly, part of what I miss is the church community, but I’ve already written about people that I miss).

I say all of this, partly to get it off my chest, but also because I hope it puts some context on my reaction to the cathedral. I would describe it as awesome, but not awesome in the context of our common vernacular, but actual semantics. I thought the cathedral inspired and filled me with awe. It was not by any means the biggest, nor most grand, cathedral I have visited (I've been to Europe), but after a church-less year, it was awesome nonetheless.

Maybe it was the feelings I experienced that caused such awe? I don’t know, but it was one of the most moving and emotional experiences I have had in a long time. I cannot say how long I was there, but I spent a considerable amount of time simply kneeling in a pew, staring up at the altar. I do not know how long I spent in prayer—which I like to refer to as my gchats with The Capital G—but there was something beautifully comforting about doing it in a church (which I imagine is similar to a direct message, instead of just mentioning @Him in a tweet… #ihopehegetsthis).

I think he might have? I'm not one to look for signs, but
sitting outside the cathedral, a butterfly landed on me
while it was raining. 

I hope no one minds that this turned into a meditation on religion; like I said, it was something I needed to get off my chest. I’ve got more stories and observations from my time in Shanghai, but that will wait for another day. This blog is long enough.

So, to be continued… 

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