My friends Ed and Lindsey Salatka, whom I visited in Shanghai, wrote their friends a Christmas letter. It’s good enough to repeat:
Life in Shanghai
Shanghai is absolutely enormous, the scale of which you can�t even imagine. I live here and I can�t even imagine it! AND, it�s not even the largest city in China. The largest city is Chongqing, or as Westerners know it, Chung King, home of Noodles in a Can. Mmmm. In Shanghai, there are something like 100,000 expats, which is a lot! But on some days and in some areas, you wonder if you are the only Westerner here because you don�t see another fair head sticking above the crowd, or another big butt walk past, and the locals point and whisper as if you are the first fair head they have ever seen. Back to the big butt, it is the reason for learning one of my first key Chinese phrases. When walking into a clothing store where a saleslady is inevitably shoving a pair of pants in my face to try on, I say, �Bu keyi. Da de meiguo pigu!� or �CANNOT! Check out my big American Butt!� And no, I haven�t gained any weight. I just don�t weigh 90 lbs like the average Chinese gal who goes to the same store. So in China, they usually don�t carry my size, because I am a Chinese XXXL, which as Bart pointed out, makes us sound not only huge but both huge AND stuttering when we ask for something, because XXXL is �Te Te Te Da Hao,� translation, �Special, Special, Special Big Size�. So I am Special Big in China. And if I were hung up on this, I would just need to leave, because people, this could not possibly fit on my What To Care About List!
The housing options here are amazing. The rents range from $200 a month for someplace scary to $12,000 a month for something nice and big with heated floors and other fabulous amenities. The choice is up to you, and your wallet of course. A lot of people we know are on company housing packages, and they usually pay between $5,000 to $8,000 per month. For rent! This sounded like sheer madness to us, so we opted for something better than scary but nowhere near heated floors.
We live in a tiny apartment in a high-rise building in the middle of the old French Concession, just across the street from the American consulate and a stone�s throw from O�Malley�s, the Irish pub with a playground. Genius exists! So now you know how Ed became O�Ed. Anyway, our building has a beautiful outdoor pool for the summer and a heated indoor pool for the winter, an amazing gym complete with squash courts for Ed, a massive rock climbing wall for Mia, and a posh spa area for moi. It took us a while to take full advantage, but now we are into our groove and it is fabulous! The neighborhood tennis courts are a block away and you�ll find me there twice a week, although at the moment that requires donning a space suit. People, it is COLD. I mean, I am always cold anyway, but Ed�s face went numb today and I still can�t feel my fingers while typing. Which brings me back to our tiny apartment, and why it is closer to the scary end of the housing spectrum. No insulation. Zero. Zip. If you stand next to a window, you feel wind. You can see your breathe in the bathrooms. I wear my jacket inside ALL DAY LONG. When I have to take it off, I count to 3, chuck it, and run and dive under the fattest down comforter you have ever seen. It�s called survival.
Cars, shmars. We schwinn it! My bike is actually not a schwinn. It is a Giant Hunter One, but would you have known it by name? I haven�t Schwinned it as a real mode of transport since I had an actual Schwinn, which would mean grade school, when I Schwinned everywhere. But I�m back in the saddle with the wind, albeit polluted, in my hair, smile on my face, ringing my bell, saying, �Rang yi rang!� (translation- Get out of my way!) to all I see. Clearing the way is in everyone�s best interest of course. No one wants to be clipped by a big-butted Westerner on a Schwinn.
The French Concession part of Shanghai where we live is small, lovely, and has nice Schwinn lanes. We have a little cage-like seat on the back of my Schwinn for Mia, and she LOVES it, even now when her cold little face must feel like concrete. I stuff her in there every morning, drop her at school, and Schwinn around town to get my errands done. When Schwinning is not an option because we are leaving our comfort zone or it is raining (which doesn�t stop O�Ed!), we take the dreaded taxi. Dreaded because of the traffic, dreaded because I have to speak Mandarin and the drivers pretend not to understand me, dreaded because they drive as if they are blind and there is a swarm of bees in their pants and a brick strapped to their right foot. DREADED! They drive on the same side of the street as the US. Or rather, they are supposed to. And I have yet to see a seat belt. Oh how I love to Schwinn!
Mia�s school is a very small international school for 2-6 year olds just around the corner from our house. It is fabulous and she loves it, although enough to justify that it costs more per year than my entire four years of college, and she�s three? That I don�t know, but I try not to think about it.
We are having a great time living here. It is stimulating, interesting, exciting, busy, fun, and amazing, but we have our days. I mean, it is CHINA. The smells, the spitting, the other bodily functions that I won�t list, the constant haggling. Nobody talks, THEY YELL! EVERYONE touches Mia. Last week, Ed went into a convenience store to buy a Coke. He put the Coke on the counter to pay. The cashier grabbed the bottle, thwacked a cockroach that had just come onto the counter with it, and put the bottle, complete with munched cockroach stuck to it, down in front of Ed and said, �3 kuai,� as if he were still going to BUY that coke and DRINK it. A similar thing had happened to me the week before. I went into a different convenience store to buy a bottle of water. When I put it down in front of the cashier, she had her pointy finger completely buried in her nose. She then pulled her finger out of her nose, grabbed my bottle of water WITH THE SAME HAND, swiped it over the scanner, and said �2 kuai.� You have GOT to be kidding. I would rather drink the water from the polluted Huang Pu River that can�t even sustain FISH. A new phrase I must learn is, �That is the FOULEST thing EVER!� But actually, it wouldn�t have made a difference. For the most part, the locals could not care less about being foul. It�s like me being triple XL. Her booger on my water does not make her What To Care About List. And although it certainly makes my list, I can�t say I blame her. She lives in Shanghai with no escape clause, makes less in a month than I spend every day, and I can�t even imagine her living conditions. Is she worried about being foul? She has bigger fish to fry, although none from the local river�
In case you think it is all nasty all the time, rest assured it is not. Here are the things I love about China: 100 ninety year olds doing Tai Chi in the park every morning. The same ninety year olds ball room dancing in the same park every night. Wonderful smells, like the men selling fresh chestnuts from their rickshaws on the street corners, or the hot delicious 5 cent dumplings on the opposite corner. Eating those dumplings. Walking past a street musician playing an instrument you�ve never seen. Hearing Mia yell, �NI HAO!� to everyone she passes, and �BU YAO!� if they try to touch her. A huge bouquet of beautiful flowers for a dollar. Men playing chess with sticks and leaves on the street corners. Marching men in big green uniforms winking and smiling as they file past Mia. Even the insane taxi drivers wear white gloves and drink tea, making you wonder if they lead a civilized normal life when they step out of their Formula One Car.
One Thing is For Sure
Life in the Pearl of the Orient is BUSY and never stops, which is why my updates are less frequent. So much to do! So much to see! So many clothes to have tailor-made! I feel like we lived on a sleepy tropical island in another life, because our time in Bali was so incredibly different in every way from our experience here. Different good and different bad, but in truth, I would not change a thing about either experience. We love that we get the opportunity to live around the world. Just don�t ask me to repeat that statement when there is a booger on my water!