Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fellow travelers in Shanghai - May 25 2011

I've had the most amazing discovery. One of my coworkers, a young assistant born and raised in Shanghai, is a big fan of Bill Bryson. For those not in the know, he is a witty (but not snarky) travel writer who focuses mainly on English-speaking regions. His writing speaks with curiosity and wonder, but at the same time, authority (mine has been described as having a childlike naive), immense humor, and of course, hyperbole. Bill Bryson is very much the heir to Mark Twain's pen.

I noticed she had his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid on her desk, and it kicked off this illuminating discussion.

A portion of her Bill Bryson collection at home
My coworker had bought the book for 20 RMB ($3) during her lunch break from one of the innumerable street vendors selling (almost certainly) knock-off books and pirated CDs. I wonder what the audience is here for this type of book. The vendors have very limited space - essentially a wheelbarrow with a flat top. Does this entrepreneur stock it for the ex-pat market living in Shanghai? Does the local Shanghainese community dream of travel to the West? My coworker has read several of his books, about half of them translated into Chinese. Able to read both, she slightly prefers the translation and feels most of the humor carries over well. My young friend confided that she is working on the arduous process of applying for a visa to visit Britain. She - and those of her generation in China - have come such a long way since we first met, when we were standing around the kitchen in our old office and I asked if she had any plans to travel. 'Where would I go? How would I get there?' It seemed almost unfathomable. That was February 2008. Now she is reading Lonely Planet guidebooks in her spare time.

Went to lunch with a few coworkers - they couldn't decide if the place is Cantonese or Shanghainese - my guess is the latter. They brought up all sorts of interesting topics with no prodding from me.

Sign in front of a car repair shop
There is some buzz about organic food, chemical-free pesticides, and the like. The consensus is that there is fledgling demand (opportunity!!) for a farm-to-plate organic movement, and some percentage of the population would pay a premium for it, but people are so jaded and distrustful of the farm/distribution/market machine that they feel any organic certification/labeling would be faked - especially in light of the recent food safety scandals in recent years. I hear there once was an organic market in Hangzhou, but it went out of business due to low demand. The market forces couldn't sustain a. single. organic. shop. The irony is that farmers are setting aside small plots of land to grow organic food for their own families. Clearly much needs to be done to win consumer trust - I wonder where to start. How have we overcome similar challenges?

They also brought of the topic of homosexuality. According to my lunchmates, there are no legal or career limitations to coming out of the closet (or "coming out of the box" as she put it). They can't get married, which puts China's gay rights about on par with California's (come on California, the bar has been set very low). They told the story of a gay couple they know who is looking for a lesbian couple so they could have a baby. "Couldn't they have two babies?", I asked. This set off a flurry of discussion in Mandarin, I never quite got a clarification on that point :)

A short walk after work and I found the exact tea shop where I had made a blend 3 years ago. The place looks exactly the same, and their English is very broken, but after some pantomime on my part, they were able to explain that I should NEVER mix different teas together. I guess the "gunpowder black" I had made in 2008 is the last of a breed.

Mandalay Rainbow Ice Cream at Lost Heaven
Most of my Shanghainese coworkers don't like food from the Yunnan region (or Szechuan or Hunan for that matter). Most of them find it too spicy, not just picante-spicy, but too bold. Lost Heaven restaurant, and the Yunnan region of China it represents, is a very very special place. The closest I can come to describing it is like Burmese food 100 years in the past + in a parallel dimension that was similar yet not quite the same as ours + a remote region trying to preserve its ancient history/culture/traditions. Anyway, I really wanted to come tonight and nobody could dissuade me.

Popped back into the Boxing Cat brewpub on the way back to my hotel. What a great way to end a great day and a terrific trip. I like this brewpub a lot more than I remember enjoying it last year. Maybe I've come to terms with the fact that I can enjoy an American restaurant (I'm talking to you ElementFresh) in a foreign country. Or maybe it's my recent discovery that there are some good non-dark beers in the world. Either way, I'm glad Boxing Cat and I have come to terms with each other.

On the way back to my hotel, I ran into the same knock-off book carts. I can't believe I did this, especially after what happened this morning, but I advised 3 Indian businessmen to buy the knock-off Time Traveler's Wife rather than the knock-off A Short History of Everything. I don't know who should be more upset with me: Audrey or Bill.

1 comment:

The other Olga said...

so great that you're really getting to know your coworkers. friendship takes time!! :)
Today I came across a mention of a "minority sexual orientation" bookstore in St. Petersburg. Maybe I'll blog about it tomorrow -- it's an interesting story.