I have (knock on wood) very few bad experiences while traveling. My things haven’t been stolen, and I haven’t somehow managed, in the end, to get where I wanted or needed to be. Delays, cancellations, a few salty characters along the way, sure, but nothing that made me, as an adult woman, come to tears.
With that in mind, I probably had some of the weirdest experiences – consecutively – when I was in Shanghai.
The city of Shanghai itself left very few concrete memories for me. I remember the Bund and the skyline from my hostel (which was on the other side of the river from the main city):
I remember going to the tallest building in, at that point, I believe, the world, and taking photos which only served to emphasize the pollution of the city, but other than that, not really much stood out for me. It was a city.
As I lived in the more Northern reaches of China, I had mixed feelings about Shanghai. It was a place I wanted to go, sure, but it was damn far – though this time rather than take the train, I flew – and they had a weird accent in Shanghai. Lots of sibilant ‘s’ sounds, swapped tones (2nd for 4th, if you have any inkling of tonality in Chinese) and generally sounding vaguely Japanese.
Plus, there is both:
- a strong expat community
- an evident history of English colonization
And this all had me a bit wary of the city. I wanted to see it, though. The ‘modern capital’ of mainland China, as it were, with Beijing as the traditionalists dream. I wanted to see China on the bleeding edge of modernity, as Beijing is still strongly rooted in the Party line.
So I went to Shanghai and met up with a college buddy of mine who happened to be living there, working for an environmental firm, of all things. Very different from the guy whose soccer games I used to go watch on weekends. We had lunch, he talked about the woman he was seeing, gave me some tips for seeing the city, and I went to the World Expo – which was in Shanghai the year I was there – 2010. Or rather, the idea of it. I think there were too many lines and I couldn’t be fucked so I got a keychain and called it a day. The fog of nostalgia at work.
As for the weird and wonderful experiences you may have as a traveler, I submit 2 of mine, which both happened in Shanghai:
I was staying at a hostel, in an all-female dorm. There were about 6 other women in the dorm, all related. I spoke to them one of the evenings I arrived back at the hostel while they were there, making ramen over a hotpot. They were fascinated by my hair, and the fact I could hold a conversation with them in Mandarin.
Being Chinese, the morning they left the hostel, they paid no mind to the fact I was sleeping and made, I think, as much noise as humanly possible at about 5am, turning on all the lights. I still pretended I was asleep so I didn’t have to deal with other human beings. And then I got the aftereffects of a flash through my eyelids, you know, that moment after you get a flash and you get the orangey after-image behind your eyes? Yeah, that.
All the women were taking pictures of me as I ‘slept.’
Much like India, your everyday Chinese man or woman will have a bit of a fascination with Westerners. These women were obviously not from Shanghai, and I may have been the first young Westerner (especially from the US) they spoke to. The photographs were proof that I existed, when they would tell the story to their friends. This, to me, took it to a bit of the extreme.
I’m on the subway in Shanghai, on my way to a particular bookshop I wanted to find. I noticed a young man kept glancing my way. I shyed away from his gaze and something about his mannerisms cued to me he was somewhere on the Autism spectrum.
He introduces himself in stumbling English and we make brief conversation. I get off the train. He also gets off, and proceeds to follow me. I try to, as non-threateningly as possible, ask him to go about his business. We reach a corner where we ‘part ways’. I use quotation marks because at this point I realise the bookstore I was searching for is not where the guidebook said it was and I just needed to get away from this man.
He then proceeds to kiss me on both cheeks and once on the lips. And then he makes as if to go again! I interrupt and say, thank you for your time, but I must be going, only a little bit more harried than that. He mentioned as he was saying goodbye a question along the lines of ‘isn’t this how all Americans say goodbye?’
He must have seen too many romantic comedies or something.
After that…unique experience, I retreated to a coffee shop and sat for a good hour or 2 mentally recovery from the oddity which had been my day up to that point.
When traveling, always travel with an open mind, plus a sense of, and appreciation for, the absurd. Strange, unfamiliar things will happen to you – it’s why you’re traveling in the first place, isn’t it?