Oct 4 2010

Some thoughts on Shanghai, Sightseeing Tunnels, World Expos and Shopping For Bras. (And a few other things, too.)

I believe this section was entitled "Nascent Magma."

-The World Expo. Shanghai is the home to this year’s world expo, a fact not particualrly cared about by anyone other than the Chinese.

The mascot of the Shanghai expo is a small, blue cartoon character who bears a strong resemblance to Gumby. His blueness, though, makes me think of a different pop culture reference. Anyone else remember the episode of 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan keeps hallucinating that there’s a little blue guy following him the set? He should not – I repeat, not – go to Shanghai until the Expo is over. That blue man is everywhere.

Shanghai's little blue man.

Tracy Jordan's little blue man

We’d been warned about the Expo’s lines but decided to take our chances and go anyway. And indeed, at first we were lucky – there was no line to get entrance tickets, but it was clear from the amusement park-esque waiting pens that it could easily have taken several hours. Inside seemed empty, too – though that turned out to be an illusion likely caused by the fact that we entered at the park’s unpopular end, and there was an apocalyptic rain cloud rushing across the city.

As soon as we got over to where the actual country pavillions were located (as opposed to say, pavillions for natural resources and technology companies), we caught our first glimpse of the legendary lines. Japan, for example – a giant purple structure designed to look like a silkworm – had a line so long that, looking down at it from a pedestrian walkway, I had to turn my head to find the end. No way. A family friend had warned us that if there was no line, a pavillion was likely not worth seeing – but we disregarded his advice and escaped the rain by ducking into Iran. Aside from a water feature and multiple photographs of Ahmadinejad, it was pretty empty. North Korea, also no substantial line, was similarly unimpressive, with a fountain decorated with white cherubs (both in color and ethnicity), a video screen of an opera singer and some acrobats, a photograph of what was supposed to be Pyongyang, and a banner that said “Paradise for People.”  (One wonders if sanctions have also been placed on irony.) The best part was the gift shop, which had surreal postcards showing photoshopped cityscapes and larger-than-life seagulls, and a large selection of the works of Kim Jong Il. We also glanced into Iraq, bought chicken birani from Bangladesh, and talked to a puzzle maker in Mongolia.

We thought we should try to see at least one popular pavillion, and after dismissing Japan, decided to try Saudi Arabia, which was housed in an enormous dome with palm trees growing out of it and a ticker running around its top. The line already looked too long for my taste, but we tried to find the end nonetheless. Kept walking. Still a line. Kept walking. More people. Eventually the line disappeared and was replaced by holding pens full of people, each kept separate from the next by a row of policemen. There were easily seven or eight holding pens, all packed with more than 200 people a piece. When we finally found the end of the line – so far away that the giant Saudi Arabia pavillion was no longer visible – I saw a sign on a post indicating how long the wait time was estimated to be. FOUR TO FIVE HOURS. To get into Saudi Arabia. Dude, that’s about half the time it would take to actually get to the REAL Saudi Arabia. I asked a guy on line how long he thought he’d be waiting. He confirmed – fou to five hours – and then proudly announced that he’d waited for a similarly long time to see China’s pavillion, a giant inverted red pyramid that only 1/10th of daily visitors were predicted to actually be able to enter. (The fact that he was already in China seemed not to matter.)

Peter and I looked at each other, confused. What attraction would possibly be worth waiting that long for? What was inside Saudi pavillion? Did you get a free barrel of oil when you walked out?

Just one of the holding pens.

Polite Sharing and No Challenging

-A thought on Chinese toilets: why do they never have toilet paper? I have spent more time than the average person thinking about Chinese restrooms – why women line up for stalls as if they’re checkout counters at a grocery store, for example, why they often don’t bother to close the doors, why even in Beijing, many Chinese women, when encountered by a Western-style toilet, will climb up on the seat as if it’s an elevated squat toilet. But this trip, I’ve been particularly interested in the lack of toilet paper. Why do they not supply it? Is it too large an investment? The reason I keep thinking about this is that every time I use the toilet (my own tissues tucked into my pocket), I end up face-to-face with a toilet paper dispenser hanging empty on the wall. This is not because it ran out; the paper never existed in the first place. (On a recent train ride, for example, the dispenser was empty before our train left the station.) And when you do get toilet paper, say in a hotel, they provide it in miniature rolls, barely enough for two Americans to make it through the day. I suppose their stinginess is probably related to the lack of toilet paper in public restrooms – hotels they gave any more, people would just put it in their purse. But still. I think that given China’s other investments these days, it’d be a worthwhile splurge.

-Lines. This is something I hate about China – no one waits on line. Instead, it is a country of cutters and mobs. If you combine a nonexistent sense of personal space with 1.4 billion people, you create circumstances that make an otherwise kind and relatively gentle American want to punch someone in the face; thisis what I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter where you are. A train station. A grocery checkout line. I even had a woman appear out of nowhere and jump into the squat toilet before me. (More power to her on that one – there was a huge pile of crap on the floor.) In the Shanghai metro, Peter and I watched as a man with a baby stroller positioned himself on the platform in a way that completely blocked the people inside from getting off. Instead of moving to the side, he plowed right through them. (In that case, more power to the baby.) Here’s a scene from our rerouted plane trip from Nanjing to Xining, taken when three flights’ worth of people were put in the same waiting room and then asked to board a bus to the tarmac. (Just before this shot, an irate customer had nearly punched the room’s one and only customer service representative in the face, resulting in an even bigger mob.)

– And lastly, shop clerks. When I first visited China in 1991, there were very few stores open to foreigners. And in those stores, it was nearly impossible to get anyone to help you. You’d have five, maybe seven clerks standing behind a counter, doing nothing, acting like it was a major pain in the ass if anyone actually wanted to buy something.

But capitalism has come to China (in fact, in many ways it’s more capitalistic than America). Now, the problem isn’t getting people to help you; it’s getting them to stop.

This is obvious just when you walk down the street – there are clerks standing outside clothing shops with small megaphones delivering a nonstop, high-pitched monologues extolling the virtues of the store’s, say, flannel shirts. We even saw a woman on the street selling fruit out of a basket who had prerecorded her sales patter and was broadcasting it from a small boombox, both saving her vocal chords and guaranteeing that any potential customers would stay at least 10 feet away.

This is annoying to begin with. But god help you if you step inside. Within seconds, you can have a phalynx of shop clerks descend upon you, occasionally with backup clerks standing several feet away, just in case you manage to escape.

Case in point, a lingerie shop I entered, in search of a replacement bra. It easily had 10 clerks for a one-room storefront. It’s awkward to have people swarm around you when you’re looking for shoes; it’s another thing when you’re shopping for bras.

Once I’d actually made the mistake of touching one (bra, not clerk), a clerk materialized from nowhere with a measuring tape and deftly lassoed me before I knew what was happening. This is an aspect of bra shopping that I hate even in the States – a situation where it is socially acceptable for a stranger to wrap string around your nipples. She plucked the correct size off the rack and continued to trail me as I made my way around the store. A different salesclerk, noticing the two bras that by that point were in my hand, took it upon herself to hand me a third, a lacy, purple number that was far from my style, but which I took from her anyway so that I wouldn’t have to linger.

Then, the dressing room. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be alone – and I was right. I’d barely gotten the first bra on when I heard a chirpy voice announce in Chinese that she would help me, and my shower curtain was pulled aside.

“It’s too small,” I tried to explain, covering my chest with my hands as she reached for me.

“It’s not too small,” she replied and dove right in, her fingers deftly manipulating the straps.

She helped me out of the bra and into my other choices – all with the shower curtain open, of course; I took a deep breath and tried to adopt the mantra that Peter’s dentist used to say to him, somewhat creepily, whenever he was about to administer a dose of novacaine: “It has to be. It just has to be.”

And, indeed, it ended well. I bought a bra, and bid her farewell with a smile. If only I had the same success on my quest for pajama pants – I was so overwhelmed by would-be helpers that I had to make an evasive manuever around a rack of tops decorated with cartoon sheep.