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A Shanghai Halloween

You may not have noticed, but we just passed through a major holiday. It used to be known in Shanghai simply as “October 31” but recently the date has taken on its American name: “Halloween”. As a card-carrying American, I have to object: I know Halloween, and this local version, sir, is not the real thing. It is nothing more than an excuse for nightclubs to promote more drink ‘specials’ (as if most people around here needed another reason to drink or needed to feel any more special about it).

No, the real Halloween, the holiday of my memories, is far more innocent. It is for children, children who travel door-to-door in a costume and beg candy from total strangers and then come home to stuff said candy into their facial orifices (yes, there are documented cases of Whoppers stuck in 5 year old nostrils … a sad, sad situation).

Years ago, when my kids were young, we attempted to recreate this festivity in Gubei, with some foreign friends. Now, Gubei lies in the heart of the expatriate ghetto in Shanghai. My foreign friends lived in an American suburban-style housing development, complete with vinyl siding and the largest marshalling of grass in the city at that time. As such, it seemed to be begging for a Halloween party.

Our two kids were dressed in Winnie-the-Pooh and a Dalmatian costumes, their sartorial tribute to the ancient America deity, Diz Nee. Our family joined with a gang of about ten other families, including a couple Americans but mostly Asians of various origins. For many of the Asian kids, this was their first time out on a Halloween jaunt, and some were a bit confused. I tried explaining the meaning of Halloween, and received a befuddled response:

Kid:  Um…OK, let me get this straight. I dress up in this gosh-awful costume, knock on my neighbor’s door, yell some odd incantation and they put candy in my bag?

Me: Yep, that’s about it.

Kid: God bless America!!

For me, the best part of the evening was seeing the looks on the faces of the home owners who, as Americans, forgot it was Halloween, or as non-American foreigners didn’t know such a crazy thing existed. The Americans scrambled for something to give the kids; the others ran for the back door. I remember one elderly Asian woman who answered the door, only to be greeted by a herd of sugar-blitzed, costumed kids yelling at her to “do something or else”. The “or else” was left unclear. Her eyes opened wide, her face turned as pale as the proverbial Halloween ghost, and then she slammed the door. I am sure she made a bee-line to the phone and booked a one-way ticket on the first flight out.

We must have spent a good hour and a half traipsing from door to door, getting more hits than misses and having a whee of a time. Here I must confess that I really had a good time that night, walking with other parents, beaming proudly at our cute kids, repeating for the umpteenth time variations of the phrase “No, you may not unwrap all your candy and run naked through it … wait until we get home!”

Through it all, I had a very strong sense of how groups of people, quite literally recreate their native culture abroad. Halloween in China is not a “natural” occurrence: stores do not stock up on enough mini-Snickers to give most of the developing world the sugar blues, and those annoying Charlie Brown TV specials are not shown on TV (enough, already, with the Great Pumpkin shtick, Linus – lose the blanket and get into counseling, for goodness sake!). As I’ve outlined above, if you wish to celebrate the wonder of Halloween in Shanghai, you have to provide the spirit yourself. And that is hard work.

But we did it. Why? Well, ostensibly it was for our children’s benefit, the one time of the year when a Roman-style eating orgy (with candy) is acceptable. But to be honest, I conjured the ghost of Halloween past, not for the kids, but for me. I did it because I needed a bubble of familiarity, in what is still to me, after all this time, a “foreign” culture. I went trick-or-treating with my kids in Shanghai because I remember pictures of me doing the same thing when I was their age (though I seem to recall less smog in family photos). In short, it was not the event that was special; rather, it was the memory I created of the event.

But the honesty with which I expose my own motives should be kept from my kids. Let them think that this Halloween in Shanghai is, somehow, normal; that every child here rides a taxi to some neo-American suburban boil on the bum of this great city to scam polyunsaturated fats from the biggest collection of white folks they have seen since the last visit home. I want my kids to grow up with the sort of “natural” memories that I hold dear. At the same time, I want to provide them with the opportunity I never had – to live in harmony amongst a wide spectrum of cultures. Of course that means on a future October 31 I will engage in the following enlightened conversation with my kids:

“Dad, can I borrow one of your ties and your black wingtip shoes?”

“Uh, yeah … I guess so.  What do you want them for?”

“It’s for my Halloween costume … I’m going as a Cultural Imperialist!”

Don’t laugh … that day is closer than you think.

A Rock Star Haircut

Taken while standing in line at the Hong Kong airport

Change is hard. I just moved to a new apartment in a very different part of Shanghai and, though I love my new place, the surroundings are taking some getting used to.  But I now know where to get my groceries; I have my local restaurants for good dumplings; the little corner joint that sells freshly fried sesame balls on Sunday mornings; I know which stands have the best fruit (and its NOT the squinty-eyed chap that sold me that bad watermelon … yea, buddy, I’m talking about you!).  So yes, I’m settling in nicely, thank you very much.

But the one thing that has NOT settled well, is where to get a haircut. Now, I hope that those of you who know me don’t consider me a vain person, at least not any more vain than the average middle-aged white guy who sees his youth slipping slowly away from him, thinking back on the “what-ifs” of life and how, as a young man, everything seemed possible and I was invincible and nothing could stop me so, naturally, I am grasping at everything I possibly can to shore up my crumbling male ego! (Er … sorry about that.  Probably should have saved that for my therapist).

Anyhow, I don’t consider myself too hung up on my appearance – I like to look good, but I know that the good Lord only provided me with a limited amount raw material so I tend to lower my expectations … and part of lower expectations is that I have mostly avoided the mental anguish of finding the perfect place to get a good haircut. I figure that if someone can make my hair shorter, get it mostly even all around and avoid lopping off an ear in the process, that, by definition, is a “good” haircut. But the place that I had been going to was suddenly not so convenient for me, and finding a new place was, to be honest, a bit daunting.

However, I had some guidance in my quest because, for the past 5 years, I have been going to a chain salon called Wenfeng.  Well, “salon” is a bit to much for this place … its kind of a mash-up between a barber shop and a fast food joint. And, true to my personal taste, this is not the place for haute couture in Shanghai.  This is the Great Clips of China. Just a place to get a haircut.  The stylists – if you can call them that – all have these fashionable cuts, but they go a real salon to get them done and can’t really do it themselves.  Nope, Wenfeng is a place you go when you want your hair shorter and you are rather attached to your ears and would like to remain so.

Wenfeng is also a place that gives the absolute BEST scalp massages in the Milky Way.  This is a feature of most hair salons in China – and, indeed, throughout Asia – where, as they are washing your hair before the cut, the washer will give you a scalp massage.  OMG … it is the BEST feeling in the world!  I have a hard time from keeping my leg from chattering like a Golden Retriever getting a tummy rub. And the reason that Wenfeng is so good is that the young women they hire all come from the countryside where they grew up slapping pigs around and hauling grain to market. These girls have finger strength that could poke a fourth hole in a bowling ball.

When I first started going to Wenfeng I purchased a 会员卡 (hui yuan ka), also known as a “VIP” card.  You pay a certain amount of money and then use the card to pay for services, getting a decent discount besides.  I wasn’t quite clear on the discount policy but I figured that I was going to get my haircut at least once a month so I put a couple hundred bucks down on a card.  Well, it turns out that my discount is HUGE so each haircut comes to something like a dollar fifty and it seems I haven’t made a DENT in that card in 5 years, so I was kind of stuck looking for another Wenfeng near me.

I found one, about a half-hour walk from me, and went there last weekend.  I walked in and a bell dinged, signifying the arrival of a new customer.  There were about 20 workers in there and another 10 customers, and ALL of them turned towards me and the place fell silent. It felt like I had just walked into the women’s restroom or a secret cult meeting, I felt SO conspicuous!  After 10 seconds of silence, a slight murmur went around the place … 老外,老外 (lao wai, lao wai).  “Foreigner, look at the foreigner!”

Then the workers started scrambling and calling out a name of one of the employees. A young woman came up to me and, in halting, nervous English said, “Hello … you want hair?”  I think she meant to say “do you want a hair CUT” but the question was appropriate either way and I was able to nod my head with a clear conscience.  Then I said, in Chinese, “Yes, I would like a haircut, please.”  There was a gasp from the entire store, like I had just turned shampoo into wine.  “He speaks Chinese… he speaks Chinese!!”  The girl broke into a huge smile of relief and led me to a chair in front of a large mirror.

As she started washing my hair, I looked at her in the mirror and said, “You don’t get many foreigners in here, do you?”  She said, “No, you are the first one we’ve ever had, and we’ve been open for over a year.”  We had a nice chat, asking each other where we were from, how we liked Shanghai, etc.  Then others came by and got into the conversation, asking their own questions: how old was I, how tall was I and how much did I weigh, did I have children. Then someone yelled across the room, “Hey … ask him what he thought of China in the Olympics!” If someone were to have asked me my opinion on how to balance the US national budget, I would not have been surprised.

When it came time to get my haircut, my hair-washer found the oldest, most experienced stylist in the place.  He looked about 15.  He sat me in another chair and started looking at my hair, pinching it between his fingers, feeling the texture and saying “hmmm…” to himself.  I was the first foreigner he had ever met, he said, and he wasn’t really familiar with foreigner hair.  Chinese hair can be tough, like a horses mane, but mine has been inherited from my Scandinavian ancestors and resembles the light down on a duckling’s butt.  It has no natural shape, no style of its own … it grows out of my head and then succumbs to gravity, falling in whatever manner it can.

He started cutting, slowly, getting the hang of things as he went along.  He saw that he really had no chance of “styling” anything up there … he just had to make it shorter. Then he came to the top of my head and noticed that there is a part of my scalp where the hair is thinner than the rest … and with my wimpy hair, I’m talking THIN.  He spent about 5 minutes trying to comb things this way and that and then fluffing my hair up in order to hide the spot.  I don’t “fluff” and I told him so, saying not to worry about it because that’s just the way it was.  He laughed and said that Chinese men were VERY concerned about going bald. I said, “That’s OK … I’m not Chinese. I’ve got other problems, but not that.”

He was done in 20 minutes and it looked pretty good.  I went to the front with my new entourage in tow and produced my card.  There was another gasp – not only was I a foreigner, but I was a VIP customer!  I walked out of there with people waving and saying goodbye.  I felt like Glinda the Good Witch of the West floating off in her bubble with people running after me.

There are very few places in Shanghai these days where foreigners have NOT been … we seem to have invaded, cockroach-like, into most corners of this amazing city and we don’t attract too much notice anymore.  But everyone now and then, a Wenfeng Day comes along and any middle-aged balding white guy can feel like a rock star.  Shallow?  You bet. Desperate for attention? Um … duh!!  In need of professional help?  Yea, probably.  But I don’t know of a therapist around that will make you feel better AND give you a scalp massage and a decent haircut for a buck fifty!

Slippin’ in the rain

The weather in Shanghai this summer has been particularly nice.  As I wrote about a few weeks ago, we’ve seen a strange ball of light in the sky a lot this summer and our annual quotient of puffy clouds has been fully consumed for this year and probably into the next.  It would be a shame if, because it was so nice this year that next year was doomed to days of a Blade Runner haze without the cool flying cars.

This would be a real downer because when it rains in Shanghai, life is truly miserable.  The problem is not that it rains but rather, in the way that it rains and what the rain does to the surrounding environment.  In Shanghai, we never seem to get a “light rain”, you know, that kind of rain that people identify as representing a romantic, thoughtful side of their character when they say they like strolling around in it (seriously, I’m not a relationship counselor, but if you’re even thinking of getting involved with someone who has written a single’s ad that says “likes walks in the rain”, I’d have a background check run on them immediately.  They would probably check the “likes poking small animals with a fork” box if there was one). No, rain in Shanghai is either one of two types: the Noah-build-a-boat torrential downpour or a stinging Chinese water torture where the droplets seemed to have been sharpened by some prankster angel before being released.  Then you add in the humidity of a city built on a swamp and you wonder that you don’t grow gills in order to survive.

The other misery in Shanghai is what happens to the city when it rains.  Case in point … I stepped out of my Shanghai office the other day and there was a light, stinging rain and that life-in-a-humidor heaviness to the air. I left the safe confines of my building and started walking gingerly down the sidewalk. I was doing pretty well until, walking by an apartment building, I suddenly slipped and, cursing Isaac Newton, started to feel myself losing my center of gravity.

Now, I am a rather tall person and, as such, I like to keep close tabs on my center of gravity. I check on it every so often to make sure that it is still more or less in the middle of me (and as the middle of me has expanded a bit over the years, it makes for a convenient shelf on which to place my center of gravity). But the risk to ones center of gravity during a rainstorm here is particularly high because China’s sidewalks, for the most part, are tiled. Now I’m not talking about the cool slate tiles on the outdoor patio of some California cuisine restaurant. No, I’m talking about freakin’ BATHROOM tiles. Walking on the sidewalk in China after it rains is akin to stepping out of the shower fully clothed (and for many of us not blessed by the gods of the walkway with supermodel beauty, remaining fully clothed in public is a service we are more than happy to provide). This is tile that would serve as a scene for a pratfall in every Three Stooges film or Tom and Jerry cartoon.

When I slipped and started to fall, life slowed to Matrix-fight-speed. I performed an ungainly pirouette until my entire weight came to rest on my left toe, a move resembling the graceless love child of a Keystone Kop and Dorothy Hamil’s less talented sister Hilda (the one with the inner-ear disorder). To offset the imbalance, I extended my right arm and bent over double, a move that one might imagine George Bush doing in his college cheerleading years with an equal amount of Bushian aplomb.

Now, if I could have done this when alone – say, in the confines of my own home – it wouldn’t have been so bad.  But in such a public setting, after the first 15 seconds, a crowd had formed to watch the foreigner gyrate. Bets were taken. Some put my performance down to a seizure and started debating whether to call a doctor; some thought me a defecting Russian gymnast who had just done a dismount off of some unseen apparatus and they were waiting for the judges’ scores; others speculated that I was a lesser talented member of an interpretative dance group who had decide that busking was a way to make a little extra scratch to make up for reduced NEA grants … and they were thinking of calling the cops.

Anyway, bent double and facing the pavement, I noticed another looming hazard of Shanghai street-life: a gaping hole in the sidewalk. The one before me was by no means the largest (city officials have filled most of the honey-have-you-seen-junior pits that used to pockmark the city), but I could feel myself being pulled towards it by Newton’s law (here I am not referring to the renowned physicist, Sir Isaac Newton but rather to my buddy, Mike “Fat Lip” Newton who is famous for saying “Any personal accident that CAN happen to me WILL”).

The thought of pitching headlong into the hole caused me to flail even more wildly. Reaching out with my left hand, I grasped at anything nearby that could save me … which turned out to be a clothesline heavy with someone’s laundry. A pair of skivvies fell over my face causing momentary blindness. I shook my head with vigor to dislodge the pest and banged my head on a low-hanging air conditioner. Oddly, this jolt had a calming effect as I suddenly found myself with both feet firmly planted on the ground and my center of gravity wobbling back to its rightful place.

As the time-space continuum was slowly being restored to its normal pace, I could hear a murmur of amazement resonating through my audience. A hot sensation of embarrassment crept upon me and, as like a good American, I gave full vent to my frustrations: “What is it with this country?” I yelled. “This place is a health hazard… the rain, the tile, the holes…. Where are the personal injury lawyers? This country needs a warning label!!”

As I ranted, the crowd quickly dispersed, but for one elderly Chinese man who took a few steps in my direction. He said nothing, but laid a gentle, steadying hand on my shoulder. He looked into my eyes. Then he looked at the departing crowd. I followed his gaze. Everyone else was walking upright on the wet tiles; they were doing just fine, avoiding the holes and their heads keeping clear of the low-hung air conditioners and laundry. The man looked back at me as if to say, “It is not the country that needs a warning label, young man. It’s you.”


Middle Aged in the Middle Kingdom

Middle age.  So named because that’s the migratory destination of one’s body mass over time: The Middle.  Love Handles?  I wish.  Try Love Shelves.  I’ve become the Ikea of body fat.

The challenge of being middle aged in China is keeping fit. Having a fit is easy.  Keeping it?  Not so much.  China is tough on one’s health.  The air quality is poor enough where I’ve considered starting to smoke just so I could filter the intake.  And since Dunkin Donuts entered the market and had the audacity to put a store near my office, all the benefits of walking the stairs out of the subway instead of taking the escalator are crushed under the weight of two Boston Cremes and something called the “glazed choco-infused sugar nut squeegee.”  I gained two kilos just typing that last sentence.

But I try.  Lord knows, I try.  I like to lift weights occasionally in my garage, using a universal system from, I think, the 1950s.  No doubt it is loaded with lead plates and asbestos paint so as I am building body mass, I am increasing carcinogens.  I’m not a doctor but I don’t think the trade-off is a good one.

No, I need a cardio-vascular workout.  Something to get the blood flowing, the lungs breathing and the heart racing.

I watch, with envy, the joggers in my neighborhood, looking so cool in their (mostly) coordinated outfits, long strides and glowing brows, like arrogant gazelles frolicking on a lion-less savannah.  But I think there is something morally wrong with running for pleasure, at least for adults.  Humans have evolved to the place where we should run only if we are being chased by someone.  Preferably someone with a weapon.  I do run, on occasion, but the pavement pounding compresses my spine enough to turn vertebrae into small diamonds and makes my knees crackle like Rice Krispies in Dolby.

I’ve thought of power walking, but that’s not for me.  I don’t have much self-respect left, but I refuse be seen in public affecting that purposeful stride, like I’m running late to practice for Kim Jung Un’s next birthday celebration.

Treadmill?  Stationary bike?  Nope.  Too close to a possible metaphor for my life – working hard and going nowhere.

I’ve thought of joining a gym where I would have lots of options available to me and the support of my fellow humans, all of us striving towards the common goal of health and clear thinking.  But I know what I look like when I work out and I’ve seen others … and that is not conducive to a social situation.  Humans should gather only when there is food, wine and – optimally – a nice cigar involved.  But even the best Washington spin doctor would be hard-pressed to call Happy Hour a ‘workout.’

Maybe the apparatus of choice for me should be the lowly bicycle.  China was once famous for their bicycles and in my early days here, this was the vehicle of choice as one joined the herds and hordes, prides and pods, flocks and phalanxes of other bikers on the way to work at the State-run factory where you would sit around all day, smoking, reading the newspaper and making up spurious production figures to send to Beijing.  But I’m not just looking for transportation, I want transformation.  I don’t want to get somewhere better, I want to be someone better.  That’s a ton of expectations to put on two wheels and an aluminum alloy frame.

Serious bike riders talk about “the burn”, that place of Zen-like tranquility where the body is working at its peak of energy and efficiency, thus freeing the mind from the bonds of the corporeal world, raising it up to contemplate more lofty ideals wherein one can imagine a brighter future for all mankind. Imagine all the people …  Dude … that sounds cool!!

At least it sounded cool before I actually got on my bike.  In China.  In reality, this is what ended up going through my mind:

“OK … here we go … deep, centering thoughts … life … death … meaning … purpose … YOWZZA … that guy was going the wrong way … or is it me going the wrong way … what way am I going … hmmmm … HOLY BACON BITS, is that a pig? … oh, its a pig on the back of someone’s scooter, the pig’s not driving … that’s ok … but what if a pig drove …  where would it go … this little piggy drove to market, this little piggy … WHOOPS, look out for the jogger … wow, he’s wearing colors not found in nature … nice green, buddy … looks like the love-child of Kermit the Frog and a neon Bud sign … sign, sign, everywhere a sign … LOOKOUT … it’s a dog … a small dog … a really small dog … looks like a squirrel in a dog suit …

Yea … that was getting me no where near Nirvana.  In fact, if anything, that was Nirvana-proof activity.  And I felt pretty exposed, like the only thing between me and a speeding car was, well, ME!

Then I found the answer.  I will drive.  Shanghai is famous for its gnarly traffic and creatively horrible drivers. Someone asked me what side of the road they drive on here and I responded, “my side.”  I drove downtown the other day and, I kid you not, narrowly avoided at least six accidents.  It was like making my way through a city of Stevie Wonder clones driving bumper cars.  When I arrived, my heart was racing, I was gasping for air and I’d lost a few kilos of water weight in perspiration.  And I was safely wrapped in a sheet metal cocoon with nary a scratch on me.

Elevated heart rate? Check!  Weight loss?  Check!  New appreciation for the wonder of being alive? Check!  Nirvana Schmirvana.  Mission accomplished.  Now, let’s do Happy Hour!