Maybe it was the 1:30 to 7:30 a.m. flight from Denpasar that preceded the mission or the persistent thought of the 12-hour flight that would follow, or the fact that I’d devoted so little attention to logistics, but my day in Shanghai has been exhausting.
Explore a new city Porsh, it will be funnnn– this is what I told myself when I purposefully chose a 14-hour layover. Why do I do this to myself?
Twice now this country has challenged my travel skills to the point of questioning whether they’re really all I’ve made them out to be. Right when I think I’ve got things down to a science, and Wham! 💥
Here comes China…
I boarded the 300 km/ph MagLev train to the city center from Pudong Airport with a rough list of potentials, but I’d figured I’d let intuition guide the way– this while under the impression that wifi would be easy enough to find, and I’d have google maps to back me up. Fat chance Porshy Pants.
I walked along The Bund waterfront through the Yu Yuan Garden grounds, and finally into the Old Town where I did my best to avoid stealthy saleswomen who seemed to take turns stalking me, one block at a time, calling me ‘Lady,’ and offering me everything from watches to a pot of tea.
The process of food selection in China is a very, very tricky business. Even more daunting considering I’m a vegetarian, which I don’t like saying out loud, but it’s fucking true. I won’t have a meltdown if a few bacon bits find their way into my salad– but navigating Chinese cuisine was like navigating a buffet on a sci-fi planet– the potential variables marinating in each of those hot pots is unpredictable.
Seriously, is there any way to know what’s really in that wonton?
Cultural dissonance made my nonverbal communication skills completely ineffective– the hand and facial gestures that have gotten me by in the past were nothing more than an animated representation of a what a hungry, lost and exhausted American looks like– I was no closer to eating anything.
It was hot, I hadn’t slept and there were a lot of people, all seemingly immune to concepts of personal space. I was operating at my finest.
I roamed ’til my legs felt like they were going to fall off in search of something ‘special’– I’d imagined an air conditioned sit down dim sum restaurant and perhaps a glass of wine. With any remaining hope quickly waning, I finally took an escalator to an upstairs communal ‘food court’ style market, which is where pretty much everyone eats. No matter how desperate I was, I’d risk the fish eyes and duck liver from the corner stand before stopping at any of the KFC, Dairy Queen or Starbucks I passed.
I took my plastic tray from stall to stall, still trying to decipher what was what, still failing miserably. But I was finally eating. All was right in the world again.
The chaotic neon surroundings felt like a Hello Kitty casino. With every bite of my tofu bok choy soup (or that’s what I thought it was) I expected to hear the clammer of tumbling coins and “Jackpot” called out in Chinese– please oh please tell me I’m the winner. You could say I did get one unexpected ‘surprise’ though– I discovered within my delicious soup several chunks of intestines of unknown origin– I guess Tripe is a more digestible term.
Overall Id say the lunching experience could have gone far worse. In fact I’m quite proud of myself. It was a big step up from China Layover 2015 where I only ate items I could point at, mostly things from minimart packages and the occasional fruit stand. Today I ate foods based on intuitive guesses, visual appeal, and relative risk. And I did get to experience a few ‘pretty’ moments.
As my “wild adventure” into the unknown was resulting in tired feet, sunburned shoulders, and a stiff neck from a backpack that kept reminding me there’s a computer in there and I actually have work to do– I hightailed my way back to the Waldorf Astoria for air conditioning, internet and a bit of luxury tea time. Though part of me felt like a cheater, self care was more important than exploration at this point.
In the end I did get my Yang’s Dumpling, one of the only highlighted items on my list. They were mind boggingly deeeelicious. So good that when they squirted all over my pants I didn’t even blink an eye — seriously, I bit into one and was immediately doused by a saucy liquid I had not predicted… any loss of pride was totally worth it. I briefly wondered how my manners come across in Chinese culture— but told myself not to go there. I’ll (probably) never figure things out here. Like the fact that the revolutionary dumplings that just rocked my world came from a shop in the metro station.
China, I know you have a lot of beauty and I truly would like to understand your ways better, but I think next time I will approach things a bit differently. Downloading a VPN on my phone before I arrive, having a legit map from point A to B, and ideally, an adventure buddy, you’re a bit too challenging for me on my own.