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Typhooooon!

I got my first taste of typhoons my very first week in Shanghai. It was two years ago, and all of us new teachers had gotten up early and piled into the van that was to take us to our health examination (standard process for visa registration). Though the previous day had been relatively pleasant and sunny, this day was NOT. I don’t remember exactly when the rain began, but I remember that it continued. And continued. And then continued some more. Before long, the streets were flowing like rivers, and the air swelled with thick wet drops. Our van forged ahead bravely, but those around us with less fortunate transportation struggled. Cars sent shock waves rippling over sidewalks and through building doors. We passed one stalled near an intersection, tipped precariously into a sink hole. Bicyclists pedaled gamely, the water reaching mid-wheel, laboriously inching through the oncoming flood. We foreigners, all new to the country, hung our heads out the van windows, mouths agape, cameras flashing. The others, like me, had never seen anyone pedal through nearly a foot of water before. We even watched the construction and unsuccessful launching of a cardboard/corrugated metal raft. Up high and dry in our taller vehicle, it was all rather exciting and interesting.

Flash forward two years. I’m still in Shanghai, and it’s the beginning of the rainy season again. At this point, (as an experienced expat and having traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and India) I am no stranger to sudden bursts of torrential rain.

A few days earlier, I was caught in a brief yet thick rainshower, wetting me to the skin. This morning I even read the news that the Shanghai government had cancelled classes due to approaching Typhoon Kompasu. By all accounts, I should have known to take my umbrella to work.

Then again, I suppose this wouldn’t have been much of a post if I had.

In my defense, I spent the majority of my formative years in southern Oregon, and therefore while I am no stranger to rain, I am rather reluctant concerning umbrellas. Fellow Oregonians will know that in that great green state umbrellas are, at best, considered luxuries, and at worst, signs of weakness or un-Oregonian-ness. I used to boast that I could always spot a tourist by their possession of an umbrella.

The point is, in a moment of reckless hubris, I left my umbrella behind.

Leaving my apartment supported, for once, my delusion that I had made the right decision- the sun was shining and the sky was actually blue (not so common in a heavily polluted city). I felt only the tiniest sprinkle of rain, hardly more than a bit of moisture in the air. Emerging at the subway stop near my office, the sun shone even brighter, with all the warmth and promise of a humid summer day.

Craftily, the weather lured me and others into a false sense of security. Stupidly, we allowed it to.

My first indication that all was not well occurred at lunchtime. After an enjoyable and even productive meal, I blithely headed back to work. The rain started (with almost comic preciseness) just as I left the building. In the 8 minutes or so it took me to get back to the office, I was soaked.

Dripping in my computer chair and shivering slightly under the draft of the A/C, I contemplated my next move. All I could do, basically, was wait until quittin’ time at 6, and pray the rain had let up by then.

Surprisingly, it did.

I left the building and arrived at the metro station relatively dry and even a bit triumphant. Little did I know what awaited me at the end of the line.

Getting off at my usual stop, I walked up the stairs, swiped my card and moved through the gate as usual. As I walked further down the exit hall, however, I could hear the buzzing of a loud crowd growing ever closer. Turning the corner, my spirits plunged at the sight- a mass of people crammed along the sides of the stairs leading up to the street. From the lack of umbrellas or rain gear among them, I could tell they were sheltering from the rain (which at this point I could not see, at the bottom of the stairs), waiting in hopes of it slacking off enough for them to safely run to a taxi or a nearby shop.

Crowd sheltering from the rain

My very first thought was, “No way.” I’m not a big fan of crowds. In fact, I hate them. Anything I can do to avoid them, I will do. “I don’t care how wet it is,” I told myself, “I’m not waiting around here.”

You see, most Chinese people will go far out of their way not to get wet. Even the slightest misting sends them popping up umbrellas or dashing for the nearest overhang, as though they might melt. As a foreigner and Oregonian-at-heart, I cannot help but harbor a secret sense of superiority in regards to my weather-hardiness. Many times I have shouldered my way through a crowded door to strike out bravely into whatever wind, rain or combination has driven everyone else inside. I thought this situation was no exception.

I was wrong.

Moving upwards and closer to the entranceway, I could see that this was no ordinary rain. This was typhoon rain. The air at the entrance where the cover drops away was a silver sheet of rain. I couldn’t even see out to the street, the rain was so thick. My mouth dropped open in dismay. When my moment of shock passed, I slowly and resignedly shuffled to my right to join the crowd of unfortunates huddled against the stairway. Those with umbrellas and jackets pushed upwards and onwards, out through the water curtain. We watched them enviously.

As we stood, hawkers walked up and down the stairs, selling umbrellas. This was a big deal for them, much like Black Friday is for retailers. Talk about supply and demand– this was an economics lesson in miniature. Though many of us refrained, others quickly caved and bought umbrellas for 3x the normal price.

Making a killing selling umbrellas

The air grew thick and warm with so many bodies pressed close together. Though few people spoke directly to each other, the noise was constant. Metro officials stood at critical points on the stairs, shouting into bullhorns to keep the middle of the stairs clear for passengers entering and exiting the station. Others shouted cell phone conversations, or bargained noisily with the umbrella sellers. Kids screamed occasionally, that special high-pitched shriek that only young vocal cords can make. A few smokers blew puffs of smoke over our heads, acrid and cloying.

The storm itself didn’t stay quiet. Rain pounded on the glass over our heads, making big round splash patterns. Lightning flashed, bright and brighter, drawing ooohs from the crowd. Accompanying thunder rumbled through us, gruff and menacing. As ten minutes stretched into twenty and towards thirty, I despaired of it ever letting up. My apartment is only a 10 minute walk from the subway, but in the typhoon, your clothes will reach maximum water capacity in about 2.

Finally, after nearly 45 minutes of standing uncomfortably in the crowd, my irritation and hunger won out and I decided to make a break for it. Firmly believing that an umbrella, even a big one, would merely prolong the inevitable in such thick, slanting rain, I took a deep breath and stepped into the typhoon.

Instantly, I was soaked, nearly to the bone. Imagine turning on your shower full blast, and standing under it fully dressed. That is not an exaggeration. At first I jogged, hoping to get home more quickly, but soon my work shoes became too slick for this to continue safely. Half a block later, the water on the sidewalk reached my ankles, making running not only dangerous, but only conducive to getting wetter (if possible). I stopped here to take a quick video of the sidewalk, street, and nearby bus stop completely inundated from the rain.

Speed walking towards my apartment, I had to raise my hand over my forehead to shield my eyes, as though from very bright sun. Even with glasses on, I could barely keep my eyes open. The rain actually stung, and I blinked burning water away. I’m not sure how much of the stinging was the sheer amount of water and the angle in which it hit my face, and how much of it was terrible dirty city water. I prefer not to think about that.

At last, I reached the gate to my apartment complex. Here I had to open my soggy purse, digging around for my keys. But when I put the electronic key up to the box, it didn’t work. I stood for a moment, dripping under the waterfall of the sky, staring at the little red light. Was it mocking me? I glared.

I made my way to the other end of the gate, which the guards had thankfully left open, and waded through a puddle inside. From there it was a quick walk to the building, and finally, finally, inside and out of the bombarding rain.

A puddle formed at my feet waiting for the elevator.

My shoes squelched as I walked inside, and my finger left a wet smear on the button.

Another puddle grew in the elevator.

With wet, slippery fingers I fumbled my keys into the lock. Opening the door, I was greeted by the cat, the dog, and my umbrella- dry, folded, lying innocently (and ever so reprovingly) on the table.

It was there all along.

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Subway Squeeze

By now you have probably read about the horrendous traffic problems in Beijing.While things in Shanghai haven’t gotten quite that bad, traffic during rush hour here is no picnic. And that involves all kinds of traffic: 4-weeled (cars & buses), 2-wheeled (bikes, motorcycles and wagons), and 2-legged (people).

When I first came to China, I lived a pleasant 20 minute walk from the university where I worked. A year and a half later, the purchase of a bicycle transformed the commute into an even more pleasant 10 minute ride. There was a certain carefree freedom to wending my way through all three types of Chinese traffic, whizzing past the morning walkers striding by in their pajamas, the bicycle carts overflowing with fruits and vegetables (and sometimes dead pigs and chickens), the park full of the elderly performing fluid tai chi to a blasting record of traditional music. My morning ride woke me up, put the wind (and yes, sometimes the rain) in my face, and, most importantly, made me feel like a part of the cultural patchwork of a large foreign city.

At the beginning of August, however, that all changed. I quit my job teaching English at the university to become the managing editor of a quarterly magazine for expats. While I’m thrilled with the new career, I’m rather less than pleased at the change in my morning routine. Instead of a 10 minute bike ride, I now wake up to the prospect of a 45 minute ride on the subway during rush hour, an event I look forward to with as much trepidation as a cow looks at one of those tiny transport trucks and asks, We’re all going in there?

For those of you who have never experienced the subway in Asia, mere words are not enough to convey the perplexing and often incomprehensible crush of sheer humanity. Before becoming a part of the morning rat race, I thought the subway an excellent method of public transportation- cheap, quick and convenient. I rode it in the afternoon and late evenings, and avoided it during rush hour whenever possible. Now, forced as I am to submit to rush hour every week day, the ugly side of public transportation in a city of over 19 million has revealed itself.

Descending to the platform at morning rush hour

When the train arrives every morning, each car is already jammed to what appears (to the untrained eye) to be maximum capacity. If you’re lucky, a few people will step off, providing more room, but often the doors open onto an umoving wall of humanity, the outer-most of which are toe-ing the threshold.

Waiting to board the train

Full? Not if this guy can help it.

Next comes the terrible, crushing rush as new passengers lunge into the waiting crowd, shoving and elbowing their way aboard.

Squeeze in tight!

In an attempt to reach a calm and zen-like state during these moments, I allow myself to make detached observations of the world around me. Recently, in order to forget the fact that my face was smashed against the window in a not-quite comical parody of a cartoon joke, I compiled a list of four of the most common and effective subway shoving tactics:

  1. Simply shove forward. No need to mask the fact that you are shoving, because everybody else is too, and the weak will (at best) remain on the sidelines at the station or (at worst) be trampled mercilessly. This includes children, the infirm and the elderly.
  2. The second tactic, the one I prefer, is to find a weak spot in the wall of humanity, aim, and attempt to burrow your way through. These are often found under the arms of tall passengers holding onto the ceiling railing, or in the gaps made by briefcases between two strangers. With this tactic, the lower the better, in hopes that you can push someone’s center of gravity out of balance enough for them to teeter and reveal a few precious extra inches of space.
  3. Thrust an object in front of you to act as a crowd-parting tool (much in the way of a cow-pusher on a train). Suitcases are good because they are bulky and heavy, and the other people will fall away in the face of sheer, unfeeling mass. A shoulder bag, briefcase or purse will do in a pinch, wielded indiscriminately and with the belief that, if your bag can go there, then the rest of you must be allowed to follow (even if the doors are closing repeatedly on your arm). Have a kid? Rather than be a hindrance, children can also act as crowd-parters. Nothing is quite as discomfiting as having someone else’s child (especially a drooling and/or crying one) suddenly thrust into your face.
  4. If the situation looks especially grim, try this tactic, which I experienced second-hand (and to unquestionable effectiveness) this morning: Run up to the door, spin around so your back is to the car, and then lean/fall backwards, almost as though attempting to crowd surf at a concert. Your weight and momentum (even better if wearing a backpack- extra weight and a layer between you and the person behind you) should be just enough to requisition you some space. The headphones in your ear will make the angry mutterings of the crowd inaudible and therefore unimportant.

Now you’re on the train! If you’re lucky, you can reach some sort of handhold, and might be touching only two other people. Just recently, however, the car I entered became so full that my arms pressed against my ribs hard enough to make it actually (and without any exaggeration whatsoever) painful to breathe.

A view from the inside

Summer weather further compounds the subway traveler’s misery, for the merciless Shanghai heat and humidity assure that anyone stepping outside will instantly develop a sticky sheen of sweat. Hair styles wilt, make-up melts, and clothes cling as though you’ve been doused with water. If not for the blast of A/C in the subway car, the situation would be unbearable.

Once you shove your way on, you’ll sit at the station for another minute or so, for without fail someone along the line has attempted Tactic #3 and is now blocking the closing door with their body. This situation is actually quite dangerous, and recently accounted for the death of a woman in Shanghai. Subway employees are now posted in several of the most congested subway stations to regulate the amount of passengers embarking on each train during rush hour. Eventually the offender will either get on or give up, and the train will move.

Standing without support on a moving subway car takes talent and practice. Mostly, it requires balance, which can be achieved easily enough with the right stance (similar to the one used on a skateboard).

Proper subway stance- provided enough room

Balance is much more difficult, however, with the contortions required to jam oneself into an exceedingly crowded space. Each extra jolt to the left or right shifts the entire crowd in slow waves, reminiscent of the swaying of sea anemone tentacles in an underwater current. Worse are the sudden breaks and decreases in speed, which fling passengers even closer together in uncontrollable, headlong flight.

When your stop approaches, according to unwritten subway rules, you must push forward to the door, in a sort of counter-push to the one you used earlier to get on. This pushing can begin up to a full minute before the train begins to even slow down, or enter the station. The urgency of passengers to disembark spreads through the crowd like electricity, as though the people on the other side of the door were giving away free money, instead of waiting to leap aboard. Some (I swear I am not making this up) even claw at the door, sliding their fingers along the seams as though attempting to pry the doors open.

Not quite clawing- but close

Then the doors open, the crowd surges forward, and all you can do is make sure both feet remain in firm contact with the ground. The surge will continue past the open doors and towards the nearest exit, most likely accessible by stairs or an escalator. Passengers press their way up to the escalator in a formless and lawless mob, cutting each other off and shoving through the line much in the way they entered the train. Many often hesitate at the brink of the escalator, intimidated by the moving steps, causing build-ups and traffic jams. And, in the rare instance of the left side of the escalator remaining unblocked for those who wish to walk rather than stand, the dishearteningly common practice of halting just six or so steps from the top can infuriate even the most patient of travelers.

At this point- above ground and fresh off the escalator- you’re either free or, like me, must transfer to another line and start all over again.

I realize this is not just a problem in Shanghai, but common everywhere that there are subway trains and rush hours. However I hope that in other places, the insanity is perhaps a little less insane than here. As for me, while I long for the days of windy mornings atop my bike, I adore my new job and am willing to do whatever it takes to continue. Even if it means honing my techniques for Tactics 1 through 4.

Morning rush hour

An excerpt from my travel journal during my recent visit to Hong Kong:

I watched the gray storm clouds from across the water. I’d been taking touristy pictures of the buildings along the opposite shore, but now the clouds drew my attention. They descended smoothly down the hill, and I could tell they were raining. I felt the wind that pushed them, not gusty but strong, nicely cool. Above and behind me, the scattered lighter clouds gave way before their darker brethren. I smiled the soft, quiet smile of someone standing alone thinking to herself, then walked down to the ferry, relishing the thunk of my token in the turnstile. Others waiting looked apprehensively out of the windows at the approaching storm, their hair and clothes flapping in the wind.

The rain hit when we were halfway across, a sudden shower, as though we’d crossed a line. Those gracing the benches on the rainward side shrieked and leapt up. I was on the same side, but in the back, closed within wood and windows rather than loose plastic sheets. I watched as the rain made the water dance. The surface transformed from rectangular wave chops to hundreds of round plinks. Tap tap tap, almost playful. The shore behind disappeared in the curtain of cloud and rain, only the ghostly outline of a steel skyscraper remaining visible.

The rain stopped before we reached the dock. The light remained dim and storm-like, but the wind dropped. I could feel the dark clouds above, but they were not threatening. They seemed instead like a gentle herd of giant beasts passing by, concerned with their own business, casually oblivious to the lesser beings.

We disembarked onto a dock wet and shining, washed clean, smelling of rain. That same smile lingered on my face.

A Moment

The other day found me riding my bike home from the gym. I turned down my street, Kang Jian road. It was about 4 pm, and the light was just beginning to fade and darken. As I rode down the road, the recycling man was walking his cart in the opposite direction. Every few seconds he rang his bell, announcing that it was time to come out and throw your recycling onto his cart. Then I glanced up and saw the apartment buildings I was passing, old and cracked with faded paint– the backdrop to a blaze of color, for nearly every window had laundry hanging from bamboo poles to dry. Blue pants, red shirts, checkered quilts– all colors and all types of clothing. And below it, the signs for the small mom-and-pop noodle restaurants. It felt so very Chinese, so strange and exotic and foreign (yet familiar), and I had to sigh and smile, couldn’t believe that it was actually me doing this, that this was actually my life and somehow so simple and normal that I nearly missed it, had it not been for the simple sound of the bell to call my thoughts back from the clouds.

Reboot!

So!

As you can see, it’s been nearly a year since I last updated this blog. Whoops. But now I’ve managed to wriggle through a metaphorical (metaphysical?) hole in the so-called Great Firewall and now have access to many more websites than before. I hope to maintain this blog a little better than before.

I’m still living in Shanghai, and (at the moment) still teaching English at Shanghai Normal University, though I’m starting to branch out towards more of a writing career. Here are some links to some of my other things:

WanderLost is my other travel blog, one I started a while ago, with descriptions of my European adventures, including Prague, Spain and Greece.

I can be found here on Twitter if you’re looking for a quick (and hopefully) witty fix.

My Tumblr account is similar, though more colorful/visual.

I’m also currently the Poetry Editor for BellaOnline. My weekly articles on all things poetry can be found here.

I look forward to blogging for you soon!

Thoughts on Hostels

Glancing at the NY Times Travel page today, I found this article about hostels and how they have changed. The writer of the article, Jennifer Conlin, a mom of 2 teenage girls, traveled around Europe with her daughters, staying in hostels along the way. She first explains her trepidation in this choice, as she remembers “with frightening clarity” the grittiness of the hostels she’d known as a college backpacker. Her daughters, she writes, have only stayed in nice hotels. She worries they will confront what she confronted years ago. Instead, she finds a “stylish, modern building with gleaming plate-glass windows.” There are flat screen TVs in the common room, which  “could have been a model set for the Ikea catalog with brightly colored sofas and chairs arranged around sparkling white laminated tables.”

Let me stop things right here.

As a former college student, backpacker, and person in their 20s, I have stayed in many European hostels. Some have been great, some have been terrible. But, reading this article, I felt unhappy, like something was being lost. Hostels are great for price and convenience, but there’s something more. Hostels are supposed to be gritty. The whole point is that you’re not in some fancy hotel with shiny floors, or even in some crappy budget hotel with gray carpeted hallways and flickering lights. Hostels are waypoints, stopping places for travelers, a crossroads, if you will. (Now, I’m not talking about family trips here, with kids and parents and grandparents. That follows a different course).

Conlin, the article’s author, upon seeing the fancy hostels, wonders, “Where was the peeling paint? Why wasn’t laundry hanging from the windows? Why wasn’t there a drunken student passed out on the stoop?” She is glad not to find these things, but I am worried. With these things gone, it seems the spirit, the edginess of the hostel is gone as well. Hosteling is an experience. It’s not always nice, it’s not always clean, but that’s the point. It’s up close and personal, it’s in your face, it’s real.

Of course, there’s a limit to the dirtiness and creepiness and all. I mean, I’ve stayed in some hostels that I would never recommend to anyone again, hostels where we stayed the night and then got out as soon as possible. And there are definitely disadvantages to the old style hostels- cramming into a bunk bed-filled room, loud strangers at all hours of the night, shared bathrooms, etc. It’s not high living, but I think it’s still an important experience. You’ve got all the time in your life to stay up in a fancy hotel. Just try it at least once or twice. It’s like camping. Sure it’s no fun to get bugs and sticks in your sleeping bag, or have to get out in the freezing air to go to the bathroom at 2 am, but we still do it. For the experience. And because there’s so much more to get out of it.

I’ve met some of the most interesting people in hostels. I’ve had strange and intriguing conversations (various unconventional views on life), shared and taken advice (skip that attraction, make sure you go there), discussed the most trivial things (best way to make spaghetti sauce) all in those “grubby” common rooms on the “threadbare, springy sofas” that Conlin writes about. I wouldn’t give that up for all the fancy, Ikea-type furniture in the world. Who cares about flat-screen TVs when a woman is telling stories about traveling through Africa, or that group of traveling students is describing their run-in with drag queens on the beach?

I guess, overall, it’s all about atmosphere. Hostels are places to connect with people- fellow travelers searching for the same and different things as you are. I’m not against having nice, clean, cheap places to sleep. And I do avoid those rooms with 12 bunk-beds when possible. I just don’t like the idea of stream-lining hostels. Of making them … shinier. I want to see the peeling paint. I want to hang my laundry from the windows. Otherwise, I may as well be in another Super 8, or Days Inn.

Anyways, those are my thoughts. Build new shiny hostels if you want, but don’t get rid of the old gritty ones. Some of us want to remember where we are.

Hello and Qing Ming

Hello all and welcome to my blog! Though today is Monday, I have the pleasure of sitting in my bed at noon and typing up this entry. Today is a national holiday in China because Sunday was Qing Ming – Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s the time when Chinese people pay respects to their ancestors by ‘sweeping’ and attending to their family graves, burning fake money for the spirits. This is an old tradition, and requires city dwellers to return to the small outlying towns around Shanghai. Generally they still have family– elderly parents or grandparents– living out there, whom they stay with over the weekend.
As with other major holidays in China, I heard a lot about it in the week leading up to it. On the street and even in convenience stores you can buy the traditional Qing Ming green dumplings. It came up often in casual conversation with my students, and also with my Chinese co-teacher who commented on the gloomy weather, saying, “The weather is always bad around this holiday” because of its association with ghosts.
Yet I’m curious as to how much this old holiday still has relevance in daily modern Chinese life. It is mostly alive and well in the smaller towns and villages, where the family tombs are within a short distance, but what about for those who live in cities, and must trek back out to their humbler origins in order to honor the dusty dead? From talking to people and asking questions, I’ve received mixed results. Though nearly every Chinese person I spoke to discussed the holiday in well-accustomed detail, only a number of them were planning to actually attend to any graves.
Within the city as a whole, there are definitely signs of departure, such as completely sold-out train tickets to the nearby towns, and many of the small, family-run street shops closed up. As a foreigner, I’m much more in touch with the expat community, where plans were also being made to travel, but for the intent of touring and enjoying the long weekend.
It’s interesting to see and think about how modern life is affecting and changing old traditions. I especially feel this conflict in ‘older’ countries. That is– in Europe and China, whose histories are more firmly set in stone than in the U.S. In Prague I walked around during Easter, attending both the markets for tourists in Old Town, and the smaller markets for the locals in other parts of the city. Again there was the clash of past and present, where some still performed the old rituals, and others thought of them only in passing, unrelated to their thoughts, problems, and daily lives.
So the course of the world moves on! As I do from this post. Thanks to everyone who suggested ideas, especially for blog titles. They’ll likely be appearing in the next few weeks. Also, if anyone’s interested in reading about my other travels, all that can be found on my travel blog. I’m currently revising my notes from Spain, so it’s slowly coming along, and will hopefully be up-to-date soon.
Thanks and zaijian!