Saturday, January 31, 2009

Shanghai: Day Zero (Arrival)

My preemptive strike against jetlag was successful (I slept a mere hour the night before my 7:00 AM flight to Shanghai via San Francisco, so that the miserable eighteen hours of economy seating would pass in a medicated haze of tea with lemon, wet peas and carrots, and melted cheese on processed turkey and heat storage-hardened bread). Upon landing at Pudong airport around nightfall, I procured my luggage and swished out to the taxi stand, having already changed currencies at Travelex when my flight landed an hour early in nostalgic San Francisco (whose brown hills I could only stare at wistfully from floor-to-ceiling windows, hearing the voices of my parents on the phone only fifteen minutes away, all sealed away from touch by the TSA). I showed the driver the Chinese characters Lynn had sent me via PDF, but unlike most of New York’s foreign cabbies, he was only partially literate in a language clearly not his own. Four an hour on the highway, there was nothing to see but enormous billboards advertising Mercedes and BMWs. Finally, we exited onto city streets, and thanks to some photographs of the building Lynn had emailed me, we found it. I went up seventeen stories in the cold, stale elevator, onto a cold, dark, concrete landing. Lynn lives in a bunker.

When she opened the door in leather motorcycle jacket and straight bangs, first we had a big hug, and then I looked around with some surprise. Inside the bunker, one doesn’t know that one is in a bunker; the walls are paneled with inlaid wood; the sofas are brown and white gingham. The ceilings have swirling panels built in with recessed lighting and enormous, flagellate light fixtures. It looks a bit like the eighties, and my bedroom has pink and white polka-dot wallpaper with a Mini Mouse runner through the middle. Lynn, the artist, the world citizen, looks very out of place here, but the apartment is her grandmother’s and so, we are here. I am just grateful to have a place to stay.

It was still early, though I was in a bit of a daze—uncertain whether I was hungry or not, tired or not, or whether my feet were even on the ground for certain—but I took a hot shower and we went out. Lynn brought me to the kind of bar that one finds all over lower Manhattan, complete with a secret mode of entry (the heavy iron door slides open when one puts one’s hand in the correct part of the relief logo—nine circles forming a square). The drinks menu gave cocktail names in English, but the descriptions were all in Chinese, so while Lynn drank chilled sake, I ordered something that came flaming: a tiny glass with floating layers of Kahlua, Bailey’s, and Vodka, the clear alcohol at the top cushioning the pale blue plasma that I quickly puffed out. After one drink, we proceeded to a restaurant quite the opposite: Charmant, a Taiwanese comfort-food joint littered with white expats and Chinese locals alike (so that I could have just as easily been back in the Bay Area). Again, the menu was daunting (with English descriptions of dishes that appeared rather suspicious), so I told Lynn to order. It seems most restaurants here serve family-style anyway—in fact often only bringing one menu to the table—and so this has become the dining program while I’m here.

The food began to come out: a cold dish of fat, translucent noodles in watery peanut sauce, a pot of bony chicken nodules in a rich, hot, sweet barbecue sauce, with whole cloves of garlic and liberal shavings of ginger root, tiny clams in a salty broth with a wet green vegetable Lynn called loofah, a heaping plate of sautéed greens, sturdier than spinach but not as sturdy as kale, and a broth swimming with dumplings (soup here served last, unlike in the states). The restaurant, though, is known for its desserts, and so we had to order it: a disturbingly tall and narrow tower of shaved ice, dripping with a sort of mung bean syrup (a milky, pasty, only mildly sweet thing), and dotted with chewy pink cubes and black balls at the bottom (taro and milk pearls). Strange, but not unpleasant.

Back home, Josh had come back from work, and so we all chatted a bit before going to bed. My mouth felt terribly tingly, and washing up in the bathroom, I saw why; my lower lip had swollen to thrice its normal proportion. “Perhaps,” I told Lynn, “I am allergic to clams?” Without much more worry, I put some ointment on it and went to bed. Although the apartment was terribly cold (concrete walls don’t make for cozy nests), I slept and slept and slept.

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