Shanghai Tai-Tai

Well, it’s been a hectic two days in China so far! Somehow, I haven’t taken a single picture since we’ve been here. Hard to believe, right? I guess there are only a few (weak) excuses I’ve come up with to explain this:

1. It’s been foggy and rainy all day, both days. Therefore, we drive everywhere. Pictures taken out a car window never turn out well, and are usually never worth taking. Plus, who wants a picture of fog?

2. When we do get out of the car, we go right inside and get down to business either shopping or eating. Always on the move, always hopping from one place to the next, negotiating prices and bargaining like Shanghai tai-tais. “Tai-tai” is the magic word in the shops if you want a reasonable deal – it means “wife” in mandarin (so I’m told). So, if you’re a white woman and you are a “Shanghai tai-tai”, you are telling the retailer that you are a local, that you are a friend, and that if they give you a good price you will be back for more and you will bring other tai-tais with you next time. In the last 48 hours, Brit and I have become honorary Shanghai tai-tais, as far as any of the shop owners here know… hey, it could happen.

3. My final excuse for having no photos, and possibly my lamest considering I have a pocket camera as well as my SLR, is that I’ve been carrying a small bag and in crowded places, and the city is reknowned for pickpockets, so says Brit’s mom. So I’m a little uneasy bringing my SLR around casually, just into busy shops and such. I’d rather take it out doing the touristy things – when we go to the gardens, the great wall, the forbidden city, etc., trust me – there will be plenty of photos. But for now, like I said, I’m keeping the small camera by my side, and I’ll pull it out when it gets a little sunnier and life slows down a bit.

For now, I’ll give you the mental image:

To picture where we are shopping, think Canal Street, but in an underground mall, and endless. Also, add a lot more oriental merchandise: fans, decorative silk bags, scarves, kimonos, tea pots, china dolls, etc. Then, imagine a similar area on the other end of this basement mall – cleaner, better lit, and pearls and jewelry everywhere. Finally, imagine a separate building – 3 stories of fabric, fabric, fabric; tailors, dress makers, curtain suppliers, anything textile related and you will find it there. It’s incredible, and markets like these are everywhere you look.

To picture the roadways, think traffic. Tons of cars, many, many bikes and scooters, pedestrians everywhere – and then throw them all together and give them no rules. Of course there are laws here, but in Shanghai, a red light is more of a suggestion than a law. A bike lane might be more like a quick way for taxis and scooters to bypass traffic. A sidewalk isn’t necessarily off limits to moving vehicles either – an expat we’ve met learned that the hard way. That’s why the international business people here all have drivers, and I don’t blame them. I’d be scared out of my mind to even cross a street, let alone drive on one. Drivers will purposely hit pedestrians here if they think they deserve the right of way. At least, that’s what I’ve been told, and I’m not going to test that claim out.

And lastly – the city. The city is amazing, because it really has that “other world” feel – buildings and signs covered in a language and an alphabet that I am hopeless to understand, language barriers, different customs and traditions… so far I have learned that wearing your pajamas outside is not unusual, (at one point in time not too long ago it was considered a sign of wealth), peeing and spitting in the streets is accepted and normal, 4 is an unlucky number (therefore there is no #4 building in the apartment area we are staying in), and fireworks are set off every time a construction crew finishes a floor of a building (this wards off evil, of course). The interesting thing about the city, though, is one minute you look around and you know, “I’m in China right now.” But then you drive a few blocks, and you could be in New York, Chicago… anywhere! It’s unfamiliar, exciting, and nearly overwhelming all at once.

And I’ve got to say. I like it a lot.

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