Technically I had Saturdays free, but those were always booked with social engagements. I felt like everyone wanted a piece of me. The Yangs took me to the waitan on one of my rare free days, they loved to show their student around the city. The waitan is the famous walkway along the west side of the Huangpu river that features the best of the westerner colonist architecture on one side and the most glorious modern Chinese architecture on the east side. Twenty years ago the east was just woods and farm villages. Most people viewed the waitan as the symbol of Chinese progressiveness and the wonders they were capable of. I tend to agree. I have never been anywhere in the world that has as marvelous modern architecture as Shanghai. Each building is like something out of a comic book, a confection of pure whimsy and magic. No two buildings are alike, colored glass abounds and each skyscraper is topped with something special. One looks like a pearl clasped in a eagles talon, another like a flying saucer that has landed on a tower and one of my favorites has a blooming steel lotus on its roof.
I had tried to go to this famous spot when I first came with Dad, but it was during fall holiday and the place was so packed with people that it looked like a writhing black river of souls more fit for a horror movie about the underworld than a place for a scenic afternoon stroll. It was quite pleasant this time round and I enjoyed the view of the barges, cruise boats and sky scrappers immensely.
The Yangs rarely talked about their youth, but today they volunteered that when they were young they used to swim in the Huangpu river. Nobody in their right mind would do that today. It looked like raw sewage decorated with random garbage on top. When you could see the water it was odd colored and accented by various kinds of scum. Nobody liked to talk about the time before the open door policy, back when Mao was alive. I had been afraid to ask, but the story about days gone by gave me the courage:
“Is it better now? Better than it was 20 years ago?” I asked tentatively.
They looked surprised by my question.
“Much better,” Da Yang commented with unaccustomed brevity.
“Why?” I asked.
“Now we have air conditioning in the summer.” Er Yang stated flatly. And that was that. Our discussion about the Mao years was over.
One day on the bus back to my home I ran into two young men. I was chatting with the bus driver, whom I barely understood, but seemed to enjoy conversing with me. These guys seemed to be my age, were decent looking and liked manga. They kept translating the bus driver for me, because their accents were far more standard than his, looking back on it, I’m not sure the bus driver was even speaking Mandarin. One of them, the better looking of the two, was staring at me. I wished he would just come over and talk. My wish came true.
I got off the bus in an explosion of people who dispersed into the crisp evening background like a spent firecracker. When I looked around I noticed that the two young men had also disembarked. They were still staring at me so I waited to see what they had to say. The handsome one asked me if I could give him English lessons. English lessons, right…but he was young and I had precious few friends my age and, heck, a boyfriend would be nice. So we did the exchanging name card thing. They ran back to the stop to catch the next bus, confirming that this wasn’t their stop, and I went home.
The next day I saw them both on MSN. Americans like their AOL, but the Chinese are hooked on Microsoft’s instant messenger, or at least were back then. Nowadays QQ, a native Chinese app, is all the rage. Anyway the second one, the one with the easier name to remember, was very friendly and chatty and we typed quite a bit about One Piece and other comics. The handsome one with the name I never remembered, was more reserved. I kept asking them if they wanted to get together, but they were always busy. The friendly one even said he wanted to get together, arranged a time and place, but ended up leaving me standing in the freezing rain for twenty minutes before I realized he wasn’t coming. I can’t remember now, but I assume he had a reasonable excuse.
Eventually I did see them again. The handsome one invited me down town. He said there was someone he wanted to introduce to me. We arranged to meet in front of the Shanghai museum. It’s a big round building with large Chinese lions guarding the entrances. The bus we both had to take into town spit everyone up on the large square in front of the building. When I swept out of the bus with the rest of the crowd, he was there waiting with his girlfriend. He’d said he’d wanted me to meet someone, but I hadn’t realized it was his girlfriend. Girlfriend? Why was he hitting on me earlier then? Was I just imagining that? But if I was, what happened to that English he wanted me to teach him, but he had never had the time for that seemed like a pretense to talk to me?
It was pouring rain that day and I was wearing a floor length brown skirt that was soaked up to the knee by noon. Shanghai can be very rainy. We had met at ten and what proceeded was one of the most boring days I spent in China. We looked at shops with uninteresting merchandise scattered about the shelves, we took photo stickers with cutesy boarders that they thought I should put on my cell phone (no thanks! Too narcissistic for me.) and we talked of uninteresting things. At lunch time we met the friendly guy, his girlfriend and the handsome one’s ‘big brother’ AKA good friend. I was instructed to give his brother my name card and we had a mediocre lunch at some expensive chain restaurant. They had originally wanted to go to the ever popular KFC, but I laughed too hard. The males insisted on paying and were fascinated that I would even suggest paying my part. What were men like in the United States that I should even entertain such a notion? Come afternoon the couples split off and I was left with the other guy, because he was killing time waiting for his wife to get back into town and I had plans to go to Pan’s for dinner that was still a few hours away. My boxes had finally arrived and I was going to her parent’s place to pick them up.
He was the nicest of the bunch and we actually had some pretty interesting conversations. We went to another western chain for tea. He was very concerned that I would be lost as Pan had yet to give me instructions. In the end we parted company with him saying that I must meet his wife sometime. I said I would be sure to invite them over in the near future.
That was the last I saw of them. They were always too busy to get together. The friendly one would bug me about whether I had found a boy friend yet, the answer was always no. After a while he started asking me why, not taking my just having got there as an excuse. I started to say that it was my personality, which he said I should change. I didn’t like him at all then.
Dinner at Pan’s house was fairly uneventful. The important part was that I finally got my boxes. Sadly the reality was that they contained nothing I really wanted or needed. The computer was too old and wouldn’t support Chinese characters, so I had to still use Pan’s. The winter clothes I had packed were too cool, though I did get great use out of the long skirts I had sent myself. The winter coat was also insufficient and half of the books I never got around to reading. That isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate them. One can’t read Chinese comics everyday and something in my native tongue was a nice change.
I sometimes worried about my social life. It wasn’t that I didn’t meet people, it just seemed that the only people I formed real relationships with were people roughly my parents’ age. For a while I checked out the personals on the That’s Shanghai website. I even found a young couple that wanted to go traveling. I met them once and we had a whole trip to Hangzhou planned out. It was going to be me, Jackie, her boyfriend and her Indian friend Rahul. Everything was planned out, the hotel reservations, the tickets and time off from work, but they all canceled on me. They wanted to postpone it, but I opted to go alone. Who needed such unreliable companions anyway? Next stop the old capital Hangzhou!