Thoughts on Visiting Shanghai 2012

The last few years I’ve been going to China, and Shanghai, about once a year.  My wife’s family is there, especially her elderly parents.

This year, in mid-April, was my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party, so it was a big occasion.  Besides having an extended family of brothers, sisters, cousins along with many friends, both my wife’s parents have been very well known endocrinologists their entire lives.  So they have quite a few generations of students and colleagues to also pay them tribute.

Outsider at large

I’m always an outsider, of course, not so much in the family which always welcomes me warmly, but in China and Shanghai.  I thought I would provide some impressions and photos from this year’s trip.  Some of the impressions are new, and some are the kinds of things that seem to register with me every time.

One of them is the Chinese way of counting birthdays. My mother-in-law, who by the way is completely inspiring for someone at her age with a strong voice and intelligent manner, is 89 years old by the way we count in North America.  In China, the gestation period is counted as one year, so everyone pops into the world already slightly aged.

Banquets are another experience in China different than in North America (except perhaps with Chinese in Chinese restaurants here).  Cold dishes are brought right away to start at big round tables usually sitting 10. It will have a lazy susan so the dishes can revolve around the table.

Me and Davy Crockett

As I was brought up in a way more similar to loggers, mountain men and Davy Crockett than to anyone cultured, it has taken me time to develop the patience to politely take just one small morsel with chopsticks and place it on my plate.  I wait for a moment so as not to appear as famished, greedy and starving as I might be, then bring it slowly to my mouth until I get to swallow it.

It sounds painstaking, but eventually enough dishes come, and people loosen up enough so you feel not so abashed about helping yourself more freely. You do get enough to eat eventually, especially as a guest or Westerner since your neighbours at the table will tend to drop things on your plate so you don’t have to commit the gaucherie of reaching for the good stuff yourself.

The area in Shanghai where my parents-in-law live has been massively redeveloped over the years.  They live now in a cluster of apartment towers. Such clusters may have their own manicured grounds and are usually gated with security guards.  These gated groups of apartments are just about everywhere in the widespread newly developed residential areas.

But something new this time I hadn’t seen before were beggars on the sidewalks outside some of these areas.  One was doing fake karaoke warbling with an amp and dramatic gestures; another, with one missing hand, held the other out, also misshapen, for money.

I don’t know if this phenomenon is just new for this area of Shanghai where I always visit, or whether it’s a more general reflection of the growing disparity between rich and poor in China.  Perhaps some of both.

Vehicular traffic follows quite different rules than in North America.  For starters, any vehicle has more right-of-way than pedestrians, from bicycles to scooters to motorcycles to motor cars.  Step off a sidewalk, and you’d better be sure there’s nothing coming.  In a paradoxical way, it may be almost safer, because you have to be alert and not assume vehicles will stop or pause for you.

With the number of people, it almost has to be that way, otherwise the steady stream of people on crosswalks would bring traffic even more to a halt.

And on the sidewalks, scooters and motorcycles expect to motor on past you as well.  Some sidewalks are halved with a line for motorcycles on one side and pedestrians on the other.

Since I first visited Shanghai and China back in the 90s, the respect for traffic lights and lane markings has increased substantially, although one can still occasionally experience in a taxicab a very flexible notion about where the lane is, even with oncoming traffic.

The prevalence of smoking is much higher than what is typical nowadays in North America.  I don’t see the giant posters for the rugged cowboys of the Marlboro Man ads anymore, but they’ve accomplished their Chinese mission, apparently.  Enclosed rooms in restaurants still provide ashtrays; smokers welcome.

Most Chinese air-dry their laundry. And most will hang them off poles extending from their apartment window balcony.  Some will dry them hanging  on lines or hooks just above or at street level, underwear and all.

Shanghai’s redevelopment has taken away a lot of the sidewalk commerce, from shoe and bike repair to street food, which I am partial to.  But still pockets of the older Shanghai remain in between the KFCs, the Starbucks and the McDonalds.



Notes on images, from top down:

1) There are still many little storefront restaurants for busy office workers.

2) At first we thought this fellow had a really nice voice for a street singer, but after a moment of careful observation, we detected he was doing a bad job of lip-synching.  Not sure about the function of the sitting attendant with the big stick, but maybe he’s there to beat off those who want to retrieve their donations after being taken in by the “singer”….  Also note the laundry hanging nearby.

3) A cart of bright fresh oranges. There’s a lot of fruits and vegetable sold directly from carts like these, and they also are an integral part of the traffic between suppliers and shops.

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4 Comments on “Thoughts on Visiting Shanghai 2012”

  1. MDW Says:

    Always love your photos and insights of China! You may be an outsider, but not as much as if I were to just show up there one day so you can show a little deeper view than the typical tourist.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks…. I’m always fascinated by China and its people.


  3. I love your photo of the oranges cart. Beautiful and serene. Great contrast of opposite colours.
    I enjoy your commentary on China and your observations of family life and urban changes.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi K,

    Thanks for coming by…. I liked that shot too. Orangey!


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