Entry 1

Monday is a great day of the week to be living in China. There’s something nicely easygoing about it. You’ve got at least a good 13 hours on the United States; you can catch up on work, fill people’s inboxes for their Monday morning, and feel generally virtuous about being so productive when back at home they’re still lazing around at the end of a Sunday. But as the end of the day approaches, and no one in the United States is awake yet, a bit of anxiety can set it. The camp counselor in me wants to cry out, “OK, gang, up and at ‘em! There are 1.3 billion Chinese who are already a day ahead of you!”

Our high-rise in Shanghai

Today has been a typical Monday in Shanghai. We moved here a few months ago, abandoning our home and friends in Washington, D.C., to come learn about China. We’re reaching the point now where I can call a few things typical. Early each morning, for example, I go down 22 flights in the elevator of our 59-floor high-rise—which resembles a rocket ship—to walk outside and check the weather. It has been warm and pleasant almost every day this fall, although the biggest fluctuations have not been in temperature or wind, but in pollution. Even though Chinese television tends to report the weather in euphemisms—“misty in Chengdu; foggy in Shenyang; cloudy in Beijing”—I would describe it differently: “polluted in Chengdu; quite polluted in Shenyang; really polluted in Beijing.” Today would be “foggy.”

It was about 7 a.m., and everyday rituals were already in full swing in the little lane behind our building. One guy squatted curbside in his boxers brushing the heck out of his teeth and spitting into the gutter. A woman in her blue flannel jammies and black kitten heels rushed from the little wet market back to her second-floor walk-up with a bag of tomatoes and another of greens. I was watching several workers up on bamboo ladders applying plaster-facing to a beautiful old lane house they were renovating when a middle-aged woman on a bike, looking kind of official with her notebook of receipts, stopped next to me. This was not so typical. She started talking quickly; I can usually get the gist of something by now, but I think she was speaking Shanghainese, the local dialect, which is very different from Mandarin. She seemed to be beckoning me to follow, which I did.

We passed a block or two of all the places familiar to me: the tea shop; the vet; the stalls with baby turtles, small birds, goldfish, and crickets, each in their tiny personal teacup size baskets. I like this neighborhood—there is a tenderness here that is hard to find in Shanghai—and I often come prowling around to watch the day unfold. People seem comfortable on the street. Some wear jammies all day long. Many share their meals at common tables from the big pots of chicken and rice one lady serves up on the corner. They set up folding chairs with big comfy quilts and hang out.

The bike woman pulled up to a small building, pointed upstairs, started flicking the outdoor light switch off and on, and pointed to her book. My life in charades! I finally guessed there must be a Westerner who lived in this building (I realized about an hour later that bike woman must have been collecting for electricity bills), and—since we probably all look quite similar to her—she figured I must be that person. I managed to explain that, no, I wasn’t her woman. After much bowing and many apologies, we went our separate ways. This was not typical, but having an unexpected, often inexplicable, adventure is.

Later, I headed for my language class in a little school called “Miracle Mandarin.” It truly is. I meet daily with my young teacher, one of the hundreds, or even thousands, of young twentysomething women who have a college degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. They are surprisingly good and inventive teachers, and our books have modern, even hip, lessons called, “Can you make it a little cheaper?” or, “Anna nearly went against the red light.”

A Shanghai traffic assistant

This last lesson is particularly relevant. It sets the context for my 10-minute walk to school, which is harrowing. First, I have to cross a six-lane street, and crossing any street is harrowing in Shanghai. Imagine if all moving traffic—bikes, motor scooters, cars, buses, trucks—were all driven by 16-year-olds who know no rules, have no behind-the-wheel training, and follow the single principle of Every Man for Himself. That is driving in Shanghai. On big corners like the one I cross, there is a traffic assistant who blows his whistle and waves his arms to signal pedestrians out into the zebra stripes when the green man lights up. Sounds reassuring, but there is a big flaw in the system, as far as I can tell: Traffic assistants have jurisdiction only over people on foot and two-wheelers (and those often just whiz by, thumbing their noses at him anyway!), and almost daily, I am encouraged out into the zebra stripes only to face oncoming cars and buses that never even hesitate to turn right (or left! Anything goes!)—barreling straight for anyone on two feet. A few survival tactics have worked so far: Proceed only in the lee of large crowds; position next to old people or women with small children; watch for favorable jams that stop traffic dead.

Not at school yet! Still between me and the classroom are about 30 yards thick with young guys hawking fake goods. “Lady! Lady! You buy bag! Come look my warehouse! Rolex Watchee! Cheapa, cheapa!” Sometimes I can cheerily brush them off with, “Bu Yao. Bu Yao.” “Don’t want. Don’t want.” But today, they really got me; I’ve passed these same guys every day, twice a day, just before 10 a.m. and after 12 p.m., for weeks now. Today I lost it; I halted and yelled back, in my yet-to-be-perfected Chinese, something that translates like this: “Yesterday, don’t want! Today, don’t want! Tomorrow, don’t Want!” They looked a little shocked, but one irrepressible soul quickly recovered. With big plaintive eyes, he asked, “Houtian?” Meaning, “Day after tomorrow?”