Entry 2

Today, I hit the jackpot: I found chicken breasts. This may not sound like a lot if you live in a land of freezers and Safeways, but it’s a lot in Shanghai.

After a brain-sizzling, two-hour language class, I often go for a few errands, as I did today, to cool down. There is always something from my to-do list to pursue: pickles, napkins, a suitcase repair. More often than not, I’ll return with nothing from my list. Usually that’s because I can’t figure out where to shop, or I can’t recognize what I’ve found. Are those pickles or duck tongues? Laundry detergent or salt? I was really burned by chocolate that turned out to be red-bean paste. It’s surprising how many things look alike.

Our Chairman Mao tea set

On a special day, I’ll find something important that I wasn’t looking for but realize we needed. Just last week, it was a ceramic tea set featuring a classic image of Chairman Mao not only on the teapot but on each cup as well.

So, I wandered into the basement of one of Shanghai’s vast number of glitzy shopping malls. These malls are filled with Gucci, Armani, Diesel—in none of which I’ve ever seen an actual paying customer, since prices rival, or even exceed, those in the United States. On the highest floors, there are usually nail salons and restaurants, and in the basement, there is often a grocery store or fast-food emporium. And, of course, Starbucks are everywhere; there are more than 100 in Shanghai alone.

In the Times Square Mall, I found the quasi-Western market. There were $8 boxes of raisin bran, lots of expired cans of tuna (July 1, 2006), and $40 or $50 varieties of cheese. I strolled around, way to the back corner, and there I saw it. There in the meat department—in perfectly saran-wrapped Styrofoam trays—were piles of chicken breasts! And pork chops, all thick and pink!

Hanging carcasses at the market

In all of my previous neighborhood forays to markets, both on the streets and inside stores, I had yet to lay eyes on the real meat of the animal. There are piles of chicken feet and pig feet; hanging carcasses of generic meat; and scary assortments of inner organs. I could not figure out what happened to the real meat—that chicken thigh or loin of pork. And the chicken breasts, which cost about the same as chicken feet, were only 7 yuan, about 15 cents short of a dollar. I loaded up my cart with as much as I could carry, like a frantic shopper on one of those free shopping sprees you see on Sunday morning TV. I think this could change our life in Shanghai.

My husband choosing among pirated DVDs

The evening promised to be as rewarding as the afternoon. We have our choice of pirated movies, easier to come by on a Shanghai street corner than a latte is in Seattle. We’ve learned to avoid the recently released films, as those are too often filmed in theaters, where you can enjoy the silhouettes of moviegoers passing in front of the camera on their way for popcorn. And there are the disappointing surprises, when the advertised English version is in Russian with Japanese subtitles. On those nights, we might turn to CNN International, which features a B team of interviewers who can’t resist editorializing about every news bite.

But tonight we could opt for any of the CCTV Chinese channels. We have our pick of heavy dramas and historical documentaries, talk shows, culture shows, news, replays of official meetings and conferences, beauty contests, game shows, sitcoms, volleyball and pingpong, and reality shows.

Our favorite appears Tuesday night on CCTV 2. It’s modeled after The Apprentice, and it’s called Ying Zai Zhongguo!—Win in China! There were about a dozen contestants left when we first started watching.

The first time we watched Ying Zai Zhongguo, we couldn’t tell if the center of attention on that night was the winner or another loser. But by tonight, we were in the groove, singing along with the theme music, which has a schmaltzy refrain that goes “zai lu shang,” meaning “on the street.” We’ve got our money on a cool-looking guy with slicked-back hair who seems to take quiet command but can really turn nasty when the contestants start trading barbs. By the end of the show, after the viewers and audience text-messaged in their votes, he was still standing. He lives to see another week.

The only blip in my otherwise pretty good day was with my small gang of fake good hawkers whom I pass on the way to school. My explosion at them yesterday had no lasting effect. One or two looked at me with an instant of possible recognition, but they still pressed hard. “Bag, Rolex watchee? Lady, lady! Come lookee!”