I’m keeping my guard up even along my familiar path to school. I turned off busy Nanjing Xi Lu onto Qinghai Lu, which is a big sidewalk but is nonetheless overrun with bikes, scooters, and the occasional Buick (luxury car of choice) with tinted windows. Passing a fast-food restaurant and watching preparations for the lunch crowd, I had an epiphany: China is dangerous.
The restaurant crew was busy hosing down the outdoor concrete work area outside of their kitchen. Water was everywhere, and standing in the middle of a big puddle was a guy holding an electric drill, trying to plug it into an electric power strip lying in the middle of the same puddle. Didn’t your mother ever tell you, I thought, not to stick knives into toasters or use hairdryers next to the bathtub? I guess not.
Here are three other things I recommend avoiding, all of which I have personally witnessed during the past week: Do not work construction at night, in your flip-flops, using your blowtorch. Do not make your way between two telephone poles by balancing like a tightrope walker across the wires. Do not swing from a 40-story building, attempting to wash windows, supported only by a rope around your waist, which is casually draped across a girder at the top and tied on the other end to your partner, who is swinging next to you.
It was a tough day at school. Our teacher, who normally teaches quite inventively, was making us memorize a long (and rather useless) passage about traveling in China, which goes in part: “This time, we are going to see China’s scenic spots and historical sites. We hear that scenic spots in various places in China are different from each other and there is so much to be seen. We are going to Beijing to ascend the Great Wall. … etc., etc.” (It sounds more graceful in Chinese.) I think she was taking it out on us because she had a stomachache. She told us seven out of 10 people in China have stomach issues, something I now certainly relate to. I gave her some Pepto-Bismol, which I always carry in my pocket here, partly so she’d feel better and partly because I knew I could use up a good 10 minutes as we talked about having stomachaches in China.
I’ve learned a few things this week more useful than the language lesson about travel in China. One that certainly applies to rapidly changing Shanghai is to deal only with while-u-wait repair shops. After class, I navigated my way home across some newly dug-up sidewalk and around fresh, huge piles of sand and stone that blocked most of the rest of it. I was disappointed to see this small corner of Shanghai changing, not so much because of the inconvenience (it’ll be finished by tomorrow), but because they have displaced an old guy who had set up his shoe-repair table just there. I also regretted my timing, because I was lugging around a pair of shoes to leave with him, and I don’t know if he’ll ever return. Then I realized I came that close to losing my favorite pair of shoes. Had I stopped by yesterday …
The other things I’ve learned are a small collection of bullet points:
- A shopping tip: If it is raining and you need to stop to buy an umbrella, let the Chinese guy go first, and try to see what he pays, before you attempt to buy one yourself.
- A mobile-phone tip: Find a native speaker of Chinese to take a quick look at the text spam you receive before deleting it to make sure your usable minutes haven’t expired (a bad thing) or to see if you perhaps won a lottery (a good thing).
- A radio tip: If you lose electrical power and then regain it, reset the alarm function on your radio so that you aren’t startled awake in the middle of the night thinking that a gang of Chinese men are partying loudly in your living room.
But all in all, it was a good week that ended well. I knew from yesterday that my fake-goods hawkers recognized me by now. I didn’t think they’d even try to make a sale today. Yet as one approached (he must be new), I whipped out my camera. He said something like “yikes,” turned on his heel and ran off. But the others came chuckling over to mug for my camera (see the photo on the left). We’re friends for life. Who knows—maybe next week I’ll tell them I’d like to buy a Rolex.