The Quarantine Team were the first Chinese people I met. We landed at Shanghai Pudong Airport after the 14+ hour flight, slightly leg cramped and rather blah from Clint Eastwood’s in-flight performance in Gran Torino, and sat for an hour at the gate while a crew in full HazMat regalia came through and took our body temperatures and reviewed our responses to the question “Have you had any contact with a pig in the last week?” It would have been a disconcerting show of state control and authority, but half of the passengers were standing and snapping photos of the spectacle (yes, in fact, I did get in on that). Though I got the lowest score on the body temperature exam of my two traveling companions, I gained admittance to the country.
It’s been all mist, fog, and rain here, so the drive in from the airport did not offer any astonishing views. In fact, for much of the drive in, I thought we were touring the industrial hinterlands of a Midwestern city: factories, scaffolding, half-finished roads, and the occasional scent that can only mean high rates of childhood asthma. When your zipping along, it’s really hard to determine whether what you see are the signs of future growth and prosperity or those of decay. Being picked up by our driver in a Buick only added to my disorientation. I wondered why the hell I needed to fly for 14 hours just to get a scenic tour of Gary, IN. Then we crossed a bridge.
Minutes after crossing a bridge whose name I think was Lupu that spanned what I presume to be the Huangpu, we were at the hotel. The Royal Court Hotel was an excellent choice. What could be more modern Chinese, the fusion of the past and the future, than the dark wooden screen which separates my bed from my couch, but also has a plasma TV mounted to it?
I haven’t figured out the name of the neighborhood we are staying in, but it is thoroughly modern, global, and capitalist. I think I will call it Barbieton because we are just steps from Shanghai’s ballyhooed multistory Barbie store. More specifically, we are on Huanghai Rd. which is jam packed with couture boutiques and local high-end wedding shops. The cross streets offer a little more of what I presume is local flavor: smaller clothing shops no more than 12 feet deep, bakeries offering buns filled with fruity, creamy deliciousness for only a few Yuan, and tented market filled with shirts, shoes, and bags of, ummm, uncertain origin. Between the rain and general exhaustion our exploring on the first night was limited, though we did stop at a fruit stand in some tertiary alley from which I had my first mangosteen.
Dinner was a comedy of pointing and feeling intimidated by the waitstaff. We chose a Sichuan restaurant based on the time-tested foodie method of it being there and us being hungry. Immediately we were chastised for apparently using an umbrella stand incorrectly. Perhaps the umbrella stand, like gunpowder, was invented here millennia before it found it’s way to the West and our clumsy attempt to co-opt was the last straw for the hostess. Our drippy umbrellas were forced to join us at the table.
I have told myself that I will eat whatever bizarre things my more knowing companions recommend, but for this first meal I hoped for some familiar reference points. Flustered by the language-impaired ordering process, we went with a chicken dish that the waitress insisted was special, a pork dish that had a corresponding glistening picture, and a green bean dish that we were confident we would be able to identify when it arrived. To my surprise, the chicken dish was cold and soaking up a pungent chili oil bath, though having eaten my share of Chinese leftovers out of the box for breakfast, I kind of felt right at home with this. The pork came out a half a glistening football, covered in browned skin, and flanked by sauteed baby bok choy. The waitress placed it down and it was pretty clear we had no idea what to do with it, so she immediately took it away and chopped it up for us. What came back to us was still a challenge owing to the hard to manipulate fattiness, but definitely worth the sweet and tender fight. The green beans, as I noted, gave us confidence.