The view from Shanghai Mansions
This is the third installment of the narrative about my year in China. In this chapter two of my friends, Andrew and András, are introduced.
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THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
My first few days in Shanghai were spent by myself. I was the quintessential stranger in the strange land.
Other than walking around the immediate neighborhood there wasn't much I
felt comfortable doing. It was
tough to admit, but I was lonely. Much
of that feeling came from the erroneous belief that there was no one to talk to.
I did quite a bit of wandering, looking, and reading during that time.
There were a few textbooks in my office that helped me pass the time.
I even managed to finish Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage in
one sitting, and wondered why I hadn't read it earlier in life.
However, the opportunity to sit and talk casually with someone whose
native language was English hadn't yet occurred.
This was an activity I had taken for granted back in the U.S. and I knew
it would only be a matter of time before it happened again.
I ate most of my meals in the dining hall, not yet comfortable enough to
venture out on my own into the neighborhood to find a suitable alternative.
I had been spending so much time alone that I'd begun acting weird - at
least by my own standards of what was considered weird.
I generally don't talk to myself, so when this began to happen I knew it
was time to seek out new acquaintances. It
was during my first week on campus that I noticed an odd mix of foreigners
eating in the shitang - or cafeteria,
all sitting at a long table positioned near the far wall.
There were also many Japanese students eating together at the smaller
tables, but this one particular table clearly held a diverse blend of
nationalities. Perhaps they were
speaking Chinese. All I knew was
that it sure as heck didn't sound like English.
And perhaps I'd have joined them if I hadn't felt so much like a lost
fool - actually it felt more like shyness.
Shyness is not one of my normal characteristics.
So, for most of the meals I sat by myself and watched the people around
me - content, for the time being. The
table" people seemed to be laughing and enjoying themselves, though I
couldn't make heads or tails of what they were saying.
That evening as I walked into Building Two I heard the soft tones of
someone speaking English at the front desk.
I knew it wasn't my favorite fúwůyuán
with the moon face and funny comb-over haircut - he didn't speak English.
As I entered the lobby I saw a young woman going through the check-in
process. With confidence and a
friendly smile I introduced myself to an attractive Italian woman who in turn
"Hi, I'm Mitch."
"Hello, I'm Ema," she responded.
Now, that was a conversation. Simple
and to the point, yet a good introduction to start with. I learned the vitals later.
She was a college student who had just arrived from Hong Kong, where her
parents lived, and would be residing in my building, as Building One was
supposedly full. Our initial
meeting was short, but it felt good to make contact with another foreigner - her
amiability was a comfort at a time when I needed something comforting.
Later the next day, during dinner, Ema motioned me over to join her at a
table with some of the other foreign students - the same group which had been
such a lively lot the night before. That's
when I met András, Rainer, Diana, Andrew and Sven - although I immediately
forgot their names after being introduced.
I later learned from Andrew and András that they had seen me there in
the dining hall on several occasions and had wanted to invite me over to their
table, but supposedly I was looking completely too cool and aloof for their
liking. They said the tie I was wearing was not a good sign - it
spelled authority, or something to that effect.
Later the following month they explained that the reason behind this
ostensive shunning was because they had envisioned me to be one of those snotty
seasoned veteran - said they figured I had been in Shanghai quite a while and
probably hadn't wanted to mingle with the new crowd of green foreigners.
How odd. How untrue - but
not far from what I had thought about them.
I saw them as a tight little clique without much room for a loud and
Well, maybe not always loud and obnoxious
That first dinner was a meal to watch others, and to be watched.
The accents were captivating, and I spent most of the time listening rather than
talking - which is unusual for me. That
Friday night Ema, Rainer, and Andrew asked if I would join them for a drink at
the Swan Hotel in the piano lounge. It
sounded a bit posh, but it was a lot better than sitting in my room.
Up to that point I still hadn’t been out much, and knowing that they
spoke at least a little Chinese made me feel reassured. I
wouldn’t be worried about getting lost and it would be a good opportunity to
get to know these people better. It
felt a bit stiff at first - kind of like it was a first date - but loosened up
as the conversations started to roll. The
bar was nearly empty that night with the staff slightly outnumbering the
patrons. We had a grand time that
evening poking fun at the songs chosen by the piano player and flashing our
newly acquired White Cards around. From
what I gathered about the others they hadn’t gotten out much either, and this
little trip to the Swan Hotel was good for us all. The Chinese in general tended to stare at foreigners and it
felt less uncomfortable when we were stared at in a group.
Later that week we all met again - this time in Ema's room up on the
fourth floor. It wasn’t for any special occasion, just a chance to listen to
some music and talk. We were soon
joined by Lisa, Diana, András, and Sven. It
was there that I learned a little background on each of them, although learning
their names was really my first objective.
Rainer, from Heidelberg, Germany, spoke three languages and had a dry
sense of humor. Andrew, from
Brisbane, had an enjoyably filthy sense of humor and, naturally, a strong
Australian accent. András, a
transplanted Hungarian from Bayreuth, Germany looked quite a bit like Cheech
Marin, but I didn't tell him that until we knew each other better. Sven, also from Heidelberg, seemed quiet, loved to smoke
Marlboro cigarettes, and that evening was drinking either wine or sherry.
Lisa, from Canberra, spoke of plans to marry her fiancé, Jason, when her
time in Shanghai was through - the strength of her accent rivaled Andrew’s.
Diana, I had learned, originally lived in New Zealand but relocated to
Australia. Ema, raised in Rome, had
moved to Hong Kong with her parents and had attended school in America prior to
that. It was a lot of information
to process, but at the time it actually helped me remember their names.
One more person stopped by that evening after the noise and intoxication
levels had risen. Scott was another Australian, who had come to China with what
might have been construed as a laid-back attitude. He spoke Japanese well, or so it seemed, and said he
preferred the company of Asian women. I
guess I could have been considered the odd one in the bunch - felt older and
looked it, though Scott and I were the same age - spoke only one language, and
wasn't in Shanghai for the purpose of studying Chinese.
I told them that evening that I was on this trip to experience something
completely foreign, and so far was accomplishing that quite well.
Those first few gatherings were great for breaking the ice and getting
acquainted. Within the next couple
of weeks we were introduced to three more friends over in Building One.
Jay and Josh arrived from Johnson State College in Vermont to study the
language and were rooming together on the second floor.
Jay would later move over to Building Two after being hired as a teacher
of a small writing class for Chinese students.
I could relate to Josh because he seemed as lost as I was during that
first week. As with the rest of us, it had taken Josh a day or two to figure out
the meal ticket system and because of this confusion confessed to being very
hungry. Ema had just made up a pot
of jioazi and offered some to Josh,
which he accepted most gratefully - you could tell he hadn’t eaten that day.
Our small circle of friends was complemented when Valeria flew in from
Italy about four days after the semester had begun. It was a joy to listen to
her when engaged in Italian banter with Ema.
It was advisable not to stand too close for fear of being whacked by a
flailing gesture. I loved the way
she embellished my name, adding an interesting, drawn-out, and extremely relaxed
sound to the single vowel. "Ciao
The whole lot of us were soon dining together, socializing, and cavorting
about town on our bikes looking for new territory to cover.
Some of these characters warrant further explanation - András, for
example. When we were first
introduced I promptly forgot his name. How
rude. After that he overemphasized
the pronunciation to make sure I got it right.
"On -'drosh!" - roll
the R. He was bearded and small -
prompting Andrew to coin the nickname "Furry".
At first he seemed quite strange - but very interesting to talk with.
He confessed that his English was a bit rusty, but I was glad he spoke it
at all. He wore Birkenstock-type
sandals and smoked stinky Chinese cigarettes.
András - a true charmer. Politically
opinionated and seemingly well-read in European history, he would sit and talk
with me for hours at a time on a wide variety of subjects.
If you wanted to know something about Hungary, then ask András - he was
the walking authority in our neighborhood.
Sometimes I would ask him questions about Europe and then realize maybe
he was going to offer much more of an answer than I had expected or wanted.
Most of the time though the topics shifted to women and relationships -
and from what I gathered, he'd had some experience with those as well.
He asked me a lot of questions about the various relationships I had been
in, and provided a few stories of his own. One
particular woman clearly still held an important place in his heart.
She wasn't his girlfriend any longer, but it was evident that he hadn't
given up carrying a torch for this woman. Once
or twice during the term he would sit down and write out a twelve or thirteen
page letter to her - what he could possibly spend that much time writing about
is still a mystery. He also kept a
photo of her in his wallet and showed it to me with a heart-warming sense of
pride. Her real name escapes me,
but I vaguely remember her pet name which was something that sounded like "Goomby-bubba."
Rather endearing, wouldn't you say?
András and I, January 1990
Before András was born, members of the Vajai family, including his
parents, were among the 200,000 or so who fled from Hungary after Soviet tanks
and troops overpowered the Hungarian "freedom fighters" in November of
1956. They relocated in Germany,
where András was born. I looked at
his passport photo and had to laugh. Pictured
there was a young lad in sport coat and tie, clean shaven, and looking
uncharacteristically innocent. A
stark contrast to the man standing before me.
He was, what I had imagined to be, the quintessential European college
student. It could have easily been
his lifelong career. I had initially assumed his major to be Sinology - which I
thought, before coming to China, was something studied by ear, nose, and throat
specialists. However, he was
actually a Literature major and needed additional foreign language credits to
complete his degree. That semester
he'd be taking his first courses in Chinese language,
adding one more language to a repertoire that already contained
Hungarian, German, and English. If
he spoke Chinese with as much character as he did English then I'm certain the
natives would be charmed. He had
the most colorful way of mangling the English language and this only made
conversing with him that much more interesting. The beauty of it all came from his choice of words along with
a German/Hungarian accent. One of
my favorite expressions of his was, "For what the shit I need this?"
This was his way of saying something was totally useless.
And if he were asked to make a choice between two things and it didn't
much matter to him one way or the other, he might reply, "Ah, Mitch, for me
it is equal."
During the first term he was rooming with Rainer and Sven, and since all
three smoked, I couldn't visit for any length of time without opening a window
or door for ventilation. I don't
remember the brand they smoked, but they bought them from a street vendor who
stood just outside the gate of the complex next to the springroll lady. Cheap and stinky - or in the words of Andrew, "...the
essence of burning a Turkish wrestler's jock strap."
During the warmer months András had a somewhat weird habit of running
around half naked, usually in a pair of silk boxer shorts.
Since he was so skinny these boxers had a tendency to droop, exposing the
crack of his butt. He also had the
not-so-endearing habit of trying to teach himself how to play the saxophone
without having taken lessons. He
told me that he had been a trumpet player in school, but it was evident that the
sax did not come to him so easily. On
a chain around his neck he continually wore a small silver trumpet, which I
interpreted as a show of appreciation for the instrument he learned to play in
his grammar school years. Although
I never heard him play I imagine he was probably quite good at it.
His musical appreciation side was a lot like mine, and we shared an
interest in similar music performers: Chicago, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles.
On occasion we would visit and listen to tapes by these artists for hours
at a time. I venture to guess there
were a few people who lived in Building One - and perhaps the surrounding
neighborhood as well - that wished he had spent more time listening to music
than he did trying to make it. His
sax playing could be heard throughout the Building One section of the dorm
complex, usually bouncing off the wall of the second story head where he often
The little Chinese sailor?
He didn't take up this
particular avocation until he and Andrew began rooming together at the start of
the second term. That move came
about only after repeated assurances from Andrew that he would keep his side of
the room clean and tidy. This did
not hold true for the whole second semester, but András was good about
reminding him frequently. Sometimes
it seemed as though András got on him like a mother hen, but despite the
nagging these two got along extremely well. I was interested to hear Andrew's
first impressions of András were when they first met back in September.
András was an odd fellow to look
at. He had a huge moustache that
was almost a caricature it was so large. There
was a trace of Mongolian in him, a reminder of the ancient days of Genghis Khan
and his rampage through Eastern Europe. Similarly, András' legs were short in proportion to the rest
of his body. He assured me that
this was because Hungarians were a horse riding nation.
Who needs to walk when you can ride?
Around his right wrist was a knotted leather bracelet to remind
him of his best Hungarian friend, Thamas.
He also had a shoe box full of thin Hungarian salami, which lasted about
two days. As we drank, he would pass around a sausage and a Swiss Army
knife to cut off a piece. Straight
away, I knew András and I would be good friends; it was impossible not to like
During their winter vacation, which was much longer than mine, four of
the college crowd - Rainer, Andrew, András, and Shampoo (our Japanese friend) -
teamed up to go traveling through south central China.
It was during this trip that Andrew became very ill from something he had
eaten, and András kept a vigilant watch over his traveling friend as he lay in
the hospital bed, hooked to an IV. Andrew
eventually recovered and they later ventured together beyond the border of
Burma, embarking on an unusual overland trek that took them into a remote
village of opium farmers. Not very
many of us can say we've done that.
His humor was unique, and I appreciated the frequency at which he offered
a touch of levity to a situation. András
was the master of the silly gesture. He
had a very endearing smile and wave. He
also had a certain knack for coming up with his own original, quotable quotes.
"Get me my plastic" meant that he needed to throw up, and this
phrase, though rarely uttered in seriousness, was soon adopted and used by the
rest of the group. On one of our
video outings we stood and observed the slow movements of the filthy creek that
flowed past our campus. This river
was so polluted and so thick that it appeared as if it could be walked upon.
We later referred to it simply as the black river.
After a few minutes of enduring the fumes and sights of this slow-flowing
disaster, András turned to the camera and quipped, "The Chinese man lives
with his nature and his environment."
Andras and "Pops" - our friendly cook
He loved to light firecrackers, which he referred to as
"crackers". He would
light them, drop them from his balcony, and then snicker with delight as they
exploded by the windows on the third and second floors.
Or, if going to the balcony was too much effort, he would simply light
them at his desk and toss them to the middle of the room.
This didn't sit too well with his roommates, nor the rest of the building
tenants for that matter. Eventually
the rest of the group got fed up with his antics, and someone took it upon themselves
to put a stop to András's fun. As
we were preparing for a spaghetti dinner one evening András discovered a
severed chicken's head on his pillow with an attached note that read: "He
who lights the crackers shall sleep with the chickens."
This was enough to upset András, for he began acting very superstitious,
as if it were a curse of some kind. Uncharacteristically,
he failed to see the humor in it all. After
giving a number of persuasive reasons not to feel hexed we finally - and with
great difficulty - convinced András that it was only a retaliatory measure by
Scott, who was tired of the noise and disruption caused by the firecrackers.
We had a good laugh and then watched as András blew up the chicken's
head with two firecrackers shoved into its beak. For Andrew's birthday András wanted to do something special
for his new friend. After searching
the various city markets for the correct ingredients he made Hungarian paprika
chicken for everyone - well, almost everyone.
It was devoured in about five minutes after the party began - evidently
the Russians got to it first and loved it.
He truly had a flair for the unusual - or perhaps it's proper to refer to
this as "weird". I'm
alluding to the time he let his Japanese friend, Shampoo, cut his hair.
He claimed it was a good idea gone bad, and looked more like a prisoner
of war than a college student. It
was a funny looking haircut at first, but after a few weeks grew out until it
actually looked quite good. On one
fine, hot afternoon András stopped by my room for a cold beer.
This was normal on days when the mercury climbed.
We got to discussing the usual topics and then suddenly he decided he
wanted to borrow my electric razor to shave his face. He shaved not only his face, but his chest as well, which
left hair all over the bathroom. Strange,
maybe, but definitely András.
We grew very close over the course of the year and it was comforting to
know that we would remain friends long after our time in China was through.
Then, of course, there's the Australian, Andrew Sharpe. And "sharp" he was - clever and cunning. At times he even seemed cartoon-ish. Disney artists would only have to study him for a short time before coming up with a good character likeness. He hailed from Brisbane, Queensland and came to China to increase his language skills. Possessing an excellent, raunchy, barbaric sense of humor I soon found myself enjoying his company. His heart was big and his generosity unparalleled. He was to become one of the Army's only liaison personnel dealing with the Chinese and the fact that he was military may have explained why he was so eager to let his whiskers grow unchecked. He'd only have this year to "grow wild" and he seized the opportunity whole-heartedly. He ended up looking more like Salacious Crumb, a character from the Star Wars trilogy. Salacious is a fine adjective for Andrew. A unique soul in his own right. Young and enthusiastic. Andrew brought a lot of energy with him to China - and this, I'm sure, helped immensely in a contagious sort of way. Granted, a fair amount of this energy was perversely tinted, and he did have an amazing knack for annoying some of the women in our group. His good natured obnoxiousness could easily be diffused - I had to do this on several occasions, but some people never quite figured out how. He had a lust for life - and then of course there was simply lust; Andrew had a lot of that too. It's not that he lacked heaps of compassion for the female point of view, nor did he deliberately go out of his way to bother any of us - quite the opposite in fact. A few just took exception to some of his attention getting ways. None of us, however, could dispute his good intentions. He did us all a favor by disabling the public address speakers of the elementary school that sat next to our campus. His further illegal adventures took him to such places as across the Burmese border for some demented reconnaissance, frolicking buck-naked on the Great Wall of China, to the top of the Peace Hotel, and into a PLA (People's Liberation Army) transport compound to nab - or "liberate" as he called it - a Chinese flag. He was in rare form when his "Aussie mates" came up from down under to visit him during the Christmas holidays. Never one to pass up the opportunity for a beer, Andrew was known to imbibe on occasion - or should that be "over-imbibe"? His birthday suit dancing during one of our parties was unmatched, but this was only an isolated incident. He reacted in various ways to the effects of alcohol. On one particular evening after one of our illustrious social gatherings, and all hands had retired for the evening, it was Andrew who climbed the walls to my balcony in Building Two. It's anyone's guess as to what motivated him. He seemed intent on waking me. For some ridiculous reason he was sure that I had a woman in my room and, being drunk and ever the envious type, was hell bent on spoiling something that wasn't even happening. It was then that I promised him a solid ass-kicking if he kept up his obnoxious behavior. Eventually he returned to his room, only to complain to András half the night that I was having far too much fun. It's much easier to look back now and laugh, but I remember it not being so funny at the time.
Concerning his generous side he would often share whatever he had.
When his kind and loving parents sent care packages filled with food, no
one ever went away from Andrew's room hungry, unless of course one didn't like
chocolate, or sardines and crackers. He
would always be willing to spring for the next round of drinks and didn't mind
when someone reminded him that he had bought the last round.
András & Andrew enjoy a morning buffet - including sparrows
He had a creative mind, and only the lack of proper equipment kept him
from putting together a masterpiece video - though he did quite well with the
tools he had accessed. He often
came up with some very useful ideas for videotaping our China experience.
During the winter break he went to Hong Kong and purchased a SONY
camcorder, which was essential for filming since I had taken my video camera
home in January. Andrew set about
creating a mini-film that featured most of our foreign friends in skits and
silly scenes in various parts of Shanghai.
He titled the work "The Village Idiots" and worked many hours
arranging all of the footage. The
opening piece was a little gem that introduced each of the group members in a
humorous way, while music from the Broadway show Grease played in the
background. It may not have stirred the emotions initially, but watching
it later was enough to raise the goose bumps on your arms.
His hygiene, or the neglect
and lack of, was nearly legendary within our small circle of friends. Andrew began the school year living on the fourth floor, and
it was easy to identify his corner of the room.
There was so much debris lying around that it was impossible, at times,
to see the floor. At the end of a
two month stint his sheets would get up and walk themselves to the laundry room.
When he moved in with András for the second semester his unkempt ways
started to cause a bit of friction. On
more than one occasion I heard András say, "Andrew, you are a disgusting
pig. Clean your mess."
Andrew riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad
The only reason he shaved his beard was because of the enormous peer
pressure put upon him by our small group of friends.
Twenty-two people from ten different countries signed a petition
attempting to coerce him to lose his whiskers.
The international document, titled the "Strategic Hair Initiative
Talks" was written up by me and
Anne-Marie, a student from New Zealand. Having
him shave his beard off was a momentous happening.
When the time came for the big event everyone watched and the video
camera documented not only the shave, but a haircut as well.
I supplied the electric razor and Andrew performed the shaving duties while
Martina, a German friends of ours, tended to shearing his locks.
He looked completely civilized by the time we were through.
Andrew moped around for a few days thereafter, but everyone agreed,
except András, that he looked much better.
I'm not sure if he was serious, but András blamed me for the whole hair-whacking
event and this seemed to endear him to Andrew a tad more.
Andrew shaved once more when I told him about a new brochure being made
for the Jin Jiang Hotel and that they needed Western looking tourist types to
"...But you'd have to be clean-shaven," I said.
We promised to spare the mustache. He fell for it, only to be greatly disappointed when the brochure was published and only featured Ema and Valeria in a photograph of the hotel's sauna. Shaving his beard did not, however, change his bathing or laundry habits. This hadn't concerned me much and only became a problem later in the year when he and I traveled together on the Trans-Siberian railroad to Europe. I'm sure I was a bit ripe for much of the train ride as well. We had a grand time on the Trans-Siberian and charmed most of whom we met. At least we seemed charming. Eventually we would survive Moscow with a couple other traveling companions and wander about Europe, navigating by the seat of our pants. The year’s momentum - and a shoestring budget - sustained us during this part of the adventure. Spontaneity was a key component throughout the journey, and I’m proud to say I was a part of it.
In the land of emperors - Beijing's Forbidden City
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