These two chapters are the fourth installment of the narrative, and they describe the early period of adjustment for me in Shanghai.
Catching up on the morning news
Living accommodations were furnished and paid for by the university. My first room, number 203, was on the second floor of Building Two, a five-story residence in the student dorm complex. This building was known as the "hotel" because guests of the university stayed there, with the occasional foreign student or teacher thrown in for good appearances. The other foreign teachers at the school were housed in the Foreign Experts building that was half a mile west of the university campus. The school officials had initially planned for me to live there, but had to make new arrangements when the building filled up with residents before I arrived. For the first week of my stay in Shanghai my room was more than just a room, it was my escape. The culture shock experienced during those first weeks was more than I ever care to repeat. I couldn't speak, read, or understand the language and this sense of ignorance and incapability was terribly uncomfortable. Most of the uneasiness stemmed from the unknown. I hesitated walking too far from campus for fear of getting lost - without a map or the ability to read the street signs, that would have been easy to do. All the while the humidity added to the stress I was feeling. My room had a window-mounted air conditioner that ran incessantly. It provided the coolness needed to be comfortable and produced a constant hum, which helped put me to sleep at night. I remember shutting it off only once or twice during September. My room was also furnished with a television and a refrigerator - both small, but more than adequate for my needs. There was nothing on TV that I could understand, but in the mornings, before regularly scheduled programming, classical music played while a test pattern appeared on the screen. I thought this was great, until I discovered that the songs never varied from day to day. Same test pattern, same music. I had no clue as to the names of the songs, but certain lyrics always ran through my head when one particular melody played. "Hello Mudda, Hello Fodda, Here I am at Camp Grenada, It is very entertaining, And they say that we'll have fun when it stops raining." Remember that one? It sounds odd, but these lyrics haunted me nearly every morning I tuned in. The room came equipped with two of everything. I therefore assumed that it was meant to have been a two person room - two nightstands, two chairs, two sets of towels, two tea cups, and two teabags. One of the beds had been removed before I occupied the room, which created more open space. Included on the list of "luxuries" would be a private bathroom - a rare commodity in a Chinese dormitory. My doorknob was equipped with a "Do not disturb" sign which I found to be most essential. The "hotel" also provided housekeeping. The cleaning ladies arrived at my building shortly after eight o'clock and, following morning tea and gossip, they'd begin their half-hearted assumption of the cleaning duties. If the sign was not on the door I could expect a loud knock and the arrival of three intent looking females in blue uniforms, who would then set about straightening the room. One woman would assault the bathroom with scrub brush and pail while the other two dusted and made the bed, chattering most of the time as they worked. There were occasions when I had forgotten to put the "Do not disturb" sign out and these women got the biggest kick out of seeing me still in bed. They were busily yakking away, and I could only imagined what they must be saying to me, "Alright, you big-nosed Yankee, it's eight o'clock, you should have been up, exercised, and fed by now. Get your lazy ass out of bed so we can make it." I assumed sleeping-in was not a big tradition in China. I soon learned that there would be plenty of time later in the day for workers to sleep - after lunch, or occasionally on the job, for example.
Finally, some mail
The lighting in my room was sadly
inadequate. It was the same
lighting our parents warned would cause us to go blind if we tried to read by
it. I kept the curtains open
throughout the day, but at night there was barely enough light to function.
One of the bulbs had burned out in the overhead ceiling lamp, while the
intensity of the desk lamp was rather wimpy at 25 watts.
The clerk at the front desk provided me with a new bulb for the ceiling,
but told me I’d have to put it in myself because they didn't have a ladder -
and none of the cleaning ladies could figure out how to reach it otherwise.
I accomplished the light bulb change by stacking a stool on top of my
desk and then standing on that. I
think this is how Chinese acrobats get their start.
The cleaning ladies steadied the stool as I fumbled with the light
fixture. The new bulb helped, but
another lamp was needed somewhere in the room.
The bathroom had all the necessities
and luxuries that a modern man could want: toilet - complete with a comfortable
plastic seat, sink, mirror, medicine cabinet, and a tub.
There was no showerhead on the wall, but rather a nozzle on the end of a
hose connected to the tap. It often
took minutes before hot water would start coming out and when it did it was
preceded by a few seconds of rusty water. The
tub was too short for someone my size, and stretching out enough to get my knees
wet was out of the question. The
bathtub was also the venue where the cockroaches held their meetings - big, fat
cockroaches that would snarl at me when whacked by the toilet brush.
Pif Paf was the Chinese
equivalent of Raid, yet when sprayed on cockroaches it only made them stagger
from the intoxication. I was able
to kill the one that crawled across my shoulder a few nights later, but it's
likely he may already have been old and lame.
These lightning fast beetles could also fly.
This fact was something I was not aware of until they caught me off guard
the first night I entered the bathroom. As
soon as I flipped on the light one of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen
made a flying dash for the bathtub drain. His
flight path brought him straight across my field of vision, just inches from my
nose. From then on I checked the
walls before stepping into the bathroom.
The single electrical outlet in the
bathroom was mounted next to the medicine cabinet and equipped with a trip-fuse
switch that functioned as a circuit breaker.
It was forever tripping while I tried to shave with my electric razor,
usually four or five times during a shave.
This frustrated me for a week or so, and then I decided to simply shave
less often. No one seemed to mind, or at the least they failed to tell me
how bad I looked with a three or four day growth.
I never achieved the totally unkempt look. For me, having a beard is almost as uncomfortable as having
to shave everyday.
Knowing that I would be using my
Walkman a lot during my time in China, I brought along a half-dozen nickel
cadmium batteries and a charger to keep them energized.
I also brought along a power converter to change my 110 volt appliances
to 220. The look of the electrical outlets in my room were very
strange to me. The prongs of my
electrical cords did not fit well into the holes of the outlet and I was forced
to use an adapter. The weight of
the power converter was great enough to make it fall out of the outlet if it
wasn't propped up from beneath. This
made it difficult to use anything that was 110 volts.
One of my greatest blunders occurred one morning when I forgot to use the
converter, and in a relatively short amount of time fried my battery charger
beyond repair. It had been made of
plastic, and the intense heat produced by the high current reduced it to a
brittle, useless blob. It was an
unfortunate way to learn a lesson. I
was then forced to scour the neighborhood looking for "AA" batteries.
It was difficult to explain batteries to the store clerk without an
example to show her. I later
learned that AA's were called #5's, and that #5's lasted about a third as long
as the batteries I brought from the States. I could not, however, complain about
the price. They were dirt cheap.
Complaints or praise concerning my
accommodations were to be directed at the Waiban
office. They were responsible for
my placement in Building Two. My
first visit to the Waiban office was deceivingly pleasant.
This was the university's office of foreign affairs and I was treated
with seemingly high regard and a great deal of care - sort of along the lines of
celebrity status. I didn't quite
understand why, but didn't object. In
their excitement and enthusiasm they completed screwed up the pronunciation of
my name. Somehow, in the shuffle of
official paperwork they had mistakenly linked my middle initial to my last name,
giving it a somewhat Irish tint.
"Welcome Mr. O'Lant, welcome to
China. Welcome to Shanghai
International Studies University!"
"Thank you, but my name is just
"Please, Mr. O'Lant, please sit
down, be comfortable," they continued, "Would you like some tea?"
"No thank you, but it's just
After about five minutes of this misunderstanding I gave up trying to correct them - at least for that day. At the first meeting they explained some of the basics about the university and the services available to me through their office - and then apologized that there were no rooms available in the foreign experts building. Having already adapted quite nicely into Building Two it really didn't seem like much of an inconvenience to me. It had taken time to get settled into my little habitat and having been somewhat drained by the whole process I was not eager to go through it again. I had started a comfortable nest in my original room and this seemed like a bad time to move. I was content to stay put, and they honored my request to do so.
There are two Chinese words that I
learned from my friends which are particularly pertinent in describing life in
China: mafan and maodun.
The word mafan
is comprised of two smaller words: ma
and fan, meaning "pins and
needles" and "annoying, superfluous and confusing" respectively.
Together they roughly translate as "inconvenience".
If you're walking down Nanjing Lu, Shanghai's main street, and a Chinese
worker takes a long drag on his cigarette, coughs, sputters, and then without
bothering to look where you're standing, spits a huge, mustard-colored,
mucus-encrusted chunk of his near-cancerous lung onto the shoes that you'd just
purchase at the Number One Department Store, then you'd be perfectly within your
rights to describe that as a mafan.
Not being able to purchase a
round-trip ticket to any of the thousands of destinations in China was
indisputably a big mafan. Picking through
our rice so as to avoid the numerous insects and pebbles was definitely mafan.
Waiting for almost an hour in the Bank of China just to cash a travelers
check would be considered a major mafan,
and being woken every morning to the vile sounds of martial music, played at a
volume so great that the tunes were distorted beyond all recognition and sounded
more like a cross between whales mating and a sonic boom was certainly the top
dog of all mafans.
Anyone who might have read the
letters I'd written home during those first few weeks would know how much I
complained about my situation. The language contained therein was unmentionable in proper
circles, and my attitude was severely narrow-minded; worthy of a label no better
than "piss-poor". In all
actuality I was having a grand time and just hadn't noticed - yet.
It seemed as if it took a tremendous amount of time before I could look
back and realize the gem of a predicament I was in.
Life in any country is filled with its own unique and interesting mafans,
each to be savored in its own special way.
Had I been in some other foreign country I'd no doubt be complaining
about something else. It was just
my nature to bitch and moan when things weren't ideal and when I still hadn't
figured out how to play the hand I was dealt.
This was a fabulous opportunity, and it's almost shameful when I think
about how long it took me to see the light.
I had it all, it seems, right there from the get go, and hesitated when
it was time to seize the moment. When
I eventually reached a comfort zone I was very content - so much so that if
someone were to have suggested that I cut my year short I'd have declined the
offer - without hesitation.
The word maodun
also comprises two smaller words: mao
meaning "spear" and dun
meaning "shield". In an
ancient Chinese legend a merchant in a market claims he has the best spears in
the world since they can penetrate the strongest armor and shields.
He then goes on to claim that his shields are the best in the world; they
can stop any spear or sword. A wise
old man asks how it can be that his spears can penetrate any shield, yet his
shield can stop any spear. From
this legend, the word maodun has come
to mean "contradiction".
The most notable contradiction for me seemed to have been that despite living under one of the most brutally oppressive governments in the world, only weeks after the infamous "Tiananmen Massacre", I wound up having more free reign of my immediate environment that year than during almost any other period of my life. It was a strange and tentative existence, like having immunity from the whole communist system - a system that seemed to have an iron grip on everyone's' affairs and was involved in so many aspects of society. There appeared to be several pairs of societal divisions in Shanghai. One of the more obvious chasms seemed to be between Communist Party members and practically everyone else - those who chose not to join. Another less apparent split grew between the closet capitalists and the old-road Socialists. If indeed Chinese society had been divided, and the whole population had been forced to choose sides, we foreigner would have been considered the leftovers - the casual observers, relegated to the sidelines with no significant role to play in determining the outcome - meaning the future. Although we had a small effect on certain number of individual lives, it was ignorant of us to conceive that we could alter the big picture or swing the tide one way or the other. Perhaps it was that feeling of immunity that prompted us to feel that we might make a difference. This peculiar status felt strange in the early months, but later acted as a great comfort when certain realizations set in. Most of these realizations dealt with despair and hope - the former seeming to be in great supply, while the latter was understandably missing a good deal of the time. And nothing we could do would ever change the system. But, even when gloom seemed to be the only thing on the road ahead, the people of Shanghai showed incredible optimism, resiliency, and most importantly - hope.
Since foreigners were a fairly rare breed in China in those days, most people were uncertain of how to deal with us. In the months after the massacre the Chinese government appeared to be extremely reluctant to offend or antagonize Westerners. We weren't sure whether this was new or how it had always been. The Chinese government had already received enormously bad press throughout the free world and apparently it just wouldn't do to have distraught "big noses" writing to the Washington Post to remind the West how bad things were in China - especially since the rest of the world was beginning to forget.
Once we got our feet planted firmly
on the ground and realized our butts were cushioned to a certain extent, we
occasionally - and quietly - tested the limits of these privileges.
The months that followed were sparsely dotted with tiny episodes of
daring - not quite civil disobedience, but engineered by us foreigners, usually
with complete ignorance as to the possible penalties.
In some instances we operated on the theory that if the police or Public
Security Bureau were busy checking on us they'd have less time to hassle or
terrorize the normal, decent Chinese citizen.
Most of our antics were basically harmless ones, involving trespassing,
wise-crack remarks directed at soldiers and police, traffic violations, and
petty theft, referred to by my friend Andrew as the "borrowing" or
“liberating”, of PSB property. None
of us were ever arrested, but on occasion some of my friends came close.
We weren't stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, so it couldn't
really be called a Robin Hood philosophy, but we often rationalized it as being
all for the good of the common man. I
think we did it more for fun and diversion than benevolence.
One thing I'm sure that none of us pondered much about was the fact that eventually China would change. The thought of change, however small the possibility seemed at that time, never much crossed our minds. I guess we figured that it would always be the way it was when we visited, and should we ever get the urge to return - although it seemed highly unlikely then that we'd ever want to - Shanghai would be just like old times when we got back. Most of us had no idea the things we were taking for granted. Food was cheap, accommodations were cheap, and foreigners were still somewhat rare, and treated well. Beyond that, it wasn't until we were either ready to leave or already gone that we realized how quickly that unique era was coming to an end. Economically speaking, China was already headed for big changes - some of them more visible and obvious than others.