One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Monday, September 26, 2005

French Concession, for real

I had hoped to get my hair cut this morning at the hotel's barber shop, but I found out that it wouldn't be open until 1:00 a.m., so I decided to visit the French Concession earlier rather than later, and stop off at the Foreign Languages Bookstore on my way back to the hotel.

I went out to get some breakfast, and had only been walking for a minute or two when I felt a slight tugging on my camera bag. Here in Shanghai, the world capital of product piracy and intellectual property theft, the occasional small act of traditional theft still takes place. When I looked behind and to my right, I saw a scruffy little guy, maybe 19 or 20 years old, trying to unzip the front pocket of my camera bag and steal whatever was inside. I grabbed him roughly by the arm and started yelling in his face. He muttered something. He had a dirty, sullen, and insolent face. Very quickly, people from the nearby shops poured out onto the sidewalk to see what was going on.

I made a performance of being angry and excited, but inside I didn't feel either of those things. I wasn't even irritated, really. If pressed, I'd say that the only emotion I had was a faint sadness, emannating from this idea: "I come here as a visitor, in the spirit of friendship, with an open heart, and then I get my feelings hurt by this jerk. It feels like a betrayal."

Instead of strong emotions, I had a bunch of thoughts silently and simultaneously flashing in my brain as I held the guy's arm:

-There are no police officers in sight.
-Nothing has been stolen from me and I'm not injured in any way.
-All the bystanders seem to be on my side for now, scolding the guy loudly, but who knows how they'd react if this situation were to become any more complex.
-This guy is a terrible pickpocket. First of all, I felt his awkward fumblings right away. Second, the pocket he chose to pick is the kind of place that most people use for empty film canisters and dirty kleenexes.
-Of course, it happens to be the pocket where I keep my tiny digital camera, so it would have been this guy's lucky day, if only he weren't so inadequate on the technical side of things.
-Should I knock him down or punch him or something?
-I'm not sure if force is morally justified here. Certainly, it isn't necessary.
-This may be a schoolyard notion, but I have six inches and 50 pounds on this guy. We can't have a fight. It wouldn't be fair.
-Also, he's got a friend with him, standing just a few feet away.
-Maybe one of them has a weapon. It's unlikely, but you never know.
-If we fight, I might get some of his blood on me, and I really don't want that. Shanghai has a high incidence of Hepatitis B.
-If this goes on for much longer, the police will come. At best, I'll have to spend hours filling out reports, and at worst, I'll be arrested myself for disturbing the peace or something, and that might mean missing my flight to Japan tomorrow.
-What would Optimus Prime do?

So in the end, I just shook the guy for a few seconds and then let him go. Without a word, he and his friend headed up the street -- ambling instead of rushing, in the interest of saving face. They looked back every once in a while, to make sure I wasn't following them. I turned to the group of shop ladies standing on the sidewalk, shrugged, and pointed to my camera bag. They nodded vigorously, to show that they understood and had sympathy, and one of the ladies made an angry face and smacked a fist into the palm of her other hand as if to say, "Bastard."

A tiny, elderly lady approached me with a friendly look on her face. She spoke at some length, and I didn't understand her, but I think she probably said something like, "Those are bad boys. I'm sorry that happened to you. Please don't get a negative impression of Shanghai. Most people here are honest and hard-working." I said, "Thank you, Aunt," and continued on my way.

I've noticed that Chinese people seem to get really embarrassed whenever they see someone interacting with a foreign visitor in a way that they believe to be undignified or offensive. For instance, I've seen residents of Beijing and Shanghai yell at panhandlers who approach Western tourists, sending them death-glares even as the Western tourist (in some cases, me) finds a few yuan to give to a person whose need appears to be quite genuine. I've seen young middle-class people shake their fist and speak angrily to very frail, elderly people on these occasions. It was kind of shocking. Of course, I might be upset if I was walking down Bloor Street one day and saw an aggressive panhandler going after someone who was clearly a visitor from far away. I'd feel that the honour of Toronto and Canada was being besmirched. I'm not sure that I understand all the cultural nuances of the Chinese situation, though. "There may be a lot more to it than I realize," he said for the millionth time since leaving Canada.

I got the bad taste out of my mouth by exploring the delightful French Concession, far away in a different part of the city. The French Concession looks like Paris with an Asian twist. I took a lot of pictures of old doors, old window frames, and other beautiful architectural details. Some of the buildings in the French Concession have been fully restored and turned into extremely high-end shopping venues, but of course I preferred the buildings that showed the passage of time and told a more interesting story. I passed through an enormous flower market and observed many vendors taking midday naps in their chairs.

The Foreign Languages Bookstore, not far from the Bund, was a big disappointment. It may be a great place to buy teaching materials and dictionaries and such, but for English-language fiction it sucks. I hope I can find something to read in Fukuoka, because I've used up my entire supply of books with the exception of the rather austere and scholarly Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. This bookstore was all about The Da Vinci Code, "novelizations" of big Hollywood movies, and bodice-rippers. To be fair, they also had the complete works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, as well as volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories, but none of these seemed like good travel reading to me. I turned a corner around a shelf and saw the smiling face of Dashan, the young Canadian whose comedy routines and mastery of Mandarin have made him a big star in this country. He was smiling at me from a poster and display for some kind of Chinese-English dictionary. You know, something along these lines: "Dashan says this dictionary is great, and he should know!" I've seen him in ads for other products as well.

I decided to skip the Shanghai Museum. Last night, I went searching in my Lonely Planet city guide for more information on the exhibits, and this sentence jumped out at me: "The pride and joy of the museum is its collection of ancient Chinese bronze." "Oh no," I thought, my face a mask of horror. "No, no, no, no, no." If ancient bronze was one of the highlights, I couldn't bear to imagine the lowlights, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference how cool the washrooms and gift shop were.

My flight to Fukuoka, Japan from Pudong International Airport departs tomorrow at 11:50 a.m. I hope to check into my accommodations and then seek out an internet place, but I may be delayed if I am required to observe the protocol of a traditional Japanese inn. These inns, or ryokan, are supposed to be very restful and tranquil places to stay, but you have to play by their rules. In a traditional type of place, the protocol goes something like this: arrive and remove shoes in favour of slippers; drink tea in one's room, served by the maid; change into a robe-thing; soak in the communal bath; return to one's room where dinner has been set out. You can't just check in, throw your bags in the room, brush your teeth, and say, "See ya later!" I'm not sure if Kashima Honkan in Fukuoka is quite so traditional, and I don't believe that my place in Hiroshima is, either, but the ryokan in Kyoto, where I'll be staying for six nights, will almost certainly be like that. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm a little nervous as well.

I want to relate a thing from yesterday. I met this guy named "Leo" near the Monument to the People's Heroes next to the Huangpu River. He spoke excellent English. We talked for a while about Canada, and Dashan, and China's 56 official minority groups, and about events in China during World War 2. He told me that he didn't dislike or resent Japanese people, but he did resent some actions of the Japanese government, including the approval of school history textbooks that gloss over war crimes by Japanese soldiers in Nanjing and elsewhere. At one point, we seemed to run out of things to say, lapsing into silence. Leo seemed uncomfortable with the silence, leading to this exchange when he noticed the pop can in my hand:

Leo: I see that you enjoy Coca-Cola.
Aaron: Yes, I do.
Leo: It is an excellent beverage, I think.
Aaron: I agree. But I only drink Diet Coke.
Leo: I'm sorry?
Aaron: Coke with no sugar. To protect my teeth from cavities.
Leo: Oh, of course, yes.

Before signing off, I'll tell you about the haircut. I finally managed to get it done at 7:00 p.m. tonight, and it was unlike any haircut I've had before. I brought my phrasebook down to the 3rd floor where the barber shop was, knowing that communication was going to be a big challenge. I also brought down two pictures of myself in which I'm sporting recent haircuts -- one from my graduation day in June, and the other a family portrait from a couple of years ago.

I realized that things were going to take longer than I had expected when I handed over the pictures and a small crowd of Chinese women -- maybe five or six -- gathered in front of me to look at them. I identified every person in the pictures for them, and they commented at length (I think) on how kind my family looks, on how strong our family resemblance is, and on how lucky I am to have a beautiful woman like Jess. Then they started pointing to the background of the graduation day shot, showing ivy-covered buildings and a large quadrangle. "University of Toronto," I said. "Hart House," I said. They began to look exasperated. "Oh, I know what you're asking," I said finally. "Canada! Jya-na-da!" They smiled, relieved to have gotten through to me.

Before anyone cut my hair, a young assistant shampooed my head for what seemed like hours. Then she massaged it, once or twice pressing on my temples like she was trying to lobotomize me the hard way. She massaged my face as well, pressing down hard on my sinuses. And then my ears! I had to keep my eyes closed for much of this massage time to keep from laughing -- it was just so foreign to me. She rinsed off my head in a nearby sink, sat me back down in the chair, and made a bunch of quick chopping motions on my neck and shoulders.

The actual hairdresser, a lady in her 40s, approached at this point and took over. I tried to signal that I wanted my sideburns trimmed, but not erased, and I was glad to see that this was understood. She consulted the pictures I had brought and then went to work. Most of the time, she used the electric clippers. She used a big straight razor for part of the haircut, which I don't think I've ever had before. When she was finished and I was rinsed off and free to move about, I got my phrasebook and pointed out the Chinese characters for "perfect." She seemed pleased with that. The whole thing cost 30 yuan, or about $4 Canadian.

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