In the winter of 2014, on a late-evening domestic flight from Beijing to Shanghai, I sit next to the deputy mayor of Taicang, a city in Jiangsu province. Excited to practice his English but not confident in his skills, he calls over his assistant, to translate. Over the next few hours we talk about families and cultures, politics and religion. They invite me come spend the night in their town. I accept.
We disembark at Shanghai’s domestic airport and squeeze into a minivan for a more than hourlong drive through the darkened Chinese countryside. Along the way, I realize that I have no idea who these people are, where I am, or where I am going, but the boisterous mood and smiling faces of my new bureaucratic friends calm any lingering worries. With the help of the assistant, a bespectacled, skinny man who speaks English well, I check into a Western-owned hotel near the modern center of town. We make plans to meet the next morning so he can show me around. Jetlagged and in unfamiliar settings, I get little sleep, watching reruns of classic Chinese movies subtitled for hearing-impaired locals.
I awake early, have a light breakfast, check out, and wander the surrounding area until the assistant arrives. On a Saturday morning, in an official Chinese government car - complete with driver. As we are making our way over to Zhouzhuang, an older town not far away, the assistant explains that the 15th Century explorer Zheng He was based out of the area, hence its enduring fame. We tour the ancient city, a wonder to behold, tidy wooden structures standing shoulder to shoulder, cunningly crafted stone bridges spanning narrow canals.
The assistant takes his leave, saying he wants to spend time with his children. I am deeply ashamed upon realizing that he has used his day off to show me around, and that I didn’t buy anything in the artisanal stores we entered. The driver heads for the highway. We smoke cigarettes and speak little. As we are approaching downtown Shanghai, I catch people in the cars around us staring, apparently trying to figure out who I might be, a Westerner riding alone in a chauffeured official vehicle.
I wander around near the Bund, harvesting graffiti and getting a feel for the city’s layout. Then, sensing my apparent loneliness, I attract a hanger-on, a fat and sweaty man who speaks good English. He tries to get me to buy gold at a gaudy shop. I refuse and walk out, but he’s hot on my heels. I buy trinkets at another shop he leads me to, however, a tourist trap that sells mass-produced items. Then, because the man claims he is broke, I treat him to an expensive pot of tea and the last of my Chunghwa cigarettes, which he enjoys immensely. Exhausted and out of cash, I hop the subway toward Shanghai Pudong international, and flee finally the madhouse scramble of another world city.
americanifesto / JPR / whorphan / 場黑麥