Adventures in China

There are miracles on every street corner here in China. At least that’s the only way I can figure out how 200 people can cross a street in the 20 seconds of a green pedestrian light while a similar number of taxis, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, and motorized rickshaws plow through the pedestrians at the same time, all without any serious physical injuries apart from a little hearing loss due to the requirement to honk constantly. Traffic laws are a little different here, a little too complex for most Americans to figure out.

For pedestrians, a red crossing light means “don’t even think about crossing now – that would be crazy.” Vehicles of all kinds race through the intersection, making sure they honk appropriately at one another apparently conveying messages of encouragement such as (I’m guessing) “May we all strive for social harmony!” Crossing at this time would be shear madness. When the crossing light turns green, that means “go ahead and think about crossing, but it’s still crazy.” For drivers, I think the difference between red and green in these cases involves some nuance from the languages of China–it’s all about the tones. Maybe when the light is green you honk with a rising tone, and when it’s red, you use a dipping tone? Or a falling tone followed by a dipping tone? It’s all a bit too much for me, but it makes life at every corner an adventure, and I love it. I’ve realized that for all these years, I’ve been a city slicker trapped in a small town guy’s body.

There is slight exaggeration in my description and it’s really not that bad, as long as you realize that vehicles are still allowed to make right turns, sometimes at high speed, at the same time you see the green crossing signal. And sometimes, drivers apparently confuse “right” with other directions, so always watch your step. But it’s fine as long as you look both ways and pay lots of attention.

Based on the miraculous survival of nearly every pedestrian and driver I’ve seen so far, it all works out somehow. But it’s clearly best if you have a few ninja-like moves to get out of the way of the most dangerous vehicle of all: the environmentally friendly scooter. The problem with being environmentally friendly and electric is that these surprisingly swift vehicles lack the put-put or vrooom-vrooom sound of old-fashioned environmentally deprecated combustion engines vehicles like the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. For years I was annoyed by the noise of motorcycles; now I yearn for it. The noise gives you a fighting chance to get out of the way when they come up from behind. Here, you rely on the mercy of the driver. Will they honk? And if so, will it be in a rising or falling tone?

I should mention that an important part of the traffic rules here is the distinction between roads and sidewalks. Motorized vehicles and bicycles are strictly limited to staying on the roads, unless it’s more convenient to use the sidewalk. Pedestrians, take note and be on your guard at all times. It’s more challenging than a stroll in Appleton, but again, I love this city. It is beautiful, inspiring, challenging, frightening, depressing, enlivening, wild, ferocious, gentle, and a perfect place for Americans trying to get a gentle taste of China, or to be overwhelmed suddenly with the rush of the world’s largest city proper.

The people here are great and the city is just remarkable in so many ways. But the chaos at intersections is a reminder that, in spite of Shanghai priding itself on being an advanced and highly civilized place, in some ways it is still a lot like New York City. So watch your step, but come visit Shanghai and enjoy one of the greatest places on earth.

I’ve been so lucky and blessed here. The other night, for example, I was giving an American visitor a tour of a beautiful part of Shanghai, Yu Yuan Gardens, when I put my camera up to my eye and somehow managed to knock out my contact lens. We were on a busy street as it was becoming dark and my contact had fallen to the ground. Life would go on without it, but it’s something that really helps. I froze, explained what had just happened, looked all over my shirt, arms, and pants in hope that it had landed there, and realized it must be on the ground. Vehicles, people all around, time is limited, what to do? He told me to stand still while he carefully stopped down. Fortunately, he had an iPhone with a light. He turned it on and saw something glisten, finding my lens before it was trampled. Another close call. Small mistakes over here can be quite costly. Help in averting them is so greatly appreciated, and the little answers to silent or vocal prayer that I’ve received on many occasions like that one are much appreciated, in spite of the mistakes I make that aren’t so painlessly resolved, like groggily slicing into my finger with a knife as a result of staying up too late when I knew better, trying too hard to get extra things done and just making everything worse. Be sure to bring Neosporin in your international trips, by the way.

Anyway, here are some photos, some of the hundreds I’ve managed to snap while here. Yes, I am actually working and working quite hard, in fact. Love China and Shanghai especially. There is so much future here. And a lot of present and past as well.

Update, same day: My first big night of doing laundry by myself. Found a relevant blog post: “The Notorious Chinese Washing Machine Story.” I think my 2011 washing machine is even more advanced than the 2007 version in that post. If I’m translating correctly, mine also includes programmable functions for “complimentary charring,” “fabric disintegration,” “instant electrocution,” and “unfavorable meltdown.” I know just enough to recognize nearly all of the characters on the washing machine, but recognizing a character and understanding its use in a shorthand, specialized phrases are two different things. For example, beginning/intermediate students of Chinese will learn that 漂 (piao with a high tone) means to float or drift, but in the combination 漂亮 (piaoliang) the two characters together mean pretty and there the piao takes a falling tone. OK, I sort of learned that. But it’s used several times on my washing machine and floating and beauty don’t seem to fit. It’s used in the phrase 漂白剂 (piao bai ji), which I now know means “bleach” (and piao takes a dipping tone there–this is a complex character!). “Floating white liquid stuff” – well, it’s bleach. But then it’s used a couple of times over the button that apparently indicates what treatment is being applied. So right now my clothes are going throw a cycle called “漂洗” – piao plus a character meaning “wash.” So is this a bleach and wash cycle? Or a floating wash cycle? Pretty wash? None of those. My favorite online dictionary explains that this means “rinse.” And there we use the dipping tone for our complex, always changing piao.

Fortunately, the landlord, knowing that complete idiots might move into this apartment, has put helpful stickie notes all around the complex buttons and control panels that govern the various features of our high-tech apartment. The notes, of course, are in Chinese, but not in the style of legible, printed characters that I can sometimes read. I think she’s using the classic Tang Dynasty “flowing grass in a tornado” style of calligraphy which adds a great deal of dramatic intensity and emotional purity to her messages. One does not need to read Chinese to be deeply touched by the power of her writing, and indeed, we are deeply touched. Hmmm, that smell – I think my shirts are charring as I write.

Tip to Chinese teachers: Reading enough to be able use a washing machine, rice cooker, bathroom fan, TV remote control, and hot water heater are some of the best survival skills for people moving to China, but I don’t think any of that was ever covered in the courses I’ve had or in textbooks I’ve seen.

Not to complain–I’m the foreigner here trying to make do in a fabulous place. I just hope my clothes will survive the journey.

Anyway, here are some photos for now. Click to enlarge slightly. The photos of small boats are from Wuzhen. The Buddhist temple scenes are from Suzhou. Skyline shots are Shanghai.

Above is a fisherman who uses cormorants to fish. The jump into the water and swallow fish, but a ring around their throat tied to the boat keeps them from swallowing the fish, so the fisherman can retrieve it from them. Maybe they get the smaller fish or chopped bits, I’m not sure. But the birds seem to cooperate well.

The building in the background with the “crown” is the Bund Center–that’s where I work. The Bund is the riverfront area in the heart of Shanghai where you can see the most beautiful skyline in the world. We have older, beautiful building on my side, and exotic tall, LED-lit buildings on the other side. Cool stuff. Just love the views.

Elders quorum talent show?

Author: Jeff Lindsay

10 thoughts on “Adventures in China

  1. What a delightful blog post! I love your description of Shanghai, I've experienced something like those crossing-the-road scenarios here in Malaysia too!

    Love the picture of "No sightseeing while walking". Brilliant!

    Duncan In Kuantan

  2. Jeff, Please to submit those groaners of signs of funny translations to

    It is to laugh.

  3. Jeff, where you see miracles everywhere, I see political philosophy. China's politics might officially be communist, but based on your description it seems their traffic rules are strictly libertarian. (Maybe even anarchic?) Personally, I think modern traffic is one of those things that cries out for the Heavy Hand of Big Government; regulate the traffic, not the economy. But apparently they see it quite differently in China!

  4. The photos are gorgeous. But, going completely off-topic, the one of the man using cormorants to fish reminded me of a nonsense verse my children learned:

    The common cormorant or shag
    Lays eggs inside a paper bag
    The reason you will see no doubt
    It is to keep the lightning out.

    But what these unobservant birds
    Have never noticed is that herds
    Of wandering bears may come with buns
    And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

  5. I pinned two of your pictures on Pinterest. I laughed out loud at the "no sightseeing while walking" one.

  6. Loved this post!!! And your pictures. I would hang some of them on my wall, I love them that much. Looks like you both are having a blast!

  7. ooh, I laughed so much while reading this post. The photos are really gorgeous. You've really got a talent to discover beauty all around you.

    "No sightseeing while walking" is just the first half sentence of the Chinese sign, the other half is "no walking while sightseeing." hehe.

    Chinese believe that you have to stay still if you really want to enjoy something or get something out of what you are enjoying. Be Still and Enjoy. 🙂

  8. Howdy.
    I just noticed some traffic to my washing machine story! Thanks for the link.

    If you are so inclined, Google "Chinese Dog Story" and "Chinese Typhoon Story". You WILL be amused.

    Allen in Fort Worth

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