“You want massage?”
“You want Chinese girl? Very young. Pretty.”
A lot of people in Shanghai speak English, but not a lot of it. If you stay in the tourist areas you get by without too much trouble, but once you leave the shore, any step can be the one with the drop-off and suddenly the water is neck-high. It’s hard not to fear you’re about to drown in an alien culture.
I take cabs to all my appointments. I ask the concierge desk to write out in Chinese the address I’m going to, and even then, the bellhop at the door calls the cab and discusses the destination with the driver. The bellhop then nods to me that the driver understands, and off I go. I have the hotel’s card, which I use to get back. Tomorrow, I’ll go from one appointment directly to the next; the concierge will have to write out both for me and I’ll hope for the best on the risky middle leg.
The street behind the hotel is an enormous shopping strip that goes on for a kilometer or so. It has no curbs, and cars apparently can’t drive down it, though there are streets that are allowed to cross it. There are no curbs, but some traffic lights, and people walk everywhere; the cars and bicycles weave through the pedestrians who sometimes wait for the light and sometimes don’t. At night the main street is crowded with neon signs and brightly lit stores and hotels and shops. People walk and mill about by the hundreds. But the side streets that don’t have traffic lights are dark, narrow alleyways that you can’t see down and haven’t changed since the invention of the light bulb.
During the day, I get asked a lot about watches and handbags, but at night it’s mostly about massages. I’ve learned to keep walking, but they sidle up beside me, keeping pace, leaning in so our arms are brushed up against one another, and they ask incessantly. “You want massage?” “You want Chinese girl?”—one question per stride. I look straight ahead and keep walking. After about a dozen paces with no response, they drop off, looking, I guess, for the next white face in the crowd. Sometimes it’s women who are doing the asking, and I can’t tell if they’re asking for themselves. I want to look them over but I keep my eyes straight and keep walking.
Tonight I asked the concierge to recommend a place to eat. Up to now, I haven’t wanted to be bothered. For the first few nights, I wasn’t able to synch with the time zone, so I’ve collapsed at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, gotten up at 9:00, and then rushed off to the Royal Meridien hotel next door, which serves dinner until 10:00. The food there is pretty good, but with my weird and hard-to-match diet, there’s only a couple of things on the Chinese menu for me. The Italian restaurant has a single dish—an overpriced spaghetti in oil and garlic. It’s nice and garlicky, but with a glass of overpriced wine and a small bottle of Perrier that costs the same as the wine the bill is about RMB 300. Divide by 7.7 and you’ve spent $40 on a light dinner in what should be, at least for meal prices, still a third-world country. Two years ago, traveling with Jen Liu, we would routinely stuff ourselves at restaurants she knew for under RMB 100 total.
“You want restaurant?”
Two nights ago, instead of Rolexes or massages, a teenager asked about restaurants. He had a menu in one hand; with the other he pointed upward. Across the street, up on the third floor, I could see the windows of what might have been a restaurant. It was after 9:00 pm, and I was looking for a dinner, but it seemed a little weird—out on the streets of Shanghai, every sentence drips with double meaning and is tinged with risk.
The next day, I ventured back in the bright sunlight of lunchtime. The same teenager was there and this time I let him lead me up and elevator, through a department store, and into a Chinese restaurant. It was tasty and cheaper than the Meridien, but not third-world cheaper.
So tonight I asked the concierge. He wants to know what kind of food and I say Chinese. “You want Shanghainese food?” he asked. I have no idea what the differences are so I say sure. He writes out an address and a very crude map. It’s out the front door and only about a 10 minute walk, with only one turn. “41. Just look for the number,” he says. “41.”