Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell


Posted by metaphorical on 27 January 2007

I’ve always been a diffident tourist. I love new places, but I hate being out of place. So I can sit my room for hours on end with a world of colors and tastes and languages just outside the hotel lobby doors. Having broadband in a hotel just makes it worse, of course, but I’ve always been like this. T spent one entire college summer in Berkeley without ever going to Candlestick Park, even though, back home, I had been going to Shea Stadium on my own for almost half a decade.

Yesterday I had an entire day to myself here in Shanghai, my first without appointments and work e-mailed from the office. I frittered the morning away, just as I might on a lazy Saturday morning back home. Finally, driven, not by adventurousness but the needs of my disfunctional metabolism, I left the room around 12:30.

The day before, while visiting the Sino-Italian Cooperation Program for Environmental Protection, I grabbed a booklet, “Shanghai/Tempo libero/Curiosita/Indirizzi utili.” The booklet is mostly in Italian, but not hard to decipher. There was a whole section on Italian restaurants, including a “MoCA Caffe”—‘MoCA’ being, I gathered, a now-universal abbreviation. The first Museum of Contemporary Art I ever went to was in Los Angeles, and it’s still one of my favorite museums anywhere—compact and beautiful, thought-provoking without exhausting.

The booklet gave the address as ‘231 Nan jing Road,’ essentially the street my hotel is on, and ‘People’s Park.’ “This is close enough to walk to?” I asked the conceirge. He looked dubious, more comfortable putting his guests into taxis than sending them into the city defenselessly. “Maybe 15 minutes,” he allowed. On a map, he put a dot right in the middle of a green patch.

People Park is a rare respite from Shanghai’s density, which is 50 percent greater than New York or Tokyo. There are few green patches on the city map, and if People’s Park were placed alongside the bottom of Central Park it would barely reach as far north as the Sheep Meadow. The green is a bit misleading too, with nearly as much concrete as grass. Still, it seems much beloved by the Shanghainese and deservedly so. A maze of walkways are lined by low trees with twisted trunks and branches. Bare in winter, they invite you to look through to the city’s skyline.

People’s Park

People’s Park

Old men, smoking cigarette after cigarette, play cards. Children paint on low tables equipped with tubes of color. Older couples, who never show any affection in shops or on crowded sidewalks, sit on benches wrapped in one another’s arms. A playground, looking like Central Park near the zoo, has a small bumper-car attraction and a few rides, including a small version of the Six Flags Buccaneer. Its name is given in Roman characters: Pirata. Misspelled, or borrowed from some European language?


The museum is in the center of the park, a low silver building whose doors have no discernable handles. If you stand in front of it long enough, a guard opens them for you, indiscernably smiling. A long, curved walkway wraps around the building and takes you to the café.


I’m given a seat and menu but before I can order, an attractive middle-aged woman comes over, introduces herself and hands me her name card. “I am the museum curator,” she says. “May I ask you to change your seat? The workers are going to replace that window.” She points up to the ceiling, which has a large skylight of triangular glass panels. One of them has the shattered-but-still-in-place look of a car accident. I move to a table at the edge of the room. Soon, the workers come. There are two uniforms, that of the guards, in black tunic suits, and the maintenance crew, in blue jumpsuits. A lone woman, in a grey jumpsuit, appears, broom in hand. If her broom is needed, she will have a lot of work to do, but I think she is there for the entertainment value.

The table I was sitting at and two others are moved out of the way. Two maintenance men carry in a wide mat and roll it out. Other maintenance men carry the new glass panel using rubber-suction handles. They set it down, and proceed to discuss strategy with a pair of workers already aloft. The guards enter the discussion, which soon breaks out into a violent shouting match of competing theories. I order my food and watch. The fellows up on the roof are blocked from my view by a horizontal structural beam in the ceiling. A length of nautical-looking rope gets sent down. The guards start to wrap the glass triangle with it. It’s obvious that there will be no way to keep the glass steady when lifted. More shouting. The glass is raised a couple of feet, the system’s impracticality is obvious, and it’s set back down again.

I catch the eye of Victoria Lu, the curator, sitting at a nearby table. We laugh together.

More argument. One guard finally starts to put the suction cups back on the glass. Much discussion of where to put them on the glass and in relation to the rope. Finally the glass is rigged to everyone’s satisfaction. The workers on the roof start hoisting and the guards push upward. There’s much strained shouting. It’s too heavy. Guards scramble up on ladders and push, push. One frantically puts on his white gloves and climbs high on the ladder, grabs a corner, and lifts. The triangle is raised and settled.

I finish my meal and ask for the check by making eye contact with the waiter from across the room and making a scribbling motion with my hand. When I was 15, visiting Mexico, my father taught me this gesture was universally understood. He had never been to China. The waiter comes over, and I ask for the check. The other night when I did this, a waiter brought over a piece of scrap paper and a pen.

On my way out, I stop by the table of Ms Lu and thank her, then walk around the museum. I stop by the front desk and ask whether, even though I ate at the cafe, I should pay the admission fee. It’s impossible to make the question understood, and I pay. It’s only RMB 20, less than a cup of Starbucks coffee.



You would expect the museum to be a leading reflection of differences between China and the U.S., but just the reverse is true. It is the most easily understood place in the entire city to the Western mind; art is a universal language today. Culture is vastly more idiosyncratic outside the museum’s curved walls.

How are maintenance practices taught and learned? Are they propagated around the world, as they are in serious fields of engineering? How would this operation have been done in the Germany or Italy? If the suction cups were invented in Europe, how do they make their way overseas? Did these fellows make the same knots in the rope that would be used in the U.S.? Did maintenance workers learn their knots from sailors, as rock climbers originally did? Have the knots evolved since then, as they have in climbing?

Travel for me always raises more questions than can be answered. I love the questions but am sometimes overwhelmed by them. In New York I know when cab driver is going an inefficient way, but in Shanghai I have no clue. To get anywhere, I have the hotel concierge write out an address in Chinese, which I hand to the cab driver, mute, incapable of explaining it. I am a four-year-old child wearing a note pinned to my chest. When someone asks me something I can only point to it and shrug. To figure out whether two addresses are in the same part of town, I have to labor over my maps, or laboriously converse with someone who’s English is as uncertain as his knowledge of my needs.

Anything out of the ordinary becomes an ordeal. How is this dish of food prepared? Why won’t the ATM accept my bank card? Is the hotel Internet access suddenly not working? Is it acceptable to take people’s picture in the park? It is too much, sometimes, and so I sit in at the hotel room desk, writing a trip report of yesterday’s adventures, instead of making new ones.

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