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When I was young I very much liked a film called "Empire of the Sun". A very good film adaptation of the semi-autobiographical book by J G Ballard about his life in Shanghai and China during the Second World War. Shanghai is depicted as a city packed full of people trying to avoid the Japanese invaders who are stationed just outside the city. When they do invade all hell breaks out. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people try and catch any available transport or way of getting out of the city. The main character of the film, Jamie (played by Christian Bale), is caught up in this almighty crush with his family.
They have a car, but it is useless. Such are the numbers of people that cars can't move. Mass panic breaks out and the streets descend into absolute chaos. Jamie knows that his only way of possibly keeping safe is to keep hold of his mother's hand. But the flood of people becomes stronger and stronger. He tries desperately to cling on, knowing deep-down the terrible implications being lost in the crush will mean (which go on to include four years of imprisonment, starvation, beatings, disease, being surrounded by death, and eventually even forgetting what his parents look like.) However, the massive swarm eventually becomes too great and even his desperate grasp is not enough to keep the two together in the face of such an overwhelming sea of people. His mother is carried off in one direction and Jamie imediatly loses her in a swarm of unrecognised faces.
Last week I went shopping down the Nanjing Lu in Shanghai. The effect was much the same. It was National Week and China was on holiday (those parts that can afford it, anyway) Never in London, New York or even on the Northern Line have I seen as many people trying desperately to squeeze themselves past as many other people going in random other directions.
We were already used to this kind of crush. In order to get out of the railway station at the end of an 18 hour trip you have to thrust yourself into an ocean of people as several thousands of people try and get through about 6 gates, one at a time, to have their ticket's checked.
It certainly helps to be at least six inches taller than most of the people around you. You can see there is an ultimate purpose with your struggle through the crowd. But that moral encouragement is not half as useful as the security guard who spots you in your foreigner bemusement, virtually beats other people back with a stick in order to let you out.
You see, across the 5,000 years of Chinese history, the concept of queueing for anything has passed it by. They have never really found a use for them. It is routine to push your way to thr front at the bank, at the bus stop, when getting into a lift or whenever doing anything that might involve having to wait for people who were there before you. It does not occur to most people that the order in which you arrive at any given point might bear some relationship to the order in which the people standing there might get their business done.
This does not always turn out badly for us foreign teachers though. To be honest the size and weight advantage doesn't add up to much because what we gain in mass we lose in the skill and technique of pushing through crowds of people. However, often some person with a passing aquaintence with the English language will spot the "laowai" (foreigner) and decide to rescue them and shout at an even louder pitch than everyone else, at everyone else, and get you to the front - pushing past old men, pregnant women and anyone else who might have had the afrontary to arrive before you did.
Anway... I was meant to be telling you about Shanghai, no? Well apart from being very busy, it was a fascinating place. The Bund with the old European buildings was bewitching, the very tall skyscapers far more interesting than many of their Western competitors, the chamber concert we went to where the girl of 10 defied her anatomy and played some amazing music (even though she couldn't reach the peddles) and the Thai, Mexican and Indian food that we ate was all great.
I travelled with an American teacher I met from a different university in Wuhan. He has been there before. We had one meal with a friend of his. We went to their house and his mother cooked a typical Shanghai meal for us. I think the motto of Shanghai is "Why eat anything else when you can eat squid" or "Squid with Everything" or possibly "I'm not eating that - It's not squid" Luckilly I like squid, but stick to the Thai, Mexican or Indian if your not quite as wild about it as the Shanghai folk are.
But I come back to Wuhan and I'm glad I came here rather than Shanghai. I was only in Shanghai for a few days, and I'm sure there is lots to discover there that we didn't see. But you can't experience life in the same way there than you do so easilly here. I missed going across the road and being able to get my evening meal for 10p - or go out with 3 friends, have a couple of beers each and 40+ dumplings for 1pound 20 (in total) You can also get a bowl of squid-free noodles easier here.
Normal teaching week this week. But I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I ought to get off now and prepare a few lessons, but I'm spending far too long reading every UK newspaper I can get my virtual hands on. They do seem curiously entertaining at the moment!
Catch you all soon
Launched on December 25th 2003