Tenderness and Xian Dou Jiang 鹹豆漿
All Shanghai women match their knickers to their surroundings
We are now settled in our new flat, the nagging maintenance is finished and the slightly stale smell present when we moved in has gone. A housewarming gift arrived from my sister, a gorgeous paper cut map of Shanghai. I’ve already had it framed and immediately the place is starting to look like a home.
Whilst Mark is waiting to be paid, I am trying to be cautious with money. Having spent almost all of my savings on the deposit and getting us out here, I 'm fighting the urge to splurge on nice things.
I’ve instead made a concerted effort this week to go out every single day for a walk to explore the immediate area, with less of a keep-away-from-my-impenatrable-airpod-fortress and more of a “hey come talk to me” vibe.
Everyday when I step out of the door, there is without fail a group of women stood in the lane chatting.. Their dogs are wary of me, and remain close to their owners. I greet them each time and smile. They seem like nice ladies.
On my first flânerie around our neighbourhood, the Former French Concession, I noticed our building is a soft pastel yellow, juxtaposed against a baby pink tower block at the end of the street. The Shanghainese are certainly not shy with using colour architecturally, and even on the greyest day on the cusp of spring, when the trees are still bare, it seems this is a city that doesn’t leave the house in the morning without putting on a little makeup.
I still feel like a mute, walking around by myself, but I’m beginning to recognise some Chinese characters. Simple words like road (路), west (西), area (区), and park (公园).
I suddenly feel very proud of myself when I realise Xujiahui (徐家汇), the nearest busy road interchange literally translates to the “Xu Family Junction”. I cross the pedestrian bridge and look out over my domain. Everything the light touches is mine.
Admitting that I cannot survive in some pseudo-authentic Chinese reality where I dine with the locals everyday in the state-subsidised canteens, I’ve decided not to deny myself the things that I would otherwise enjoy, like coffee.
Shanghai might not be known for its coffee but I still feel like a traitor working from a café that looks like it could be in London, San Francisco or Melbourne. Then again, the Chinese don’t seem to care. I stop by Zota Coffee and ask for it to go. I don’t know whether to laugh or run screaming.
Kissy kissy coffee cup
or is it resuscitating you need?
The longer I walk the streets, the more extravagant and outrageous the catwalk becomes. I find myself stalking, even running, after people to get the photo I want. I've even got on the metro while following a woman simply because she was simply wearing a hilarious jacket. If you ever need an exciting way to explore a new city, this is it.
But after all the chasing, I’m led away from the main thoroughfares to somewhere else, perhaps a side street or mews. Somewhere tourists don’t go. In these places there is something almost tender.
I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling I felt when I saw her. This woman, sat outside her front door on a cool spring day, face down reading a magazine, slippered feet up on the doorstep, her back to the street. You might want to call it a “pregnant pause”, the moment between thoughts that can end writer's block or spawn a thousand stories from the 'what ifs' or 'what happened next'?
In some alternate reality she notices my presence and turns to me, squinting as she looks up at a tall stranger. She says hello, and we chat for a brief moment. The conversation is warm and familiar, like chatting with an old friend on the phone. She glances back at the magazine she was reading but then rolls it up.
“Where are you going?”, she asks
“Oh…well…nowhere really. I’m just having a look around the neighbourhood looking for somewhere to eat.”
She points to the end of the road, towards her local café. “Go try the doujiang there, get the salty one, trust me, you’ll love it”
Assemble your ingredients
Xian Dou Jiang 鹹豆漿 (Savoury Soy Milk)
Serves 2 for breakfast
For this recipe, please don’t use soy milk from a shelf stable carton, its absolutely vile and nothing like fresh and homemade. If you don’t have a fine mesh sieve you can also use a 50x50cm piece of unbleached cheesecloth or muslin.
Hot, fresh soy milk
100g dried soy beans
2 tbsp black Chinese vinegar
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp dried shrimp, dry toasted 蝦皮 (optional)
Sesame oil, regular or spicy
1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 youtiao, ripped into chunks (you can find these in most China Towns or in the freezer section at good Asian supermarkets)
Strips or crushed nori seaweed