As an outsider, new to a foreign land, I often ask if my Chinese friends if my observations are representative of normal behaviour. I’m not questioning what is ‘normal’, but what is culturally typical.
Perhaps I’m always looking at it from too much of a ‘British’ perspective, me versus the savages so to speak, but many Shanghainese seem to live in complete ignorant bliss. I promise you, anywhere in Shanghai you can watch someone cross the road on a red light, without looking. Maybe they’ll have a pram or a young child too. The traffic will swerve to avoid them, they’ll make it to the other side unscathed, and everybody's lives will carry on.
No smoking, stay off the grass, no spitting, one way street, etc, etc. To me it would be common sense to allow someone to get out of a lift or metro train first before entering, but this logic eludes many Chinese people as they make a mad scramble for the door, pushing you further back in.
If life continues even if we don’t follow the rules, what is the point of rules?
So in order to blend into Chinese society I have begun to copy many of China’s bad habits myself, and before leaving the flat in the morning I ask myself, “Just how dangerously do you want to get to the coffee shop today Michael?”
After ten years of living in London I still feel like a Londoner, despite not being from there.
Could the same ever be true of Shanghai? Even if Mark and I stay here for a few more years, I don’t feel like we could blend in enough to be accepted or feel Shanghainese.
I've seen bigger
Would you be confused if I asked you, “What’s your real name?”
Maybe you’d think I was asking some sort of metaphysical or metaphorical question. But it’s an actual question I find myself asking frequently. Most Chinese people don’t think Westerners can pronounce their names, so they choose a Western one to avoid the constant initial conversation of “sorry, say that again”.
They may be selecting for reasons other than for ease of communication too. Perhaps they see a Western name as like an alternative persona. Someone they wish they could be or aspire to.
There are many ways they go about selecting a Western name. Perhaps their choice is something that sounds phonetically similar to their real name, or has the same meaning. Maybe even it’s an object they saw and loved. It’s not uncommon to come across children called iPad, Mirror or even KFC.
In an effort to assimilate, should I choose a Chinese name? Because if I’m being as stubborn about pronunciation as the Chinese, MAI-KE-ER is not how you pronounce Michael.
Perhaps assimilation shouldn’t be the focus of my energy whilst we are living here.
Reinventing the concept of a pop-up restaurant
In a recent phone call with my agent, we discussed what my plans were for the future. We discussed various ideas, a second book perhaps, or my favourite which was to create my own ceramics and tableware. She told me bluntly, the themes that people are interested in right now are ‘authenticity’ and ‘escapism’. For example, escapism would be like those home improvement programmes where a creative couple, buy a chateau in France and do it up on a shoestring. Or a group of people all with clashing personalities try to survive on a desert island together with just one brain cell between them.
But authenticity, that’s a little more difficult to quantify. Does it just mean something that’s been around for a long time? Does authenticity go hand in hand with honesty or can something be authentic but also a copy?
I have often said the best croissant I’ve ever had was at Tartine in San Francisco. Better than any in France. But better quality doesn’t make it more authentic.
No Parisian in their right mind would queue thirty minutes for a croissant. There are definitely better Chinese restaurants outside of China in terms of food and service, but authenticity isn’t the same thing as quality.
An authentic Chinese restaurant would involve surly, if not completely rude service, where the waitress, before starting her shift would practice her resting bitch face in the mirror and avoid eye contact with you at all cost.
The food would be scolding hot, and remain that way for most of the meal in a way that it defies the laws of thermodynamics, and the entire experience would be topped off with the lingering smell of shit from the nearby squat toilet, where you deposit your used paper in a small open container, and where washing your hands is optional.
These details might seem extreme, but intermixed with the hustle and bustle, the shouting, laughter and loud chewing, it’s hard to imagine an authentic experience without them.
A few weeks ago we spent a Saturday at the newest Disneyland Park in Shanghai.
How authentically Disney was a Chinese Disneyland going to be? Where would China end and the magic begin?
Most tourist attractions around the world serve merely as backdrops for selfies and check-ins on social media.
We spent a lot of the day watching young Chinese girls who seemed not only oblivious to the fact that they were at the happiest place on Earth, but more interestingly, that we were taking photos of them. They miss all the fun, in order to capture the right light on their pouty porcelain faces.
What I find most astonishing is how so many young girls in China have had some sort of augmentation done to their faces. The phrase ‘wang hong’ or social media Internet superstar has become shorthand to describe their alien-like appearance. The plastic surgery, huge contact lenses, and skin whitening are characteristic traits.
Its nearly enough to put you off your lunch.
Fortunately for us, lunch was a Peking duck pizza, in the shape of Mickey’s head. Disney fusion cooking at its finest. I decided it was best not take a photo; sometimes you don’t need one.
As the day came to its end I went to the gift shop to pick up a fridge magnet for my collection. Everything seemed perfect. The parade, the strange Disney themed food and the backing music that makes you feel like your life is a beautiful cinematic experience.
It wasn’t until we left I realised what was missing.
The white middle class American family was nowhere to be seen. The tourist, armed with an invisible travel wallet bulging with dollars under a polo t-shirt, wearing cargo shorts, pulled up white socks, a pair of Sketchers, and possibly riding a mobility scooter.
Whilst the park was recreated with the utmost care, in almost every sense, a Disneyland without the bellowing voices of a family from Texas or Ohio is not an authentic Disneyland.
Pretend like you're having fun!
Maybe I should think of Shanghai as bit like a theme park. Walking down the Nanjing Road is like the simulated danger of a rollercoaster, the odds are stacked in your favour that you’ll survive, but it’s still not guaranteed. The Oriental Pearl Tower has an uncanny resemblance to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and each area is zoned out with its own look and feel. Pudong, with its skyscrapers like Tomorrowland, and the Former French Concession, with its architecture of a bygone era much like Main Street (or Mickey Avenue as its rebranded for the Chinese).
But if the reason to go to Disneyland is to have fun, what’s my excuse for moving to China? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to go away.
To say its just because of Mark’s job would only be telling half the story.
Shanghai can be a confusing mess, its ugly in parts and often stinks, but I often think that no one would question our decision if we had moved to New York. A city famous for its confusing subway system, urban mess with smells to make your eyes water, and yet for some reason, people love it!
Because how boring it would be to live in something like the Truman Show, clean and precise, happy and organised, all the time.
In Shanghai, amongst the lanes and tower blocks, the abandoned building sites and back street restaurants there is an abundance of grime, dust and dirt.
And it’s only in the dirt that things grow.
Japanese Soufflé Cheesecake with cherries
Feeds 6-8 people
* Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature and the butter is soft.
** Follow the instructions exactly and you shouldn't have any problems at all
100g cream cheese
30g sour cream
20 g plain/all purpose flour
100 ml milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
60 g sugar
1 lemon, zest
250g cherries, pitted
100g sugar (depending how sweet or sour your cherries are, adjust to your taste)
1. Preheat your oven to 150c/300f
2. Separate the eggs and return the whites to the fridge.
3. Combine the cream cheese, sour cream, egg yolks and vanilla in a bowl until smooth. Sieve in the flour and mix well
4. Pass the batter through a mesh sieve to remove any lumps and then add the lemon zest.
5. Line the base of a 18cm/9" cake tin with a loose bottom. Butter the sides of the cake tin. Line the outside with two layers of aluminium foil.
6. In a spotlessly clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and then add the sugar. Continue until stiff glossy white peaks form.
*I tried this with both a electric hand whisk and in a stand mixer. The latter produced markedly better results and I would recommend using it if you have one (despite the extra clean up)
7. Add a third of the egg white mix to the egg yolk batter and combine thoroughly. Very gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
8. Boil a full kettle of water
9. Pour the batter into the prepped cake tin and smooth out the top.
10. Lift the tin about 10cm off your kitchen counter and drop it. This will break any large air bubbles trapped.
11. Place the prepped and protected cake tin in a roasting dish with deep sides and pour boiling water into the tray to about 3cm deep.
12. Bake the cake for 15 minutes at 150c/300f and then reduce to 140c/280f for a further 45-50 minutes. It is ready when a skewer comes out clean.
13. Allow the cake to cool for a hour in the tin before sliding a knife around the edge. Chill for a further 2 hours in the fridge.
14. Cut half of the cherries into a small dice and add to a pan with the water and sugar. Cook gently over a medium low heat for 20-25 minutes until you have a thick and glossy syrup. Add extra water if the pan looks a bit dry.
15. Add in the rest of the whole pitted cherries and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes.
16. Remove from the heat and leave to cool completely
17. Pour the cherries and syrup over the top of the cheesecake covering any cracks that may have formed.
Follow the rules for a perfect cheesecake