LETTERS FROM SHANGHAI

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Dirtiness and Cheesecake


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.