After an eleven hour overnight flight we arrived in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon to be greeted at the airport by Jon and his eldest daughter Olivia. Olivia is the delightful girl holding the sign; Jon is the one in the camp hat.
It has been three years since I was last in Shanghai. It was then a building site, awash with most of the world’s concrete which was being shaped in shuttering in preparation for Expo 2010. It looks a lot nicer now. Vibrant and bustling – full of promise, an intoxicating mix of optimism, noise and pollution.
Some things had remained the same. The generosity of Jon’s friends Andrew and Sunhyi Todd who came to dinner on the day of our arrival, being one. I had stayed with them last time I was in Shanghai.
There are a number of cures touted for jetlag. Four bottles of red wine and two bottles of malt whiskey did not make the short-list, and for good reasons. The heady combination brought out the usual male-trait of solving the world’s problems with alcohol. The conversation progressed, or more accurately regressed, as the malt flowed. The key requirement is to hold increasingly extreme views on anything, and indeed everything. Whisky has the strange property of promoting conviction and passion, whilst removing the ability to offer any supporting arguments. “Talking bollocks” as it’s known to outsiders who have not imbibed sufficiently to share in the collective wisdom.
Monday morning arrived early and with a hang-over. The joy of living in the play room is you can share the enthusiasm and relentless curiosity of young children from about 6.00am onwards. Mark resolved to head downtown to see the Bund. I resolved to put right last night’s damage and conquer my jet-lag with a programme of extensive massage – about 3 hours worth. A full body massage followed with an extended foot massage. Andrew promised to “pick me up” at about 9.30. He didn’t disappoint, arriving by tandem at the appointed hour.
I adore massage. I like to enter the twilight zone of complete relaxation – a sort of meditation on contentment, punctuated with the odd spasm of pain to keep you awake. I have no need for conversation at such times. Women I find do not generally hold with this quiet reflection. My dental hygienist usually has a couple of fingers and a probe or two rammed down my throat when she enquires about where I am going for holidays. The incoherent noise that comes out of my mouth each time invariably sounds the same, and certainly far too vague to identify the correct destination There is no such place as “migotoa” as far as I am aware.
I vaguely recognised the massage girl from the last trip. As she speaks no English and I no Chinese the information exchange was likely to be even more limited than my dental conversations. She was undeterred. When I looked blankly at her when she slowly repeated some simple Chinese words she would search for alternative Chinese words and repeat the process. The strategy was doomed to failure as I don’t in fact understand any Chinese words.
The breakthrough came during the foot massage. She grabbed her IPhone and keyed her was through 4 or 5 screens of Chinese characters and handed it to me. It said “lovely/loveliness” in English. I was naturally delighted with this, although the long time delay gave ambiguity as to what in fact inspired these words. The most likely candidates were my right foot, the weather or, less likely still, me in general.
Nevertheless a precedent had been set and the process started. The next exchange produced “much/from” on the IPhone screen, which I felt was a conversational cul-de-sac. I smiled weakly.
The highpoint of the exchange came when the girl admired the hairiness of my left calf. She pinched bits of the stuff between her thumb and forefinger and then enthusiastically hit the IPhone screen. She handed it to me displaying the words “sexy/sexy looking”. Finally it has been recognised. “I’ll be coming here again”, I thought as I reflectively sipped my green tea.
In the evening we went out dinner on Jon’s Chang Jiang 750. The Chinese are wonderfully lax about traffic laws – no helmets, and indeed many vehicles don’t bother with headlights. Dinner was inevitably preceded with drinks with a bunch of Jon’s mates. Most were ex pat teachers from the school. Two of the group implausibly seemed to share the name ‘Alfred’ and one was a Dutch engineer, who spoke to a dog in French. As Jon moves to Thailand shortly the conversation inevitably turned to Thai cuisine and lady-boys.
Dinner was at a nearby Japanese restaurant. Jon impressed us all with his fluency at pointing at pictures on the menu. He enthusiastically ordered a large selection of meat and fish, which they cook at the table. The initial items were tasty. My heart sank when we reached his culturally-sensitive ethnic selections. The low point of my last visit to Shanghai was eating stinky Tofu. The Chinese ferment tofu – it smells like poo, it tastes like poo. It is absolutely degusting. Jon had clearly decided to extend this theme by ordering most of the pigs digestive tract – bowel, large and small intestines, arsehole – the lot. The culinary journey was complete. Not only had we smelt and tasted poo, we were now actually eating it.
Post dinner we returned to the bar to continue the discourse on lady-boys and Chinese labour laws. In the midst of the noisy conversation Jon casually mentioned “I’m going with them to Lhasa”. I was stunned. I asked him to repeat it several times and swear the veracity of the statement on each of his Children’s lives in turn. It was evidently true and he had kept the secret brilliantly. I thought to myself “Fantastic”, quickly followed by “Fuck it – the T-shirts are wrong”.