We saw nothing interesting about the architecture as we walked through the French Concession district of Shanghai, and our language issues persisted.
There’s literally an English-speaking façade here in the sense that storefronts, billboards and even highway signs display messages in both English and Chinese. You might see a place called (in English) “Such-and-Such Tea House and Bakery,” for example, but once inside you find there’s no English on the menu, and the service staff are unable to understand the English word water or even the word tea. And they certainly don’t go out of their way to be helpful.
Tracy is a vegetarian. We ordered vegetable fried rice for her at a tea house and tried to confirm with our waitress that it didn’t contain meat. She absolutely did not understand the question, however, so we didn’t press the issue. When the dish arrived, it had little bits of bacon in it, and we tried to demonstrate to our waitress through ad hoc sign language that Tracy couldn’t eat it. I picked a piece of the bacon out of her rice with my spoon, pointed to it and then pointed to Tracy while shaking my head and sort of waving my hand back and forth in an apologetic but “negative” way. The waitress didn’t understand our attempts at all. She frowned and simply walked away. A minute later, we called her over again and showed her a line of Chinese from the Lonely Planet book that supposedly translated to “I am a vegetarian.” But she was having none of it. She shook her head and walked away for good.
A short walk later, we wandered into some kind of street bazaar in, where I bought a coat, and together we bought a collection of warm hats. The hawkers there were the most aggressive I’ve encountered in Asia, especially the shoeshine guy who squirted black polish on my shoes while I wasn’t looking and then demanded I pay him to wipe it off.
We spent all our cash at the bazaar, so we had to hit an ATM before we could hire a taxi back to the hotel. We joined a long queue of people at the first ATM we found, but when we tried to withdraw cash, it subtly refused us. I say “subtly” because it actually presented us with a menu labelled “Please select one of the following services:” The friendly service it offered was “Exit”. The second ATM just froze at a blue screen and threatened for several minutes to eat our cards.
Unwilling to risk a third attempt, we decided to hail a taxi, knowing we couldn’t pay the full fare back to the Westin. When we arrived at the hotel, however, we were only a few renminbi short, and the driver was nice about it.
The hotel was a welcome relief, and we even discovered a working ATM next door. We rested up a bit and then met in the lobby for our next excursion – to a gallery called Art Scene Warehouse. The business card and the magazine we were carrying told us the gallery closed at 8pm, but when we arrived at 7:25, they told us they were closing in five minutes. We hurried through the massive space, but they shut the lights off before we were able to see everything. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave, though, because they engaged us for a friendly 20-minute chat at the front desk as we were on our way out. Somehow a 20-minute chat was fine with them, but they couldn’t leave the lights on for an extra 30 seconds. Whatever.
Things began to take a better turn at dinner, after we discovered a nice place called Chatea. The only “Shanghai” moment came when I asked the waitress for something with which to crack the giant lobster claw that came in my soup. She had me put the claw onto a small plate, and she wandered off to the kitchen. Tracy thought she disposed of the claw – as if it had offended me – and we had a laugh about the luck we were having in Shanghai.
The truth is, though, I was a little heartbroken about the claw, because it looked really tasty, so when the waitress actually brought it back I smiled like a five-year-old.