Shanghai is a large city of about twenty-three million people. Though it’s the most westernized city in China, the vast majority of those twenty-three million people are…wait for it….Chinese! White or black people are the obvious exceptions in the sea of Asian faces.
In preparing to visit China I was told to expect people to stare at me, a non-Asian, in public. About all I have in common physically with the Chinese are my dark eyes. My silvery hair used to be dark brown, but no longer. I certainly would never be mistaken for an Asian. I’m an introvert and do not enjoy being stared at, but as a larger woman close to 6 feet tall, I have rarely managed to engage stealth mode and slip in and out of a group unnoticed. Even so, I was still not looking forward to being stared at every time I went out into public
Then had an interesting idea. Instead of letting all that staring make me uncomfortable, I decided I would simply smile at everyone I noticed staring at me. Guess what? Most everyone smiled back! Some shyly, some warmly, and some with a broad grin as if to say, “Aha! You caught me looking!”
I’m not a xenophobe, and my guess is that many people from other cultures are not either. But be honest, don’t we tend to do a double take when we notice someone very different from us? Those glances are often simply borne out of curiosity or an awareness of something different.
There was one thing, however, that made me jumpy and particularly concerned about getting around in Shanghai, the possibility of being targeted by pickpockets in crowded places. I was warned by several people to be aware of pickpockets who often work in pairs and follow foreigners or get especially close to potential targets in public places. Great. So be aware of anyone getting particularly close to me in public places.
Have you ever observed Asians in crowded places? They have a different cultural norm for respecting personal space, so close crowding and jostling are perfectly acceptable to them. How was I supposed to sort out pickpockets from the non-threatening Chinese shopper? What if someone stole my passport? My credit card? My camera? Several of my new acquaintances regaled me with their stories of being pickpocketed or targeted for pickpocketing. I was so nervous about the possibility of being pickpocketed that I wouldn’t even take my cross-body purse or my camera out with me the first few days we were in Shanghai. (And my husband would tell you that my purse is surgically attached to me so that I am never without it.)
As we prepared to visit some famous sites of Shanghai I realized I was being ridiculous. Yes, take precautions. And yes, be vigilant. But stop being overly imaginative and take both camera and purse and enjoy observing a new culture.
On our whirlwind tour of Shanghai, we stopped at Yu Garden, wandering through the shopping area first, then stepping outside to learn about some of the amazing ancient Chinese buildings. My husband exercised his excellent bargaining skills to purchase some gifts and mementos. He drove such a hard bargain that one of the shopkeepers grumbled and said, “You make me poverty!” as he closed the deal and wrapped up the parcel, a broad grin on his face.
One of my favorite things to do in a new location is to find a place to sit, observe, and absorb the atmosphere of a place. I love to look through my camera lens and snap images of things that impress me. An interesting architectural feature – click. Busy intersection – click. Sun-dappled flower- click. Fascinating people – click.
While perched on a low wall outside of Yu Garden I used my camera to capture snippets of the busyness of the place. An older Chinese gentleman sat down near me and, after observing me quietly for a minute, greeted me in excellent English. We went on to have a conversation about Canada and oil and economics. He stood up and said, “It was nice talking with you.” Yes, I thought, it WAS very nice to chat with this stranger in a city of 23 million people.
Near the City God Temple we stopped to take some pictures when three older Chinese people accosted us. They crowded close to us grinning broadly and loudly repeated, “Heh-low!” Were these some of the infamous pickpockets we had been warned about? Cautiously we replied, “Hello” which produced even broader grins and more enthusiastic “Heh-lows.”
My lovely daughter-in-law speaks Mandarin quite well. She learned these three were from another province in China and were tourists in Shanghai just like we were. They asked my daughter-in-law if they could have a picture with my husband, and then with my husband and me. She told us they vigorously debated among themselves whether my husband was 2 meters tall or not. They practiced their one English word, “Heh-low!” over and over with us, and delightedly thumped my husband on the back and pumped his hand in thanks for the photo. They tried saying “Canada” and we tried to say the Mandarin word for thank you. It was a fun cultural exchange, with no pickpocketing involved!
We learned from our son that the Chinese are gift-giving people. Before flying to Shanghai we had consulted our family about appropriate gifts to take for the special Chinese people who have blessed and befriended our loved ones in China. We wanted to thank them for their help and kindnesses to our son and his family over the years. Instead we found that we were blessed and honored that so many regaled us with special gifts and meals during our stay.
While in Shanghai I was treated with great kindness, even by strangers. My fibromyalgia and arthritis sometimes prevent me from walking very far so we used taxis to get around. Some of the cabs were a tight fit for me and I would have to maneuver my leg carefully to get seated. Several times a cabbie or worker where we were staying would see me struggling to get my sore leg in and would run over and help lift my leg into the taxi. I was really touched by those gestures of kindness.
The Chinese are like any other people group. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are beautiful, some more ordinary looking. Some are short and some a little taller. From our observations, they seem to love their children and respect their elders. Like in any large metropolitan area, a small criminal element exists, but many people we interacted with were kind and thoughtful. Our encounters with people in Shanghai were mostly positive and provided us with good memories of this city of twenty-three million people.