Sometimes, even without visiting a place we subconsciously create an impression of it in our mind. These impressions may stem from the TV shows or movies we watch, the books and magazines we read, or the things that people around us talk about. The first image that comes to my mind when I hear Afghanistan is people with long beards, brandishing guns and grenades. If I hear France, I see a mental image of artists with thin pencil mustaches, sipping wine and painting naked ladies. In my head, Germany is associated with expressionless chain smoking men dressed in military uniforms, New York (USA) with people dressed in business suits, walking fast and talking stock prices on their cell phones, Chad with hungry kids with bloated bellies, with flies in their eyes.
(Sorry if I offended anyone there. As I said, I haven’t been to these places and these impressions are created by things I see on TV, movies, internet etc. And yes, I know there is much, much more to these places.)
Shanghai, somehow, managed to create a very dark impression in my mind. I do not know if I had seen it in some movie, but the first thing that used to come to my mind when I thought of Shanghai was narrow dark alleys, with puddles of water on the sidewalks, dogs barking in the distance, police sirens going off, water dripping from the roofs of abandoned buildings, people wearing overcoats standing under the dim street lights, planning a murder or dealing drugs, maybe both. It is a scene straight out of a 1980s, black and white, gangster movie. As idiotic as it say sound, that’s what I thought Shanghai was like.
And then, I actually visited Shanghai.
I remember on my first day as I stepped out of the East Nanjing Road train station, I was taken aback by the colours, sounds and the sheer volume of people. Thousands of people just wandering through the road that is supposed to be Shanghai’s answer to New York’s Times Square. Aromas from various roadside food stalls wafting through the air, shops buzzing with customers, hawker calls, camera clicks, people singing and dancing, the flashy neon lights, music, laughter, the energy, caught me off guard. It was like being hit by a huge ball of awesomeness.
Later that day, I joined the sea of people and walked with them to the Bund. We passed the famous Fairmont Peace Hotel, the main entrance of which was surrounded by a mob of young girls and boys. I craned my neck to see a man dressed in what looked like a really expensive suit, coming out of the main gate of the hotel, blowing kisses and getting into a shiny black car. And as he did that, a lightning bolt of camera flashes went off, blinding me for a few seconds, and along with it came the deafening screams.
(I still don’t know who that guy was, but he had a lot of fans!)
I watched the Oriental Pearl Tower across the Huangpu River, with hundreds of others, as its purple lights lit up the night sky. The golden lights of the banks, hotels and boutiques on our side of the river seemed to be competing with them.
As I sat there, watching the lights of the business district and taking in all the activities going on around me, clouds moved in, and wind started blowing. And then it rained!
And as soon as the first drop of rain hit my wrist, a Chinese women tapped on my shoulders.
“Umbrella? Only 10 Yuan!”
I swear, the clouds weren’t there a minute ago and how this Chinese woman, carrying a bagful of folding umbrellas, knew it was going to rain is beyond me. I didn’t buy the umbrella, of course. “How long can it possibly rain?” I thought.
But it rained and rained and rained. It rained for five days straight. I did end up buying an umbrella.
Over the next few days, I visited a few of the city landmarks.
At the Jing’an Temple, I saw people throwing coins in a large metal container for good luck. At the Shanghai zoo, I saw a bored Giant Panda. I sipped evening coffee at a café in the French concession. I tasted the soup dumplings that Shanghai is famous for. I visited the Yuyuan Garden to get a glimpse of ancient China.
At night, when the family run shops and restaurants pulled down their shutters, I would step out of the busy roads and into the dark alleys with dim lights. I passed by apartments which had rain water dripping from their roofs, but unlike my imagination, they weren’t abandoned. They were apartments that locals lived in. They seemed friendly. Inviting, even.
I found wonderful local roadside eateries where residents, not visitors and tourists, seemed to be eating from. Though most of them did not understand me, but they were so nice and accommodating. Even though these places weren’t as flashy as the restaurants in the popular shopping areas, I tasted some of the best noodles there.
I remember at one of these eateries, since the owner did not know English (Or rather, I did not know Chinese) and didn’t have a menu that was written in English, she took me around the tables where people were eating and I was supposed to point at a dish that I would like to order. People would stop talking, and look up at us curiously as I scanned through their bowls and plates. The owner would explain the situation and they would burst out laughing and give me a thumbs up, if they liked what they were eating. Their enthusiasm depended upon how much they have had to drink.
Sure, I felt lost, stupid and confused but it was totally worth it.
I also found this quiet street corner which laid down a bunch of chairs and tables on the sidewalk late in the night and served the best street food and the coldest beers. They might not have had the most sophisticated crowd, but it was the place where I felt the most comfortable. Except for the guy who always opened beer bottles with his teeth, none of them seemed to be out there to impress anyone. It was a genuine and honest bunch of slightly drunk people having a great time.
And gradually, the impression of Shanghai in my mind changed. The police sirens I had imagined were replaced by upbeat music. Instead of dogs, I heard laughter in the distance. The men in overcoats were replaced by the friendliest and warmest people imaginable. Shanghai wasn’t dark and creepy anymore. It was fun and lively.
After experiencing Shanghai, I issued a warning to the little photographer in my head.
“Don’t take pictures before you see the place!”