Monday, May 31, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land, Day 9+

With our flight leaving at 4 pm, we had about half a day left in Shanghai. We finished the packing and loaded the car with our bags (which had increased by one borrowed duffel bag to accommodate our souvenirs).

Kelly with her newest pal, Ryan:

Cheryl, Kate and the kids headed out to do some (more) last-minute goodie-buying. Greg and I headed back into town to see some of the massive electronic stores. You can travel miles and never go outside. These places take up floor upon densely packed floor of buildings spread across multiple city blocks, selling every piece of electronic gear imaginable. One or two items might not even be pirated. The only way to ensure that you are getting a genuine product, backed by a manufacturer's warranty, is to go to nearby Best Buy. The tradeoff for buying a legitimate item is that Best Buy's prices are not negotiable.

This is one of the fancier locations, which resembled an American mall:

In the basement of one of these places was one of the best food courts I've been two. That's not a high bar, but this one was great. There was a Burger King, but also counter after counter of Asian foods of all kinds, from Mongolian barbeque to Indian food to, of course, traditional Shanghai dumplings. For a couple of bucks, we happily spoiled our lunch.

To get to the electronic stores, Greg and I had taken a subway line that had a station about 300 yards from their house. The line had been under construction since they moved in, and the new line opened that morning. We were among the very first people to ride it. Everything was ultra-clean, of course, but the new station also exhibited odd deficiencies in build quality that spoke to a general disregard for pride in workmanship.

We took a taxi back across town to meet up with the rest of our crew, who were having lunch at the Blue Frog, a restaurant on Hong Mei Lu, the pedestrian road with restaurants from all over the world where we ate breakfast our first morning in Shanghai. I bought my only personal souvenir there, taking home a tall bar glass to add to my growing collection. The restaurant advertised the glasses for sale, but when I asked for one, the bartender just grabbed one from the drying rack, toweled it off and put it in a bag. That's not quite what I expected, but at least I can say it's actually been used in Shanghai.

From there, we parted company with Kate and her kids and Greg drove us to the airport. The novel but somewhat useless Maglev train blasted past us on the way. We arrived with several hours to spare, and some airline seats to arrange. I tried to request the same seats in the back of the airplane we had coming out from Los Angeles, but they were already taken by some savvy travelers. We did manage to get seats together all the way home, though. I also noticed that our bags were only ticketed through Los Angeles, so I had them redo it to go all the way through to San Francisco. I patted myself on the back for that one; I'm way ahead of these people now.

The Shanghai airport has a very traveler-friendly departure lounge, with lots of food and shopping options in a wide, windowed concourse (which offered expansive views of the grey-brown smoggy skies). The airports in both Shanghai and Seoul situate the departure areas a floor about the actual walkway to the airplanes, which allows for broad views of the outdoors. This is far superior to the narrow , ground level views available at most American airports; the new Asian airports get this right.

The flights from Shanghai to Seoul, where we had a very short layover, and Seoul to Los Angeles, were uneventful. I was less comfortable on the long trans-Pacific leg, but the time passed reasonably quickly thanks to two movies and a couple of albums on the entertainment system. We landed in Los Angeles on a warm Saturday afternoon, about half an hour on the clock before we left Shanghai. You have to love the international date line. We trudged through the utterly charmless hallways to the customs checkpoint. We had nothing to hide or worry about, but there is still something unnerving about being interviewed by the customs agent. It seems friendly and innocuous chatter, but every word is spoken with a purpose. We were also informed that, notwithstanding the assurances that apparently every foreign ticket agent gives to travelers, you must personally collect your luggage to get through a second check point. In Asia, the airports were spacious, clean and well-organized. LAX was the complete opposite: crowded and chaotic, with poorly marked instructions. We stayed out of a very short luggage check line because it had a sign posted that restricted the line to handicapped people. As our line went nowhere, we watched with growing frustration as a few "unauthorized" people used the line and exited quickly. Two airport policemen came by and someone in the line asked about the restricted line. One of the policemen chuckled and said there was no restriction on the line. As the went on their way past us as people rapidly filled in the newly unrestricted line, the policemen laughed to each other, yukking it up in disbelief that anyone would follow the directions on the posted signs; such rubes. I guess a lack of pride in workmanship is not limited to China.

We took our luggage over to an intermediate room where people with connecting flights are to leave the bags (why doesn't teh airport do this?). There was no obvious place to leave the bags, as there were a couple of conveyer belts, a couple of counters, and an airport employee with a printed flight list in hand trying to catch people as they came through. I took our bags to her when she offered vague assurances that we were roughly in the right place. She started to check our bags against her flight list, but was distracted by the next glut of confused passengers, so we left the bags and moved on to the long hike down to the United domestic terminal.

Sitting in the United departure lounge waiting for the flight home, something nagged at me -- ah, hello again, worry demons. I pulled out our boarding passes, and checked them against the paperwork I received in Shanghai from the Asiana agent who had checked out bags. Sure enough, inexplicably, the flight numbers did not match. United did not even have a flight number that matched out bags at all. I jumped over to the United customer service desk to sort out this last travel issue. I explained that our bags had actually made it to LA, but they were labeled for a flight that did not exist. The best the agent (who, to her credit, was very friendly and appeared to be competent) could do was put a note into the system informing anyone who came into contact with the bags that they were supposed to be on such-and-such a flight to San Francisco. By that point, less than an hour before our flight, the bags may have already been picked up and dropped ... somewhere. I thought back to the transfer agent who had not taken the time to check our bags against her printed list of flights; I have learned to react when I hear that little nagging voice, which piped up when the harried transfer worker started but did not finish looking up our flight. I could only shake my head in rueful admiration at the determination of the travel-hell demons to screw up our travel. They were going to get me at the very end.

Our airplane had arrived, so I watched out the window, pondering how long it would be until we got our clothes and souvenirs back. That's when the luggage carts arrived. Incredibly, I saw two of our bags actually go into the aircraft. I figured that if two were there, the other two were also there. In another unexpected bonus, we had somehow ended up in United's economy plus section, which is the section for people who have knees. We had more room there than we had had on any of our other flights.

Finally, after hours of travel, we arrived back in San Francisco. Even better, so did all of our luggage.

After the hike to the shuttle bus, the bus trip to the car, and the drive home, we staggered off to bed by about 10 pm. I was the first to awaken on Sunday morning, at 10:30 am. Michael was the last up, at 1:30 pm. I went into work on Monday, but succumbed to jet lag for the afternoon. None of us felt back to normal until Wednesday.

Before we left, we were very excited to see our friends, but only generally interested to see China. It is not someplace I ever would have chosen to go. Having returned, we are all very grateful for the opportunity we had to visit Shanghai; it is an incredible city, full of energy and contradiction. There were no white-sand beaches (those will be for the next trip), but it was a fantastic trip of a different sort, where we soaked up a culture very foreign to us and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Greg and Kate were incredible hosts, and we enjoyed our time together as friends as we always have, wherever we have founds ourselves in the world. Our lives are better for having made the effort to go.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land, Day 8

For our last full day in China, we decided to venture out from Shanghai to visit the watertowns, a group of villages built upon waterways much like Venice. Unlike much of Shanghai that we saw, the watertowns have been in existence for hundreds of years, where you can cross over (or under, on the water) bridges that date back to the Ming Dynasty.

A little more than an hour west of Shanghai by modern highway, our first was Tong Li. This little town had a conventional land-side commercial and residential zone.

With the payment of a few RMB, you could pass over into the much older waterside part of the town. This part of the town was marked with narrow alleys, slim canals, and ancient bridges.

We saw this unusual fishing vessel tied to the side of the canal.

The birds are tethered to the boat. The fisherman sends the birds out to hunt for fish, which they bring back to the boat in exchange for a portion of their catch. Avian sharecroppers, as it were.

We spent much of our time in Tong Li shopping for souvenirs in a few of the many tiny shops that line the canals. That left us with no time to visit the China Sex Museum. That’s probably for the best.

After a semi-harrowing tram ride back to the car, we took country roads to the next watertown of Zhujiajiao. I was particularly interested in traveling the smaller roads to get a feel for the Chinese countryside. Like much of America, the rural landscape is dotted with small towns and houses here and there. What was different and, I think, uniquely Chinese was that where barns would stand in farmers’ fields in a similar trip in the US, there were small factories rising from countless Chinese fields. They were not the massive facilities at factories usually become stateside; most were relatively modest in size, the size of a large gymnasium. There was no way to tell what sorts of widgets they were building, but it was clear that China’s status as the world’s preeminent producer of consumer goods is well-earned by the efforts of what must be hundreds or thousands of similar operations.

A typical truck on Chinese roads:

At Zhujiajiao, we dropped in on the local KFC for lunch. The employees were less adept with English than their counterparts in Shanghai (where I had no trouble ordering lunch at a McDonald’s several days before), but like most restaurants we visited, every item on the menu was shown in a picture.

After consuming chicken infused with the very familiar 11 herbs and spices, we crossed over a tall bridge and wandered about in the very charming town.

The alleyways were tight, full of a combination of traditional food establishments and tourist trinket stores.

Cheryl hard at work, hunting for souvenirs:

We enjoyed exploring the extensive gardens of a formerly private (and grand) home in the town:

We had our most unusual and overt "foreigner" moment in Zhujiajiao. Two young Chinese women approached Michael and I, pantomiming using a camera and pointing at Michael. I gathered that they wanted to take a picture with him. We were in a public place and I was bigger than they were, so I figured it was safe, and the novelty of it was too funny to pass up. One girl happily posed with Michael while her compatriot took a couple of pictures. For his part, he was too surprised to do anything but flash his smile automatically when the camera came out.

After the girls went on their way after offering gracious thanks to us, though, Michael had words with me. Sternly, he made it clear that I was to ask his permission before granting photo privileges. Point taken.

One of the reasons we went to Zhujiajiao in particular is because it is where a prominent paper cutting artist works and sells his wares. Greg and Kate have a number of his beautiful creations in their house, and we looked forward to finding one for ourselves. Unfortunately, on the day we visited, the artist was not working. Instead, we found another shop where a woman and her aged father created beautiful watercolor and calligraphy scenes. We bought a number of pieces from her, some the size of index cards that Kelly gave to a number of her friends, and some larger pieces. Although the town clearly caters to tourists, there is still something charming and honest about buying art that this woman and her father (who was outside in an alley working on new pieces while we were there) had created.

When it was time to leave, we took one of the many riverboats piloted by a man with a single oar off the back of the boat. With a well-practiced twisting action, he deftly propelled the boat forward and steered it with the single oar.

After we returned to the house, it was time to start packing for the trip home. Greg and Kate’s nanny (Xiao Wu, the kind young lady who had let us into the house the first day), had diligently washed and folded our clothes all week, which made packing a simple exercise. (Greg and Kate had advised us before our trip that Xiao Wu would take care of laundry, so we were able to pack very lightly. Considering the challenges we faced in the airports, packing lightly made a huge difference in simplifying our travel as much as possible.)

Packing to leave also meant that it was time to tackle the travel demons again. I had been unable to get seat assignments for our homeward flights, and knowing how full all of our flights had been, and how lucky we had been to be seated anywhere near each other, I was becoming worried that we would be scattered all over the airplanes for the trip home. Since we were within 24 hours of our departure, I made a concerted effort, through a towering display of patience, to work through the airlines’ phone systems to try to get our seats for the trip. After innumerable keypresses, I managed to get through to an Asiana customer service representative. She assured me, cheerfully, that the only place I could reserve seats was at the airport itself. Although that was disappointing, it was also somewhat liberating. We could not do a thing to control where we would sit until we got to the airport, so there was no sense in worrying that I was missing some opportunity to make our lives easier (which is how I spend much of my worry time on a regular basis anyway).

All that remained, then, was an easy morning of last-minute souvenir buying and a trip to the airport. We knew, though, that our adventure would not end until we got all the way home.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land, Day 7

Day seven of our Shanghai tour held out the promise of viewing more Shanghai landmarks, plus a lunchtime visit to the visa section of the U.S. Consulate to catch Greg for lunch.

Once again, we bundled ourselves up in Kate's car for a trip downtown. This time, the traffic was snarled on the elevated highway. Poor Ryan. Not-quit-two-year-olds the world over object to traffic jams, and Ryan was no exception, especially since his mom was driving and could not comfort him. As we neared our destination, though, Kate found some time in the "stop" portion of the stop-and-go traffic to give Ryan her full attention, and he calmed right now. He's a great kid, and it was the only time all week he was anything but perfectly genial.

As Kelly and I had the day before, our whole family executed a perfect dump and run at the roadside so that Kate could find parking while we explored the Jing'an Temple:

This Buddhist temple takes up most of a city block, is surrounded by typically modern office buildings, and houses a variety of shops in its outer walls. Like so much else in Shanghai, the temple was freshly spruced up for the coming Expo.

The temple is not a mere tourist curiosity. It is a functioning house of worship; a service of some kind took place in one of the many altar rooms while we were there, while other visitors lit incense sticks or prayed to innumerable Buddhas.

Across the street from the temple is a very pretty park, with manicured gardens and an elegant waterside restaurant.

The park contains remnants of ramparts that once guarded the temple. Plaques in the park also describe various artifacts that used to be kept there, until they were destroyed during the cultural revolution. The destruction of priceless pieces of Chinese history is stated dispassionately, but the bland explanation only accentuates the needless tragedy of the cultural purges.

We walked from the park to the business district where the U.S. Consulate's visa office is located. Amid high-end department stores plastered with building-sized billboards for expensive European cars, the visa office is hidden away, nearly unmarked, about halfway up an office tower (which has a multi-story department store in its lower floors, complete with a Mercedes-Benz display). We were given a quick tour of the small office, which has a dozen or so portals through which diplomatic officers interview and process Chinese nationals who wish to obtain visas to visit the U.S. The diplomatic corps interviews a staggering number of people each day, yet still manages to flag and investigate numerous people who should not receive visas. There is also a small set of windows for U.S. citizens who need assistance. Still, unless you knew what you were looking for, you would have absolutely no idea that the U.S. Consulate was in the building.

We had lunch at the Crystal Jade, another fabulous restaurant where I had perhaps the best sweet and sour pork I will ever taste. Along with more delectable xiao long bao, of course.

Leaving Greg to his post at work and Kate to take her kids home, we found our way to the subway and went back to the People's Park to go to the Shanghai Museum.

The Museum is across the street from the Municipal Building, which was the most overt presence of the ruling Communist Party we encountered in the remarkably free-wheeling Shanghai.

Numerous red Chinese flags flew in front of the imposing building, and it was guarded by two young soldiers wielding rifles. None of it appeared to be particularly ceremonial.

I became a little more acquainted with the state authorities than I wanted when we went through security at the museum. As we approached the x-ray machine, a young soldier in an ill-fitting army uniformed became very agitated as I approached. He felt no need to attempt to communicate with me in English (for which I do not fault him), but he clearly had a problem with something I was carrying in my backpack. As it turns out, we had two water bottles in the exterior pockets of the backpack. I was already concerned that they would be a problem, but not for the correct reasons, as it turns out. Bringing water into the museum was not the problem. I was ready to dispose of the water bottles in the trash as we entered, which only upset the solder and another security guard even more. What bothered them was that while one of the bottles was well-labeled and had obviously been purchased in town, the other was a standard clear water bottle that unfortunately no longer had a label attached. After a few anxious moments of pantomiming, I realized that the security detail wanted me to drink from the unmarked bottle, to prove that it was, in fact, just water. Once I did so, they immediately lowered the alert level back down to Defcon 5 and turned their attention to the next visitors. (Although I initially thought the security stations in the subways were a joke, I was forced to drink from the unmarked bottle again that evening when we headed home from the museum.)

The Museum was not large, but had many galleries of Chinese art from various eras. We saw pottery from every dynasty, traditional calligraphic artistry, and clothing worn by the many ethnic minorities throughout China. We could have seen coins and other exhibits, but instead we spent significant time at a visiting exhibition of the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, Italy (yes, we viewed European art in a Chinese museum). It was a thrill to see paintings by the true masters of the Renaissance, including Botticelli (The Adoration of the Maji), Titian and Tintoretto. Kelly was in the middle of a project on Botticelli, so the opportunity to see this art first hand was a real treat.

After a stop at one of the ubiquitous Haagen-Dazs vendors and a subway/taxi trip home (we were pros by now), another successful day was in the books. We were just a little sad, though, knowing that it was our last trip into the city before the end of our vacation.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spring Sports Update

Sandwiched around our spring break trip to China, the kids’ spring sports seasons have been going full speed, winding up their respective regular seasons this past weekend.

Kelly has had a great time with her “Penn State” volleyball team. They have a lot of talent, get along well together, and have knowledgeable but nurturing coaches. They lost only one match during the season (in the last game, unfortunately). The team they lost to, Minnesota, lost their only match to Hawaii, which suffered its only loss at the hands of… Penn State. Our girls will be seeded second in the championship tournament, and will play their first tournament game this Saturday.

The season has been particularly fun for me, because I have been given the opportunity to help a little bit of practice, which has often involved getting into the game to play. Several of the girls also like to stay after practice to play pickup games that I and a couple of the other parents have participated in. More than once we stayed almost an hour after practice playing volleyball just for fun. I have the scabs on my knees to prove it.

Coaching matters. Not just Xs and Os, but style, especially for girls. This past week, after our practice was over, Kelly and one of her teammates stayed behind to work on their servers with me while a rival team held its practice in the next court. Their practice consisted essentially of a scrimmage, but they were a couple of players short, so the coach invited our girls to join in. Our two players played consistently well, passing the ball to the center position, making sets and generally showing that they knew what they were doing, much better than the players on the team they were helping out. More tellingly, their coach berated his players for everything they did wrong, although about the only thing he seemed to be concerned with is that they called out “mine!” if they were going to play the ball. It was immediately obvious to me (and Kelly) that his team is unified – against him. I saw more than one pair of shoulders slump when he lit into his girls for failing to call for the ball, regardless of whether it had been a good play. In my limited but growing experience with youth sports, I have found that boys can be challenged, but girls need to be built up. It sounds pat and condescending, but the evidence is in full view. Kelly would not be as fervently enthusiastic about volleyball if she had to play for a coach that always criticized rather than taught and encouraged.

Michael’s baseball season, which began in January, finally ended Tuesday night. Our A’s finished up with a 10-5 regular-season record. This past week was particularly heavy, with a practice on Friday, games on Saturday and Sunday, and another game on Tuesday (with practices to come on Thursday (today) and Saturday and the first postseason tournament game on Sunday). Although they finished with a great record, coming in second in the league, it has been something of an up-and-down year for our boys. Some days the offense is overwhelming, and other days it disappears entirely. Some days our defense is solid and intelligent, and other days we can’t catch a ball with a butterfly net, and have no idea what to do with the ball once we get it. Over the weekend, we blew out the Yankees on Saturday, then faced them again on Sunday and squeaked out an incredibly tense 13-12 extra-inning come from behind victory. On Tuesday, though, the first-place Cardinals finished their season sweep of the A’s in a game in which we could do nothing right. The positive to take out of those last three games is that we were missing one of our top three players, and our best player was stuck in a horrible slump on both sides of the ball. For his part, Michael played a lot of second base, a key defensive position. He also recovered his batting stroke, which went through a low spot halfway through the season when he struck out once in two consecutive games, his only strikeouts of the year. Like most of his teammates, however, he did not play particularly well in the last game, although he showed off a strong arm from right field with several pinpoint throws all the way to the pitcher.

Michael, like his teammates, has developed tremendously as a baseball player over the course of this season. His greatest improvement has probably been in his arm strength. At the beginning of the season, he threw across his body without much velocity. That still put him ahead of many of his teammates, but he could barely get the ball across the infield. Now, after hours of throwing with me as well as at practice, his arm is much stronger, and is very accurate. He may not be big and strong enough to pitch next year, but his accuracy may give him an opportunity to try it.

Even if the coaches sometimes get upset the boys for appearing to regress toward the end of the season, they know they have a good team. They also know they have a very supportive group of parents. We routinely have a crew of four dads helping with assistant coaching duties on game days, plus another few dads on call to help with field setup when we are the home team. Our grounds crew team shows up an hour before the game, which contrasts starkly with most of the other teams, which seemed to scramble to put together a grounds crew with one or two people half an hour before the game. Since field prep involves dragging the dirt with a metal screen behind an ATV, hosing down the infield, and laying down a lot of chalk lines, it is not a trivial exercise, and the commitment of our team’s parents to helping out has been a testament to the commitment our families have made to the team. During the games, I have become the bench coach, getting the boys ready to bat and calling out defensive positions in between innings. I love being around the boys, encouraging them, getting to know them, building them up when they are down and celebrating with them when they succeed.

Now the real pressure cooker begins: tournament play. Both kids start this weekend. I hope I survive it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land, Day 6

Day six dawned as sunny as day five had been gloomy. Venturing into the heart of Shanghai again, we utilized a more conventionally American method of conveyance: we piled into Kate’s car and she drove us into town.

With a little bit of patience, we made our way to Yu Yuan Gardens, a shopping mall of sorts for all manner of trinkets.

The shopping areas surround a traditional garden; until recently, everything had been hidden under scaffolding as countless workers refurbished the buildings in preparation for the influx of tourists for the Expo. Now, the buildings are freshly lustrous:

While there, Cheryl, with Kate’s expert help, haggled with storekeepers and came away with silk pajamas for herself and Kelly, a T-shirt for Michael, and some “Oakley” sunglasses, the last for about three dollars. We allowed ourselves to be drawn into the far reaches of the long, densely packed stores, but, again with Kate around to keep the shopkeepers at bay, we managed to escape without buying a bunch of junk… or at least without paying more than we should have for a bunch of junk.

Speaking of junk, we bought some AA batteries there for Kelly’s camera. They may have been labeled Duracell, but like just about everything other product in China bearing a recognizable name, their provenance was highly suspect. The batteries were dead by the end of the afternoon, under nothing more than light usage.

A special treat was a small area where artisans were available to create, on the spot, beautiful personalized drawings or traditional Chinese character stamps. While Kate purchased a couple of the brass stamps for her sons, we commissioned the artist to put together a beautiful drawing of bamboo with a special birthday greetings for Kelly, as it was indeed her 13th birthday. Dad was doing his own explorations of China around the time Cheryl and I were married, and he gave us a Chinese scroll that was personalized with our names and the date of our wedding. It was fun for us to see an echo of that special gift in the art we gave Kelly. The drawing is beautiful, but the opportunity to watch the artist create it was exquisitely deft strokes of his pen makes it a true keepsake.

After our shopping extravaganza, everybody but Kelly and I went home, and Kelly and I headed out for some dad-and-daughter time. With the beautiful weather, we decided it was our opportunity to try to go to the top of the World Financial Center again. In another only-again-Shanghai moment, Kate dumped Kelly and I out almost literally in the middle of a tremendously busy intersection, pausing at the curb after a left turn just long enough for us to leap from the car and hop over a low fence to get into the relative safety of the People’s Park. (I don't fault her for this; it was by far the best way for us to get where we were going, and it fit with the general unruliness of Shanghai traffic.) From there, we fumbled our way to the subway, for one stop to get us under the river.

The newer, Pudong side of the river is quite a contrast from old Shanghai:

Up we went, 474 meters to highest of three observation decks in the World Financial Center, at 492 meters (1614 feet) the third tallest building in the world.

Smog limits the view somewhat, but the vista is impressive. Looking north across the river and the Bund to the older part of Shanghai:

The Pearl Tower:

The Pearl Tower with the Jin Mao Tower in the foreground:

Looking south:

A view through the floor:

Kelly and I had a terrific time looking out at the city, taking dozens of pictures and watching other people do the same thing. The upper observation deck hangs below the large opening in the top of the building. We sampled each of the two lower observation decks, which are progressively wider as the building itself widens. We eventually made our way back down to the street and the subway, as we had to get back home to continue our day.

Successfully navigating the gauntlet of trans and taxis yet again, we returned home to take-out dinner (food in China – not limited to Chinese food – is commonly ordered for delivery) and a birthday celebration for Kelly:

We then departed for our evening activity: an acrobatic dance performance. This required us to go to a part of the city we had not yet been to, so we were a little less confident in our ability to get there. However, the taxi driver took a look at our tickets (which we had purchased the day before at a ticket agency miles from the venue and totally unmarked from the street – many thanks once again to our expert hosts) and grunted his acknowledgement. For once, we found ourselves not in one of the ubiquitous, rattling VW Santanas (a Chinese-made version of the Passat from two generations back) but a nearly brand-new Buick. Luxuriating in the quiet ride and comfy leather seats, we rode in style to the Shanghai Circus World, the circular theater where the performance was to take place. It was perhaps the one place we visited where non-Chinese easily outnumbered Chinese. The performance itself was astonishing, with amazing feats of strength, grace, flexibility and courage.

I was concerned that Kelly might feel let down by having her birthday in the middle of a family vacation. Happily, she had a great day and enjoyed all of it. Technically, given the huge time difference, the actual anniversary of her birth would not take place until about 5 the next morning, but we decided we would let her have her day anyway. In our defense (should a defense have been needed), we could say we went to the ends of the earth for her birthday. We could not have gone any farther from home, but our delight in her, and her innate joy of family, we brought with us.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Day 5

After getting our first real taste of Shanghai, and armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the subway system and a business card with Greg and Kate’s address to show to taxi drivers, we were ready to venture out on our own. We were especially excited to visit the ultra-tall skyscrapers in the newer Pudong area, where we could see the whole city from the highest observation deck in the world. Accompanied by Kate and her kids, we bundled into taxis over to the nearby subway station, rode the train to Lu Jia Zui, and hustled up the stairs from the subway to see …

The highest observation deck in the world is not of much use if it is so high that it is literally in the clouds. Cold, cloudy weather forced us to change our plans. We took a brisk walk down to the waterfront -- brisk by necessity because we had to stay warm.

On a sunny day, it would be a nice place to spend some time, just watching children playing, ships passing by and admiring the view of the colonial-era buildings on the Bund, the historic waterfront.

Instead of going up, we went down. After Kate took her kids home, we went to the Shanghai History Museum, which is housed in a circular display beneath the Pearl Tower.

The museum offers an interesting telling of the history of Shanghai, complete with a victim’s perspective on the imperialist “invasion” by the British and French, and little mention of the social purges and destruction of Chinese cultural artifacts under the Communist regimes. Because Shanghai has always been the Chinese city with the most interaction with the West, the history of its attempts to incorporate Western influences is fascinating.

Michael with a Chinese-made post-WWII Buick, a product of one of Shanghai’s first industrial alliances with the West, a venture that continues, along with a similarly prolific arrangement with VW, to this day:

Walking through museums is exhausting, of course, so we found our way back to the subway and successfully negotiated our way all the way back home. We rested during the afternoon, looking forward to our evening excursion. By coincidence, one of our friends from Southern California was in Shanghai overseeing the installation of massive sound and video systems in several of the pavilions at the Expo. We arranged to meet him for dinner that evening, so off we went again, this time taking a taxi all the way downtown, into the drizzly Shanghai night.

Shanghai is no Tokyo when it comes to dense, bright neon and LED signage. However, it doesn’t take much rain at night for an Asian city to evoke the set of Blade Runner, especially when blue neon tubes are affixed to the under sides of the raised highways. Other than the first moments of our escape from the airport, Shanghai never felt more foreign, or more exotic, then during our taxi ride to our friend’s hotel. Cars and scooters were everywhere, as usual, but the haphazard light reflecting off the damp pavement and buildings gave everything in view an utterly surreal, hard-edged character. Our friend was in a very nice studio apartment in the Marriott, halfway up the tall pointy building shown in the entry for Day 4 (the picture with the old clock tower in the foreground). The building was as modern and as exotic as it appeared from the outside. However, in our ten minute walk to a nearby restaurant, we immediately plunged into a dark labyrinth of alleyways and one-lane-streets where an occasional tiny store or restaurant with one or two tables remained open.

We shared a terrific meal with our friend, although we sorely missed the expertise of our hosts when it came to ordering food. The wait staff was incapable of communicating in English, as incapable as we were at speaking Chinese. Thankfully, the menu had pictures for most items. However, we were surprised when a couple of the dishes we ordered were substantially (really substantially) hotter than similar items we had eaten elsewhere. That ruined Michael’s might, and he eventually fell asleep, but we had a great time catching up about good times we had in Southern California as well as a fascinating times we had each had in Shanghai. (As of the date of this writing, more than a month later, he is still in Shanghai overseeing many of the pavilions at the Expo.)

We were among the last patrons to leave the restaurant, even though it was not much beyond 9 PM. The streets were a little quieter, but the distinct sense of being in a foreign city remained. As we walked back through the side streets and alleyways to the hotel, we came across more than one tiny restaurant where people were outside cooking up unidentifiable food that smelled terrific, attended by small groupings of what must have been local residents. Then, by the simple act of crossing a street, we sidled between Bentleys and Maseratis, passed through immense glass doors and found ourselves once again in an elegant hotel lobby that would not be out of place in any major city anywhere in the world. The doorman hailed a taxi for us, and after scrutinizing our “Take Me Home” card, the driver whisked us back to our home away from home.

We had 3 ½ days remaining of our trip, but we had accomplished many of our objectives, all of them without a hitch. It is not easy to travel widely if you don’t know the language, but if you know just enough about your specific destination, it can be done with a minimum of fuss. Another great day in the books.