Year Abroad: Shanghai Touchdown

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Leaving Taipei is strange. I’m not sure what to make of the move I’m making to Shanghai – controversially thought of as the south capital of China – but making it with my entire family in tow manages to dull any would be panic. Having never lived in a city bigger than Taipei, I’ve no idea what to expect of life in a city sprawled across some 6,340 km², to Taipei’s mere 271.7 km², and that’s to say nothing of Exeter or Belfast.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve set foot in Shanghai: the family transited here at the end of July… for one of the hottest heatwaves that Shanghai has experienced. As we fled the mid-day heat that soared into the high 30s (Celsius), world news was transfixed by a news broadcast of bacon and eggs frying on pavement that was reaching searing temperatures of 60. Some serious hotel air-conditioning, and continental breakfast does much to ease our jet-lag, exhaustion and the shock of the temperature difference, still we brave the mid-day make a regrettably sweaty visit to the magnificent Yu Yuan Gardens (stopping off for a much needed McDonalds Taro Ice-Cream) and at night venture tentatively for an afternoon to Nanjing East Road and nightfall at The Chinese Bund.

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Like many a literature student, my only second-hand, preconception of Shanghai comes from reading J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun at seventeen: a 1940s city falling into the turmoil of World War II. As I approach The Chinese Bund, and gape at the looming structures of former foreign consulate and business buildings on the PuXi, side it’s the hoards of people, surging towards the black water of the Huang Pu River in the night that are the strongest presence around us. The water reflects the thousands upon thousands of lights that string up the towers on the PuDong bank in the night sky, making me think the “gaudy city”, as Ballard opens his novel, is still living up to it’s claim. It’s hot, sticky and as the throngs press around us, down the entirety of East Nanjing Road to and from the Bund, and rushing with blankly manic gestures towards the opening train doors on the metro (地鐵 – Dìtiě); queuing is a foreign concept, running for a free seat is not.

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Yet, the Bund makes a second appearance when we arrive in the Shanghai for the second time, and for a welcome to my home for a year, the family brave the humidity and heat of Nanjing East Road a second time, to see the skyline of the Bund by day. It’s well worth the baking concrete walk and overhead sun. The crowds are considerably less by daylight, and we wander up the banks strip, noting the spirited Chinese flags atop the Pu Xi buildings, and becoming more and more interesting to the local Chinese tourists. The blink of black lenses and unnecessary flashes on the sidewalk slowly turn towards our family of five, as we snap our own family photos, and as the pictures become ridiculously blatant, we make a quick exit off the Bund sidewalk. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be with my family for our first experience of the interesting social practice of  photographing foreigners.

I assumed that here in Shanghai, with an estimated population of 23.5 million, my dark hair, dark eyes and vaguely Asian features may have spared me the embarrassment, total invasion of privacy and complete bafflement  that comes with having a stranger blatantly take your photo.

Apparently not.

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Looking forward to the year ahead!

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Taiwan: Dramatic Driving

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Having passed my driving test some three years ago (second time lucky) I’ve only ever driven two cars around Northern Ireland; I didn’t take a car to university and never even tried a motorbike in Taipei on my gap year. But yesterday I blithely stepped into the driving seat of a Nissan Serena QRV – an eight seater, automatic gear, hard-suspension bouncing bus some 6,000 miles from where I made my maiden, gear-grinding voyage on my little Renault 2.0 Clio.

There’s much to think about driving here on the other side of the world, besides not slamming my foot on the parking break thinking its the clutch (automatic, Charlotte, automatic): the towns and their roads are cluttered, bustling and busy with the blithe tootling of horns, swerving of hundreds of motorbikes and flashing lights of shop signs, hawkers and vans vying for your attention. Luckily for me, the motorways where I make my first Asia journey are much less daunting.

Nevertheless, Taiwanese signage is a sensory explosion of crammed Chinese characters, illusive arrows and dubiously spelt English translations that litter the small window space with an overkill of unintelligible information at the most crucial of times – foreign junctions, crossroads, and roundabouts. And that’s to say nothing for four (or a times seven !) hand-waving and finger-pointing happy back-seat-drivers who enjoy commentating on the daring of both the Chinese drivers, and myself. Noise reaches it’s peak, with driver joining in the clamber for coins and foray of instructions and translations, at the various toll stations along the freeway, 高速公路 (Gāosù gōnglù). I’m pleased to give evidence of 100% uneventful toll transactions which the whole family survived, albeit noisily.

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One of the most interesting things about driving in Taiwan, is the countdown system at the lights: from the moment they turn red the timer starts, letting drivers know when the light will turn green again. It’s not just for the cars, pedestrians also have a yellow counter telling them how long they have to cross the wide roads here – and to take the biscuit – a small, green animated man who slowly speeds up his pace until he runs and the lights flash incessantly telling you you should probably pelt it if you want to make it to the other side.

I’m not quite sure if the point of these is to placate the impatient public during long waits at the red lights here; certainly I’ve been at lights which have counted an agonizing eighty seconds. However, as I’ve noticed, knowing you’ve got time to kill at the lights, and a warning for when you’ll have to pay attention again prompts some interesting red light behaviour. From heavily cloaked ladies selling jasmine flowers car to car, fishing for and lighting cigarettes, to several (illegal) phonecalls; I’ve even watched an old man park his bike, pull out two saggy, beige socks from deep in a coat pocket, and proceed to sock his feet and slip them leisurely back into his plastic sandals while the counter kept a watch for him at the red light… My heart was jumping the entire time just watching him.

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The best thing about driving abroad for me though?
I don’t get carsick!

A big hurrah for all involved!

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