Sunday, 16 November 2008

Leaving Shanghai

It's funny how quickly your perspective can shift. It's hard to recognise when something's going wrong whilst you're inside it. I really thought I loved Shanghai, but it took ten minutes in Nanjing to flip that belief on its head. Shanghai is a great city, a fun city and, above all else, an alive city, dripping with energy - commercial, competitive energy oozes from every face and building. The flip side of this is an undercurrent of aggression that never really leaves you, flashing out in the overcrowded subway or flashpoints with cab drivers, reflected back at you in the phallic skyline (mine's bigger than yours) and gaudy neon used to promote corner shop. The taxi ride from the train station to my hotel started out as a typical Chinese experience, long queues at a bottle neck, pushy cab driver who picked up another passenger with me already in the car, but quickly faded into a pleasure, travelling down Nanjing's broad streets through quiet Sunday evening traffic (a marked contrast to the Sunday lunch traffic we'd fought through to get to the station in Shanghai). Walking the streets is easy, calm, and frequently punctuated by friendly smiles. Of course there are problems, and it's easy to see the positive when you first get to a city, but right now it's a welcome relief from the naked aggression that bubbles around Shanghai, and which was starting to boil up through me in the run up to my departure.

Another strange thing after Shanghai (considered by the Chinese the seedy underbelly of their country, the world's largest red light district) is the difficulty I had finding a bar. Several people on the street couldn't think of one nearby. Finally a young shop assistant (she looked fifteen at most) told me to try a place round the corner. I found it easily and started to enter, but was called back by as I went down the stairs. Unable to understand the Chinese fired at me, I tried out my own few sentences - I don't understand. I go drink beer - and pointed at the budweiser sign above my head. More men came running, and now I was surrounded, each trying his best shot at English whilst I kept trying to explain myself in Chinese. This impasse went on for a few minutes. Finally one turned to me and said "Men not allowed". I smiled at him, said I understood, and started to walk away. "Bye", one of them called. "Bye", I replied. "Bye", he said again, and when I didn't respond he said it again, and again, until I turned round and stopped, burst out laughing, completely overwhelmed with confusion. For the first time I noticed the bar's sign, next to this group of smiling, waving men, twelve foot of neon with the name and, underneath, a drawing, the outline of a busty female form and a pole. Could this be the first time someone's been rejected from a lapdancing club for being male?

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