In China, lovers are often said “to have the destiny to meet across one thousand li.” For my Chinese husband, John, and I, it wasn’t just one thousand li — it was ten thousand li.
Distance, of course, is all relative.
I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and John in the countryside of Zhejiang Province. I knew the distance between us, something around 8,000 or more English miles apart (almost 13,000 kilometers). But this kind of distance, where separation is measured by miles, by continents, is as meaningless as the “Model Unit” plaques adorning work units all over China.
So what is it that can turn a thousand li into ten thousand?
One Saturday evening in Shanghai, I holed up in the kitchen with some long lost culinary acquaintances — angel hair pasta, ripe red tomatoes, and mesculin mix, with flavors that ranged from the bitter, toothy mizuna to the sweet baby lettuces. I wasn’t even close to being purebred Italian, yet for years, an Italian meal on the weekends was as important a ritual as evening mass at the Catholic church. It just wasn’t a week without our spaghetti and salad.
Well, in China, I had spent many a week without spaghetti or salad. And after discovering the foreign foods market just blocks away — the tawny olive oils, the deep balsamic vinegars, pasta, and even salad greens in a rainbow of colors and shapes — I schemed to dazzle my Chinese boyfriend with a taste of my childhood, and feed my thirst for something beyond the usual Chinese fare. Continue reading “Chapter 83: Salad, But Not Safe”
We arranged to see yet another apartment in Shanghai, one dreary Friday at noon in late November. John and I stood at the intersection of two streets just blocks from Xintiandi, the very intersection the real estate agent had designated as our meeting place, and stared at our watch as the minutes ticked past noon, with no sign of an agent.
The agent is late. People arrive late in China all the time. But this followed a string of disappointing apartment visits, with Taoyuan Xincun the nadir. This wasn’t a late agent, but a foreshadowing of failure — our failure to find a good place to live.
After 10 minutes past the hour, a harried, lanky Chinese man in a long trench coat stepped out of a taxi and approached us. “Sorry I’m late. But, don’t worry, this will be fast. The place is just down the street there, that entrance next to the bicycle store.”
In late November, 2003, John and I stood before this shadowed, six-story housing complex that looked more of a Gotham City glum than Shanghai, with a soundtrack of scooters, motorcycles, car horns, and bar hoppers playing all around us in the streets. A fifty-something man with a greased Elvis-style do and dull gray button-down shirt, exuding overconfidence like bad breath, led us towards this urban planning nightmare. The whole scene felt more like a trap — the kind you don’t survive — out of a Hong Kong kungfu movie.
I looked at John with one of my desperate, please-can-we-get-out-of-here glances. The thing is, we both knew this was a dead-end. Not the killing kind of dead-end — but the apartment-hunting kind.
“Now, Taoyuan Xincun,” Elvis said, referring to this glum complex, “used to be a residence for high-level officials.” He smirked proudly about the pedigree of the place, but used to be was the operative word here. The blemishes on the wall, dirty air, and the scream of traffic out the window made it clear that no high-level official would ever live here, even if he got the apartment for nothing. Continue reading “Chapter 81: Shanghai Apartment Hunting Angst”
One Saturday in Shanghai, John and I eschewed our usual date-night standby — the Tianran Vegetarian restaurant — for a Mexican joint my coworker recommended. The place hovered over a bar street in Shanghai that I’d heard of — from heavy ads in all the foreigner mags in Shanghai — but never visited. I maybe had a beer or glass of wine once a month, and couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been in a bar. Still, in a country where avocados were more foreign than I was, I missed Mexican food desperately — desperate enough to go to a neighborhood I’d never gone to before.
With all of the bar ads for this street — and all of those “happy hour” promos — I expected the patrons and music to be overflowing as much as the alcohol. But instead, I could barely hear the music, and saw only a handful of patrons here and there lurking in the shadows, as if this was the Prohibition era and no one wanted to be caught. And even stranger, the restaurant, perched on the second floor, had the same lascivious glow of a red-light district brothel in Amsterdam. Was this really the Mexican food dinner my friend, a girl at that, had recommended? Continue reading “Chapter 80: The Foreign Foreigners”
In China, I’ve heard people say you might have rats or cockroaches in your apartment, but never both.
If only they’d lived where I did. That creaky old wooden Shanghai townhouse — in the same 1920s style as the surrounding neighborhood — oozed a lot more than just character after we moved in.
John and I returned home one balmy evening and turned the lights on to find a black spot on the ceiling that moved. And just as I shrieked in disgust, it then began to fly, darting around the ceiling with a defiant buzz, as if to say “Go ahead, just try and kill me. I dare you.” Not even John’s whacks to the ceiling with a broom did any good, as the cockroach scrambled — and flew — away from our reach. We looked at each other with a tired grimace, and almost didn’t even need to say what was on our minds — yet another cockroach infestation. Continue reading “Chapter 79: Battling Roaches and Rats”
One evening in mid-October, 2003, I visited my downstairs neighbors, bringing some fine chocolates and a little forgiveness over that stolen bicycle. Only the wife was there, but she welcomed me in. “Come in, please have a seat and enjoy yourself,” she said in Chinese, with her heavy Shanghai accent, motioning towards the couch inside.
“I hope you like the chocolates. I picked them up in the US during my trip back home,” I explained, handing them over to her.
She looked at the packaging, covered in the English she couldn’t read or understand, and smiled at me as she accepted them, and set them aside.
There are endless reasons to visit Hangzhou’s Su Causeway. A stroll with a lake view. A walk through — or rather on — history (it was, after all, named for Su Dongpo, the Song Dynasty poet). A brief respite from city smog. Or even just to fawn over the lotus blooms that grace the lake in the summer.
You don’t go to see a bench. At least, you don’t — unless you’re John and I, a couple minted beside the shores of this breezy little lake just a little over a year ago, on one otherwise unspectacular bench.
“This is it, isn’t it, sweetie?” I asked, pointing to the bench closest to one of the causeway’s bridges — a bench that happened to hold an entire family, curious why John and I were ogling their chosen seat.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.