Shanghai Odyssey

oriental pearl tower photo

Photo by zhang kaiyv on

The language of connection

Faces, with smiles by default

Movement toward another

leaning in to understand better

Softens the hard surfaces

of concrete homes stacked to the sky

I watched the slender woman in wide black chiffon pants scamper across the lobby on a mission of hotel hospitality. It is unknown why she didn’t have what was needed to complete the sale under her counter of coffee and croissant. There may have been a rule, or a policy, or a belief that made it necessary to run to the bar across the lobby to get change. The quiet slap of her soles on the marble floor caught my attention as she raced against the possibility of a customer’s annoyance. It’s easy to appreciate the importance of gentle co-operation in a city of so many souls. When the light is dim, the wifi weak, and technology fails to fulfill the expectation of infallible personal independence, what will prevail is connection of another sort.

Across the world, despite language barriers, people use their phones to call a car without much fuss and bother. For me, on this day, it was a group project. I was launched from my Shanghai hotel this morning with the help of a young bellman in a too big jacket and a Didi (Uber) driver with a sense of humor. When the language switches to Chinese and the glasses can’t be found, it’s time to rely on the “kindness of strangers.

And indeed, the ride did get stranger. Three loops of elevated road stacked like a giant spring were needed to reach the suspension bridge that rose higher than my 33rd floor hotel room window. As we approached the breathtaking pinnacle, I reached for my phone to take a picture, hearing the customary, “You may now use your mobile devices,” playing in my head. The driver, attempting to aid my impromtu photography, cheerfully opened the dusty window to facilitate even more clarity of our airborne state. It was appreciated, but it was really surprising. No one “expects” an open window at that height.

I returned the proud smile in the rear view mirror. I sent the picture to a dear friend who by rights should have been sleeping, but wasn’t. They don’t call it “grounding” for nothing! We looped our way back down like ants on a vine, a few texts later, and my knees were solid once more.

The surprises kept coming. About 10 minutes later, the driver turned down a narrow neighborhood street. Laundry waved from twenty stories up, a skinny cat jumped out from a discarded stained box, as an elderly couple stooped on the sidewalk trying to straighten a bicycle wheel that hadn’t been round in quite some time. There was a single open iron gate and our car pulled up there. My stomach dropped. If this was the “modern” Art Installation space that I sought, it was significantly more “edgy” than I expected.

The GPS chattered on in cheerful Chinese, the driver did a neat 5 point U-turn out of this private enclave and we moved on a mile or so to a closed gate, with a flashing light, manned by a bored guard. “This is it?” I said in English. He pointed to his map screen pointed to the gate, smiled and unlocked the door. I pushed a blurry spot on my phone and he was paid, but didn’t leave. There was something about the riverfront almost gentrified warehouse area devoid of people that didn’t seem quite right, I guess.

Standing on the sidewalk, I listened to him call out to the guard. After a short conversation he was gesturing to me to get back in the car, which I most certainly did. Up the street and around the block, sure enough there was a “front door” to this warehouse and indeed there were 10 others waiting for the doors to open.

By now I had realized that my my minor outing in the world’s most major city was a personal odyssey. In a place where English is spotty, and my Mandarin is limited to one word, I am grateful to those inclined to connect with another and I have found this connection is everywhere. I have good news, if the internet fails, we still know how to do this. Maybe if we keep at it we won’t need the technology after a while.

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