A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shanghai, Part Two: Five Senses


Sticky. Always sticky. It's actually not as hot as I had feared, but the humidity is constant. I would be taking two showers a day if my hot water worked more consistently in the evenings.


The sights that have stood out for me in this past week have been the sights of bureaucracy. In my first post I compared it to a Philip K. Dick story, but Terry Gilliam might actually be more accurate. Virtually every building features desks with stacks of paper, shelves with binders of paper--forms in triplicate, stamped and filed and gathering dust. When I went to register with the police, the DMV-esque police station featured a row of six desks behind a glass wall. Four of the six desks were marked "Occupant Registration." The other two were marked "Public Order," meaning the Chinese police devote twice as much space to keeping track of where everyone is living than they do to maintaining public order.

Obtaining a cell phone and a bank account were equally surreal experiences navigating a paperwork dystopia. At first blush, the cell phone store looked like an American electronics store, with designs for different models of phones and large cardboard advertisements. But the back of the store was the same mess of forms, and all of the employees were dressed in what looked like police or military uniforms. In fact, this quasi-governmental appearance of many professions that you would expect to be "private" is the strongest visual signal that you are in what is at least nominally a Communist country. But the bank was the absolute strangest. I had to fill out a form that asked for my first and last name, which I turned in to the teller along with my passport. This prompted a dramatic freak-out, including lots of pointing at the paper and grimacing, and a five minute exchange between the teller and my "student buddies," who were there as my translators. Apparently the fact that I had put my name down as "Brian Matzke" despite the fact that my passport said "Brian Severin Matzke" was the source of much consternation. Eventually I was allowed to simply write the "Severin" on the form, but I got the impression that my initial omission was still looked upon as a grave error. Neither of my student buddies had ever heard of "middle names" before, and when I tried to explain that while middle names appeared on government IDs, it was common not to use them on other documents, they were thoroughly perplexed.

I find these encounters with bureaucracy to be scary and hilarious in equal measure. Much about this place seems like chaos with a superficial veneer of centralized control. The traffic is insane, but at many intersections you will see a traffic cop standing and, as best as I can tell, doing absolutely nothing. I was walking with an American professor teaching through my same program here who pointed to one the other day and said, "I guess that's what full employment looks like."

Gestures towards organization inevitably coexist with the grime and messiness one would expect from a city of this size. People spit on the sidewalk constantly (I can't really blame them for that--the humidity does cause some crazy mucous buildup). And they don't just spit; little children still wear bottomless pants, so seeing kids relieve themselves outside is common, and once I saw a grown man pee on the sidewalk. Not on the bushes next to the sidewalk; on the sidewalk. I think he was doing landscape work for the apartment complex he was next to. He was wearing a uniform.


All of this public urination contributes to the second most overwhelming sensory experience I've had this past week: the smell. Everything smells very overwhelming, very different, and often very bad. It's a combination of air pollution, street garbage, unfamiliar flora, and pungent foods. Fortunately, I've mostly adjusted to it. During the first 72 hours though, it made me dread having to go outside. As my fiancee explained it to me, we are hypersensitive to unfamiliar smells, so over time it has come, not to smell better, but to smell less. And the campus is remarkably clean, smelling mostly of different, not-unpleasant trees.


It's time for my confession: I don't like Chinese Chinese food. I've tried and I've tried over this past week, and I've found some dishes that I tolerate, but not one that I like. If you asked me a week ago, I would have described myself as an adventurous eater with a diverse palate. This week has made me aware of how sheltered I have been, having only eaten in America and Europe.

I find the food unappetizing due to a complex combination of factors. It's not that the food looks strange or exotic--it's mostly pretty straightforward: stir fries, shellfish, noodles, etc. But the spice palate is radically different. Not hot, not sweet...honestly, it's unlike anything I've had in the U.S., and not in a pleasant way. The olfactory senses are connected, of course, so the ambient smells don't help any either. Nor does the fact that I once saw a man washing his woks with a hose on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant where the previous night I saw a child pee. But I suspect that the chief factor is the low quality of the ingredients. Whatever I order, the vegetables look wilted and sickly. They feel wrong in my mouth.

Of course, another contributing factor is the social dimension. When I'm in Michigan, I'm perfectly content to eat a meal alone in my apartment or at my desk. But even in the U.S. I would feel awkward eating alone at a restaurant or in a cafeteria. But here that's my only option. I have yet to be able to make it to a grocery store, so cooking for myself has been impossible for the past week. That has left me with three options: eating alone in a restaurant, eating alone in a cafeteria, or buying a ready-made meal from the "Family Mart" (basically Chinese 7/11) around the corner and eating alone in my apartment. None are enjoyable, though I prefer Family Mart because at least then I can eat while watching Netflix.


Hearing only Chinese when I go out often leaves me feeling pretty intensely vulnerable. I'm comfortable while on campus, but everywhere else makes me feel very anxious. The experience gives me a new respect for linguistic minorities. I may have been foolish and impulsive in coming here like this, but those who decide to move to a place where they don't speak the language--for work or family or whatever reason--are tremendously brave.

The ambient Chinese is easy to get used to, though. Here's what's harder: over the past several years I came to manage my anxieties--around the dissertation, the job search, what have you--by filling my life up with noise. I'd quiet the voices in my head by steaming video while home alone and by listening to podcasts through my iPhone on the commute into campus. Here, I can still do the former some of the time, but there are hours of the day when my connection is too poor to stream videos, and I left my iPhone back in the U.S. That leaves me with multiple times during the day when I'm forced to face the silence. That's the most overwhelming sensory experience I've had so far.

1 comment:

  1. one of the things i relearn every time i visit home - nyc/brooklyn - is the overwhelming variety and tempo of background noise. when i lived in the same neighborhood and rode the same subways to work and back, and generally shopped at the same grocery stores, i was able to reduce some of that noise by listening to the radio or podcasts through my earbuds. now, partly because of not being quite so familiar with my transfers and routes and where the hell the exit doors are that will get me to a staircase that actually accesses the street, i have to move around without earbuds. if i leave them in i get even more stressed that i'm about to miss something obvious or i start filling in what i imagine the outside sonic environment to be, which makes me feel slightly lost and disoriented.

    i was thinking about that change as i read your account of the silence. except, in my experience, the silence is actually a lot of noise that refuses to be sorted into intelligible packets of information.