I can't remember the last time I felt 'culture shock' of any sort. Cambridge at times feels like a parody of itself, or a figment of Stephen Fry's imagination, while Rome felt like someone had recently built some ruins where the Via Appia had given up. Somewhere in between, Bahrain seemed like an Arabian-themed California where Gucci shades come half-price with every purchase of two or more hijabs. Though each of these places of course can boast its own rich cultural heritage, architecture, cuisine, music and so on, it can be difficult to peel away the layers of H&M's, KFC's and Starbucks and actually get a sense for the 'culture' of a place or a people (whatever that means).
Having spent 7 months in West Bengal, I was ready for a break. Though the prospect of Christmas alone in Shanghai was a strange one to say the least, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't really excited to get a quick breather from all things India. I had never been to China and had absolutely no Mandarin apart from the token 'Nihao' (which is not going to get you out of a sticky situation). In my naivete I assumed that China would essentially be a larger version of the various 'Little Chinas' you find in London or New York for example. This was not the case.
This 'Big Trouble in Little China' series of blog bites is a collection of memories and musings. Over the course of two weeks, I walked for days through the streets and parks of Beijing, Shanghai, and briefly, Kunming. The aim is not so much to make any cultural observations (or judgments!) but rather to present what I found on my travels, as I saw it, through my trusty lens. More than anything, this blog outlines one anthropologist's humble quest to find some culture shock!
Along the historical Bund walkway, which traces the Huangpu River in Shanghai, couples get their photos taken. They pose for 30 seconds or so and then get wrapped up in heavy coats to fight off the freezing temperatures and biting winds.
I can only guess that this was a mannequin store...though who would need a jazz hands mannequin, I don't know
In the small (and deserted) 'historical town' of Cuandaxia about 2 hours outside of Beijing, we came across a goat being gutted (note the head against the wall in the background). When we first came across them, they were skinning the goat, and half an hour later, this is what we found!
This scene was just off a bustling market street in Shanghai. This seems to have been where traders would come for a quick break
Fast food and banter in Shanghai
This old man was just relaxing outside his home in a hutong (traditional narrow alleyways in Beijing). The hutongs are some of the only places in Beijing where you get a sense for 'traditional' or 'authentic', at least in an intimate way.
In the Forbidden City, something caught this guy's attention (probably the sound of my camera taking forbidden photos')
Early in the morning before going to the Great Wall, dumplings were some of the only breakfast food available...apart from a conveniently placed McDonalds. I bought a small bag of them but unfortunately, as they are steamed, they tasted like soggy bread with the tiniest sliver of spinach (apparently) inside.
This street was one of the busiest snack streets I came across, and it was hard to navigate without bumping into a rickshaw or hungry locals. Not a bother for this guy! He sat on a stool in the middle of the street, awkwardly splitting the road, eating nuts and spitting out shells, completely oblivious to everything going on around him.
Hygiene standards on the street were similar to what you might find in India...dangerous!
On a frozen lake near the Forbidden City, people were renting various kinds of improvised skis, including "ice bikes", "ice shoes" and "chair-skis" with sticks...everything you can think of expect ice skates! I think they got the chairs from my old primary school in Bray!
Maybe this is what culture shock looks like?!
Cobbler chatting away with a local
All over Shanghai and Beijing were these little motorbikes. They were so quiet, they seemed to spring out of nowhere. Coming from India where beeping seems to ad to the aerodynamic efficiency, this left me quite confused...and almost run over on several occasions.
Markets in Shanghai often take the form of crates sprawled in front of shop fronts...much like India, but with crates.
These kids were playing in the Forbidden City (though I can't remember what got the girl on the right so excited!)
COMING NEXT WEEK!
The next blog bite in the series is about animals, in particular dogs. If you care deeply about legal issues surrounding golden retrievers in Beijing, or more likely, if you just want to see some pictures of cute puppies, watch this space!