'GLAD YOU MADE it,′ said my friend. 'I cannot but believe,′ said I to
myself, 'that when the history of my famous achievements shall be given to the
world, the learned author will begin it in this very manner, when he comes to
give an account of this my early setting out.′
I AM IN Shanghai for a holiday to visit a friend and he has shanghaied me: no return ticket, a job interview, a contract to teach business English to executives. He is being kind; I cannot refuse. While I do a job I cannot perform, to students who don't care, I live with his colleague, Fang Fang. The apartment belongs to her lover, or one of her lovers; it is not clear which. The lover's elderly father lives with us. He sleeps in an armchair in the living room. I have a room to myself and a mattress on the floor. The ayi, the maid, also sleeps in an armchair - except when she wakes to tend the old man, whose face is like something from a fairytale, who has lived through the Revolution and remembers nothing. He and I smile at each other; we converse in the two major languages of the world; we understand nothing. I have offered him my bed but Fang Fang refuses on his behalf. I am forbidden from doing housework: ayi will do it. The thin young woman from the countryside smiles and blushes and takes my soft hand with her rough one.
When I am not asleep or in class I am expected to be at Fang Fang′s office. It is not clear why. There is no seat for me there, no place to be. I lie on the bed in the other room and read. On the bookshelf, an assortment of classics in English: The House of Mirth, Siddartha, Don Quixote. Not what I would have chosen. I smoke out of the window. I stare. I wait.
From this high place I can see a fog of pale pink and grey, the concrete freeways and apartment blocks that crowd to the horizon. A flock of seagulls is helixing in the twilight, mirroring the swoop of the traffic as it flows onto the vast strips of the elevated road and Nanpu Bridge. Red lights bead in the grey haze.
The city stretches vertically as well as horizontally. They say that ten years earlier half the world′s cranes were in Shanghai. Citadels reach to the sky; no matter how high the viewpoint, you can never see the horizon. Along Nan Jing Road, along Hua Hai Road, the city is supernatural with glass: gleaming, smooth, perfect. A cone of ice cream costs a labourer half a month′s wages.
In the French Concession the city is still low. The streets are lined with plane trees and behind them are walls with Cite de Bourgogne 1929 on the lintel, French town estates enclosed within. In two-storey gabled houses bare light bulbs swing. People do not rise high here; they squat in the street, bring themselves close to earth. Down a dark and rancid alleyway is a glimpse of the citadel′s gloss, reflecting a clouded sky.
'How was the trip?′ he asked. I left my horse to go which way he pleased; firmly believing that in this consisted the very being of adventures.
People stream though Dapu Qiao. Bicycles, rickshaws, taxis, buses and trucks pour on to the freeways and flyovers, nudge through narrow streets. On the shores of every road are deal tables for cards and mahjong, boiling cauldrons and bakery trays, dozens of tiny matched-set schoolchildren. I walk past old women selling handfuls of spring onions or lottery tickets, past cartloads of cardboard boxes and fruit, tangles of black bicycles, shoe-repair men squatting on the footpath, trays of festive moon cakes, old ladies shrieking gossip, families strolling in their cotton nightwear, lean young men in construction helmets and dusty old jackets, the phone-card seller on his seat by the side of the road, noodle-shop delivery boys, young women in lipstick and high heels, piles of watermelon and pale peaches big as cantaloupes, the spiralling red and white columns of innumerable hair salons, swathes of washing drying on poles outside every shop, stalls of old plumbing fittings and fresh pastries, sheaves of bamboo poles for scaffolding, and the local Communist Party stooge who sits sourly all day at the entrance to Fang Fang′s office building and refuses to notice as I buy contraband English cigarettes from under a tarpaulin. I nearly trip over a woman selling crabs at the entrance. They lie there feebly crawling in plastic buckets. Even the gutters are wriggling.
'Where did you go today?′ asked my friend. I sallied out into the fields, wonderfully pleased to see with how much ease I had succeeded in the beginning of my enterprise.
I am part curiosity, part intruder, part celebrity in my neighbourhood. There are good days, when I feel welcomed, hailed as I pass, greeted with quaint pleasantries in English. I smile and wave and feel exhilarated. There are bad days, when I catch people gesturing: foreigner, Big Nose. Some days the people stop and stare. I imagine them – the phone-card guy, the sardonic fruit-seller, the woman who knits all day at the entrance with the Party man – commenting, 'Here she comes; look at the funny way she walks! So fast! So big!′
I am no taller than many Chinese women but I feel large and clumsy, bosomy and barbaric. It is the first time in my life I have understood what racism feels like. It prickles to have no reply.
I try to learn the language. 'What′s the word for table?′ I ask one friend, from the north of the city. She tells me the word; I cannot repeat it.
'What′s the word for table?′ I ask another friend, from an island off Shanghai′s coast. She tells me the word: it is different.
'What′s the word for table?′ I ask a third friend, from Beijing.
I cannot even say: I don′t understand.
'What did you do?′ asked my friend. I travelled almost all that day without meeting any adventure worth the trouble of relating; which put me into a kind of despair.
The streets are microscopes of life: a man showering on the corner of a busy intersection, his body wet and pale like pork fat; an ancient man with child′s limbs carrying a bundle of sticks on his back as large as a car; a shop which sells only disco balls, plumbing supplies and guitars. It is familiar and strange, mundane and hallucinogenic. I take no photographs: where to focus?
Through dirt to paradise. I have a business meeting in the café of a luxury hotel. Mai is so beautiful, I feel so ugly; she takes my hand; is this friendship Chinese-style or something more? There is a string quartet playing modestly and the waitresses, wearing green satin cheongsams, bring twenty-dollar pots of exquisite jasmine tea and change our ashtray every few minutes. The jasmine flowers open up in the warm water; we peer into our cups and sigh.
On the way home I stop at the wet market. At the stall beside me a man thumps a machete through the limb of a turtle. As I leave I can hear the caged pigeons cooing. When I eat pigeon, the head flies from my chopsticks and lands in my lap. I have never been taught to eat a head, but Fang Fang will suck out the eyes of a fish.
The dishes of one meal are all covered in dried chillies. The next day I am served soup, Shanghai-style: a potato and a carrot in boiled water. My friend and I travel an hour by taxi to buy Australian meat pies from an entrepreneur for nine dollars each. We steam them on a platform of crossed chopsticks and scoff the tepid dough furtively, with delight.
On the weekends we go to the shopping malls, in through the entrance, around ground level, up the escalator, around the first level, up the escalator, all the way to the top; down, out, into the next store. It is almost impossible to find something I might wish to buy.
'Why so many hairdressers?′ I ask Fang Fang.
She looks at me, amused. 'So many heads, la!′
'Friend Sancho,′ said I...'learn of me, that one man is no more than another, if he do no more than what another does.′
In a fashionable mall Fang Fang stands in a hairdresser′s cape and fluffy slippers, munching rice crackers. There are cottonwool balls festooned around her forehead and curlers in her hair. She is completely unconcerned with her appearance as we slip-slop down the street for a noodle break.
Fang Fang chews her way through a bowl of sunflower seeds and studies the Chinese chequers board. She plays fast – aggressively, fluidly. Her pieces swoop around the board in bursts of intuition. Holding a cigarette between crooked white teeth, she grins in victory.
Fang Fang arrives at the office in a 1950s dress suit, high heels as crisp as her hair. She has a silk scarf knotted around her neck to hide a savage scar. As it gets colder, she puts on a garish orange plastic jacket with writing on the back: 'A thing of goodness is beautiful. Let′s go out to the town!′ She picks up her fluffy white dog and licks its nose. Her eyes are as moist and gleeful as the crazy dog′s.
'Say it,′ cried Don Quixote, 'but be short, for no discourse can please when too long.′
The city′s summer heat has breathed out; it is freezing even in the sunshine. I have been here four months. The hot water system breaks; there are no plumbers in Shanghai, Fang Fang says. I am warm only when I wake in bed.
Every day, to check my email, I must wait patiently until 11 pm for Fang Fang to get off her computer. I must wait until past midnight to call my lover in Rome. At a phone box in a freezing, dark side street in Shanghai, as blue rubbish trucks crunch past, as police on bicycles drift near, as labourers work by floodlights, I jam coins into a slot and shout Italian into the Chinese telephone. Sometimes my lover cannot stop to talk. Sometimes the computer will not show Yahoo and there is no email. Sometimes I think that among fifteen million people I am the loneliest. Marry me, my lover says, but perhaps he says something else, the traffic is so loud, and I am tired. Yes, I say to whatever it is that he asked.
In any case, it is nearly time to leave.
'You shall not need to sigh nor be melancholy,′ quoth Sancho, 'for I will undertake to tell you stories.′
Fang Fang says she is sorry it has been hard for me, and that I am a good friend. She winks, tilts her head back, clenches a cigarette between her teeth. I laugh. She takes my hand. I am sorry too, not to have understood. She lets me win at chequers. I let her lose.
- All italicised lines are adapted or quoted from Don Quixote (1615), by Miguel Cervantes, translated from the Spanish by PA Motteux.