Monday, August 14, 2017

Snowflakes Now, Blizzard on its Way

Marches and rallies and candlelight vigils are beginning to seem like “Sending thoughts and prayers.” So when I heard there was going to be a march in response to an alt-right rally in Westlake Park, I made a small sign from a piece of scrap cardboard and headed to that center of the city.
I believe in sanctuary cities as much as I do freedom of speech, and I felt that the old maxim “Don’t falsely yell fire in a crowded theater” concisely set civilized limitations on first amendment rights. From what I gathered, the Westlake Rally was designed to spread the fire that was started the day before in Virginia. My intention was to stand in plain sight, holding words that told them their message had no place in Seattle.
When I arrived at the park, an American flag was being raised on a pole, with a blue flag that I was unable to identify floating below it. The area near the stage was cordoned off by barriers and police were everywhere I looked. I tried not to be reassured by that but I was.
The first person I saw as I approached a barrier close to the stage was a tall, white, buff guy wearing a shirt that said Danger. Cis-gendered, straight, white male. How else may I offend you? When I looked at his face, his eyes were without any expression at all.
That was when I pulled my sign out of my bag. Scrawled in my imperfect printing, it said Hell No. NO racism fear ignorance Nazis. America, not Amerikkka. I stood at the barrier and held it high, but first I removed my black cotton jacket because at that point the people behind the barrier were all dressed in black.
Westlake Park is large. A woman some distance from me held a sign that said Could You Not? I could see a knot of people wearing Black Lives Matter at the opposite edge of the park. A tall man holding a leash that was attached to a large pitbull stood closer to me than I would have liked. He tossed a flat and contemptuous gaze in my direction and then turned away. My mouth went a bit dry.
A woman with a camera smiled and asked if she could take a picture of my sign; she was the first of many because for the first hour or so my words, and Could You Not were the only ones in the south side of the park. As more people joined the group beside the stage, I began to feel very alone.
It was probably only half an hour but it felt much longer before a woman came to me and said “I’ll stand beside you.” Soon after we were joined by a white-haired man wearing a black tee-shirt that said Veterans for Peace. A group of young men in black shirts walked past us in marching formation. One of them stopped and said “Thank you for your service.” Then each of them in turn shook his hand.
A middle-aged blonde woman came to the edge of the barrier and asked “Why do you think we hate?” When I drew closer to her, she said “Why don’t you listen to what we have to say?” “I’m listening now,” I replied and she put a printed sheet into my hand. It was poorly written and rambling but the gist of it was she was an ordinary housewife from the South Sound who was galvanized to action at a rally in Olympia where masked “antifa” had drowned out the words of a woman when she was at the microphone. Her only issue was that of free speech, she wrote, and her Mexican and Native American relatives would laugh heartily at the idea that she was a Nazi. I thanked her and returned her statement without comment.
The next time I saw her she was walking the perimeter of the barricades holding a large sign that said Pedophile. Some minutes later she was joined by banners that said F**k Ed Murray, and Rapist. A man swooped about with a full-sized flag that said Trump. They were all silent.
Westlake was filling up. Shoppers passed by, children played in the area that adjoined the barriers, people stopped and asked questions. “What is happening?” “Who is Ed Murray?” A young Latina woman stood beside me for a while and said “Look. That’s guy’s black. That one’s either Latino or Native American, What are they doing in there?”
Knots of men in black and a group of very young people in olive-green paramilitary uniforms passed us, and when I tried to make eye contact with them, their eyes were as guarded as the blocked-off stage. Classic rock blared from loudspeakers, and I will never again feel the same about Start Me Up.
“They’re off schedule,” I remarked at two o’clock. We had been watching for over an hour and the blonde was still working the crowd, the signs and the flag were still in full view, the dead-eyed supporters continued to trickle in, but there was nothing more. Police were leaving the park. A drizzle began and then stopped. There was something ominous about the lack of action. “Where are the marchers?” I asked. “They’re on their way, and there are more of these people coming too,” a man replied, looking up from the screen of his phone.
Within a few minutes, a small crowd joined us, wearing Water is Life and Black Lives Matter tee-shirts, some carrying signs that were far better constructed and lettered than mine. Halt the Alt-Right was paraded around the barriered perimeter, held by a beautiful girl in shorts and Doc Martens.
Then a man took the microphone at center-stage and was drowned out by boos from his first word. “Go. Stop. We Don’t Want You,” echoed from every side of the park.  A few sentences from him and other speakers flickered through the outrage. “We are peaceful.” “I was like you once but I recognized what was true.” “Why do you hate?’ The words that were intelligible contrasted crazily against the banners that were still held toward the crowd, F**ck Ed Murray. Pedophile. Rapist.
A man standing near me was repeatedly shouting “Fuck you,” and the woman who first stood beside me had both fists held high in the air, middle fingers extended. I moved away to a spot where a young man was relaying news from his phone. “They’re coming. There’s been tear gas on Second Avenue.”
There seemed to be only one logical ending to what was taking place and I didn’t want to see it. As I walked across Pine Street, I heard several explosions and I’ve never felt more relieved to be in the bland anonymous safety of a shopping mall.
The bus tunnel held parked sheriffs' vehicles in the space between the rails which was the only clue given to any disturbance above ground. As I stood and waited for my bus, I remembered a man and woman who had stood beside me in that eerie silence before the shouting began.
“What’s happening?” the man asked. “We’re not from here, we are French.” I explained as clearly and concisely and as unemotionally as I could but still my voice trembled when I told them, “If you’re here to enjoy yourselves in Seattle, go to the waterfront. Go to the Market and buy flowers. Have fun in this city. Don’t stay here.”
They left but half an hour later I saw them behind me, sitting at a park table. “We were so happy in France when Obama was elected,” the man said, “and now we are happy because the states are standing up against Donald Trump.”
On my way to Westlake I had looked at the faces who sat near me on the bus, and later at the people who were passing by the barriers on their way to go shopping. Brown faces, black faces, faces under hijabs, all reminded me of the true beauty of Seattle and the need to make it a sanctuary of peace and sanity for all of us.
Later I was deeply troubled by images of signs that said Kill the Nazis and Die Nazi Scum. I was upset that we didn’t allow the gist of a speech to hit the air before we began to boo, and hours later remembering the outstretched middle fingers of the placid-looking woman who had stood beside me still turned my stomach. But I felt satisfied that hate hadn’t been allowed to drift through the air I breathed and that so many Seattle people had chosen to stand against evil that is trying to cloak itself in normalcy.
Yes. That is action that is important. Yes. I will do it again.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mulrooney and His Friends

Who is this imperious little beast who sits on my sofa, drowning it in hairs?  “He clashes with it,” a friend commented, which may be the reason why the cheerful scarlet fabric is covered with a fine tweed of pale orange hair. But the motto of every apartment I have ever had is it all belongs to Mulrooney, and he knows it.
He couldn’t wait for me to wake up this morning and now that I am, he’s sprawled in full arrogance on the red that he’s claimed, eyes slitted open far enough only to detect motion on his street. He surveys and assesses passersby, glazes his eyes with indifference, and relapses into a hunter’s doze, waiting for his patch of sunlight to appear.
I’m grateful that there is none, and am hoping for the rain that has been promised. Although I love the heat, the smoke that has accompanied it settled in my chest and apparently has made Seattle’s air worse than Los Angeles’s or Beijng’s during this same time period.
Of course it is close to September and Beijing’s air was almost crystalline when I spent an autumn there, with the sky a vibrant, cloudless dome that sharpened the beauty of the turning leaves. The SCMP recently wrote that Hong Kong detests trees. Beijing venerates them. The city is at its most beautiful when a pale green veil settles on the border of its streets and fills the parks, later flaring into orange and gold radiance just before the relentless grey settles in with its steely cold anchored by its array of arboreal skeletons.
Only a snowfall can bring beauty to the trees in those stern months, softening the bare branches with a pure white frosting traced with black. Beijing slows and quiets when the snow hits. People move through neighborhood lanes carrying bright umbrellas as barriers against drifting flakes that are as benign and languid as a flurry of cherry blossoms.
This of course can be instantly transformed into something dangerous with a wind coming out of the desert. Flakes could become vicious, sharpened projectiles, laced heavily with sand, and the air could take on the apocalyptic yellow of a dust storm that freezes on exposed skin and glazes objects with hardened dirt that would become mud as it thawed.
A sandstorm is an eerie phenomenon by itself, and one that can find its way from the Gobi Desert to Japan. The closest equivalent that I found here is forest fire smoke when it turns the air to the unearthly yellow of a fading Kodachrome negative. While smoke attacks only the lungs, gale-force sand cuts with tiny lacerations that sting and burn and could probably destroy corneas when given the chance. Beijingers buy goggles that look as though they should be accompanied by a gas mask; women wear bee-keepers’ hats with thick veils that they tie into place like mainsails in a hurricane. And when it’s over at last, dirt has settled on everything, blown into cracks of locked windows and underneath  doorframes. But as it blows, it feels like the beginning of the end of the world.
In the imperial glory of Beihei Park lives a massive colony of feral cats who are a destination for local visitors bearing gifts of food. People come with sacks of kitchen scraps, bags of dry cat food, and even small expensive cans of food marketed to far more pampered felines. The cats graciously receive all offerings, with some even suffering physical attentions from the foolhardy. They sprawl on rocks in the sun, well fed and independent and honored. During sand storms, where do they go?
The artfully placed rocks that form Beihei’s landscape have crevices and tree roots provide small caves, with the trees themselves making a buffer against the wind. Park buildings give shelter. Even the magnificent nine dragon screen could be a windbreak if the gale was blowing in the right direction. And these are Beijing cats. Dust storms are to them what thunderstorms signify to lesser felines in other parts of the world. Like huskies in an Arctic blizzard, they probably curl into the smallest ball that they can manage, tail over their eyes, paw protecting their nostrils.
When the sun is at its strongest, Mulrooney mimics them, becoming a fur doorstop who is immovable and inviolate, locked in a sleep that is almost a coma. Suddenly the pampered, demanding creature who imposes his will on every facet of my life becomes a survivor who doesn’t need me at all and will outlive me in whatever man or nature can bring to bear against us.
This is reassuring and horrifying in its absolute truth. Cats and cockroaches will inherit whatever earth the madmen of the world will leave to them. Even Mulrooney will manage to make it through with that inheritance.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Here's to the Ladies who Lunch...

Last night I watched a documentary on Elaine Stritch, the indomitable glamourpuss whose voice went so far beyond gravelly that it was an entire glacier moraine. That shining Broadway star said she never used the world “old,” but insisted on “getting older” instead, since that applied to everyone alive in the world.
I'm stealing her description which from now on I'll use for myself, most of my friends, and a sizable segment of the world's population. To many of our counterparts in other countries, those of us getting older in the U.S. seem to have it all. But we're being failed in crucial ways, and we're not taking care of ourselves. We're not doing the research and we're not paying attention.
As the heat ratcheted up in this city, the usual warnings were issued, directed especially toward children and those who were getting older. Drink huge amounts of water and stay cool. Never mentioned in anything I have heard or read cautioned that we should maintain our salt intake.
If I hadn’t lived in Thailand, I would never give a thought to my own. Fish sauce is a staple in every Thai person’s diet, routinely added when cooking and as a condiment for almost everything that goes into that country’s mouth. Then there are things to which fish sauce can’t be added palatably, like orange juice, That drink is salted, heavily enough that my fingers often swelled after a couple of small bottles. And of course, popular antidotes to dehydration like Gatorade contain "electrolytes" which I’m certain are boosted with salt.
So I salt my food and I use fish sauce and I rarely think of why. This is a good thing because my blood pressure medication is a diuretic that flushes my body of minerals as efficiently as it does liquids. So do many of the medications prescribed to people who are getting older, most of whom have heeded the current heat warnings and have probably drunk more water than any aquatic mammal during these past weeks of abnormal sunlight and humidity.
And they probably didn’t use table salt, because they have been trained to be good patients who obey their physicians. Salt=bad is what those of us who are getting older have absorbed from medical wisdom. But not enough can make you close to crazy. Without it, people can become incoherent, weak, in pain from muscle cramps, and no doubt scared to death.
How many of us getting older die from obeying all the rules and ignoring warning signs while trying to be perfect? Maintaining our outer facades is paramount. No weakness or flaw should be permitted to appear. Not only is this a sure path toward extinction, it’s also a gateway to madness.
We all have our corners where we cling to some idea of perfection and as we get older, hiding what we perceive as imperfections can kill us. Secrets are deadly. When we refuse to admit that we are in pain, or suffer bouts of confusion, or teeter at times with the threat of losing our balance, or find it increasingly difficult to hear, or can't come up enough money to eat properly, we take our first steps down a dangerous road toward a miserable life's end.
Elaine Stritch was right. We are all getting older every damned day. And we are all beginning to die, one cell at a time. We are all wearing out. So what’s the big deal here? Do we think if we don’t talk about aging, nobody will notice? Do we think that dying is optional?
Attention. Mindfulness. Truth. Candor. Acceptance. Vigilance. Knowledge. The Buddha was right on all counts and his words need to echo loudest as we grow older. Denial will kill us faster than cigarettes. And since I'm still one of the Ladies who Lunch, (although I usually wait until Happy Hour), I’ll drink to that.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Crazy Jane Meets Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a young city, I was told by everyone from the guidebooks to my one friend Mr. Lee, dominated by youth because old people can’t afford to live there. My speculation quickly became that they didn’t want the work that was available to them. The people who dusted the outdoor planter boxes, scrubbed the malls and subway stations, and scraped gum from the sidewalks in the CBD were all elderly. The streetwalkers across the street from my hotel were old. So was the only mad person I ever saw in my neighborhood, a woman with wild grey hair and vacant eyes who was out on the street every day.
There were happy old people everywhere I went and every last one of them, man and woman, was with a little child. During the week I saw few people who were younger than I who were in the company of children. Young people were working in the malls, behind hotel desks, in the thousands of little restaurants that fed this mammoth city.
They appeared on Saturdays, carefully dressed and often with children, walking through the neighborhood malls as though they were out for a stroll on Fifth Avenue, out at the theme parks, and crowding the restaurants.
The visible people in Shenzhen, a friend said, were out in public because they were poor. If they had money, they would be in air-conditioned apartments or in their cars, not roaming through shopping malls or sitting on a subway. The demographic I observed during my stay wasn’t the whole. It was the less fortunate participants in the economic miracle that had struck this part of China.
The families who began to throng the subway within two weeks of my arrival were on their way home for the lunar new year. The parents were carefully groomed, the children were dazzling. They could have posed for any Western fashion magazine, in their brand new baseball jackets and jeans, immaculate little dresses, or occasionally in tiny robes worthy of the last emperor. Almost all of them got off at the nearest train station.
In the opposite direction, the one that headed toward the airport, there were fewer children and more people in late adolescence. While the families were surrounded by boxes, bundles, and large suitcases, these younger travelers were traveling light, with one wheeled carry-on or an expensive looking backpack. Their clothes were very GQ and Marie Claire, simple but with a clean line. The few that I spoke to were ones who had approached me used English with confidence and were university students.
My friend Mr. Lee had been one of them once, and not long ago. He had studied in the UK and now he managed a coffee shop. When he traveled, he went in his car, with his wife and their little daughter, but that wasn’t often. He was in his shop all day, every day, except for the national holidays.
In the two months that I was there, Mr. Lee remodeled the business he managed twice, making the space more efficient for his employees and more enticing for the young customers whom he needed to attract. He began serving four-course Western-style dinners, accompanied by cocktails, in the late evening. He was determined to make the cafe profitable, on a street where the other food options were noodles and dumplings that came dirt cheap.
Mr. Lee had cake, salmon sandwiches, frites, pasta, and risotto to serve with his coffee. The first time I went in, I walked out in two minutes flat. “I didn’t come to Shenzhen to eat spaghetti,” I muttered as I left, but I returned often in my two month stay for some of the best coffee I’ve ever had when traveling, and for the frites, and finally for the dinner with cocktail. Often the people who sat in the place with me were Mr. Lee’s friends, never a good sign.
And they were all young.
I was a quadruple anomaly in the part of Shenzhen where I stayed. I was Western, I was a woman, I was elderly, and I was alone. I did what I always do. I chose a hotel in a neighborhood that wasn’t glitzy, and I used that as my base for my entire stay. Eventually I recognized faces on the street, found a couple of merchants who gave me a feeling of community, and became enough of a fixture that a street cleaner who was younger than the norm found the courage to ask me in Chinese if I were from India. Fortunately the word for India was enough like Hindu that I was able to understand and say no. And the tone I used for America was close enough that she at least pretended to understand me.
I watched the people around me and felt a twang of envy, especially for my old counterparts. They either had work that was clearly useful but not particularly arduous, or they had grandchildren. I told myself I was probably romanticizing but when I looked at them, their eyes looked untroubled, even peaceful. When they looked at me, they looked puzzled, and on one morning late in my Shenzhen stay, I saw pity.

I had hurt my foot while out on one of my long walks through the city and when I woke up the next day, I could barely hobble. There were no motorcycle taxis outside my hotel so my only choice was to slowly and cautiously walk four long blocks toward the closest drugstore. As I started to return to my room, clutching my bag of medicated plasters, a woman who was probably my age looked me straight in the eye. I smiled at her and shrugged. Her return gaze was gentle and clearly sympathetic with a tiny dash of exasperation. What, she asked me silently, in the hell did I think I was doing? And suddenly I was grateful that in this city where only the young dashed around the streets, I had no way to understand the people who were as old as I, all of them convinced that I was as crazy as that other old lady with the wild grey hair.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Love and Ice Cream in Queens

I’d spent my day walking through Jackson Heights, finding food stalls and fresh markets on a street where Spanish was the leading language, although Indians, Himalayans, Chinese, and Thai  share that neighborhood with Colombians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Brazilians, people from El Salvador, Guyana, all selling food in small restaurants and bakeries.
    My feast was purely visual. I wanted to eat everything I saw but my time was limited and I needed to budget my appetite. I bought a coconut popsicle frozen into a styrofoam cup and bit into it as I walked and stared. The woman who sold it to me did so in Spanish, with a look of compassionate pity for my lack of language, and I felt as if I were at home, or at least in Thailand.
As I usually do when I visit Queens, on my way back to my room, I stopped  in at the Atlantic Diner. I’d seen on their menu that they still made ice cream sodas, which I was certain had become extinct. “Pepsi-vanilla?” the waitress asked and I fought through my confusion to say indignantly, “No! Chocolate-chocolate.”
It was her turn to stop for a moment and I began to say “Chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup.” “I know what you mean,” she broke in, “but it surprised me for a second. Everybody in this neighborhood always orders Pepsi-vanilla.”
I watched as she squirted soda water into the chocolate syrup and then stirred it vigorously. “You mean a float?” “No. It’s a regular soda but made with Pepsi.” My teeth curled a little with the thought of that much sweetness hit their nerve endings but even so I said “Yes” to her offer of “A little whipped cream?” This may well be the last ice cream soda of my life, I thought, so let’s have the kind that I used to see on Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers..
It was precisely that, resting in its Pepsi-Cola glass in regal glory, and with my first sip I wished that I could still drink it through a paper straw. As I absorbed that first rush of sweetened soda water, I was the only customer at the counter, with a cluster of waitresses at the far end. They were all deep in a discussion, since I was the only visible potential listener, and that seemed to restrain them not at all. They were discussing love, with the oldest one holding the floor and I began to eavesdrop.
“The difference between being in love and loving is huge. I was lucky. I had both with my husband, but it took time. I fell in love with him after we’d been married for years.”
There was a ripple of disbelief among her younger audience and suddenly she turned to my end of the counter. “Were you in love with your husband when you got married or did you love him?” she demanded.
     And I answered a question that nobody had ever asked me before. “I loved him very much but I wasn’t in love with him.”
     “Did you ever fall in love?”
     “Years later when I was in my forties,” I replied, “it was a surprise.”
     She turned triumphantly to her audience. “See, it can happen to anybody, no matter how old you are.” Returning her focus to me, she asked, “And was it with your husband?”
     “No. It was with a much younger man, after my marriage. And then that deepened into love and stayed that way for the rest of his life, but I couldn’t have him. We became friends. He brought his family to visit me when he was in Thailand and his wife and I still write to each other on Facebook.”
 “It's true, you can’t stay with a younger man,” she agreed with sympathy in her voice. The cluster of younger waitresses had all turned in my direction and one broke ranks to sit beside me.
     “How did you know you were in love? How was it different?”
      “ I felt as though I was eighteen again. I got out of bed every morning floating, I was so happy. Friends asked me what had happened to me because I looked so different. One of them said I glowed. It was one of the best parts of my life.”
     The older waitress said “See. I told you. You feel completely different. One day I woke up near a man I’d been with for years, we had children, we had a life together, and that was exactly what I felt for my husband that morning for the very first time.”
     The younger woman smiled at me and returned to her friends, I took one final sip of my ice cream soda and realized that in every way, anything else, one more taste, one more question, would be an anticlimax. I walked out into the day that had turned from blazing summer into the prelude to autumn and I knew I was in love again, but this time it was with New York.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Escape from Shenzhen

I was getting tired of Shenzhen, its long subway rides, its limited news and information, its architecture that promised much and contained far too little, and most of all its spotty internet connection. I’d made one bank transfer successfully that morning and then couldn’t even begin the next. It was something that needed to be done and I was fuming.
In twenty minutes, I could be at the airport where the Hyatt offered good internet service and a strong VPN gave me all of the communication services and news that I took for granted every minute in Seattle. I started to get ready to go when something snapped. Agoda was something I could always reach on my iPad, probably because it was a special edition that came to me out of Singapore, a country that understood media suppression. I went to my favorite budget hotel in Hong Kong, the Lander Prince Edward, and found they had a cut-rate price for that night. I booked a room, threw some clothes in a bag, and took the subway to the border.
I was just ending a long New Year celebration that had gone on for over a week and had erased everything I had enjoyed about Shenzhen. The malls were the only places that sold food and water, and I had spent more time than I ever would have liked in their hallways. That most of Shenzhen’s people were doing the very same thing consoled me not one little bit. It was my fault for choosing to come and stay during the New Year but the momentum of my exploring had been broken and the excitement of this city had turned stale for me. I’d been there too long.
Now Shenzhen’s major charm was the rapid and convenient border crossing into Hong Kong. I got off one subway, passed through one checkpoint, cleared another, and I was soon on Hong Kong’s train through the New Territories and into Kowloon--one country, two transit systems.
Every time I entered the covered, elevated, glass-walled passageway that spanned the two borders, I always released my hair from the elastic that kept it bound into a proper Shenzhen ponytail and felt a jolt of new energy. I’d lived in Thailand for too many years to ignore local dress codes when I traveled and in Shenzhen I stopped wearing my sandals on my third day. Women there wore cosmetics sparingly and my kohl-encircled eyes made people turn to stare at me on the street so I’d gone without for weeks. Older women wore their hair short or pulled it back, so a ponytail was my new daily hairdo. When I looked in the mirror, a Shenzhen auntie stared back at me, but nobody else did once I left my room. I looked normal for the place I had chosen to be in.
So having a mane of hair again invigorated me, even if I were going into Hong Kong only for a quick shopping run on Nathan Road. I had made a few of those during my time in Shenzhen, usually for the International New York Times, the South China Morning Post, and the Economist to bring me up to speed on all of the news that had taken place without me.
While other Shenzhen visitors left Hong Kong with suitcases full of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Danish butter cookies, pulling bungie-corded trolleys piled with disposable diapers and infant formula, my purchases were easily stowed away in a shoulder bag: aspirin, unscented deodorant, gentle hues of eye pencil and lip gloss from the Body Shop, and newsprint. I was the most down-market shopper who had probably ever walked past the customs officials at the border. They all ignored me.
This trip was the first to Hong Kong in almost two months when I would be spending the night and I had an entire day stretching in front of me to explore a neighborhood that I loved a lot. The Lander is in Sham Shui Po, which is one of the few places in Kowloon that delights me more each time I go there. It is old and down at the heel and so local that within its streets, I’ve never seen a Starbucks or an upscale supermarket or a trendy restaurant. It holds a fabric market that encompasses leather crafters, millinery stores, button manufacturers, and bolts of cloth on the street and in open shops. There are shops that sell beads, feathers, ribbons, and embroidered trimmings, patches and badges, artificial flowers and sparkly bits of plastic. It takes me hours to go three blocks on these streets filled with treasure hunts.
There’s an electronics market with stalls crowding one of the streets, a toy market where teddy bears and build-your-own-catapult kits sit side by side, and an unassuming dim sum restaurant that was the first spot in Hong Kong to receive a Michelin star. Small groceries stock food from India, Africa, Indonesia, and Nepal, near coffee shops started by young artists from the nearby college of art and design. There are more hole-in-the-wall restaurants than I could eat in if I tried every day for a year and the architecture keeps me snapping pictures on every walk that I take through the neighborhood.
I spent my day searching for buttons for the collection that I add to on each visit to Sham Shui Po, taking snapshots, staring at glitz and color and fabric. It was a visual feast that I needed badly after my time in Shenzhen and the layers of this place were smoothing the jagged edges left by too much time in shopping malls. When I finally reached sensory overload, I went to the edge of Kowloon and took a ferry across the harbor and back, staring at the city on both sides of the water, the freighters that were making their way past to the open sea, and the ghosts of mountains that floated near the horizon.
As I walked back to the Lander, I passed a small diner that had a Thai menu posted in its window. I stopped, as I always do when I see the Thai alphabet, and was stunned. This place had one of my favorite dishes, the Thai version of ceviche, raw shrimp that's been marinated in lime juice and bathed in chile with fish sauce. I went inside.
The man at the counter greeted me with the usual Thai salutation that has traveled all over the world. I heard it even in Shenzhen but there the greeting was all that had been learned and after one meal, I had learned to walk away from any place that claimed to be Thai in that city. I’d been disappointed in Hong Kong too, but here this man responded to my follow-up pleasantry in Thai that was infinitely better than mine.
He assured me that he indeed served the dish that I wanted and yes, the shrimp was fresh. I looked at the wall behind him and saw a picture of King Rama V. Nearby was a stack of bags holding Thai jasmine rice. I sat down and ordered a beer.
The food that came to my table was truly Thai and I ate every scrap, but what made me happiest in that little diner was the ability to speak incompletely and faultily in a language that held two decades of good memories. My accent was wretched but the words came out of my mouth the minute that I needed them. I floated out of that place, buoyed with the joy of communication at random, in an act of daily living, and then I knew why Shenzhen had turned flat for me.
The happiness I had just found by speaking Thai in Kowloon I'd gained from years of public humiliation and dogged persistence. The two months I had just spent in Shenzhen pointing at menus and my phrasebook, going for days saying nothing more than hello and thank you again and again like a badly trained mynah bird, would have been as delightful as that Thai meal if I had only learned some basic Mandarin. I’d cheated myself and the city I’d stayed in and was starving only because of my own laziness.
And I knew I needed to visit again with language, no matter how limited or how faulty those words will probably be.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why I Didn't Love Shenzen and Why I Liked It One Helluva Lot

If I could bring home to Seattle one feature of life in Shenzhen, it would be basic, humble, essential to civilized living, and largely invisible here--the public toilet. There were bilingual signs for them in almost every neighborhood I visited, they were in public parks, in the approach to the paid area of the metro stations, and on every floor of every shopping center that I visited. They were clean and Western-style commodes weren't uncommon. My only caveats would be carry toilet paper with you and if squat toilets aren't your thing, look for the sign that says Handicapped Toilet. (When I did, I always tried to limp as I entered one, but that's just me. Nobody seemed to give a damn. But be sure to hurry because there are a large number of people in wheelchairs who travel around that city, surprising to someone who has spent most of her Asian time in Bangkok.)

There are other features that I wish were here as well as there: vending-style machines where library books can be checked out anytime (even in the airport), fresh fruit carts on the sidewalks, Pizza Huts that sell cocktails...but every time I walked through a park and realized there was no smell of urine wafting toward me, I longed for those public toilets to come home with me.

Following close behind that is the lack of salt as a predominating flavor in food--even potato chips and nuts weren't drowning in sodium. Could that be why my blood pressure reading was so low when I recently went to the doctor? Gee, do you suppose?

Although the libraries, metro system, tree-lined streets, and green spaces near major thoroughfares all made my time in Shenzhen pleasant, I didn't fall in love with it and anybody who knows me will realize this is far from usual. Ordinarily I return from a trip to any city and immediately start checking Craigslist or its international equivalents, plotting the time that I will be able to move there. It's a ritual so firmly in place that I was surprised to find I wasn't doing that for Shenzhen in the past weeks, once the jet lag faded.

But Shenzhen, as far as I could see, has no landscape, other than architectural marvels and the spectacular view of Shenzhen Bay at the park of the same name. (Yes I know eponymous would have worked there, but I hate that word, okay?) Hong Kong has its harbor with the hills behind it, Shatin has its river, Beijing has its lakes and hills, Bangkok has the Chao Phraya. Shenzhen? The best view of the river that separates it from the New Territories is seen only when crossing the windowed bridge between the two border checkpoints and lingering is forbidden. On the Number 5 metro line, there was a brief glimpse of green hills stretching toward the horizon but the area was under construction and studded with equipment. And to my mind, a doomed landscape is no landscape at all.

The second drawback comes with being a city that is under forty years old. The infrastructure is beautifully in place--miles of really stunning buildings in the central business district, the clean and polished metro stations with trains that come every few minutes, the museums and libraries that are placed in those stunning buildings and are conveniently near those metro stations. But Shenzhen is a city with no layers. Instead it has space and zoning. I found myself going to Hong Kong to soak up the clutter and variety of its neighborhoods. And within the beautiful libraries and museums, there is nothing that made me grateful that I had traveled for hours to see them. 

But it is a new city and that will change. What is more immutable is that damned firewall, which in Shenzhen extends to print as well as cyberspace. For a reader, it is a painful city to be in for more than a week because I could find no English newspapers, not China Daily, not the Global Times. After my first week, I would have killed for both. In Eon Books, there are copies of the Economist, Time, and the National Geographic. All are individually shrink-wrapped and none of them are new. 

It was difficult to live without internet access as I knew it, but not impossible. What was impossible was the paucity of print in English, which seemed peculiar for a city that is positioning itself as a global player. I found myself going to the airport Hyatt as much for its single copy of the South China Morning Post that was provided for its guests as I did for unrestricted use of the internet.

Once a week I crossed the border and came home with newspapers and magazines. And the silver lining to that cloud? I, who am notoriously one of the greediest print gluttons on the planet, learned the skill of reading very s-l-o-w-l-y.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wordless Traveler

It’s not often that I wish I had a travel companion but this thought frequently crossed my mind when I was in Shenzhen. There were days when all I ever said was “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Check please,” “Cold,” and (very badly but with great feeling), “Where is the toilet?”

After I had met Mr. Lee, the manager of Granville Whale’s Cafe, things perked up, conversationally speaking, but he was a busy man. Once a week or so, I met my friend Albert across the border for a few hours and tried not to allow my words to become a tsunami as we chatted.

Aside from normal human discourse, there was the sheer surprise of Shenzhen, constantly knocking me on the chin. I took snapshots constantly and posted them online when I could, but out of context, they looked flat and ordinary. Even the skyscraper whose facade was peeled away mid-tower to resemble an appendectomy at one angle, a hernia at the other, was only an amusement without seeing the other equally imposing but less eccentric buildings that surrounded it. The half of a motorcycle that burst through a restaurant wall just beneath its roof meant little unless it was viewed from the perspective of a chic shopping center across the street. And the amazement caused by a sign for a new apartment complex that said “Dolores Park: Life is routine punctuated by orgies” was nonexistent unless the reader had walked for hours in a place where written English is an anomaly.

Ordering a soft-serve ice cream cone at a streetside McDonald's that looked from a photograph as if it might be related to strawberry and finding it was made from hawthorn berries, asking a clerk in an Apple store where to find an ATM with an English menu and being directed to the nearest Starbucks, emerging from the metro into what was expected to be still more city and finding it was a gigantic construction zone where Shenzhen is still being built--all of this would have been more credible somehow if there was someone to turn to and ask “Can you dig it?”

And yet without that comradeship and without the immediate gratification of a status update, I wrote this all down every day. And when I go back to Shenzhen, I will go by myself, with a goal. Yes, I need language there. No, that language is not my own, and the conversation I want will be hard to come by. But there really is nothing fun about “easy.” It’s about as dull as being wordless for sixty days in another galaxy.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Without a Map, Without a Clue

Shenzhen is almost double the size of the city of Los Angeles, with its 792 square miles eclipsing the 472-square-mile metropolitan sprawl of L.A. Its subway system runs for 177 miles, close behind New York’s 228-mile length. And there I was, doing my best to find my way around this place without a map.

When I first went to Beijing, the staff at my guesthouse handed me a bilingual city map when they gave me the key to my room. Unfolded, it could have papered most of a wall and it was beautifully detailed. I still have it somewhere, tattered enough to resemble lace, after three months of constant use while I walked as many streets of China’s capital as I could.

The desk clerk who checked me in at my Shenzhen hotel looked politely puzzled. “Our maps are only in Chinese,” he told me. But he gave me careful directions on where to go to buy coffee and the hotel’s brochure had a rudimentary map that would take me to the nearest subway station.

I was in an area that was easy to map on foot. It was a self-sufficient community, with two huge malls within walking distance, parks, a bus station, banks, a post office, and at least three restaurants on every block. The sidewalks were wide and uncrowded and many of the streets were bordered with banyan trees, their branches reaching out to form green canopies. It was the perfect spot to recover from jet lag and that was where I spent my first few days, having coffee at sidewalk cafe tables and window-shopping on a street that was filled with clothing stores.

I had downloaded what seemed to be the only guidebook to Shenzhen in existence which told me about a place in the central business district called Book City and that I decided would be my first destination. It turned out to be over an hour from my new neighborhood by subway on two different lines but I was overjoyed to find bilingual route maps at every station. Soon my phone was crammed with pictures of subway line maps and I concentrated on every announcement that called out the name of the next stop, trying to memorize the tones.

There was a foreign language bookstore in the mall that was Book City and that language was my very own. I chose a small stack of books and took them to the counter, where the lady behind it spoke to me in perfect English. “I can’t find a guidebook to Shenzhen. Can you help me?” I asked. “We don’t have one,” she said.

“Do you have a map in English?” “No. Only in Chinese.”

“Do you know any place where I can buy a map of Shenzhen in English?” Smiling sweetly, she assured me that there was no such thing anywhere in Book City or anyplace in Shenzhen.

This seemed beyond comprehension to me, but Hong Kong was just over the border. I put my selections on the counter with my credit card on top of the stack. “I’m very sorry, but I can’t take this card. Credit cards need this symbol in China,” and she showed me her own card, with the logo of Union Pay.

I bought one of the books, with cash, and left in a state of miserable confusion. I was in a city that was positioning itself as a center of world trade and commerce that didn’t seem to recognize international banking practices and didn’t acknowledge, let alone help, a tourist market beyond the domestic one. Less ebulliently than when I had begun my expedition, I found my way back to my hotel where at least I knew my credit card was functional.

On the next morning I made my first border crossing and went immediately to my favorite Hong Kong bookstore. Swindon Books has been in Kowloon for almost 100 years, since 1918. It has a substantial travel section and a hefty selection of maps. None of them were for Shenzhen, in any language at all.

Google maps aren’t available in China and the versions I found on yahoo were far from helpful. I began to feel a kind of mental vertigo, floating in a new universe, unanchored by the laws of gravity. Then one day I met a friend in Hong Kong who handed me a map of Shenzhen with place names in English.

I took it home and spread it out on my bed. There were names of subway stops that I had passed but none were near me. As far as I could see, on this map my neighborhood in the Bao'an district simply did not exist. I took it down to the reception desk where the staff confirmed my fears. We were indubitably off the map.

There are eight subway lines in Shenzhen and I used six of them almost every day in my two months of living there. I walked in futile attempts to find cohesion between neighborhoods but the concept of flow escaped me. I began to feel that I was in a city that was a follow-the-dots page, with all of the dots still unconnected.

Halfway through my stay, I found a bilingual guide to cultural attractions in Shenzhen with transit directions and miniscule line drawings of maps. Clutching that, I wandered the city like a character out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, making my way from one helpful pedestrian to the next, on a quest. Luckily for me, Shenzhen people are kind.

And now, back in Seattle, my quest continues. Somewhere, somehow, I will find a map of this confusing, seductive city. It’s not impossible. After all, Beijing has been mapped for centuries.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Granville Whale's Cafe: A Refuge from Slippery Chopsticks

Plastic chopsticks and I have never gotten along very well. My Asian gateway country was Thailand where people use a fork and spoon and (wooden) chopsticks are used for noodles. I soon found that if I ate fat, thick noodles with wooden chopsticks, I could save myself from public humiliation. On the occasions when the restaurant had plastic chopsticks, I simply avoided noodles. Case closed.

Shenzhen apparently thought that wooden chopsticks were vestiges of a less affluent past because even the humblest streetside diner had plastic ones for their customers. I bought a package of bamboo utensils but always forgot to carry them with me and always wished I had. Even dumplings proved to be slippery little devils when my fingers held plastic chopsticks and my clothes were soon splashed with vinegar and chili oil.

But even so, a broad has to eat and I persisted, but some days were much worse than others. After one morning in a dumpling joint where the people sitting near me averted their eyes and the waitstaff found tasks that would give them a good view of this peculiarly inept old foreign woman, I left knowing I never wanted to go back.

As I walked down the street, still hungry and with my self-esteem far below absolute zero, I approached a place with the intriguing name of Granville Whale’s Cafe. I had been there once before, had opened the menu, and quickly left, muttering “I didn’t come to Shenzhen to eat pasta and risotto.” But it was a spot that served espresso, and I needed something that I could eat without embarrassing myself. I went inside.

It was still early and I was the only customer. I sat at a table in a regal peacock chair and looked at the bilingual menu. Charcoal coffee was something I’d never seen before, so I ordered it.

While the beans were being ground, I stared at the large, light-flooded space and saw shelves filled with hand grinders, filter cones, and long-spouted kettles. Obviously this was a place that understood coffee, and this assessment was buttressed by the careful actions being taken by the man who was making my coffee. As he poured water over the ground beans, he frequently stopped, bent his head, and sniffed at them. I was impressed and very hopeful. After a couple of weeks spent drinking Nescafe Red instant and Starbucks lattes, I was more than ready for a cup of good coffee.

But I wasn’t ready for the presentation. It arrived on a footed wooden tray with two recessed spaces; one held a graceful white gilt-trimmed porcelain cup and saucer and the other had a little white pitcher with the coffee that hadn’t fit in the cup. A demitasse spoon rested near the cup, along with cream and sugar that I was certain I wouldn’t need. The coffee smelled like the best drug in the world and when I tasted it, it was.

Undertones of bitterness made me want something sweet and I examined the pastry case at the counter. Lemon poppyseed cake came to my table, garnished with a sphere of chocolate and a miniscule sprig of parsley, on a plate drizzled with a thin border of chocolate syrup. I was enchanted.

I had found much to love in my Shenzhen neighborhood, but casual elegance was not its hallmark. This eccentrically named cafe was an anomaly and a welcome one that became my primary refuge in a fascinating but exhausting city.

Mr. Lee introduced himself on that first visit and he became a friend. Educated in the UK and a generous English speaker, he was a source of conversation and information and kindness who made this cafe nourishing in more ways than one.

Toward the end of my time In Shenzhen, Granville Whale’s Cafe had a sign advertising Row Dinners, a four-course meal with cocktail included, and one evening after a tiring trip to Hong Kong, I decided I needed a treat. The waitress brought me a menu and I asked about the cocktail choices. She smiled and fled, returning with Mr. Lee.

“I don’t drink alcohol,” he told me, “I’ll ask the man who makes the cocktails.”

“Perhaps I should just have a glass of wine instead?” I asked.

“We can’t serve wine here,” he explained, “or beer, only cocktails when they are ordered with dinner.”

I ordered the rest of my meal and went to wash my hands. When I walked back toward my table, I passed the counter that held a small but stunning collection of liquor bottles, where Mr. Lee and another staff member stood, looking a bit puzzled.

“This is what we have,” Mr. Lee said. “What would you like to drink?’

“Johnny Walker Black,” I decided, “with ice, no water.”

And soon I was presented with a glass filled with Scotch with a thin sprinkling of small ice cubes. It tasted like god on the rocks and I sipped it happily while eating a beautiful salad composee, a flavorful vegetable soup, and tender beef with perfectly cooked vegetables. There was no need for dessert.

In my two months in Shenzhen, I was comfortable in my hotel room, loved the cats and flowering potted plants for sale in the nursery down the street, found Hunan and Xi'an food that made me happy, and learned to be grateful for the neighborhood mall, but the place that will draw me back to the neighborhood of Jian’an Road is Granville Whale's Cafe and the welcoming presence of Mr. Lee.