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A Chinese haircut, and other Shanghai adventures

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By Greg Woods

After our incredibly busy week in Beijing and Xi’an we returned to Shanghai and had a couple of rest days. On Sunday afternoon I got a special treat. Tom and I went downtown to explore Shanghai’s famous Yu Gardens. This was a special treat for a couple of reasons, but mainly because I got to spend time in the presence of another man. I think Verna and Kelley were afraid I was scarred for life after being with seven females for five days without any respite!

Yu Gardens actually consists of a very busy and very touristy shopping district and a quiet, beautiful garden that has been preserved for over four hundred years. We never made it to the actual gardens on Sunday. Tom really wanted to show me the busy, touristy section of Shanghai. Thanks Tom! I went back to the actual gardens with my harem of seven ladies on Wednesday. It was beautiful and peaceful and a great example of the Chinese art of building beautiful gardens in relatively small spaces. Chinese gardens are one of the feature tourist attractions in almost every city. Garden building was something of an obsession for higher class Chinese over the centuries and many excellent examples still exist.

Tom and I visited an interesting place on Sunday. It is called the Urban Planning Center and is dedicated to the future of Shanghai. The feature of this building is a 100 square meter model of Shanghai. We were quite impressed with the model. It must have taken many man hours to build, not to mention map out. It had every detail of one of the world’s largest cities on it. The other impressive thing about this place is that it showed the incredibly ambitious plans for the Shanghai World Exposition which is coming up in just two years. The city plans to dig a canal parallel to the Huangpu River which will create an island on which will be built a park with futuristic buildings. When I expressed doubts that they could get this done on time, Tom just smiled and said, “It will be done on time”. Since Tom lives here and interacts with people in the construction business on a daily basis I saw no reason to doubt him, but it still seems inconceivable to me that all the building that is planned for 2010 will be finished in time. Tom doesn’t doubt it one bit!

One of the things I wanted to do while here in China is to get an idea of the everyday life of the Chinese. This is somewhat hard to do because most of the foreigners in Shanghai live in what we call “the Bubble.” It is an area of suburban Shanghai where most Westerners live. While there are still some major differences in culture, this area recreates western living as closely as you are going to get it in China. However, one of the people that any Westerner is going to interact with on a regular basis is their driver. Kelley and I decided that we were going to get to know Jack, Verna’s driver, as well as possible during our stay.

We have had very interesting conversations with Jack. He has very limited English and we have even more limited Mandarin (I know how to say hello, thank you, and very good). Jack has an electronic device that converts Mandarin to English and Verna keeps a Mandarin/English dictionary in the van. This has made for long drawn out conversations which cover very little ground but are interesting nonetheless. At first, Jack seemed to be a little shy about interacting with us on a personal level because he has to keep a professional relationship with Tom and Verna. However, I came up with the idea of getting a Chinese haircut, which was mainly because my crew cut was starting to look like a punk rock hairdo — but also because I know that the barber shop is a good place to find out about the culture of a people (and since I was still a little traumatized by the previous week’s adventure with the seven ladies, I thought this would be good, manly activity!). Jack wears his hair cut short and sometimes wears a crew cut so I thought he could arrange for me to get my usual flat top at his barber. You see, I had the idea that Jack probably went to some old barber who cut hair in a little shack of place and by going to his barber I would get a real taste of China.

After some convincing by Verna, Jack reluctantly agreed to take me to his “barber” on Tuesday. On the way to the barber, Jack pointed to one of the ubiquitous skyscrapers in Shanghai and said, “My house.” I felt like this was a real breakthrough in getting Jack to open up some. Later at the hair style salon where Jack gets his hair cut he and Libby took some pictures of me getting my Chinese haircut. Yes, I did say, hair style salon. About the only part of my preconceived idea of what a trip to the barber would be like is that it was a tiny place. However, it was not a shack and the barber was actually a stylist who looked to be about 17 years old and had his right ear pierced! Jack and the young man both seemed very nervous about cutting the hair of a Westerner. Jack kept saying, “Maybe just a little bit.” I said “Okay,” because I wanted to put them at ease and I was actually starting to get nervous about it. Finally the young man got to work and did an excellent job of shaping my hair in the crew cut style I prefer. However, when he finished my hair was not much shorter than when he started. When Jack asked, “Okay?” I held my fingers a little apart and said, “Little more.” Jack and the stylist nodded and I finally got a proper crew cut.

What I found out, or I guess confirmed, on this little excursion was that “old” China is rapidly disappearing and “new” China is rapidly rising. I also confirmed what I had already noticed and that is that it seems that most Chinese want very badly to please the Westerners they come into contact with.

As for Jack, he and I have become good buddies. I figured out that he understands better when you speak in nouns, verbs and adjectives, without those pesky articles and prepositions and such. I also have found that he seems to be picking up English at a much faster rate than I am picking up Mandarin. However I do have a new word that I will never forget: pingtou, the Mandarin word for crew cut.