As Aric discovers the dark side" />

Er shi jiu ri (29 day) – Shanghai, China

Er shi jiu ri (29 day)
Shanghai, China

High-rising buildings
At the age of 60+, she understandably didn’t speak a word of English and with my Mandarin being confined to getting home in a taxi, you’d imagine it to be a worthless conversation…yet, I understood every syllable.

Starting my day off with news of China announcing that they would no longer be pegging their money, the Yuan, to the dollar, and thus admitting currency manipulation and the first of many steps in worldwide domination, I decided that a day of capturing them in their humorous environment, adding captions to further my enjoyment and then posting them online for the world to laugh would be my own small bit of American vigilante justice. So, I hopped on the fully charged moped ($50) with a fully charged digital camera ($500) in hand for a day of Shanghai-snapshotting. After 2 hours of taking the necessary shots, I decided to take the ferry back over to the original side of Shanghai, called Puxi. As luck (and lack-of communication would have it) I boarded the wrong boat and which meant being dropped off way farther south than I had ever gone. As I “froggered” my way across the ever-busy intersection, I found myself lost…which is actually a big deal when the only relevant thing you can say in the local language is “I lost.”

For some inexplicable reason, I decided to turn down a street so narrow that no two bikes would have fit. After maneuvering my 6’2″ frame through on my 2’6″ moped, the narrow lane opened up to an area bordered by bamboo and yellow police tape (or should I say yellow tape of the police to avoid insult?) obviously hinting to stay out of the designated area…which strangely was nothing at all.

Now, if 2 years in China has taught me anything, it’s to be curious. See, the Chinese mentality always has a way of making even the most menial of tasks unbelievable entertaining, and with this in mind, I placed my expensive lock around my cheap bike, took a look around to make sure that the jing cha wasn’t around, and proceeded to trespass this mysterious nonentity.

The area fenced in by the tape was that of about a square city block, with nil to offer except for a creepy post-apocalyptic canvas of brick and mortar. As I made my way over what once had to have been a massive building, I saw, in the far right corner, a tiny half-demolished home still standing, barely indistinguishable save for crumbling tiles foreshadowing the color of Communistic progress.

Now, ask any Shanghainese what they love most about their city and get the (fixed) answer: “Shanghai is a developing city!” Ask any foreigner what they hate about the town and their reply is the same. Having spent a year in Beijing watching the old hutong neighborhoods being torn down to make place for the car parks and flats to house the millions that will come for the 2008 Olympics (and then leave 2 weeks later) I agree; and it’s for this reason, China’s blatant disregard for its amazing history offered up in exchange for the high-rise equivalent of a ill-hung man’s fast new car that explains my conviction to show friends and family all sides of China, not just the Great Wall/Terracotta Warriors-esque type.

As I began to take photo’s of this dwarfed homestead cowering beneath the powers of “Westernization” my eye was so focused on capturing this, I had failed to realize how close I had actually gotten to the casa in question, but it was at this proximity that I realized: this house was a miniature example of what this entire area used to be.

A community.

With my 5x zoom lens trained on the details of what was left of this tiny home, I noticed a face at one of the windows looking right back at me. Ashamed at my discourtesy and disrespect, I offered up an embarrassed wave and mouthed a “sorry” only to see the face disappear behind some dirty green curtains. Had these people not gone through enough without a nosey lao wai aiming his fancy camera at their less than costly abode?

Dick, thy name is Aric.

I had just switched my camera off and began to walk away when I saw the face, along with its owner appear, saying something in my direction. Unable to hear over the bulldozers in the background, I motioned the universal “I can’t hear you” finger to the ear followed by a shrug, which earned me a beckoning wave in return. Great, now I get a scolding to go on top of my present self-loathing.

Now, normally, I would have just run, but I figured I owed it to her and began to navigate my poor choice of flip-flopped footwear over the rubble and back to the house. When I got about 50 feet from her she turned and disappeared out of sight, which I could only translate as her wanting me to follow, which I did.

As I came around the side of the house, I could tell by the window placement that below me was a small alleyway, even tinier than the one I came in through, and it was here that the lady was waiting for me.

I made my way down to where she was to see not only a welcoming smile, but also 5 other people all sitting under the last bit of shading available in this quarantined area. I said a quick ni hao to everyone and was given a small wooden seat and a cup of tea. Amazing really, the mannerisms of the Chinese; You could come to tell them they had won the lotto and they’d still make you finish your brew before telling them where to collect. As I sat down with them, I told them, in my “caveMandarin” how I felt about their plight:

“This (pointing at the remaining concrete skeleton of their life) good. That (moving my finger a few inches to the east and out towards the 40 floor high-rise) bad. Why?”

Standing with Notice
Standing with Notice
And that’s when I was told clearly, in a language I didn’t understand, exactly what was happening. In all honesty, a child could have put together the hand gestures combined with the occasional sobs to tell you what was going on. On some levels, I knew as soon as I set foot on the premises;

They were being forced out of their homes.

As I sat drinking my cuppa and looking through the holes above us up toward the new face of China, she went inside and came back out with a shoebox full of paperwork. I couldn’t make out what was written, but the numbers told all:

1. October, 2002 – Aside from the date, I see the number 3000 and assume that this was the compensation offered (works out to about $360)

2. May 2003 – No numbers, no monetary mention, but 3 official seals and a few underlined characters.

3. February 2005 – 3 short paragraphs, one date: July 29th, 2005.

It was after pointing out the date on the 3rd letter with a weathered finger that she began to sob uncontrollably. This was the date they would be evicted out of their lives. As she held her head in her hands, her husband, who up until now had remained quietly in the background, sat down and started talking to me. I shook my head in agreement with everything he said, but he soon caught on that I understood nothing. He then motioned to the outer walls and mimicked a hammer. He then did the same thing with the door. After that he made a sweeping gesture that encompassed what was left of their house and then pointed to his hands…

He had built this.

As he surveyed his creation for one of the last times, all I could do was sit there. Somehow, even a performance of emotional charades didn’t even seem to be enough. You know that feeling when a friend gets bad news that you could never relate to? That part where words sound recited and a hug seems rehearsed? All I could do was sit there.

She eventually stopped crying and went inside to dry her eyes. When she came back, she was proudly wearing a laminated paper around her neck. This was, I guessed, their last attempt to stay, a petition of sort…which, might bring hope to the flag that you salute, but not here. The People’s Republic of China is that in name only and a mirror of their craftsmanship: good in aesthetics, cheap to acquire, but without reliance. Anyone who doubts that can ask my students whom they voted for in the last election.

She stood solemnly in the doorway and pointed at the benign camera around my neck. She wanted the world to know…and so did I.

Having being given the green light, I switched it back on and started taking pictures from every possible angle, hoping that one would somehow capture a little of what was being witnessed. I then asked her if I could go inside to take some more. She said yes and immediately began apologizing for the state of the house (I heard “sorry” and “dirty”). She led me up uneasy stairs to the 2nd floor of the house. When we got up, I noticed a door with 3 heavy pad locks on it. She noticed my expression and weakly laughed as she fished a key ring out of her pocket and proceeded to disarm the iron sentry guarding something, I assumed, that had to be sacred. When the door finally opened, I saw a tiny room, no larger than 20 feet X 20 feet, holding what was left of their normality.

Walking in, I saw a chest of drawers holding twice the capacity it was intended for. Beyond that was a table, with only room for a single chair. Opposite that, in the right corner laid the bed and in directly in front of that, the refrigerator. There was barely enough room for her to squeeze by me as she made her way between the table and the bed to open the curtains so I could see exactly what they did every morning: Almost as if it was planned in the construction blue-prints, the workers entrance was symmetrical with their only view of the outside world. As she opened the windows, I assumed she was going to hurl words or something heavier at the men taking government money to destroy the life she once knew, but she didn’t…she just stared.

Looking out Window
Looking out Window
Some say that the worst part of a nightmare is that brief moment when you wake up not knowing fact from fiction. But theirs actually begins with the acclimation back into reality. The sounds were maddening; even for the few minutes I was in there. How the hell she and her husband found solitude in slumber knowing that the 6 a.m. sounds that used to be a day beginning had been bartered for the resonance of their existence cast aside, all in the name of “catching up”.

I shot for as long as she gazed, which might have been 2 minutes, it might have been 20. When she finally turned around, I could see, even through the dust that she wasn’t going out without one last stand. She pulled down her calendar and pointed to the 29th of July, pointed at me, and then to my camera.

She wanted me here in a week’s time.

After politely refusing an offering of ice cream, I thanked her with an awkward embrace, left her alone in the room, walked out and shook hands with the curious crowd that had gathered outside, but instead of receiving the normal Shanghai goodbye (zai wai) I heard them all saying the same thing:

Er shi jiu tian

29 day

I’m sure there are those out there that would have stayed longer, offered money, or more. All I wanted to do was get out of there. China had suddenly, in the matter of an hour, gone from a place that entertained me to a place that I had suddenly experienced, a place that I used to watch from a distance had made its way up to my door…a door still on its hinges.

So, what will become of them?

I have no idea; hopefully their allotted one child will have room.

Will this continue?

As long as China keeps dreaming of more red mansions.

Will I go back on the 29 day?

I honestly don’t know. China might have gotten too close.

Traveler Article

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Older comments on Er shi jiu ri (29 day) – Shanghai, China

Sheila Scarborough
07 June 2009

Love Aric!