So, it turns out that eleven months ago, I promised that my next post would be about Shanghai. It’s true, but not for the reasons I thought when I wrote that sentence. Time raced, I didn’t get around to posting, a year passed, and now we’re back in China — this time spending the summer in Shanghai while the Guy teaches classes on English composition and film. No time just yet to write a new post, but here, for my non-Facebooky friends and for posterity, is a lightly edited compendium of my first few substantive Facebook posts about our time here since our arrival three days ago.

“You can pull a cow with one of those.”

Yesterday, the Kid and I and two new friends were wandering around People’s Square when we spied some men gambling. The new friends, who’ve spent less time in China than the Kid and I have, were interested in watching the game; so the Kid (in her really quite impressive Chinese) asked the men if they’d mind if we watched. The men said it was no problem. But, as soon as they’d caught a glimpse of the Kid, the game fell apart anyway. Who was this confident, butch, blue-haired girl with all the piercings? Abandoning the game, the men encircled the Kid and began to interrogate her about where we were from and, especially, about her piercings. As she chatted with them in Chinese, more men gathered, forming a crowd. They genially teased her with the grandfathers-everywhere joke about pulling cows by their nose rings. They asked her how much each of her piercings cost, counted her piercings and worked out the total, then (grandpa-wise) offered to provide her with new piercings at a much-reduced rate. One of our new friends, a warm, funny Peruvian who (it seems) needs no common language to communicate effectively with anyone he meets so expressive and disarming is he, joined in the fun and mimed using various power tools on the Kid, to the delight of the Shanghai gamblers. One tough-looking young guy, himself pierced and tattooed, asked the Kid to show him the weird little piercing she has inside her upper lip, and then acted all freaked out when she showed him. the Kid’s language skills were awesome and her broad smile was, as always, warm and charming. She much enjoyed this bout of celebrity. But, it’s clear that she is far too interesting looking to be a very effective ethnographer here. This summer, she will be the observed rather than the observer.

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Vegan Shanghai

No kitchen in our hotel rooms (we have two!) this year, but restaurants are really cheap and street food is plentiful; so, it will be easy to eat well. We splurged tonight, and paid a little more than will be typical for us — went out for amazing Buddhist vegan food in the French concession. Vegan braised rockfish, vegan salmon sashimi (!), vegan sweet and sour steak, unctuous hand-torn noodles, pot stickers, braised eggplant on a bed of crunchy bean sprouts, spinach and “cheese” risotto, spring rolls and amazing freshly squeezed juices — orange and lemon and matcha-pineapple. Followed by matcha pudding topped with red beans and coconut jelly. A massive feast in a posh restaurant. Just over $80 or ₤40 for five of us!

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Other people’s diaries

Last year, we tried to go for drinks in the well-known French Concession bar called Yin Yang, but it was closed when we got there. We went back tonight. It’s a dark and ambient basement bar with deep reds and wooden floors and panelling, and a few framed socialist realist paintings. When we arrived at 9:00 or so, it was chill, with just two older men drinking and smoking, and the staff preparing for their Saturday night shift. After our cocktails, the owner showed us his impressive collection of personal diaries spanning the period from the revolution to the 1970s. For years, he has bought them at markets and antique shops. At first, he was puzzled by how many of them contained very little writing. Over time, he came to realize that left-wing diary owners recorded their thoughts expansively, but right-wing diary owners were more circumspect, fearful of having their writings used as evidence against them. He now organizes the diaries in bookshelves on two opposing walls — one wall is devoted to the diaries of the loquacious left, the other to those of the laconic right. Today, he has a special place in his heart for old empty diaries. He thinks that the emptiness expresses as much as written words do. But he’s finding it increasingly difficult to find old diaries for sale. “Do you keep a diary?” I asked him. He replied that he doesn’t keep a diary, but that every ten years he spends a year writing, “So, that’s a kind of diary, isn’t it?”