About Taxis on Chinese, Fools, and Book Stores

I got up late today, some when in the middle of the day, as I worked late on an Update Notification mechanism for Sonux.net, soon to be released, but not yet ready… I saw bright sun shine and thought that I ought to have to go to down town again, where I haven’t been for quite some time.

Taxi I

As our Chinese teacher keeps insisting that we have to practice our Chinese a bit more in real life I decided to try my Chinese on taxi drivers today. I wrote down a couple of terms and street names (as so often, just writing it down helps remembering the phrases), ordered a taxi at the reception (that still in English) and were perfectly able to tell the taxi driver in a complete Chinese sentence that I want to go to People’s Square (“Wo you qu Ren Min Guangchang”, if anybody cares to try it himself). He repeated, I confirmed, and 20 minutes later I was there.

Nanjing Lu

I walked down Shanghai’s largest shopping street, Nanjing Lu, not really looking for anything specific. If I would have come across a large electronics department store I would have taken a look. But Nanjing Lu mostly offers clothing and jewellery. Not my kind of stuff.

I waved off two watch sellers, but also was briefly approached twice by young Chinese who just said “Hello”, “Were do you come from”, that simple stuff, no more than two sentences. I think they just wanted to practice a bit their limited English knowledge. As long as it does not seem that they want to sell anything to me I answer kindly. Maybe working on cultural understanding…

That Japanese Guy

Somewhere down the road a tall Asian started talking to me. He also did not seem to sell anything. So we started chatting. First things are always where you come from. Germany is an answer people seem to like to hear. Everybody has one or the other connection to Germany. And if it is just that they like German cars (all Shanghai Taxis are Volkswagen Santana, the better off have Passat, the even more wealthy Audi A6, and the rich BMW). This guy, who turned out to be Japanese, claimed to have a brother in Baden-Baden working for a German computer company. Although I insisted (not yet sure where all this talking would lead to, wanted to have a confirmation for his truthfulness) he was not able to tell the company’s name. That rang a bell but not loud enough.

He came to Shanghai a year before and said to be a Japanese teacher. Who ever wants to learn Japanese…the Chinese most likely not, there’s still a certain rivalry between these two nations. But he could tell me where I would find foreign book stores. He suggested to have a coffee. That wasn’t too bad an idea as it was freezing cold.

He led the way to an area next to Nanjing Lu which he said to be the English quarter. I know there are areas with a couple of English pubs. But he finally entered a place which looked more like a night bar. And it was completely deserted as night bars are supposed to be at five in the afternoon. At least they offered coffee. He ordered and we got not only two cups of coffee (with sugar and cream, although I’d better like it black without anything) but also a platter of water melon slices, nuts and two other kinds of snacks which I did not touch.

We kept talking about our jobs in Shanghai. I continued to stay a bit cautious when it came to weekend activities as he obviously wanted to “make friend” with somebody as he “felt so lonely”. During the talk one of the bar ladies came along and asked if she could sit down next me. I agreed. She sat down very close and asked if I could spend her a drink. Aha, now we are talking, I thought. I refused and off she was in the same second. Latest that was the point when I decided that I’d like to get out on my own way again.

When we finished the coffee the Japanese wanted to order wine, which I had to refuse harshly to make him stop. He was disappointed but cancelled the order. When the bill came he offered his credit card, which was not accepted as it was not Chinese. (Now I’m thinking: That guy told me how often he came to that place, liked to talk to students and get a massage [make up your own mind about the kind of massage]. He should know by now that his credit card is no good here.) Now it came like it had to come out in the end: He had only one 100 Yuan note, but the bill was about an extraordinary amount of 450 Yuan. I started complaining about the amount. I knew the coffee was ‘only’ 45 Yuan (comparably expensive anyway, a good Starbucks coffee three times the size is 25 Yuan), but I could not imagine that all these snacks, which I did not want to have in the first place, added up to another 350 Yuan.

However, arguing is pretty much useless in such a situation. I was fooled and had to pay the price for the experience. I decided to book it on the newly opened account “1000 ways of getting mugged in Asia” and paid for the difference. The Japanese had given me a mobile number and offered that I should call him next weekend so that he can pay then, but I assume I will never find out if that mobile number really reaches his mobile…

We stepped out together. He said he needs to draw cash for the massage. I considered briefly if I should chase him to the next ATM and demand my money back, but eventually opted for the chance of ending the pleasure of his company and headed off the other way.

Foreign Book Stores

At least his directions to Fuzhou Lu proofed correct. I half-way expected that street to be packed with book stores as I learned that in Asia there are often areas of certain types of stores: A district full of tailors next to one with only electronics, or then one with vegetables and so on. But I saw only three book stores. Anyway, right the first one I came across offered foreign books. Right behind the door was a table with lots of English ones. Pretty chaotically arranged, Shakespeare next to Dan Brown, H.G. Wells next to John Grisham, Agatha Christie next to Stephen King. Aha, King, at last. But the selection there was limited. Anyway, the H.G. Wells stuff was cheep, just 15 Yuan, and I picked two classics, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, anyway.

On the ground floor (which by the way is called 1. floor in China like it is in America) there were also lots of books for teaching Chinese from various other languages. Certainly mostly from English, but also German, French, and so on. I was not looking for such stuff. I had a text book for our Chinese class and a DVD with a learning application. That should do for the moment. But I was pleased to see that the text book we use in class was on sale there. It is definitely not the best teaching book ever written, but it tries to set the stories in Shanghai, so that we not only learn a bit Chinese but also something about the city. The fact that there are foreign book stores around Nanjin Lu was part of the last lesson, actually. And it seems that there are people who think they can earn money by selling this book.

I also got the Restaurant Guide by “that’s”, a well-known Shanghai magazine, claiming to be “the complete guide to dining out in Shanghai”. Looks fairly comprehensive with well-written critics. Check out this one on German cuisine, for example:

    “The stereotypes are all true. The cuisine of Germany offers the world mountains of meat, enough vegetables to sink, well, a paper yacht and sufficient beer to flood the banks on the Rhine. It is also one of the most comforting cuisines to contemplate on an empty stomach – that is, if you are fairly sure you will soon be filling that stomach with sausages, sauerkraut and strudel. Serving up this cuisine in Shanghai is more a matter of importing the right ingredients than mastering complex cooking techniques, and perhaps as a result the homesick contingent of the city’s large German community is well catered for. Down a jug or two of hoppy homebrew with your meal and you may find things German are more romantic than you imagined.”

[That’s Shanghai – Restaurant Guide,p. 33]

At least it ends forgiving: Drunken Germans are romantic… But what the hell to do with a “paper yacht”?

Then two pictures of “Paulaner Brauhaus”, although only three restaurants are named in total. I’d like to know what the others look like, actually. The first is “Dan’s Old Farm House”. Its text ends in “Dan’s makes a cheaper, quieter alternative to Paulaner, but it’s not the place to impress a date.” Then comes Paulaner, which we skip as it is Bavarian and not German. The last one is called “Rossini”, which sounds more Italian. The conclusion of the Restaurant Guide: “Nuremberg sausage with potato salad […] came in generous portion and was…edible. Bring RMB 150 for two, low expectations, and a date who isn’t German.”

OK, OK, I got the message: Forget about German food abroad…

I learned by a security guard that I had to pay for the books on the floor where I found them and then reached the top floor (4.), which offered a larger, but still totally chaotic selection of modern novels and lots of classics. However, I did not find what I was looking for.

The second book store I found was a bit further up the road towards People’s Square. That one would have been heaven if I only could read Chinese: Seven floors packed with one book next to the other. Lots of different areas, looked a bit more organized than the first one. But it was less, how to put it, cosy than the first store. Book stores have to have an atmosphere which invites one to stay and dig into some books before buying way more than you originally intended. This large store was more comprehensive, but less cosy. The “Overseas and Imported Books” area was in the far corner of the top floor. Compared to the rest of the store it looked tiny, but still it had a bit more shelves than the first shop. But again: Classic next to modern literature, the complete works of Shakespeare next to the complete works of H.G. Wells next to the complete works of Agatha Christie (don’t know, is she considered classic or modern…?), interrupted by a few new novels, again many from Dan Brown and John Grisham and lot’s of others, who I could not remember. Also one from Stephen King, but not the one I was looking for. A bit disappointed (hey, I mean, I had to get to the seventh floor to see this…) I strolled around the shelves looking at many books as I hoped that somewhere between Dickens and Hemingway I would find my stuff.

And then: There it was! A complete shelve, from top to bottom, six or seven rows, one book next to the other, neatly ordered, all looking a bit alike, obviously the same design series: The complete works of Stephen King as paperbacks! Now I was in heaven.

OK, on second look it was by far not complete. But there were some I had not heard of before. Most books were displayed in several copies, and even across rows some of them were repeating. And then I was looking for what I really wanted: The Dark Tower series. Stephen King’s masterpiece, his answer to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I started reading the entire epic again in English before Christmas and a few days before began with the fourth volume (out of seven). And I could not yet get hold of a paperback copy of the fifth volume. But, surprise, surprise, the day at least ended with a bit of luck: There was exactly one book available of the complete series, which was Wolves of the Calla, volume 5 of The Dark Tower! A huge paperback copy. I guess, 150 Yuan is quite expensive in Chinese terms, but I just checked on Amazon: It’s about the same back home (16,50 EUR).

I bought it (yeah, I paid on the same floor) and went happily out of the book store. Right in front of it a young Chinese lady started talking to me, friendly but a bit too determined. Tough luck baby, had a hard day talking to strangers. I answered very briefly only and hurried off.

Taxi II

It was about 6 p.m. The streets were crowded. So were the taxi stands. Crowded of people, that is, no taxis. I decided to pay the extraordinary amount of 2 Yuan (in words: two, it’s really unimaginably cheap) to cross the river by subway. On the west side of the river where I was now it would be more difficult to convince a taxi driver of the right way if not wanting to use the apartment’s business card. And anyway, there were no free taxis.

Unfortunately, I managed to catch the train in the wrong direction. Damn, the terminal stations on both sides of that metro line started with Zhang and Zhong…I somehow got that confused. And the Shanghai subway does not, like the great London system, state the directions in terms of “east” or “west”. (Although they do for street names, which really helps sometimes.) I got off the next station and took the next train in the correct direction, got off a few stops after crossing the river. I had in mind that there were two stations where always taxis were waiting in front of. I saw that a couple of times out of a car window when getting back from the city all the way by taxi.

And I was right. I jumped into the first taxi and told the driver (who just wanted to light a cigarette, which is forbidden in taxis) “Wo yao qu Chuan Qiao Lu – Jin Qao Qu”. All my Chinese teachers kept telling us that Chuan Qiao Lu would be known by the drivers, while the apartment’s road, Jindian Lu, next to it is not. This one did not know, though. He understood me, which pleased me, but did not know the street. I tried “Ni shixi Carefour Jin Qao” (with the correct Chinese pronunciation for the proper name “Carefour”, which sounds something like “Jallafour”), which was supposed to mean “Do you know Carefour in Jin Qao?”, but I forgot the “ma” in the end which would have made that sentence a question. The taxi driver instead turned to a colleague. I half-way gave up and handed them the business card of the apartment. They started arguing, I understood a few street names on the way, but they did not seem to get to a final conclusion. Finally, I interrupted and told them that I would know the correct road. I think the verb was not the correct one for knowing places (which would be “shixi”, but I used “zhidao”), but it did its purpose: The driver turned to me, asking astonished: “Ni zhidao?” – You know? (hm, I’m pretty sure he did not add “ma” either…) I confirmed (“dui”) and we finally went off. With my directions (we know a bit about “left” and “right” since weeks) we successfully arrived ‘home’ and the business card served no purpose. So, finally, I can speak Chinese! A tiny bit at least…