When I was a kid, my sister and I used to write out a list of New Year’s resolutions. I think my dad still has these lists somewhere. Anyhow, it being the Chinese New Year, I figure it’s time to trot out this old custom once again.
Resolution 1: I resolve not to spend another New Year in China, if it can be avoided.
Unless you enjoy the sounds of warfare raging outside your home, New Year in China is best avoided. In most countries, people would be arrested for making long successions of loud banging noises outside your window, with the possibility of incinerating the entire neighborhood. Here in China, one must suffer through five days of bang, pop, and sizzle. And it goes into the wee hours of the morning. Just when you thought it was over, some other friendly neighbor lets off THEIR round of ammunition. And if you thought you could sleep in after a long night of noise, be prepared for the bangs to start up again at the crack of dawn. Might as well be living in Bagdad. Talk about frayed nerves. Then there are the crowds. And the closing of businesses. The night-long New Year variety TV program that all Chinese must suffer through and pretend to enjoy. The impossibility of travel. Of course this year was even worse, with millions of people stranded in the wake of the extreme winter weather. If you’re going to be in China during the New Year, best to stay put.
Resolution 2: I resolve never to take digital photos of me having sex with celebrities.
The other day my wife told me about this incident involving the actor Chen Guanxi, better known by his Christian name Edison. She showed me some of the Chinese blogsites that have been keeping up obsessively with the scandal, which started last month when somebody posted a bunch of photos of him and some famous Hong Kong starlets having oral sex with each other. I must confess I’d never heard of any of these people. And the girls weren’t that hot. Why couldn’t it have been Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi? Just kidding. What a lousy thing to happen. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Resolution 3: I resolve never again to worry about my weight.
Over the past few months, since running the Dartmouth program in Beijing, I must confess that I’ve gained a few extra pounds of flesh that now cover my usual heroic figure. The other day at the gym, I weighed myself in the flesh, and topped off at 86 kilos, about the heaviest I’ve ever been. My wife’s been bugging me about my extra chin. Hey, with all the problems this world is facing—wars, global warming, energy crisis, the Bush Administration—who has the time to worry about a few extra pounds? If the past is any gauge, I’ll lose them over the next few months anyhow.
Resolution 4: I resolve to use Shanghai cabs as little as possible.
Cabs are unavoidable in Beijing, but at least a good number of them are fairly new and fairly big. Shanghai still has thousands of Santana 3000s on the road. These are small cars to begin with. If you sit up in front, which I like to do, you are wedged in between the door of the cab and the protective plastic shield that juts into the passenger’s seat. In Beijing cabs, you can pull a lever and the seat falls back, giving you the opportunity to lay back and rest while the cab slogs its way through Beijing traffic. Put on your iPod, and drift into a fantasy world of your own making. Shanghai cabs have knobs to adjust the seat, which are hard to turn and usually don’t work anyhow. And it’s often impossible to push the seat back owing to rusted old levers, another little trick that I was fond of in Beijing. But the best reason for not sitting in the front seat of the cab is the high rate of halitosis amongst Shanghai cabbies. You are inevitably greeted with a miasma of smells when you enter a Shanghai cab, especially in winter when the windows are kept closed, the heat high, and the air constantly recirculating all the odors of all the people who have been in the cab over the past two weeks. Try turning the window down and the cabbie will complain of cold, and because he controls the controls, the window goes right back up again. And he’s usually playing his favorite station at a high decibel level, since his ears have been deafened by the fireworks of all the previous New Years. Then there’s the likelihood, especially during rush hour, of being stuck in no-flow Shanghai traffic. The frustration of not knowing when you’ll arrive at your destination.
Not for me, thanks. I much prefer the subway. Now that several more lines have opened up, the crowding has eased a bit. Most subways are well ventilated so even if it’s crowded you only occasionally have to put up with the usual human flatulence and the relative lack of washing in the winter months. And monitors in each station tell you to the second when the next subway is arriving. I much prefer standing in a subway to sitting in a cab. The key is to organize your life around the subway lines (something that wasn’t as much of an issue in subway-saturated New York or Tokyo). Besides, after years of riding the New York subway, I’ve mastered some of the tricks, such as no-hands riding (involving a kind of surfing that I find oddly enjoyable). I put on my iPod and take in the BBC news or a dose of Fresh Air with Terry Gross (one of my favorite radio shows). Takes me twenty minutes to get from Zhabei, where I’m staying with my wife and her folks, to my pied-a-terre workspace on Hengshan Road. And there’s no better place to people-watch. Riding on the subway you get to see an incredible cross-section of urban society on a daily basis. This was always interesting in New York City, and though the crowd here is more uniform, and I’m often the only non-Chinese in any given car, it’s still fun to see the masses as they make their way to work, home, the train station (you can usually tell by the bags they’re carrying) or the shopping mall. And Shanghairen have this great knack for being calm and polite even in the most crowded situations—a survival skill necessary for one of the most densely populated cities on the planet.
Resolution 5: I resolve to stop complaining about the cold winter, the traffic, cabs, bad breath, fireworks, and anything else I find annoying about living in Shanghai.