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Shanghai Surprise

As I was navigating my way through a montage of exquisitely diverse experiences pertaining to my most recent trip to Shanghai, China, four unrelated thoughts kept popping to the surface from the deepest recesses of my reflective memory: cell phones, smoking, exotic food, and erotic women. What do these four seemingly unconnected things have in common? Everything and nothing, much like almost anything else that I have incrementally discovered about the Chinese people during my many trips to Shanghai over the past few years. The Chinese are the most difficult people on earth to culturally stereotype, because they are a mixture of ancient Eastern traditions woven into the fabric of modern Western values.

The first thing that I noticed during my most recent trip to Shanghai is that everybody seemed to be continuously talking. Not in person, but rather, on their cell phones. For example, while sitting alone one evening in a seductively dark and smoke filled café with the suggestive name Chinese Delights, rumored to be a late night playground for international film stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat, I was enjoying a rather expensive cup of espresso coffee when I heard a loud playfully ringing sound that was obviously coming from a wayward cell phone. Every single man sitting in that café reflexively and immediately retrieved their cell phones in unison, the ladies rummaging through their imitation Louis Vuitton handbags to urgently remove their brightly colored florissant phones as if they were drawing a gun from a holster in a classic American Western movie, to see if it was them who was being ravishingly summoned. When it happened again a few moments later, having to painfully listen to a cell phone programmed to ring by mimicking the latest tune from American cultural icon and pre-pubescent diva Britney Spears, a painfully annoying little jingle for anyone who doesn’t live in a world of clearasil and curfews, I paid my bill in full and walked out — looking for another place to find a moment of peace from the mindless public chatter that had become my unwanted companion during my entire two week stay in Shanghai. Unfortunately, I never found such a welcoming sanctuary in the entire city

Partly because of the cost of complicated calling plans that not even those telephone companies who mischievously devise them can fully understand, along with health concerns about having a radioactive object pressed against your ear that can microwave your brain every time you use it, American’s are clearly not as enamored with cell phones as their Chinese counterparts are, and would prefer to talk over the telephone when they are in the safety of their own homes or offices on an old fashioned land-line or portable telephone. Those who live in Shanghai obviously don’t share the concerns of their American brethren. The cost of owning and using a cell phone in China is both uncomplicated and inexpensive, especially in the more affluent major cities like Shanghai, and those daily reports originating from the West about the health dangers of talking on your cell phone the entire day seem to be given little credence or notice by the Chinese people. Or, it may me that those living in Shanghai figure, why worry about the health dangers of using a cell phone all day, when it is cigarette smoke that will probably kill everybody off in the first place.

Does every man, and even a significant sprinkling of women, smoke cigarettes in Shanghai? The answer is yes! In the United States, we fear being socially ostracized and getting hauled off to jail in handcuffs if we even dare to light up a cigarette in a public place, in any major city. However, in China, I am convinced that American tobacco companies pay people to smoke in public, as a kind of marketing campaign for their deadly product.  How else can you explain such a cultural phenomenon?  In every restaurant, café, and public place of gathering I was in the company of cigarette smoke. With my food, coffee, and conversation, I was forced to take a few years off of my life by breathing in enough second hand smoke to keep a coal burning factory operating for eternity. The Chinese serve the best restaurant food in the world, unfortunately, the beautiful and tasty dishes are far too often served with a side order of distasteful cigarette smoke. This now embedded social ethos, of a smoking crazed culture, left me with no choice but to give a little friendly advice to my many friends in Shanghai. Instead of making American tobacco farmers in Virginia and the Carolina’s wealthy by smoking their cancerous product, I begged them to use the money that they are now spending on cigarettes to invest in something much more satisfying, Chinese food!

I am convinced that the Chinese will eat anything that fly’s, burrows underground, or simply walks or crawls on the surface of the Earth. While eating out with many of my good friends in the Old Quarter of Shanghai at a restaurant aptly titled Food for the Soul, after attending a wedding two hours away by car the previous day in the city of HangZhou, I was gingerly introduced to the most exotically esthetic cuisine it was ever in my good fortune to experience. One after another the colorful and sensually aromic dishes found their way from the cook’s kitchen to our table, served to us by attractive young women who were as pleasant to look at as our food was to eat. There was fish from the ocean, birds from the sky, reptiles from under the ground, and frogs from a pond. There was beef, pork, chicken, tofu, and vegetables, all assembled for viewing, and eating,  resting on a large swirling table that constantly turned, and than mercifully stopped, whenever your favorite dish would appear before you. It was a magical experience. Because everything tasted so good, half the time I  didn’t even know or care to find out what I was eating. Which was probably a good thing in retrospect, subconsciously knowing that I would often eat things in Shanghai restaurants that would make me queasy just thinking about in my youth. Although the Chinese have a far more adventurous diet than members of my own clan, Italian-Americans, we do have something in common. Like Italians, the Chinese enjoy the company of good friends, family, conversation, and healthy debate — all while permitting our sensory pallet to enjoy the diverse cultural flavors of our arousing culinary dishes.

From the subject of food, I would like to move on to another pleasurable topic for discussion, Shanghaiese women. To protect myself from the wrath of those who might find me to be a tad bit presumptuous to address this touchy subject, let me preface my remarks by saying this. As the title of this article suggests, I am a proud Italian-American man. We are known, shall we say, for enjoying the company of women — some of whom may not even be our wives or girlfriends. This has gotten us a bad reputation with women from around the world, and made it quite difficult for many women to fully trust men who have Italian blood streaming through their romantic veins, even those of us who were raised in the United States. After all, negative cultural stereotypes die hard. Although I truly believe that this perception of Italian men is an outdated one, I admit that there is still some semblance of truth to the conspiratorial charge that some Italian men can be, shall we say, flirtatiously playful. Having said that, I can now safely move on to my insightful observations about Shangahiese women, which I know is fraught with danger, and yes, more danger. After all, I don’t want to engage in the same kind of cultural stereotyping that has so often been directed toward me, but since I am a writer who enjoys provoking others to think, I have no choice but to do just that.

Here is the stereotype. To those men who adore Shanghaiese women, they are strong, sexy, smart, beautiful, independent, and enjoy the company of both power and wealth. To those men who dislike them, they are superficial, manipulative, intellectually challenged, arrogant, aloof, and connoisseurs of the creative truth, who mischievously enjoy taking wealth and power from lonely old men who have acquired their own power and wealth the old fashioned way – through hard work and by cheating others. Looking through the lense of my own reflective prism, I think that I may know why these two very different views exist side by side about Shanghaiese women, having visited Shanghai so often the past few years. My men friends who think the former about them, that they possess only the most positive personal attributes, end up marrying them, and they become wonderful wives and mothers. My men friends who think the latter of them, that Shanghaiese women are nothing but trouble, tend to make them their mistresses, while marrying a less sophisticated woman who’s spirit they have already broken in marriage.

Having been visited by such an observational epiphany about Shanghaiese women, I graciously offered some more unsolicited advice to my men friends who where kind enough to meet me for dinner at our favorite Shanghai restaurant the evening before I returned home to the United States after my most recent trip to the city. To my men friends who where accompanied by their Shanghaiese mistresses, to show them off to others like a Florentine trophy of conquest, I sarcastically told them in rudimentary Chinese to stop telling me how complicated and difficult their family lives have become since taking on another female dependent. Stealthfully pointing out to each one of them that evening, in the temporary absence of their female companions in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, that they are getting the kind of woman who they deserve. It has nothing to do with the fact that they are Shanghaiese, but rather, that men who cheat on their wives and do other unsavory things tend to attract, well, women who are not above exploiting the situation for their own benefit. Such blunt advice, offered to some of my now previous friends, often lead to hushed silence, either because of what I said, or the fact that my Chinese is so bad they couldn’t understand what I was saying anyway. Either way, they probably thought to themselves that a little opium had found its way into my watermelon cocktail that evening — with or without my permission. 

The topic of Shanghaiese women stayed with me that evening as I casually walked from the restaurant back to my hotel room. Looking at the beautiful women and entire families playfully sauntering by me, I started thinking about all those stories that I had read as a young man about the erotically mystical but untrustworthy Shanghaiese woman, which has been written about in Western culture for generations. That old image of the Shanghaiese woman is in many ways still with us today, kept alive by the type of men whom I had earlier shared a meal with. But the truth is far less complicated than even the stereotype suggests. I have discovered over time that Shanghaiese women are just like all other women from around the world; a little good, a little bad, and a little in between, who treat their lovers as their lovers treat them.  For a Westerner like myself it was  a selfishly disappointing realization, to have to put such a long held cultural stereotype about the exotic and conniving Shanghaiese woman to rest, because it makes my dreams far less exciting than they used to be.

Wang Anyi, a famous Chinese writer from Shanghai, was once given credit for saying “others have the luxury of living with worldly myths, while the writer has the unenviable task of destroying them.” Who knows if she really said that or not. After all, Shanghai is a city of large myths and small stories, some true, and some that we wish were true. That is what makes it the most beautiful, exotic, and exciting city in the world today, and like a fine Italian wine it just keeps getting better, and more mischievously tasteful, with age.

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