Bodies were everywhere. Nanjing Road was so covered with people that walking its length was an impossibility. Before coming to China I had known this country was home to over one billion people, but until I stepped out of the metro station the number had never meant anything to me. Suddenly, swallowed up by a mass of humanity, I understood the reality of living in Shanghai (上海), China, the most populous city in the world. Shoulders bumped into mine on either side, every other shoe stamped on the back of my heel. The breath of the hundred others behind me impatient to move forward touched my neck. Despite the chilly night, the air temperature was intensified by countless neon lights and an incalculable horde. Though there were no constricting doors, I was trapped in a minuscule pocket. Anger and panic suffused my senses. “Bù hǎo yì si (不好意思),” I repeated breathlessly as I unrepentantly pushed through the throng. I vaguely felt handbags and elbows jabbing me as I plodded onward. “I have to get out!” was my only thought.
I require one to one-and-half meters between me and strangers in any social situation. Stand too close to me in line and my back hairs rise in discomfort. Lean into my face too much while we converse and my throat tightens in distress. I am a creature of seclusion; interpersonal distances may be artificial constructs of society, to me they are rigid necessities of survival. They help me function sensibly and cope with my environment. As a traveler, however, I often have to adjust my ideas of shared space. In the overcrowded trains of India, at Mexico’s farmers’ markets, or meeting my Helsinki hosts I am continually adapting to alien cultural mores. I am overcoming my territorial boundaries in order to connect on a deeper level, subsuming my particular needs to achieve better understanding.
I managed to maneuver towards the outer edges of the throng, gratefully occupying the leeway between a mobile phalanx to my left and a steadfast array of concrete shopping malls to my right. The breathing room was temporary. Opportunists avoiding the bipedal traffic overtook the clearance. I was engulfed by a swarm again. The rabble propelled me towards a subway stop and too frazzled to think I escaped down its stairs. The arriving train was stuffed with people but I squeezed myself in and grabbed a bit of pole to hold. My back drenched in sweat I smushed my face into the crook of my arm, groaned in despair. The carriage slowed, a calm voice called out the terminal, and a rushing mob pressed to exit. I was pushed out with them like a maligned suitcase and found myself staring at the incomprehensible signs of an unfamiliar depot.
Having exited, I encountered a cheery yellow lit tea shop. Raised on the ethos that tea cures all ills, I dazedly entered; a weary homing pigeon come to roost. “Chá lóngjǐng (龙井茶)!” I demanded of the expectant waitress. She whisked away, returning shortly with a tray laden with teapot, a palm-sized cup, and a jumble of treats. Unperturbed by my frantic eyes and pale visage, she set dainty bowls of miniature sepia eggs, candied fruit, and steamed dough squares, poured out a steamy serving of tea and left me in peace. The restaurant was mostly empty and I regained some sense of space.
Munching on my quail eggs, I recalled the sharp contrast of a time I stumbled into a street food alley in Beijing. Tiny sticks of grilled meat nestled in order, yellow buns gleamed with the brush of extra fat, rice cakes enticed with rainbow colors. I forgot the crush of the populace in my eagerness to check out the savory dishes offered by various merchants. I approached a busy kebab stall greedily, then recoiled in horror. Fried scorpions, grasshoppers, and centipedes rested upon skewers, many still wriggling their antennae.
“Try one,” a young woman next to me prompted in heavily accented English, chewing on the ends of a chubby silkworm. “Yes, yes, try it, try it,” she insisted, “very best here.” I wrinkled my nose and backed away.
“Maybe later, after I’ve seen what the others are selling,” I lied. I examined the egg tarts, the lotus seed cakes, and the cream rolls all temptingly displayed. The memory of the writhing insects, however, had murdered my appetite. No matter what tasty morsel I spied, my mind imagined it replaced by jointed feet and segmented exoskeletons.
Jostled back to the present moment having reached the bottom of my cup, I motion the server over and indicate that I would like fresh hot water. A few strains of traffic filter into my cocoon as the door opens to welcome another guest. Otherwise tranquility and the murmur of hushed voices permeates the eatery. Munching on a delectable jellied plum I consider my inhibitions. There is nothing wrong about eating arthropods. Someone could be just as deterred by the sight of a fish head or tripe as I am by sautéed crickets. There is no sin in demonstrative social interactions. A handshake may be an unfriendly response to an outsider whereas I cringe from their ebullient hug. What we eat and how we entertain guests are arbitrary communal standards created from ancient habitat exigencies. They hold no intrinsic value and should not define our individuality, but they can confine our lives. The funny thing about prejudices is that though they make no sense, they are most difficult to conquer. Logic and reasoning cannot shatter ingrained perceptions, argument is lost on deep-seated bias.
Wanting to identify with another human, to comprehend them for who they are forces me to reexamine my intolerance, my eccentric discrimination. It did not motivate me to try biting into a cooked beetle. Instead, I remembered that I bought a beer and a red bean bun, sat down at a tiny table next to an enthusiastic family huddled in that extraordinary street food alley. We grinned at each other. I said, “Nĭ hăo (你好),” and they greeted me excitedly. We clinked our bottles together and I nibbled on my pastry while I watched them wolf down their invertebrate snacks, our elbows and arms and shoulders pressed tightly against each other in camaraderie.
I had finished my second pot and four servings of snacks. I looked at my watch — the night was still young. Out there in the buzzing streets was a mystical land of Shanghai’s culinary wonders I would only discover if I ventured into the rushing multitude.
Nanjing Road extends to the Bund, Shanghai’s important waterfront on the Huangpu River. Referred to as the Wàitān (外滩), this landmark embankment showcases Beaux Arts buildings once occupied by banks, consulates, and trading houses of England, France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. On the opposite shore glitter the colossal skyscrapers of Pudong, the city’s contemporary finance and commercial district. Thus the Huangpu embraces the West’s historic capitalist influence over Shanghai — pre-World War II Europe versus modern Occident.
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