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Shanghai Nights

Shanghai-silhouetteBodies 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. 

Shanghai-nightI 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.

Shanghai-marketI 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.

Shanghai-teaMunching 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.

Shanghai-drinkJostled 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.

Shanghai-dumplingWanting 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.

What is the most adventurous cuisine you have tried? Let us know in the comments below.


46 replies »

  1. While Shanghai is one of my least favorite cities in China (I enjoy Hangzhou, Beijing, Xi’an ~ all rivals of Shanghai so I am very biased), I can say it is one of the most intriguing cities I’ve visited. Your opening shot of Nanjing Rd., is one of the classic places that I do enjoy (history, old photographs and a snowy day at the Peace Hotel make it one of my favorite sites) and the “sea of people” is a part of it. Loved the photography, as if I was with you the whole way.

    • Thank you so much! Thrilled the photos conveyed the sense I was trying to get across. Shanghai is the least like other Chinese cities I have visited. People in Shanghai are very proud of their openness to Western ideas and their “cosmopolitan” ambience, but many Westerners tell me they feel sad here because it lacks a strong sense of culture. The overwhelming crowds were a new experience for me. I don’t think I can ever get used to them.

  2. Now that you are in this “mysterious and weird food” tunnel, you need to go to Wangfujing dajie in Beijing! Street food there is…well, you gotta see it!

  3. I would have been screaming the exact same things in my head, although I just can’t imagine ever putting myself in the middle of such a crowd. I think it might be easier to sample strange food apart from such throngs, but putting the two together with your head already reeling sounds like a lethal combination. The silkworm would be particularly unappetizing. I haven’t ever tried anything as adventurous – tripe, as you mention, which I can take in small doses, and sweetbreads, which I sort of liked except for what I was afterwards told were the brains. I think I’d do better with something crunchy, though, some sort of deep fried or chocolate covered insect that is so small it doesn’t have any juices to squirt out.

    • Isn’t it fascinating how it’s often the knowledge of what we’re eating that puts us off? Hmmm…now that you’ve mentioned chocolate covered things, I could certainly go for that. Those squirmy little legs would be a lot less off-putting hidden inside chocolate. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Nightlife in Shanghai looks alive through your experiences, the colorful attractive photos enhance the wish to visit the city.

  5. Wow. This sounds like an amazing adventure, though I’m sure it didn’t feel like it at the time. I also have a strong dislike for big crowds and overpopulated areas. I wouldn’t last a day in Shanghai.

    The most adventurous dishes I’ve had aren’t very adventurous to me because they’re from back home in Jamaica. But I suppose for others they might be. I’ve tried chicken foot soup, stewed cow foot, and oxtail. Can’t say I enjoyed any of them as a kid, mostly because I was born a pesco-vegetarian. Never had a taste for meat.

    Meals I’ve had since that were more foreign to me when I got older was sushi, raw shrimp, octopus/squid, oysters and clam. Also tried froglegs once to creep out my grandma.

  6. Marvelous story and descriptions of your evening in Shanghai along with your wonderful images. I couldn’t get myself to try insects either, however, I did try snake wine in China and Sea Cucumber in Singapore (which was not pleasant to look at). Have tried other unusual innards of animals that I probably wouldn’t knowingly do again!

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