I leave the comfort of the hotel and sweat starts instantly pouring out of my pores. I sweat from pores that have never been used before. We go to Old Town Shanghai and the buildings have the architecture for which ancient China is known. There is a famous tea house that sits in the middle of a pond full of koi of all different sizes and colors. It has a wonderful zig-zag bridge that leads to it that causes you to linger to see the koi and the beautiful lotuses. There are fountains with water flowing out of them and a misting machine that creates a specter of smoke over the pond. It is awe inspiring. The tea house in the center has traditional Chinese architecture and stands five stories above the crowd. This is our destination for the day.
We enter the building and the beautifully carved door shuts behind us and the crowd noise is no longer. An oasis amidst the tourist throngs. We are directed to the narrow steps that climb to the second floor. The room is an octagon of windows looking out at the pond and the throngs. The quiet is amazing. You can find solitude if you were alone here. But even with my companions a stirring of solitude speaks from a distant corner inside of me. Hot Chinese tea to soothe the body and soul is the stuff of legend.
We await the waitress. She is tired, speaks no English. Which means I have to resort to my cave man articulation methods of pointing and grunting at the menu items I want. She gently corrects me when I order four sets of tea for the four of us and politely raises one finger to let me know one is enough. I look at the prices and decide she is a wise woman.
We sit at a teak stained African drum-like stool with a table that is similar in style but larger. We are looking forward to the tea. We look out at the crowds on the zig-zag bridge and beyond. We are feeling a little superior as we sit in the calm of the oasis of a tea room. I see our host crossing the room with our tea and accompanying food. We are breathing the thrilling anticipation of the process of having tea.
She noisily places the teacups on the table. She looks at me and assumes I have no clue how to use a teacup and wags her finger at me as she demonstrates to me how teacups are used. She again looks at me and no one else at the table to show how the pitcher of hot water is to be used. She walks off with a sigh as if to say she needs a new job.
We discuss the various food that has been placed in front of us. We are vegetarians; we have no clue what anything is. Some of it would be challenging to any of my meat eating friends. We spend the next ten minutes discerning what each item may be. One is boiled quail eggs our egg-eating fiend of a child looks at me to say I am not eating that. The other is busy, politely as possible, spitting out the less than delectable food she tried. I have diagnosed one of the items as tofu and dive in. The one whose name shall not be spoken eats an egg and cajoles egg eating fiend child to eat one. Child eats the egg and by the look she gives the one whose name shall not be spoken you can see a certain amount of trust has been lost.
But finally there is the tea. Tea-loving fiend child has found at last a tea she does not like. But she is a trooper; she will drink several cups because she loves tea and somehow must love this tea or her whole definition of self will have to be redefined. I am eating my tofu and thinking how silent the place is and how warm tea is so comforting.
We are having a let down from our anticipations of what we were expecting from this place. But after the initial let down the conversations start. We laugh at ourselves. We are enjoying the moment. It is here in this moment that I suddenly find myself celebrating and grieving. It is three weeks before the oldest leaves us to go to college and the youngest will be starting high school this year. We will never be family in the same way again. But this moment is us: we are very high minded and soulful but we are also very earthbound. We are able to take a disappointment and make it real and special. Changes are coming but the air we breathe will always be filled with the memories of earthiness and soulfulness we have shared. After a long stay we leave. We become immersed in the crowds keeping an eye on each other so that we are not lost.
Singapore has been in the rearview mirror for a week now and Shanghai is where I have landed. It is hot and yet the people move faster here than most anywhere else I have been. It is as though every one of the twenty-four million people are in a hurry. Can they possibly all have somewhere important to go? Of course maybe I am jealous as I meander the streets of this city seeing huge museums, the people’s park, old town, Yu gardens, skyscrapers galore, and wander alongside the Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world.
Or maybe they are glad to be out from under the colonial rule of Britain. Britain, for the good of the people of China, declared an Opium War to invade and stay in this country in the 19th century. Who would think that people especially could start a war over opium The English and the West have left their mark on this city. It can be seen as one walks past what is called the Bund today. The stately European style buildings on the Bund are here to stay although the Chinese politely asked the British to leave many years ago. Only one of the Bund era buildings was designed with Chinese architects. It has marks of traditional Chinese architecture in it. It is of course the China Bank building.
The world wondered what would happen after the British left. Would the Chinese people be able to survive without the civilizing nature of the British, no longer so strong? After years of sorting out the good and bad the Chinese seem to be able to make it on their own, as one takes their eyes off the staid European buildings and looks across the river. They see the second largest skyscraper in the world and the whimsical Pearl Tower. On one side are the neoclassical Bund buildings and on the other side an explosion of creativity and height few places in the world can boast. They now can pick and choose what European influences they want and the result is huge. So I can see why they needed the British; they have lost their grey gravitas.
So the people are in a hurry maybe because they want to make up for the lost time of colonial subjugation. They have built an international city that is strongly influenced by their Chinese culture. Yes the government is still very controlling but the lives of the average Chinese citizens have improved from the days of yore. Housing, food supply, and although it is still probably wise not to drink it, the water supply has improved. Their huge museums show their pride in their history and culture. And yes they still are interested in what the rest of the world is doing, as evidenced by the long lines at the Shanghai Museum’s 100 pieces of art that tell the story of the world from the British Museum. But of course this show is in the midst of four floors that share the glory of the Chinese. And that is the way it should be.
It is my last night in Singapore and we have chosen a vegetarian Indian restaurant to celebrate. I order one of my favorite dishes, Palak Paneer. Then the waitress ask the question with onion or garlic? What in heaven’s name is she talking about? Apparently Jains do not eat onion and garlic. I believe in diversity but when you are in a restaurant and they ask if you want to have either Palak Paneer with onion or garlic or neither, they have gone too far. I was on board with gay, transgender, black women, children’s, animals, Hispanic, grey panthers, disabilities, and so on rights. I celebrate diversity but I draw the line at separating onion and garlic. It turns out that the Jain population (a religion primarily found in India) which respects all life and does not eat or kill anything, does not mix garlic and onion.
They claim garlic is an aphrodisiac and reeks (pun intended) havoc on your meditation. While it may make you horny, I have found that I have less success with garlic breath. I am always horny so I cannot tell if it makes me horny or not. Now I have learned why I cannot meditate for more than an hour at a time. As a result of eating too much garlic I have achieved advanced stages of sexuality which has hampered my meditation, and here I thought it was a lack of discipline. Maybe I am more suited to meditation by kama sutra.
It was my last night in Singapore and I was not in the mood for experimentation so I ate garlic and onion in my dish. This new form of diversity was a bridge too far. So at last I realized I am no Singaporean. Singapore has a Chinatown, Little India, a Muslim enclave, the remains of British colonialism, a Peranakan community place, an apparently a significant Jain population: it is a very diverse place. That is its charm. They still have a way to go on gay rights. I cannot believe that this diverse and creative place will not eventually become totally gay friendly but only time will tell. It has been a wonderful place to spend time and learn, to see things differently.
Postscript: As a docent at Savannah’s Telfair Museums I would be remiss if I did not point out that the Marina Bay Towers and the lotus-shaped Art Science Building were designed by the same architect that designed the Jepson Center: Moshe Safdie. Of course his original drawings for the Jepson Center included a punch bowl of Chatham Artillery Punch on top but the board at the Telfair rejected this, and we have today a grand museum without a punch bowl on top (this is a little known fact and probably should not be repeated because the less in-the-know people will want to argue with you).
We all have them: family stories about us that we wish would not, but will, stick in the family folklore forever. One of mine is when we went off trail at a state park (although we thought we were on a trail) and we came to a creek and the only way across without swimming was to walk across a felled tree to the other side. I watched as my eager dancing teens balanced their way across, barely. And then it was my time. I, not wanting to give the young ones a good laugh when I fell in the river, decided to take another tack. I would straddle the log and scoot across by lifting my body forward with my arms. They looked disappointed at my strategy. There would be no falling Dad. They were disappointed until halfway across the tree I saw for the first time a huge nodule. They had stepped ever so gently over it but my arms were not long enough to lift my body over the nodule. And I came crashing down, testicles first onto the nodule and let out a groan of pain that left the girls laughing in stitches. This is their go to story when they want to humiliate their father. The famous scoot across the log they call it.
My other story the girls love to tell behind closed doors involves my privates too. One early morning in a small cabin my two daughters who were sleeping in a loft above us came down the ladder. I was half asleep sat up in my boxers on the side of the bed. Suddenly, the girls, with horrified but amused looks, began to point at me. As I looked down I too was horrified as all of my male genitalia had found its way out of my shorts and were now in plain sight for them. The oldest laughing exclaimed as I was covering myself up, “Thanks for the abstinence lesson Dad.” The youngest guffawing, “I am scarred for life. I need a therapist.” And the one whose name cannot be said threw me a towel to cover-up with shook her head. Regretfully, these are stories that will live with me for the rest of my life.
My oldest daughter is famous for creating these stories. She who rushes forward verbally or physically without thinking. She has good instincts and she is smart but to rush forward to where no person has gone before without thinking can lead to disaster. So these stories happen so fast to keep some order we had to name them. So we call them her Maya-isms. One trip on our return she saw some toddlers wading in water having a good time. She gleefully asked me if she could, instead of taking the bridge, wade across. She pointed at the various toddlers and said it would be okay. I relented and left her to take the bridge. It occurred on the first step: a big splash heard around the creek with parents of the toddlers laughing and the toddlers looking puzzled at the inept teenager who could not stand up in the creek. My youngest one, who was to follow, had backed away from the creek as if it had bit her and watched the failed attempts of the oldest falling again and again as she try to stand. The oldest, defeated and humiliated, had to crawl out of the water as a toddler two feet from her looked on. She was soaked and we had a long subway ride home. The youngest and I laughed and pretended to not be with her as she held her head high in a dignified manner, hoping nobody noticed she was drenched. We call this incident the Return of the Sewer Girl. It is, unfortunately for her, now family folklore that the graceful dancer was out graced by toddlers.
Now the youngest daughter, who is as cool as a cucumber, has spent her whole lifetime trying not to have a story. She has watched the Maya-isms come and go and wants no part of the family folklore. She will be happy to be the little girl without the story everyone tells. But fate makes us all have our stories. We were in the highest cabin-Farris wheel in the world. We had scored a cabin just for our family. As we, on the thirty minute ride to top, were mesmerized by the mosque we had seen in the Muslim enclave, the pangolin architecture of their Esplande, the National History Museum, the beautiful Gardens by the Bay, and each sight appeared more awesome. The cameras were clicking, the oohs and aahs were unleashed, we were all having a moment. The youngest had been taking pictures on her phone camera as fast as her finger could go. When the fateful words came at the peak of the ride with 360 degrees panoramic awesome views “Oh my I have internet up here!” As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake. As everyone looked at her in disbelief and amusement saying with their eyes and body postures ‘Really that is what you have to say right now’. Trying to recapture the moment she quickly explained she was not on the internet but a friend had messaged her on her phone. Her phone which she was using for pictures had alerted her to the message. And thus she said, I thought wow I have internet. And she took one look at us and knew she had her story. She grimaced in horror but it was too late; fate, despite all of her lifetime of efforts, had given her a story.
Since then she has made efforts to water down the story by sidling up next to me as I gawk at an ancient shrine and say to me, “Dad guess what I have internet.” But she knows her father and he will never let the story disappear in the trash bins of family stories. He will, until he dies, keep that treasured story on the family mantle to pull down and tell it to everyone who will listen.