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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Can you tell me how to get to Foreigners Street?


Anyone of the non-Asian persuasion who has spent any time at all in China will no doubt be familiar with this word as they will have heard it on many an occasion, usually accompanied by stares as people point out the obvious to their companions. In a country that the government likes to trumpet as a multi-ethnic society, it's a common refrain, especially as you leave the major urban areas and tourist sites. Chinese people will say it's a term of respect (probably because it includes the character for "old", reflecting Confucian values yada yada yada); in any case, laowai (along with wàiguórén 外国人) are words you just need to get used to if you want to preserve any sense of sanity while living in China. And, in any case, they're certainly much more preferable to the oft-heard in Taiwan "ah dok ah" 阿凸仔, aka "Big Nose".

A short walk from our housing compound in Shànghăi 上海 is a street called Lăowài Jiē 老外街, aka Foreigners Street. The name is no more offensive than calling a section of a Western city "Chinatown". It's a roughly block-length stretch of restaurants and bars, the overwhelming majority of which serve Western cuisine that is mediocre in quality and inflated in price. Still, everyone needs a break from Chinese food every now and then, and so it comes as no surprise to find significant numbers of Shanghai's expat community strolling up and down Laowai Jie, especially on weekends (though the sight of middle-aged Western men moving around in packs in the evenings is a little disconcerting). What amuses me is the way the street is promoted to the Chinese as a tourist sight, complete with brown street signs pointing the way (as in Taiwan, in China the color brown on signs at intersections denotes sightseeing areas) and even a tourist information booth at one end of the street. It makes me wonder what the average Chinese visitor to Laowai Jie finds more interesting - the different restaurants serving exotic foods or the exotic people dining indoors and walking around outdoors. 

A train sits parked at one entrance to the street (the one closest to where we live). Why it's there isn't exactly clear from the English explanation on the wall plaque. 

My daughter poses on the street. The girls came back to Shanghai just over a week ago, after spending a month in Taiwan visiting family. Bachelorhood wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

The lucky receiver of our much-desired patronage this afternoon was Fat Cow, a burger place that has only recently opened for business, in the process leaving Laowai Jie bereft of any French restaurants. The food wasn't bad, but like much of the Western fare in Shanghai, it sat like a stone in my gut for a long time afterward. The bill came to RMB 221 ($35.80) - roughly equal to what we would pay eating out as a family in the U.S., but a lot more that what we usually fork out when we eat as the locals do (the $8 chocolate milkshake certainly played a big part in the final bill). We have neighbors who go to Fat Cow on an almost-weekly basis. With all the cheaper and better-tasting dining options available in Shanghai, it'll probably be a long time before we go back.

It may be called Foreigners Street, but there are still subtle reminders of where you actually are.

A local animal shelter had set up on this Sunday afternoon, trying to find homes for needy cats and dogs. It reminded me of a similar scene we often saw in Taichung 台中 on weekends, opposite People's Square.

A Thai restaurant we haven't tried yet. In addition to American-style burger joints and brewpubs, there are Iranian, Greek, German, Japanese, Belgian and Mexican establishments. Ironically, the best place we've been to so far on Laowai Jie, both in terms of quality of food and reasonableness of price, is a Chinese restaurant called Amy's

Amber points to a so-called Taiwanese restaurant. The cuisine served there is listed as being "Taiwan China" and the flag of the People's Republic of China 中华人民共和国 is used. Which shouldn't come as a surprise, of course. The local English-language Shanghai Daily often refers to Formosa as "China's Taiwan" and officials in the government there as "Taiwan authorities", never as "Taiwanese".

Lurking across the street from Laowai Jie sits one of those large emporiums full of cheap clothing outlets, shady jewellery stores and aggressive sales staff that you find all over Shanghai (and probably the rest of China). I took this photo while standing in front of a popular pirated-DVD store selling movie and television titles from the U.S. and Japan. 

Enjoying a cold cup of milk tea 奶茶, especially welcome on this hot, humid afternoon (though the weather this summer has been much better compared to the brutal furnace-like conditions we endured upon arrival in the city last year). This năichá came courtesy of Yī Diăndiăn 一點點, a Taiwanese chain of tea stands that has been making an aggressive push into the Shanghai market in recent months, opening up outlets all over the city. While making my purchase, the woman running a small food stand next door was in the midst of an epic argument with some construction workers on the other side. Apparently, she was upset with the impact their work was having on her business, and a couple of times she picked up a heavy piece of wood and had a go at the building at the center of the dispute. Scenes such as these are an almost-everyday occurrence as I go about my business in China. People here are under a great deal of stress, and with so many competing for the relatively few resources, it comes as no surprise to see someone snap. The police and the courts are of little help, so often things get settled either through intimidation or by acts of violence. It makes one glad there's no equivalent to the Second Amendment in this country.

Laowai Jie - Foreigners Street. So when is Taichung going to set up Ah Dok Ah Jie - Big Nose Street? I'd look forward to seeing Compass Magazine struggle to put a positive spin on that!

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