Shanghai Hen Style

Our arrival in Shanghai reminded me of a story in one of my favorite books. When a farmer needs to introduce  new hens to the mix, he waits until all the veteran hens are asleep, and then slips them in. In the morning, none of the veteran hens even realize that there are new arrivals. It’s like they were always there. The new hens quickly adapt to their surrounds and soon, they forget they are the rookies. I felt similar to that, sneaking up on Shanghai in the night on a “sleeper” bus. We slipped into the actual city limits before the sun came up and by the time we unloaded from the bus, the city had a familiar feeling. Maybe it’s my deep-seated roots in Chicago that makes me feel at home among the hustle and bustle of a city, or maybe I was so tired I was delirious.

When one arrives in the 8th largest, fastest-growing modern city in the world, one may have certain expectations and concerns that the city won’t live up to its hype. As soon as we exited the bus, we were met by towering skyscrapers, crowds of busy people, and an overwhelming feeling that we were, in fact, surrounded by about 20 million people (give or take a few).  So, we immediately concluded that Shanghai wasn’t one of those cities that you knew were big, but felt small. We felt like two specks of dust floating along, and the only thing that made me feel visible was the fact that the backpack I was carrying probably was the size of most of the Chinese women passing me on the street.

We had arranged to Couchsurf with a Taiwanese women named Rebecca, but we weren’t meeting her until 10pm that evening. With time to kill, we did the most touristy thing we have ever done right out of the gate in a new country…..a double-decker bus tour. I can’t explain it, we were drawn to the bus like flies to honey. Or in our case, like two backpackers with no idea of the city layout and hours to kill before we would be able to separate ourselves from our large backpacks. For the next two hours, we toured all the famous sites from our lofty perch, and we learned quite a bit of the city’s history thanks to the audio guide. The most amusing part of our ride is that when our bus was idled, I suddenly became a tourist attraction. I would look down from my second-story seat to find a group of Chinese people  taking my picture. Since Shanghai is known to be very international, this perplexed me.  Maybe they were playing a game like “spot the foreigner” or ” spot the badly dressed foreigner” but I hope those pictures don’t get out on the internet. To be honest, although I was flattered by the attention, they could not have picked a worse day for an impromptu photo shoot. I was looking like a hot mess thanks to Shanghai’s 100% humidity and the fact that I tend to not remember that while traveling, photographic evidence will be made of all my fashion and hygienic failures.

When our brains couldn’t hold any more fun facts about Shanghai, we got off the bus. That’s when we realized that we needed a place to change before our anniversary surprise that night. At that point, we were both pretty ripe and in no shape for any type of dinner date.  We needed a place to change and ditch our bags ASAP. So, we did the only thing that we could think of. We went to the nearest hostel and booked a bed for the night. Shanghai may be modern, but China is still dirt cheap in some areas. A bed in an 8-bed male dorm was $11 bucks. We could also leave my bag at the front and have access to the bathroom to freshen up. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty proud of myself for the plan. The poor receptionist did get confused when we explained that we would be back to check out later that night after spending a total of 40 min. in the hostel. But that’s ok, it added to our foreigner mystique.

That night I had a very special night planned for our 3 year anniversary. I had secretly been planning this “outing” for the last two weeks and was crossing my fingers that the evening would go as planned. Jason is frustrating to the point of insanity when it comes to surprises because he is so relaxed about them. He can be so relaxed he could pass for bored.  He doesn’t try to guess, or ask questions… he just accepts and waits. So, while I’m bouncing off the walls, dying to tell him, he just enjoys the added torture his supreme control  brings me. As much as I prepared, I could not have foreseen the Chinese directions I printed from the internet being incorrect. We did manage to recover from that small slip up and we made it. To where?  To an authentic Chinese cooking class.

The Chinese style of brunch called “Dim Sum” (touch the heart) is served all over China. It usually consists of small steamer baskets selected by the customer from a rolling cart. Each basket contains small servings of many different varieties of meat, veggies, rice and dumplings. We arrived at the cooking school located in an abandoned warehouse in an artistic part of town. We hesitantly climbed the crumbling concert steps while Jason quizzed me on my background checking skills for Chinese businesses I randomly “found” on the internet. We were very relieved when we saw an elderly Chinese women wearing an apron on the third floor. We didn’t waste any time getting to work. The 70+ year old petite  Chinese woman started ordering us (in Chinese) to do this, that and the other right away. Her soft spoken granddaughter (she was 22) gently translated her wishes and suddenly, our flour and water started to take shape. We were making a type of dumpling that was known to be the hardest type of dim sum to make. We rolled, kneaded, and man-handled our dough until it was approved. Then we started the pin rolling, which everyone struggled with. The rolling pin we used bulged in the middle like a plump man’s belly. We had to hold it right, apply the right pressure and keep smiling. It was a very intense technique, but not impossible. I caught on a little faster than Jason and the instructor did not keep that fact hidden. She praised me openly and made Jason keep doing his little dumplings over and over. Being good spirited, Jason rolled on with the lesson and kept a great attitude. After about 11 pain-staking wrappings each, we all started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  We spoke too soon. No sooner than our pins were put down were our perfect dumplings smashed together by the authoritative geriatric instructor. “Again” is all that was translated. The granddaughter sheepishly smiled at our shocked reactions and said in a cheery tone “practice makes perfect!”

Another 12 dumpling wrappers later, we were ready to stuff them with rice, mushrooms, and some other things I couldn’t identify. They had to all resemble a flower, blooming with soy saucy goodness. I managed to get about two of mine to look similar to the example. I’m afraid Jason’s were openly laughed at. Some anniversary gift this was for him! But in all seriousness, he was having a great time.  Not much later, our dumplings were steamed and we were snacking on our creations. Dipped in some red chili sauce, the combination of hard work, soy sauce and rice danced on our taste buds. Not too shabby. I do love to cook and we took many skills away from our two hour Chinese cooking class. Mostly, if you want round dumplings, don’t ask Jason to roll them:)

A short subway ride later, we finally connected with Rebecca. She lived in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of the river that divides Shanghai, called the Huangpu River. We were so exhausted that the small talk didn’t last very long. She was so friendly and considerate we immediately felt at home. She had an extra room in her apartment set up with a futon and computer which would serve as our bedroom for the next two nights. In addition to offering to make us breakfast, she also gave us tons of tips about the World Expo. So many of her extended family members had visited her to experience the Expo, she had been there a total of 9 times!  After a crash course in the Expo’s layout, we began to really feel the excitement for our own World Expo 2010 adventure which would begin the next morning.

To be continued…….


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