Today I had another great day full of “firsts”. I love these days – there’s a whole thread of them throughout my life. Highlights of these very formative days include the first time I went to the Mercaz Yeladim in the Kibbutz in Israel when I was eight and spoke at most ten words of Hebrew (including the word for the color green, I remember, which was – surprisingly – not that helpful that first day); the first day of school in El Mirabal in Madrid (it permanently cured me of culture shock), the first time I went to a liberal egalitarian Rosh Hashana service in Middlebury, the first time I went to the JCC in Bombay, the first time I went to the office in Mexico and now, the first time I went to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
Of course these days had a whole stream of “firsts” surrounding them, which only made that one moment even more special. In Shanghai, these firsts are really fun because everything is so easy. Though I had taken the subway already during the weekend (when I was so nicely invited to Cirque du Soleil by my incredible host family here), today was the first time I took the subway alone. Granted, I had very specific directions for the first ride, and I after that I learned enough to figure it out on my own (that’s how easy it is). I also met two of the Chabad couples and went to the Shanghai Jewish Center for the first time. It is a very nice community center, and truly has the spirit of one, with people coming and going all day long; kids and parents (it’s attached to the pre-school) and smells of food wafting from the kitchen.
Then I went to the French Concession to walk around my potentially future neighborhood. I got some good first impressions of the streets and how incredibly calm and safe the center of Shanghai seems (to be fair, it wasn’t rush hour). Finally, I got into the subway and went to the Museum stop, to meet one of the girls from there (“S”). I got there very early, so I walked out of the stop and into the alley, which was full of old couches, on which a couple of motorcycle-taxi drivers where lounging. There were a few food-vendors and their carts. It was perhaps my first encounter with street-Shanghai. I love street-anything (as is very clearly exemplified by the long posts below on my first impressions of street-Bombay. Hopefully my China blog will lead a longer, better life than my India one).
I waited. And waited. And then, around the time when I figured out that something was wrong, S called and said she couldn’t find me. By then, the motorcycle guys had noticed that I was there, and the food ladies had smiled at me in their shy way. So a basic, elementary form of connection had been established. The bike guys had tried talking to me, and I made it clear that I have no idea what they’re saying. Another first – never have I been this foreign before, both in terms of language and looks. It’s interesting. I think this is why I haven’t learned more than two words of Chinese (since I knew I was coming here, that is): to have this moment. Now that it’s over, as fun as it was, I need to learn the language, because I want to talk to these people who I will see twice a day, on my commute. One of the women was selling some yummy-smelling egg thing that I will only buy when I can ask for it in Chinese. (After that I might get it every day).
What happened then was that I gave the phone to the woman roasting chestnuts. She looked surprised, but then answered the phone with a hearty “wei?”. And I guess S explained to her because she showed up two minutes later. We hugged – a long wait and a struggle to reach each other merits a hug – and started walking towards the Museum.