My internet in Shanghai is really bad. I recognize that I’m in Shanghai and I ought to have more interesting things to write about, and I do, but looming over all of those crazy cultural epiphanies that they said I would have in the study abroad office is that fact that when I get back to my room, the internet is really bad.
“Have you tried bribing them?” inquired my friend innocently after the dorm office didn’t fix my internet for the fourth time. I glanced up from the puddle of resignation that I had melted into on my bed.
“Have you tried bribing them?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“Yeah, but sometimes it’s the only way to get things done in this country.” This was certainly true; before I embarked I had heard all kinds of tales of people in my position being forced to pay bribes for things as trivial as the right to use the bathroom.
“I don’t know how to pay a bribe. How much money do I give them? Do I need to wink when I hand it over or something?”
“I don’t know, maybe the State Department has a webpage on it or something.”
“It’s just not fair.”
* * *
“It’s just not fair,” my Russian friend pouted, “why should we have to suffer, we didn’t do anything.”
“Yeah,” I sheepishly agreed, “it’s terrible, all those, y’know, politicians and stuff.”
“Why do Americans hate Russians, what did we ever do to you?”
“Actually most Americans don’t hate Russians, we’ve got no problem with you guys.”
“Really?” She cocked her head to the side and studied my face with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, I mean, how many American friends do you have here? None of us hesitated to talk to you just because you’re Russian, and those Americans who do have a problem with Russians are dumb, because they’re missing out on meeting cool people like you.” I smiled at her, hoping desperately that my weak defense of my countrymen had stuck.
“I’m glad,” she finally replied, and smiled back. Good job, I thought to myself, another successful social interaction.
“Yeah, it’s just that Putin guy we hate.”
“What’s your problem?”
The man towered over me. I was in a bar in the expat district of town. I’d had a couple drinks, but he’d had a couple more. I glanced around for the lowlife chump he was doubtlessly addressing. Suddenly it dawned on me. My eyes widened and I lifted a trembling finger to point at my own lowlife chumpish self.
“Yeah you asshole, are you talking shit or something?”
I shook my head until my hair shook itself over my eyes. “Oh no sir not me sir,” I blurted out like an exasperated schoolboy.
“Are you looking for a fight?”
I started to shake my head until I could feel my brain pouring out of every orifice.
“Oh no sir, no sir!”
He didn’t like that answer at all, his friends had to hold him back. Pretty soon the cops were called. They strutted in with their walkie-talkies and whatnot and kicked the intimidating man picking a fight with a small cowering Reedie right out of the bar. I kicked myself out of the bar for good measure and started sauntering home.
Shanghai is something special at night. Most cities light up when the sun goes down but Shanghai really, I mean really lights up. Entire buildings come awake in an LED waltz which emulates flowing water, or burning fire, or the latest low-cost shampoo. As I trudged home that night I reflected on all the deprecating experiences I’d had in Shanghai. Sure I’d felt humiliated, emasculated, and powerless, but despite these experiences, maybe even a little because of them, I was having fun, and a lot of it. As I let that realization seep through me I looked up at the LED orchestra cascading over the buildings and felt suddenly baptized. This was the kind of moment they’d told me about in the study abroad office!
I hurried home, swiped into my dorm, jumped on my bed, and began writing. I finished my column and edited it, then jumped on my e-mail to send it to The Grail. But my e-mail wouldn’t load, because my internet in Shanghai is really bad.