Getting ‘Shanghaied’

I recently moved from Chicago to Shanghai for a brief stint to master cerebrovascular neurosurgery at one of their premier hospitals. As an avid world traveller, I decided to just show up. No reading about the city, no prior preparedness, no background checks. I was told my accommodation would be ‘arranged’. So, I arrived at the airport at 5 AM after a 15-hour flight from JFK and was taken to a small, dilapidated building in the heart of downtown. The cobbler, the fruit seller, the hole in the wall at the entrance that sold breakfast were already at work, as if they were midway through their day. “You stay there,” my Chinese driver said, pointing to the top of the seven stories I had to lug my suitcase to through dark stairways that automatically lit up only after you completed the flight of stairs as opposed to before.

At 7 AM, the same morning, I was at work and met my local contact, the only person with whom I spoke in English during my stay. Even before exchanging pleasantries, he asked me, “You have WeChat?” I looked at him in dumb astonishment, and replied, “Yes, we can chat!” “Okay,” he said, “show me your phone and scan me and add me.” I was further puzzled; I did not know what was going on. It was only a few minutes after that I discovered WeChat to be an awesome app that 800 million Chinese people use, and it forms the very basis of their existence. It combines every single feature of WhatsApp, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple Pay. Every roadside store, taxi, or vending machine has its own QR code that you use to pay with your phone just by pointing to it. Everyone, from 8-year-olds to grandmas in their 80s, is adept at this technology. Nobody looks up from their phone anymore! They eat, sleep, shower and change with the phone in one hand and everything else in the other.

 

—–

 

After having armed myself with WeChat, I start work at the hospital. Travelling in a public hospital elevator is enlightening. Just when you think there is no space for a single person more, six more will squeeze in effortlessly. And just when you start thinking that this is insane, a ward boy will cart in a patient on a wheelchair. At this point, I wondered how I’d ever get out on my floor, making me reminisce of the times I used the Churchgate local trying to get out at Dadar and reached Virar on occasions. And precisely then, another patient in a stretcher is wheeled in, and the entire contents of the lift move to one side, with every pore of my body in contact with several other beings—except my face, because luckily, I’m always a foot taller than the 27 million people next to me at any given point in time. While, at first, I was disgusted and later amused, this routine of taking the elevator to the 20th floor every single day taught me life lessons on adaptability and accommodation. I learnt that one could still live harmoniously while forgoing their own space; something my generation cannot do anymore. Indeed, what I could not understand in two years of living in North America, I learnt in just one month in China.

 

——

 

Because of the ability of our people to do the ‘sugar in milk’ trick wherever they go, I wasn’t totally taken aback when I heard that there was once a thriving Parsi community in Shanghai, with the existence of an old fire temple on Fuzhou Road. My sources tell me that a hotel had replaced the fire temple. Apparently, the Parsis here even had their own Parsi Cricket team. The Chinese language itself is pretty unique. Every word has 4 tones to it and can mean something completely different if a variant pitch is used. Just like in Guajarati, MC/BC can sound woefully vulgar or adorably affectionate depending on the tone you use to address your fellow Zoroastrian.

 

—–

 

When I lived in the US, for every meal I went out, there would be three servers who would ask if I was allergic to food items or specific ingredients. Here, “Do you eat frog?” was a text message I got on my phone as my colleagues were making dinner plans one evening. To eat and kill whatever animal imaginable without any boundaries or restrictions is a way of life here. Even the Salad Bar in the food Court of a shopping mall also only serves meat. I read somewhere that according to Zoroastrian dietary laws, the eating of worms, flies, locusts, mosquitoes, fleas, and bugs is strictly prohibited and considered Ahrimanic. Here, you are considered strange if you scoff at eating duck tongue, pigeon head, and chicken feet, with a side of turtle soup whose testicles are served as delicacies. So, being the true sport that I am, I decided to eat everything with just one condition: don’t tell me what I’m eating until two days after, when it’s completely out of my system. The transition from akoori to ants and from malido to maggots was indeed a challenging albeit relatively effortless one.

 

—–

 

As I bicycle my way back from work in the evenings on an orange city bike where the height of the seat cannot be adjusted, which results in the constant bruising of my knees on the handlebar, my pain is alleviated by the sight of old Chinese aunties that come together in small groups and dance in their nightgowns to gentle, free-flowing instrumental music as a remedy for arthritis—or so I think. This activity is good for health and it fosters neighbourly love, but when you see certain groups doing the same thing with props like guns and swords, you can’t help but think if the ‘new party queens’ have a political agenda.

 

While Shanghai is all about the glitzy skyscrapers, neon lights, massive malls, intersecting flyovers, and bullet trains, the real joys of the city are at the street level, or, even underground. Every corner will reward you with a new sight, new sound, and an interesting story. You will never be the person you were before you visited it. Especially, if you get one of their bizarre and peculiar massages. What that entails, I will leave to your imagination.

 

—–

 

I see about 40 patients in the outpatient clinic here at the hospital each day with my mentor, after he and I finish four surgeries together. It’s a normal 18-hour day. I don’t understand their language but I feel their suffering. It doesn’t matter to me what food they eat or whether they belch, snort, sneeze, or fart in my face. It actually makes me feel at home. I no longer make fun of the shape of their eyes or the bridge of their nose. But I do smile when a really sick patient walks into the room with the words ‘Soft Porn’ printed across his T-shirt, knowing fully well that he’s completely oblivious of what it means. The Chinese just love printed tees.

 

Boundaries of race, religion, and culture blur when you deal with disease, serious illness, and death. This is what makes neurosurgery so intense. This New Year, don’t wait for a loved one to fall ill to tell them what they mean to you. Do it when they are healthy. Do it while they speak your language. Do it whether they are in the same country or getting ‘shanghaied’ in another.

Happy New Year.