On the ferry back to Pudong, I realize that I’m a little casual, the only person in a tank top, but no one seems to notice. I’m treated like everyone else, getting pushed and shoved without rancor. I’m nearly the tallest person around and definitely the biggest, but the only time people give me a second look is when I’m taking notes. My scribbling is subject to lingering glances; it’s clearly regarded as a curious — perhaps even suspect — thing to do in a country where writers face considerable restrictions.
On the Pudong side, street food is prepared and sold on rickshaws along the harbor. I spy roasted chestnuts, yams and the ubiquitous tang hu lu: red balls of candied fruit speared on bamboo skewers. I opt for a plate of vegetable dumplings (delicious) and amble toward the city’s most recognizable skyscraper, the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower. Everyone else has gathered there as well, and the crowds on the circular, elevated walkway beneath it would have tested my patience, except for the fact that looking up at the tower’s glowing pink spheres is pretty exciting.
Taxis are easy to hail in Shanghai, but I can take a taxi in New York. Instead, to get to Yu Garden and Bazaar, I jump on the back of a rickety pedicab. I love that the narrow bench is held together by cellophane tape. The driver makes a generous looping motion with his hand, indicating that he’s going to take the long way around, which suits me just fine. My destination is not far from the Bund, but I want to savor the experience of weaving between trucks and motorcycles, passing bustling storefronts and makeshift stalls. Double-decker tour buses pass between the street hawkers and us, their rickshaw flatbeds loaded with glistening sliced cantaloupes and watermelons.
When I finally hop off, I find the pedestrian-only bazaar predictably crowded and compact. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, everyone gives me directions by referring to the distance between wherever I want to go and Starbucks. Still, I’ve never been any place like these century-old alleys — alleys hemmed in by traditional Chinese structures defined by their sweeping rooflines and curving, pointy eaves.
People queue up at the famous Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. Others, slurping soup dumplings, work their way through the throngs and along the Jiu Qu Bridge. At Feng Lian Ge, I buy personalized stone-stamping sets for my nephew and niece. And at Dondurman, I’m mesmerized by the staff’s showmanship. They turn the act of scooping ice cream into a kind of magic trick, using meter-long spatulas to fill the ice-cream cones, then flipping the cones around and around — using only the spatulas, which adhere to the sticky globs of ice cream. I’m not the only one staring at the spectacle.