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Southern Girl in Shanghai
by Jennifer Morgan

Jennifer Morgan wrote from Shanghai: "I hope this simple but amazing story about people from two different cultures will bring joy to everyone who reads it."


Jennifer's Coolest China Experience to Date: The Shanghai Tourism Festival

[Editor's note: Jennifer wrote this piece following the September 11 terrorist attack.]


In the wake of the past physically and emotionally draining week, all I wanted to do was go home and have some time to reflect. But something told me I should be with people -- be with friends to remind me of the joys of which life is full. Thank God for that . . .

What I ended up doing this past Saturday night was a real spirit booster. I spent a night interacting with people who probably didn't understand half of what I said but with whom I shared a greater bond.

It was 7pm Shanghai time. I arrived at Keith's apartment, deep in a Chinese housing unit. As I passed the landlady's room, all the curious mah jong ladies gave a giggle as they watched this tall lao wai decked out in a disco dress, purple glitter heels, and platinum wig trounce up the stairs.

Entering Keith's place, I was greeted by cheers for the arrival of the last member of the group of six crazy foreigners who will be forever known (informally, of course) as the International Superstars of Shanghai.

No one was without their own unique funkiness that evening: me and my disco queen look, Keith and his sparkly faux (plastic) leather suit, Kate and her red glasses, Leigh Ann and her Twister pants and feather boa, James and his Speed Racer glasses, and Robert and . . . well, just his usual fantastically tall self which is enough to make him stick out in a crowd in China. We were ready for the party.

But what was this party anyway? Why were we dressed like a bunch of retro freaks? All I can say is Keith gave the command, "be funky," and we obeyed. The party? Well, at that point in the evening it was still a bit nebulous. Termed as a "dance party" to help celebrate the Shanghai Tourism Festival, this event was to take place on the Nanjing Lu pedestrian walkway, just a block from the Bund and the Huangpu River dividing Puxi and Pudong (west side and east side).

Without any real notion of what this "dance party" would hold for us, we headed out to the nearest subway stop. It didn't take long for people to notice us. On the train we made new friends right away with a group of young Chinese revelers en route to the same destination.

After photos were snapped with these kids, we blazed out onto the most lit up section of all of Shanghai: Nanjing Lu. We looked as wild as the neon backdrop behind us. You might think everyone just stared blankly or ignored us, but the reaction was the same from young and old alike: lots of smiles and plenty of laughs to join our own mirth. As soon as we stopped to have our photo taken by the Poloroid guy, a crowd of "fans" encircled us. And we didn't disappoint. We hammed it up for them . . . and they loved it. Our photos capture not only our crazy appearance matched with the lights of Nanjing Lu, but it also shows the crowd watching and laughing.

Moving on down the long, wide tourist shopping lane we spotted the big crowd. I mean, of course there are always crowds here . . . it is China, for crying out loud. But this was the big one: the crowd to beat all crowds. We had no clue where to go, so we just followed the herd. Swept up in the masses, we were pulled along in a winding circle around the gates that enclosed the stage and the dance area. Thousands yelled, cheered, and waved their arms. Finally, Leigh Ann was able to score us an entrance to the main area. The catch: WE had to perform!

Once out of the mob, we made our way to yet another mob. This mob fanned out from a huge stage capped with a gigantic screen and surrounded with all variety of television cameras. Looking around, we noticed what everyone else in the crowd had already tuned into: we were the only lao wai (foreigners). Then the music came over us like a tidal wave. A sudden burst of energy surged forth from the crowd. We couldn't help but join in. As our bodies started to move to the beat, the crowd circled around us. Hands in the air, we turned and twisted as the crowd cheered. Soon, little children were being pushed into our cramped and energy filled circle by their mothers and fathers. With no inhibitions, these kids, some no older than four or five, held their arms out to us for a chance to join in the dancing. The more we jumped and hollered, the more excited the kids got. Every time the cameras swooped down from above, we looked and cheered.

Then came a lull in the music: time for the introduction and speeches that would go on forever. As we mulled around, finally noticing how hot our wigs and crazy get ups were in the eighty degree, muggy heat, people began to approach us with their cameras. Not a shy soul was among this crowd. Everyone wanted to say hello or smile at us or ask, "Can we take photo with you?" We couldn't do anything but oblige. We smiled and posed and held babies and shook hands and tried feebly to communicate in Chinese and in English. My jaw dropped when, in the midst of it all, a young girl, about ten, came right up to me and my platinum wigged-platform shoed self and asked ever so innocently, "Are you Miss Morgan?" She was in my colleague's fifth grade class, right next door to my own classroom! We all had a good laugh about that! She seemed so excited to see a teacher out as a real person, and her mom and grandmother just nodded and smiled (they didn't speak English).

Ok, now it's time to skip to the evening's highlights. After more impromptu photo shoots of the infamous six shanghai lao wai's, we were asked by one of the concert organizers to go up on the side stage (the stage adjacent to the main stage where the real performers sang and danced). It was during the act of a Chinese Backstreet Boys-esque band. The six of us, and one random and fearless Chinese xiao jie (young woman) were hoisted up onto the wet, red carpeted stage. Below us, the crowd of thousands grew wild. All we had to do was wave to get a reaction from them. No matter how awfully we danced, the crowd begged for more.

Once again, we were joined by the tots hefted on stage by their parents. I couldn't believe that this sea of Chinese people was so excited by a group of goofy, wacky foreigners who could barely keep up with the beat. Finally, we made our grand exit, much to the disappointment of the masses.

The next highlight was the Para-Para dance. Although we had no idea what "para-para" was (just as I am sure you have no idea), we were told once again that our presence onstage was required. But this time we had to have a routine. We soon learned that "para-para" is a Japanese style line dance. So we figured we could make up our own cheesy para-para dance. Why I was the one everyone turned to I'll never know, but I came through with the dance. When it was our turn up, we broke into our simple routine that mainly consisted of Macarena-like arm movements and a twirl. Within moments, the crowd was mimicking our dance! They loved it! And you know what happened next: yep, those kids came back on stage. They were rocking out more than we were!

Of course, in between these stage performances, about a zillion photos were taken. Not one person was rude or pushy . . . they were all curious and friendly and kind. Little children just came up and started dancing with us wherever we went. Although we joked that we felt like international superstars because of all the huge cameras going off in our faces at all times, it was amazing. The feeling we got from the people was so indescribable. It was like it didn't matter if we understood each other with the words we said. We were sharing a wonderful moment together.

Finally our feet couldn't take any more pounding on the pavement (and Keith's plastic suit was dripping on the ground with sweat). So we bid farewell to the revelers. The party was still hopping, but, as Keith so wisely stated, "You should always leave a party when you're still having fun!" We left on an amazing high for sure!

Back at Keith's, with wigs and heels discarded and plastic suits traded for shorts, we lounged around eating cold pizza and looking back over the events of the night. We had so many laughs, and yet the encompassing feeling among all of us was one of sheer joy: a joy of being welcomed into a Chinese celebration with so much warmth.

It was only about midnight when I finally dragged my aching feet out to a cab. On the way home, I felt so happy. I felt so alive . . . so much a part of life in this giant city.

Of course, I reflected on the tragic events of the week as well. I felt guilty to be enjoying life in such an amazing way. But then I thought that a night like this revealed to me the shared feelings of joy and acceptance that can pass between two different cultures. What we need more of in this world is people willing to reach out and just smile at one another. It doesn't mend all wounds compounded over time, but it certainly is a start. The next time I walk out onto the street, I'm going to remember this night and try to smile at every person who comes my way.


From: Bobby J. Moon of Houston, TX
Message: Jen, I just loved your account of bringing so much fun to and good will to the Shanghaiese. Shows that the Chinese people are good sports and love to have fun too. Back to Beijing and Xian on Oct. 15-23 as I lead a group of 9 first timers to China. No one has bailed on me yet in light of all the tragedies and now war to the Taliban. Sounds like you ex-pats really know how to enjoy China and yourselves as well. God bless you guys over there too as you spread good ole American good will and understanding. I love to visit China as you can tell. Best, Bobby Joe (Zhou) Moon aka Zhou Yao Kuan

Compliments From: Lillie Woo of Belzoni, Ms
Message: Very interesting and informative write-up of your experiences in China. It was like I was there, the way you described your trip. Enjoyed reading it very much. Bobby Moon is my brother. I hope you checked his write-up also. Thanks!


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