It’s my first visit to China, and nothing is what it seems. I am truly a fish out of water! Using astro*cart*ography*, my contemplative natal Fourth House Jupiter magically becomes a Midheaven line, and I am on several Uranus crossing (paran) lines including, Mercury/Uranus and Sun/Uranus. If having expansive Jupiter turned inside out weren’t enough, Jupiter and Uranus together make for nonstop mind-blowing Shanghai surprises. I won’t look hard: Shanghai is full of them.

The beginning of any journey is always the most uncomfortable for me. Usually I start out in a state of ragged and jet-lagged protest, regretting the trip instantly, rejecting almost everything because I haven’t figured out anything yet, and I’m tired. China starts out no different. But it gets much, much better, and for that, I’m gratefully surprised. A disclaimer may be in order: first, I should say that I have no point of reference for what China could be, and I am constantly grappling with what I’m seeing, without a pre-existing frame of reference or understanding of the culture. I’m disoriented and confused, and that’s the jumbled confused thrill of culture shock. At times like these, when journeys like this one take us very far away from home, I often yearn for a more intimate picture, one that a guide or friend might offer, but usually we only have a guidebook which means every experience is a first one — a steady, sharp, and direct data stream of new images and information– and it’s all happening very quickly. Often I only appreciate these trips in hindsight, from a safe perch at home where I can digest what I’ve seen (again, Jupiter is in my natal Fourth House) when I discover the most disorienting/uncomfortable trips are the most memorable and exciting ones, arrgh, the life of a Ninth House Cancer Sun! Here are my byte sized snapshots of Shanghai Surprises.

  • Being cut in front of the airplane lavatory line not once, but twice. Instead of being offended I’m reminded that in a city of 25 million people (by comparison, the population in my home city of San Francisco is 500,000), every man and woman is doing it for their self.
  • Riding in taxi with driver who, barreling down the highway, must have a death wish, and despite certain motion sickness, being too afraid to look straight ahead and keep my eyes open. Arriving at hotel with searing hot poker of pain shooting through temple.
  • The building anticipation and excitement of an exotic day in a strange land.
  • Visiting the Temple of the Town God. A temple where I burn incense offerings to the four directions and make an offering and prayer to the God of Literature (I make John do an offering and prayer to the God of Wealth).  I notice I get a little choked up with the sweet simple beauty of performing this everyday ritual with hundreds of Chinese people.
  • Several taxi drivers stopping in the middle of the road to take a committee and ask each other about the actual location of their Western fare’s destination. There’s a vote, and we proceed.
  • Phone rings in the middle of the night and a soft spoken female Chinese voice asks John if he wants a ‘massage’. This is typical for a group of women and one man to ‘work’ a hotel and call male-registered rooms for midnight ‘massages’.
  • No Facebook or YouTube. Freedom of information is still a Western luxury.
  • Smuggling a banned-in-China book, K, The Art of Love into the country (Really, not a good idea. So if you don’t hear from me by Wednesday, call the consulate…)
  • Buying a deck of erotic playing cards from Hangzhou’s Leifing Pagoda gift shop ~ only to find out later when we open them, that they’re censored!
  • Learning that Shanghai metropolis building has boomed in growth just since 1996 –having erected more buildings than New York City built over an entire century.
  • The giggles and smiles of young Chinese girls when they have no idea what it is you’re saying. Because the world is becoming more global, you’d think that everyone can speak English, especially those under thirty or so. Not true. Gestures really help. Trying to communicate that our bathroom had a noxious unidentifiable odor emanating from it, I held my nose and waved my hand in front of it, pewwwww! Message received.
  • One plus One does not equal Two. 98{edc87575597f4f3ad5e35fd7f36c45c2e827b7d30afc5bd9b12c8599e57b4ed7} of the clothing sold in America is made overseas, and a majority *made in China*. You’d think designer clothing would be much cheaper here, but it is gargantuously expensive — as much as quadruple the cost!!!
  • Visiting the third tallest building in the world, Shanghai World Financial Center, and having my feet break out in a sweat while standing on the glass-bottomed observatory.
  • Social etiquette lessons in China: 101. At a dinner given in John’s honor, we have miniature wine glasses at our setting, with barely a nip of red in it. I take an initiatory sip and although the Chinese are extraordinarily forgiving & gracious intuitively know I’ve done something wrong. Sure enough, to take a drink, one makes a toast with at least one other (making for many toasts) and usually offer something kind. Other ettiquette: When handing a business or credit card, both hands are used as a sign of respect. The guest with the highest seniority at a table is always seated according to feng shui: furthest from the door, directly facing it. That’s how you can always tell who the most distinguished guest is (and who is not!).
  • This is not the Chinese food you grew up with. No kung pao chicken or sweet and sour pork here. Even the staples you’re familiar with, chicken, pork, broccoli, cucumber tastes different.
  • Politely declining the whole chicken foot soup (then watching John try to figure out how to eat his). Sorry, we have chickens at home and they don’t have the cleanest feet. Being shocked a chicken foot, when plumped up by broth, resembles the hand of a small child or alien.
  • Help wanted ad for tea leaf pickers: Virgin women wanted with C-cup breasts for tea picking, “which the virgins were supposed to pick with their mouths and place between their breasts.” From China Daily Newspaper:

    “…the vicarious satisfaction of savoring tea picked by a tribe of voluptuous virgins is closest to having a palace of freshly plucked concubines, which, to a lot of Chinese men, is still the No. 1 perk of being an emperor.”

  • A vintage costume photograph taken of me as a Chinese mistress. In old town, a woman quickly throws a dress over my head, rolls up my pant legs and sits me in a rickshaw with a Shanghai backdrop. I’ve always wanted to appear in a postcard of old Shanghai! The dress, clearly not made for a western woman’s hips, splits at the seams. Oops.
  • Squab (baby pigeon) on a stick, octopus balls, chow mein noodles and hard boiled eggs aged in tea — for breakfast.
  • The inclusivity of elders generally, and elder women in the Chinese culture. I wish this were true in the west… Here, elders are out exercising, doing tai chi, taking dance lessons in the square, loudly socializing or arguing, I can’t tell the difference, with girlfriends.
  • Being urged to adopt a Chinese kitten. Two week old kittens playing on the sidewalk. Awwh. Their owner makes a shooing gesture, ‘take her with you…’ I’d love to!
  • Loving that Guan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, is the patron Saint of China, reflected by the gentle Yin mannerisms of many here. Guan Yin means “she who hears the cries of the world.”
  • Getting into a cab without the Chinese name of our hotel. Travelers, always, always, always get your destination translated into the native language (which we forgot). Otherwise you may spend a nervy cab ride wondering whether you are being Shanghai’d by a Crimp!
  • Riding in Shanghai’s super high speed rail that reaches a whopping 268 MPH.
  • Noticing what the natives are eating does not resemble anything on our menu, asking for a second or fixed price menu, and getting an entirely different menu (cheaper, too)!
  • It may read or sound like English, but something is usually lost in the translation. Case in point: Being excited to see there is a ‘4th floor workout fitness room, open 12AM -1 AM’ on the hotel menu and directed by the front desk to go outside– only to discover it is actually a foot spa, no women are allowed, and it is closed.
  • A baby bathing in a bath tub on a street sidewalk while family eats lunch nearby.
  • The eternal questions: Is it smog or fog? and- (at any given intersection): Will the people win, or will the cars?
  • Exploding watermelons. Will not eat. As you might imagine for a Cancer Sun sign born, concern about the food quality prevents me from fully relaxing into many meals!
  • Taking the elevator to the 34th floor of the hotel for dinner, sitting down to my plate of bok choy and pumpkin and I start spinning (jetlag?)…only to realize the floor is moving. I’m in a rotating restaurant — a great metaphor for the off kilter feeling of being in China.

*For more information on the astrology of travel, visit my article Travel by Your Stars.

About the pictures, below: In full disclosure, the majority of Shanghai is a sprawling metropolis urban city, not the part of the city pictured below which is Shanghai’s Old Town.