“So today is your first day of liberation. We’re going shopping,” my dad said. “Let’s go to the farmers’ market and get some groceries, and then we can go to the supermarket and get you some clothes.”
Indeed, I had packed light, worried about wrangling two giant suitcases alone through whatever awaited me once I landed in Shanghai.
“Can you ride a bike?”
I could not.
“Alright then, we’re walking.”
That was more than fine by me. After fourteen days of being locked up, I was more than happy to stretch my legs a little. When I still was still working in my lab at school a lifetime ago, I regularly walked ten thousand steps a day.
On the way out, we walked by a little garden area in the middle of the apartment community, with some basic exercise equipment, tables, and a gazebo. A dozen or so retirees sat around a table, maskless, playing cards and happily chattering in Shanghainese.
This gathering would not be permitted in the American college town where I lived, I thought.
Indeed, on the streets, most people were no longer wearing masks. After months of no local cases in Shanghai, COVID-19 was still a thought on everyone’s mind, but not a looming danger that lurked at every corner. Life was all but normal.
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“Then let’s go eat somewhere. Do you want dim sum? Wontons?”
Wontons sounded nice.
We stepped in a small diner on the street. A middle aged woman with a friendly face asked us what we wanted to eat.
“Do you have wontons?” My dad asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Big or small? How many?”
I wanted ten big ones. With shitake mushrooms and pork. 13 RMB (1.95 dollars).
“Just one portion?”
“Yeah, just for my kid,” my dad said. “I ate already.”
“Hey, look,” I said as we waited, pointing to a poster behind the counter. “There’s a poster for the clean plate movement. The one that’s making western journalists say China is running out of food.”
He chuckled. “When I take you to the farmer’s market, you can see if China is actually running out of food.”
It was a weekday, so the farmers’ market by our apartment was not busy, but there was certainly no shortage of food. Farmers sat behind counters loaded with everything from fresh fish to leafy green vegetables to bottles of soy sauce. Above every counter were QR codes for WeChat Pay and AliPay. Computerized voices announced transactions all around us: “You have paid 3 yuan and 5 jiao (3.50 RMB).” “You have received 3 yuan and 5 jiao.”
“You like crabs,” my dad said. “Let’s buy a few.”
Laden with groceries, we set to return home. Outside the market, my dad led me to a blue bike with a QR code on it. I watched, amazed, as he scanned the QR code, a computerized voice welcomed him to the Hellobike bike share, and the bike unlocked. He put our shopping in the basket.
“I just have to pay a cheap subscription every six months and I can pick up one of these bikes anywhere,” he said. “No extra charge as long as you ride less than two hours per day.”
“So you can pick them up anywhere? You don’t have to pick them and drop them off at fixed points like bike shares in the US?”
“No,” he said. “Anywhere.”
“So what if there isn’t one when you need one?”
“There usually is,” he said. “Occasionally there isn’t.”
I noticed another brightly decorated bike on the bike rack, this one yellow, also with a QR code. There were multiple companies providing this bike share service — undoubtedly a cheap, convenient solution for the last mile in one’s commute or day trip.
We walked the bike home, relieved of the burden of our groceries.
“If you could ride a bike, I could use the bike share and you could ride my bike,” my dad said.
The idea of riding a bike on the busy streets of Shanghai intimidated me, even if I could ride one.
“So is this service in all major cities now?” I asked
“What about smaller cities?”
“I’m not totally sure.”
At the door to our building, my dad pulled a lever on the bike, and a computerized voice thanked him. The bike locked again and waited for the next patron.
We made lunch. My dad turned on the news, which talked of China’s poverty alleviation efforts. I shelled edamame and texted my husband.
“Hey, stop playing on your phone.”
“I’m talking to people!”
“Tell them you need to make lunch or it won’t be ready until dinner time.”
After lunch, we headed to Carrefour, a twenty or so minute walk away. We passed a bus with a sign that said, “this bus has been disinfected”, a school that required a green health code to enter, and many notices to regularly disinfect one’s home, wash one’s hands, and open the windows to allow for air flow. At the door, a bored-looking employee took our temperature with an IR thermometer. Even indoors, inside the store, most people were not wearing masks. Some wore them on their chins. I tried that too, but it just made my chin itchy.
“What size are you?” my dad asked.
I don’t know. I was an S in the US, but definitely not in China.
“I think she’s an XL,” said the lady working in the clothes department.
“No way,” my dad said. “That’s way too big.”
“Let’s try an L then.” The lady held up a tank top in front of my torso. “Yep, too small.”
I wasn’t sure how to feel.
We took the escalator to the lower level. The wheels on our cart locked on the ramp, preventing it from sliding. Downstairs, we picked up yogurt, frozen dumplings, pastries, and a few bottles of an energy drink I liked that wasn’t sold in the US. Outside, my dad produced a plastic bag from within his backpack.
“You have to bring bags when you go shopping in China,” he reminded me. That was right. It had been more than ten years since China began requiring stores to charge for disposable plastic bags.
Bag in hand, he headed to another blue bike.
“Are your legs tired?”
Not just tired, but itchy. After fourteen days of barely moving, my muscles were not adjusting well to the sudden spurt of exercise.
“You want to sit on the bike, and I can push you?”
No, I protested, horrified. I would look so stupid.
As we walked home, pupils were starting to get out of school. They ran around with their bright red neckties, symbolizing their membership in the Young Pioneers of China, talking and laughing.
WRITTEN BY Lily Chang
Just an ordinary Chinese student studying in the US who likes cats and dislikes ignorance.