It was a chilly January afternoon in Shanghai – chilly for that part of China, that is. I winced at the occasional gust that shot down Nanjing Road but then remembered it was much colder in the US at the time. I went back and forth in front of the Apple store, not because I considered a purchase but because I did not have my bearings in the city yet. According to my maps, one of these directions led to the Peace Hotel and the river. I was just not sure which one.
Despite my rapid and deliberate pace, I was approached three times in ten minutes to see if I wanted an Asian massage with a beautiful Chinese girl. No thank you, I said. Go away, I said – only less politely.
When I paused to consider my next move, I found myself at the edge of an ocean of yellow-jacketed grade-schoolers; most of them looking my way. One of them got my attention and asked if she can take my picture. The expectant throng awaited my answer. After a stammer, I apologized as politely as I can and decline. Getting my picture taken is not my thing. Sorry.
With a smile and a wave I moved towards the edge of the square where I encountered another troop of yellow-jacketed youth. A young man approached and posed the same question: can he take my picture? Again, I declined and apologized and then continued on my way.
The next day, I wandered the maze of shops surrounding the Yuyuan Garden uncertain that the signposts were actually taking me closer to my desired destination. I paused in front of a colorful display celebrating the upcoming Lunar New Year (and the Year of the Pig) when a woman called to me in English. She held up her cell phone and asked if she could take a selfie with me.
I was tongue-tied. After I managed to process her request, I stammered a “No thank you.” Her pleasant demeanor evaporated. She quickly began tapping at her phone, snapping pictures of me as I desperately tried to disappear into the crowd.
Later in the day, I went to the former clubhouse of the Shanghai Race Club – since 2018, the location of the Shanghai History Museum. When we were in the city in 2001, our guidebooks universally dissuaded us from going to this museum – I recall it being described as shabby and not well-organized. The reviews in 2019 were much more positive about the displays, the content, and the good use of of its new home.
It was certainly comprehensive. After learning about several thousand years of Shanghai history – and climbing several flights of stairs in the process – I found an open bench and took a rest. I was scrolling through my phone when someone sat next to me. I was sitting at the far end and the seat was otherwise unoccupied. Nevertheless, I scooted over to give them more room.
They got up soon after and were replaced by a different individual who sat in the same place. Odd, I thought, but then gave them no further attention…
…until they stood up and a third person quickly took their spot. Curious, I looked up to see one of the group standing with their phone taking our picture. Deciding there was no other alternative, I donned my cheesiest smile and leaned into the photo. Why not? They went through a lot of effort to each have their picture taken with me, they deserved some sort of reward.
But Fame is a fickle mistress. After a brief rest at the hotel, I prepared myself for another round of sightseeing in the evening. I wanted to be certain I looked my best. After all, there may be mobs of Shanghai denizens all angling for a photo with me.
It seems my time had passed. I returned unpestered, unaccosted, and – to the best of my knowledge – unphotographed. Alas.
When I got back to the US, I shared these experiences with my colleague who grew up in the Shanghai area. Her eyes sparkled with amusement as I described each encounter. I asked her if she knew what the big deal was. Why were people so eager to take my photo? Who did they think I looked like? She said she had no idea but was going to check out websites in China to see if my image was cropping up.
As I was leaving her office, she mentioned that she was planning a trip back to China this year. I suggested she should take a selfie with me and show it around – it might help her get a better table in a restaurant or free entry into some of the city’s hot spots.
It seems I am a pretty big thing in Shanghai. Or at least I was once.