My Darkest Week

Day 177 (3rd of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I tried to pack as many organisational activities into today as possible. With my stay in Shanghai only being two and a half months, I don’t want to delay the completion of all the administrative things which need to be done (a process which took many weeks in Xuzhou).

I was therefore up bright and early to begin with the organisation of Dan’s trip to visit me here. One of the things we want to do is see a DJ Snake concert at a nightclub here. My attempts to purchase the tickets online failed for the usual reason – I don’t have a Chinese bank account. I found my way to the ticket office to buy them directly. When you’re tired and your Chinese is rusty, nothing is more comforting than turning on your phone and having these sorts of instructions automatically produced for you:

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That’s a huge benefit of living in Shanghai. There’s such a large availability of information that you’re never left guessing. Expat newspapers and blogs like Smart Shanghai, Shanghaiist and Shanghai Expat mean that you’re never at a loss for where to find something. An article in Smart Shanghai today, for example, drew my attention to the fact that the next two months are the music festival season for Shanghai and that a lot of Western acts are coming to play some multi-day festivals in the near future. Who knows, I might even hire a tent and go do a Splendour 2.0.

I arrived in the HuangPu District and took a few detours to get to know the area before going to the ticket booth. Even here, you can see the layered influences from different parts of the world everywhere in Shanghai.

From the ticket office, I took a bus to ‘Bono Salon’, a barber which is popular amongst Westerners.

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It’s located in Jing’An, which is in the French Concession area. Paul and Soph live here, and it’s got a densely populated foreigner community. It’s super trendy and feels like a leafy suburb of Sydney or Melbourne.

But buried within it are still pockets of oriental Shanghai. It’s a stunning contrast.

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Catching so many buses and metros was beginning to make me realise that another form of transport in this city was necessary. I decided that I needed some sort of easy vehicle to get to and from places which are in close proximity to the hotel. Sticking with my opinion that e-bikes are suicidal, I decided to go and find myself a pushbike (and a helmet, don’t worry).

Some brief Googling didn’t render any useful results. Searching Baidu in Chinese did, though. I stumbled across a forum where somebody recommended a second-hand market near Baoshan Road station. I’ve realised that for the next two months I’m going to be dropping a lot of names that don’t make a lot of sense to most people, so it’s time for a brief lesson on Shanghai geography.

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On average, each of those districts has the same population as Singapore. Shanghai is divided down the middle by the HuangPu River (which forms the inland border of the orange “Pudong New” district in the map above). This divides Shanghai into two sides: PuXi (meaning “West of HuangPu”) and PuDong (meaning “East of HuangPu”). PuXi is commonly known as the “old town”, and it contains most of Shanghai’s population. I live here, as do Paul and Soph. PuDong is the business side of town. It only sprung up in the last few decades and is the economic centre of China. Here’s a picture demonstrating its growth.

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“The Bund” is the famous street along the PuXi side of HuangPu River, and it provides the best view of this famous cityscape.

Moving back to the map from earlier, I live in Hongkou (labelled “2”).  It’s a bit of a student area since it is near Fudan, SIFU, SISU (my university) and Tongji University. Most of the students migrate to other areas of the town come nightfall, though. The most popular area for foreigners is “Jing’an” (labelled “4”) which is where Paul and Soph live. It’s also where I got my haircut today.

The second-hand market where I was searching for a bike was on Baoshan Road in Zhabei District, just slightly west of where I live in Hongkou. It still took half an hour to travel there, though. Think of how long it would take to get across the whole city.

Baoshan Road is a bit of an industrial centre, and it’s also the location of a large train depot.

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Emerging from the station, I spotted a bustling undercover market full of locals. I entered it and started asking around for bicycles. I was told “no” many times, and I eventually worked out that most vendors had switched to selling e-bikes. Eventually, one man offered to help me.

“Follow me,” he said, “I have some bikes I can sell you.”

“Beauty,” I thought to myself.

20 minutes later, I was still following him. The streets were becoming narrower and the houses more decrepit. Fearing for my kidneys, I decided to continue after sizing the guy up and figuring that I could get away in an emergency.

Finally, we arrive at his Longtan (think Beijing Hutongs, but in Shanghai). He invites me in, and waiting at the door are his wife and two children. He yells something out, and out flock all of the neighbours. People are streaming into the courtyard and looking at me. The children are laughing and poking my leg. They were so happy to see me. I’m offered food and they sat in shocked silence as I replied in Chinese, chucking in a sentence of Shanghainese (the local dialect) just to make them gawk even more.

I received a small round of applause before the head honcho of the house instructed the children to all collect their bikes for me. The children ran off, and returned with about half a dozen bikes which were far too small.

“I’m not going to buy the children’s bikes! Are there any that aren’t being used?” I asked.

The man wasn’t much of a salesman. He shook off the question and started demonstrating the brakes of his daughter’s falling apart bicycle with one streamer hanging off a handlebar.

“No, no, I don’t want to take her toy away from her. Do you have any bikes that aren’t being used?” I begged.

He sighed and led me to a storage room. Before me lay the crown jewels: a matte black, single speed, basket-wielding, rigid Giant bike. It had my name written all over it.

“I’ll take it,” I declared.

I slid the man a healthy tip for his hospitality (it was still only AU$60), and left with my new prized possession.

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I also wasn’t afraid to tip because I’ve been riding the wave of a healthy exchange rate (for as long as I earn my money in AUD, let’s hope this keeps up).

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While I was amongst the Longtans, I found a local restaurant serving the builders on their lunch break. I joined them for a spicy meal.

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I rode my bike directly to the Carrefour to buy a helmet. Sure enough, they didn’t have any. They actually laughed at me after asking for one and wished me luck on my quest to gain one. That wasn’t promising, but I figured that it could be delayed for a day while I ticked some other things off my to-do list. I dropped the bike back at the hotel before heading out to the Bank of Nanjing to withdraw the rest of the money needed to pay off my accommodation fees.

The rest of the evening was spent getting up to speed on the work of all of my tutoring students. I also decided to join the group outside of the hotel who were socialising. The two dozen people were all from Russia and Spain. There was only one native English speaker there – a girl from New Zealand. The students told me that I was the first Australian who they had met at the university (I was hoping for more, actually). I guess we’re a lazy country when it comes to learning other languages!

Heading back to my room, I found myself fixated to the print which sits outside the lifts on my floor. I really like it – it perfectly encapsulates the feeling I get in this city. Tradition in an urban setting.

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Day 178 (4th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

This morning I caught up on some much needed sleep. For those of you who are keen observers of what time I send my emails through, you would have noted the absurd time that the last blog update got pushed through at. When I’m rooming on my own, I don’t have another person to regulate my bedtime against, and it often gets out of hand.

Life’s too much fun to sleep through it.

After a brief tutoring session in the afternoon, I moved out to explore People’s Square. People’s Square is one of the main tourist and commercial hubs of Shanghai, and yet I had never been there. I decided to make an afternoon out of it on the way to picking up my computer from repairs at Apple.

People’s Square metro station is far more like an airport than just another stop on the city subway. It genuinely has more extensive shopping than any of the airports I’ve seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Just above ground is a big square lined by some impressive skyscrapers. In Sydney, there’s only something to see in the air when you’re at the postcode 2000. Outside of that, nothing’s high enough to really force you to crane your neck. In Shanghai, though, I’ve already run into far too many people just because of how often I’m looking upwards.

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The whole area is very American in its style. Even some of the residential buildings seem to be plucked straight out of NYC.

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But then just behind this is a selection of streets which makes me feel like I’m back in Hong Kong. I love this place – I can be everywhere at once.

This street, HuangHe Road, is home to the famous Jia Jia Tang Bao restaurant. This tiny joint serves up some of Shanghai’s most renowned soup dumplings. This is the food which Shanghai is most famous for, and I was eager to have some since I haven’t even tasted Shanghai cuisine since arriving in the city.

The line didn’t take too long and before I knew it I had a basket full of crab meat dumplings. The traditional way to eat these is in a soup spoon. First, you poke a hole in the dumpling and suck the juice out. Then, you eat the rest of it.

The juice inside of the dumplings was out of this world. It was buttery and flavourful.

After lunch and acknowledging the fact that I would likely see much more of People’s Square in the future, I decided to move on to Hong Kong Plaza to get my hands on my laptop once again. South HuangPi road is the metro port which serves this commercial mini-city. The shopping centre itself is extraordinarily luxurious.

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It doesn’t just contain luxury brands, though. It’s also full of some impressive modern art displays.

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Before I knew it I was again waist-deep in another three-hour tutoring slog back at the hotel. I’ve got two four-hour days lined up this week. Europe demands a healthy bank account!

For dinner, I decided that I was going to make a bigger effort to see what Shanghai has to offer. My impressions of living in this city have been stellar so far, except in one department – authentic Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong, Shanghai is a great city for food. It offers every cuisine (at steep prices, though) and there’s an abundance of expat communities who cook it all up very authentically. But in that way it’s just… like Sydney, but with more Chinese food. But one thing which the city lacks is a street food culture. Apparently it did have a thriving one, but police crackdowns have pushed it all to outside of the ring roads. Having almost lived off street food in Xuzhou, this has come as a bit of a blow for me.

The thing is that in Shanghai, a “day out” for the youth is hanging out at a shopping centre. Sure, they’re huge and often contain far more facilities than any mall in the Western world would, but they’re awfully… artificial. I don’t want to be eating in shopping centres every night. And when my kitchen facilities are limited to a sink, I’m required to find a surefire location where I can return to for good, cheap eats. I’m yet to find one that’s consistent yet.

So, I jumped on my bike and headed towards Zhapu Road in Huangpu. The four kilometre ride was done with ease (well, what can I say, I’m a natural). I passed about six of these along the way.

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These mega-malls just don’t end in this city. It’s so convenient and futuristic. The subways often go right through them too.

Riding my bike down these neon-bathed streets conjured up images from the Star Wars city Coruscant where hover cars dodge their way through alien-like skyscrapers.

Occasionally I’d pass by a grid of elderly people doing their nightly “square dancing”.

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Zhapu Street was a hub of restaurant activity, but once again there was no street food. Nonetheless I found myself a local place which sold some turnip and beef stir fry as well as a soup which I didn’t know the name of.

I’m easing myself back into the habit of picking dishes at random without any pictures or knowledge of the ingredients, and it often results in some really scrumptious feeds.

I changed my route when going back to the hotel and went via the Hongkou Stadium which you can see from my bedroom. A Shanghai Greenland Shenhua F.C game was in action and there were roars tumbling out of the bowl. I think I might try and organise tickets to a match some time soon.

Day 179 (5th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

This morning I learned the hard way that you have to plan to avoid crowds in this hotel. The lifts were all clogged up from the horde of international students trying to attend our meeting where we would get our “Campus IC Cards” which gives us access to most of the facilities in the area. After finally navigating my way to the bottom of the building, the line for the cards was dozens of metres long. It was comforting to know that the course was popular and that I would surely find some native English speaking friends to become close to, but it really did surprise me. I didn’t think that the hotel had such a large capacity. After asking around, I quickly realised that most of the students actually rent their own appartments in the area.

Getting the card was uneventful. I was still happy, though. Maybe just not as happy as in my ID photo from the other day.

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I’ve been struggling over the past few days with the thought that I’m possibly being too picky with my friends in these places. I’m constantly filtering out people who aren’t native English speakers (or close to it) as being true friends because I feel like I can’t speak to them on more than a surface level. It’s also taxing having to slow down speech, especially when you’re trying to tell a long story. I’m not sure if this is racist or just plain distasteful, but I’m fairly sure that it’s one of the two. Either way, hopefully the next two months will allow me to meet more people like Ecem and remove my crutch of needing Australian/Kiwi/British company to feel at home.

After the morning’s administrative things were finished, I focused my attention on booking some things for Dan’s visit. I also booked a restaurant reservation for when Rob Le Busque visits on Wednesday. Greatly looking forward to that one.

After some more tutoring (that line is going to become repetitive, hey) it was evening. I headed out to the Grosmanns’ house to collect a letter which had arrived from Sydney for me. I stayed there for a number of hours chatting at eating ice cream (real ice cream, the first I’ve had in China) with Paul, Soph and Soph’s parents while we battled not to wake the sleeping Rex and Matilda. They recommended a restaurant called “Hunan Cuisine” for dinner on Wulumuqi Road, another famous food centre of the city. I followed their advice and was not disappointed.

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As you can spot in the picture, Paul also gave me a helmet to use while I’m in the city (hopefully that will keep me out of hospital), which was very kind of him.

It was late by the time I left the restaurant and the street was beginning to close down, but it still retained a lot of its beauty in the darkness.

Day 180 (6th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

Today was dominated by two events: a placement reading and writing test for the university course as well as a four-hour tutoring slog.

The placement test was considerably harder than I had anticipated. I resigned to the temptation to not prepare at all using the excuse that I was in Shanghai to “discover myself” rather than “discover Chinese”, but I also wanted the placement test to be a genuine reflection of my ability rather than for it to be inflated by some last minute cramming. Luckily, it seemed like most other people in the classroom found it very hard too.

I broke up the day by visiting the Xing Guang Photography Equipment Centre in Xujiahui (where the St Ignatius Cathedral is). In typical Shanghai fashion, I turned up and it was a six-storey mini-city.

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I needed to come here to buy another lens cap for my camera and to have the sensor cleaned. Some of you may have noticed that in most of my travel pictures featuring a blue sky (such as in the photo below), a spot of dust has been poking its rude head in the top left.

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I honed in my bargaining skills and got the whole job done for next to nothing.

To my delight I noticed some food carts in the area. I ordered a turnip pancake and a Xinjiang roll. The Xinjiang roll, which is sourced from the section of China more akin to the Middle East, was particularly good. It tasted like I was back in Iran.

I arrived back to my room just in time for the tutoring. Left under my door for the third night in a row was another coupon for some nearby nightclub with free drinks for Western students. Shanghai has a lot of these promotions. I guess they figure that if they can get a group of Westerners sitting on an outside table it will make the venue seem “hip” and attract more customers. It’s dangerous if you’re part of that group, though, because they feed you unlimited (often fake) drinks throughout the night.

Instead, I rode my bike down to Hongkou Plaza to pick up some more milk, fruit and a bell for my bike.

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I conformed to the Shanghai way of life and had a shopping centre dinner while I was there.

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Day 181 (7th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

First, you’ll have to forgive me. No more photos will be included in this blog until 11th of September. I will explain why later…

Wednesday began with yet another placement test, but this time it was an oral exam. I arrived in the waiting room and sat next to a girl from America, Carrie. We got talking, and she ended up being extraordinarily friendly and the sort of personality who redirects conversation to you rather than to themselves. I was really relieved to have met her – I now know that I’ll have close friend for the duration of my time here. Carrie studied political science back at home in North Carolina (she keeps a touch of her Southern drawl as a homage to that origin). She has decided to come to Shanghai to study and be an English teacher for a year after also doing a Mandarin degree. Her Chinese seems slightly stronger than mine at more solid HSK 5 Level, but I’m not far off her tail!

We both went in and did our oral tests side-by-side. The “test” consisted of the teacher saying the following:

“Read this passage.”

“Is that the right level for you?”

The whole thing was over in no more than 30 seconds. It was determined that I should be in 中二 (Intermediate 2, the same class as I was in at JSNU in Xuzhou). I’ll see how it feels for the first few days and if I’m in the mood to challenge myself then I’ll push for the Advanced 1 class, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily my priority in Shanghai.

A brief bike ride around the Hongkou area for lunch led me to ICBC, the most widespread bank in Shanghai, where I decided to open a Chinese bank account. This has been recommended to me on numerous occasions, and I’ve begun to realise why it’s a necessity. Having a Chinese debit card is compulsory if you want to use any of the famous online Chinese services – Alipay, Wechat Pay, Taobao (Alibaba… the cheapest and fastest delivering version of EBay on Earth), Didi Chuxing (Chinese Uber… but cheaper and better), and so forth. The process was conveniently short and I was able to return to the university on time for the “safety and law lecture” which was undoubtedly the most useless presentation I have witnessed in some time. The university had invited in a technologically illiterate Shanghai policeman to lecture technologically literate young adults about how not to get scammed online. The more useful part of the conversation was when an official from the visa office arrived to answer everyone’s questions about their respective visas and to walk us through the complicated procedures of acquiring a residence permit if we needed one. Since I’m only staying for two months none of it applied to me, and I spent much of the presentation on my computer and trying to eavesdrop conversations around me for any familiar accents. I heard one in the row opposite me, but I didn’t see an opportunity to join in.

I did get an opportunity to see one friend at the end of the lecture. Claire from Wellington is someone who I’ve also become fairly close to. She’s almost all the way through her law degree and is taking some time off to learn a new language. I forgave her for owning the slightly newer version of my model of my glasses.

Back in the hotel room I had time to squeeze in one tutoring student before I was off onto the metro to see some family. I received great news a few weeks ago that Rob Lebusque would be in Shanghai and that we could have dinner together. I was longing for an Australian accent and a familiar face so this couldn’t have been more timely.

I caught the metro to South Huangpi Road (the same metro station used for Hong Kong Plaza and the Apple Store) where the “Andaz Xintiandi Shanghai – A Concept Hotel by Hyatt” was. I couldn’t help but think that tagging the word “concept” on something just adds to the allure and makes it seem more inventive in the same way that otherwise moronic sculptures are made impressive by the label of “art”. The entrance and initial impression of the lobby of the hotel was very funky, though.

What stood out most in the lobby was definitely spotting Rob. Little can describe the rush of joy you get when being reunited with family after being separated for so long.

Catching up on affairs which I had been missing out on back at home was comforting. I also had the privilege of meeting Rob’s colleague, Annette (what a suspiciously similar name), whose Singaporean Chinese gave mine a run for its money.

While it was good to hear from the horse’s mouth that everyone back at home was safe, it was probably more relieving to find out that my two requested blocks of Cadbury Milk Chocolate had been muled up from Sydney without issue.

We had a quick drink in the lobby of the hotel before braving the painful Shanghai traffic in a bid to get to Xindalu Restaurant at the Hyatt on time for our booking. This restaurant has appeared in a number of write-ups about Shanghai’s food scene and I had heard good things about it from others so I was looking forward to see if it lived up to the hype. I had preordered a Peking duck which was to be served to us at 7:30pm.

We arrived almost as the duck was ready to be served. The chef proudly sliced the bird up into four separate dishes: the fatty skin, the meat on its own (for the pancakes), a mix of both as well as a salt and pepper mix. At first taste, I didn’t think that there was anything overly remarkable about this duck over a Lee’s Fortuna equivalent, but after some time I began to really enjoy the softness of the fatty skin and how it melted as soon as it touched your tongue. I also liked how none of the duck was wasted – all of the bones and cartilage were crunched up in the salt and pepper mix and it was surprisingly good.

Food aside, the company was the most enjoyable part of dinner. It was good for me to get an insight into the intensity of a business trip, especially when conference calls need to be done to accommodate for very different timezones. Amongst all the chaos of a work trip, though, it’s good that time can still be found for dinners like this one.

On the way back to the university, I received a message from someone I met on a Reddit Shanghai forum called Ty. He mentioned that he was starting at SISU at the same time as me, and we had been exchanging messages and intending to meet up. There were messages flying around about an invitation to a Latin music event at Bar Rouge on the Bund, so we decided that we would both go there for an hour or so. It was enjoyable and we had a good chat, but it was pretty evident that our characters didn’t fit each others’ like a glove, so sure enough the evening ended after only an hour. Bar Rouge has never been my favourite either. After visiting it with Aimee earlier in the year, I quickly discovered that a stunning view is outweighed by an arrogant crowd of 40 and 50-somethings whose dollar buys too much for their own good in this country. The exorbitant prices don’t help either!

Ty and I learned our lesson about not catching taxis after 11pm too. They start at 18RMB ($3.56) compared to 7RMB ($1.39) in Xuzhou, and rise at a ridiculous pace. The driver dropped Ty off first and the fare was at 80RMB ($15.90). After an unusually long wait at a red light and turning one corner, the fare had risen to 150RMB ($29.80). I protested at what seemed like a scam considering how abruptly the fare jumped, but the driver spent some time explaining the process and he seemed like an honest man. When I went to pay him, I was pulled straight back in the car when the driver looked at the cash. I had handed him a Taiwan $100 bill, worth one fifth of 100RMB. It looks exactly the same as the Chinese one. I apologised profusely and settled the bill using WeChat Pay.

I am somewhat sure that an ATM dispensed that Taiwanese bill. Since 100RMB is the largest denomination of note in China, it couldn’t possibly have been given to me as change. The only other thing I could think of was that the English school in Xuzhou had paid it to me during my last shift there. Most of that money was gone already so I didn’t think it would have still been lying around in the pile, but it’s possible and probably more likely.

Day 182 (8th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I genuinely cannot recall what happened on the morning of this day. All of my attention and mental energy has been put into recounting every minute detail of the evening’s events that much of the morning has escaped my mind.

What I do remember is the five hour tutoring slog. From 3pm until 8pm I was locked down in intense back-to-back sessions of English and Maths. It was like a full school day without recess or lunch. I was happy that I did it and time really flew, but there’s no doubt that I needed to get out of my chair and move around after it was all done.

That’s partly why I decided to go out in the evening. I messaged Carrie who had told me that there was an event which most people were attending which was being held tonight. She added me into a WeChat group with over 160 people studying my course at the university, and it was full of advertising for a “SISU Welcoming Party” being held at Luce della Vita club. Although I’m not much of a clubbing person, I do enjoy it when I get into it. But better still, this was the perfect opportunity to increase my currently embarrassingly limited list of friends at this university. I decided to head out with the rest of the cohort.

Most people were catching a private bus to the venue at 10:30pm, but all of the seats were already booked out. As a result, I decided to catch the metro on my own. Figuring that most people wouldn’t arrive at the club until 11pm, I decided that I had time to tick one more thing off my “to-do” list. I headed back out to the Bank of Nanjing to do one big withdrawal of my daily ATM limit to try and see me out for the next month and also to exchange for Australian Dollars with Daniel. The withdrawal went by without issue. I took the 9000RMB ($1788.25) safely in my bag back to my room where I put it in my travel wallet with my passport. I kept 2000RMB ($397.39) out, though, to see me through for the next two weeks. That, boys and girls, is far too much money to hold in your wallet. Refill it daily with what you need and a little extra for safety. Not a fortnight’s worth.

At the hotel I slapped on a new change of clothes and had one beer (since I anticipated that the free drinks would be spirits, something which I’m not the biggest fan of). After only 15 minutes at the guesthouse I was back on the road again. I walked to Chifeng Road station and caught the metro all the way to Dashijie. Here, I left from Exit 3 as per the WeChat instructions and found the club in the middle of a big park. It was on the fourth floor of a huge palace-like building. It was attached to an opulent Italian restaurant and looked very, very impressive. It seemed like I was in for a good night.

Greeting me at the door was a woman from Eastern Europe who took down my name and gave me a wristband. As I arrived on the 4th floor at 10:40pm, I made my way down to the club area. I deposited my backpack in the cloakroom and asked security where the SISU area was. They pointed me to two tables directly in front of the DJ which were filled with dozens of bottles of whisky, vodka, orange juice and coke. I was the first one to arrive, and so after briefly going to the bathroom, I sat down and wasted time on my phone until people from the university showed up.

It wasn’t until 11pm that the whole room suddenly filled up as students poured off the bus. A group of people came to sit on the couch with me. Sitting on my left was a girl from Canada, Latisha, and on my right a guy from America, Florian. Both were incredibly nice people – easy to have a conversation with and very entertaining. I talked with them about travel, study and the cities they’d lived in over a drink of whisky and coke. I put my cup in a line as someone filled everyone up with the spirits and I mixed the drink myself. We spent far too much time making fun of each other’s accents, and overall it reminded me why I love being in such international crowds. There’s no better and more interesting ice-breaker than “where are you from?”

At about 11:30 or 11:40pm, Latisha jumped over the dancing platform behind us to go and speak with another group of friends. I shifted in on the couch and started on a new drink. I vaguely recall having a screwdriver with a girl (vodka and orange juice). I also remember seeing three cups in front of her, Florian and I despite the fact that Florian wasn’t drinking vodka. I also remember hesitating at one point over which cup was my drink, and just grabbing the one closest to me.

The girl was also from Eastern Europe. Only this time, I don’t remember a thing about our conversation. I don’t remember a word exiting her mouth. I don’t remember her name. I don’t remember what country she was from.

In fact, I don’t remember the next four hours.

What I do remember is opening my eyes to another Eastern European man with his arm under me helping me to a taxi. I have blurred recollections of putting my head to the side and vomiting over the road only to look back and be surprised that the vehicle was still willing to accept me as a passenger. I patted my pockets as I was about to hop in to confirm that I had my belongings – as is a habit for anyone who’s been out on a big night drinking. I felt nothing.

“Do you have my phone and wallet? Where are they?”I asked the man helping me.

“I don’t have your f*cking phone or wallet, I’m just trying to help you get a taxi.” he replied, visibly agitated.

This time, I shouted very firmly at him.

Where is my phone and wallet?”

That was very out of character for me.

“OK then,” he said, “follow me.”

We walk about 20 metres away to a dark area under some trees in the middle of the park. I walked into the trap like a lemming.

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The underside of my left jaw had been pounded by a huge fist, and I slammed into the ground face-first. I heard some words get yelled by a girl who was standing and watching from the shadows. The man tried to hush her. I figured it was his girlfriend and that she was objecting to what he was doing.

I was lucky that I only had a bruised jaw, grazed arms and busted nose. I didn’t even lose any teeth or get knocked out. As I lay on the ground completely conscious, I waited for the man and the girl to go away.

30 seconds later, I stood up and stumbled towards the taxi with blood pouring onto my clothes from my nose and neck. The driver accepted me without a second thought and I told him my destination.

Upon arrival, I had no choice but to pretend to go and “collect the money from my room” when I was actually leaving the driver without payment. I had completely forgotten about the huge withdrawal I had made earlier in the day, meaning that I actually could have paid him. Walking into reception, I got a new room card and went straight into my room. Here, I was conscious enough to realise that I needed to block two of the four bank cards in my wallet through Westpac. I also activated “Lost Mode” on Find My iPhone meaning that I would be notified of its location whenever it was connected to the internet.

I collapsed into a deep sleep which I only woke up from at midday.

Day 183 (9th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I woke up feeling a different kind of intoxicated. I had the usual headache of a hangover, but I was still dazed and confused about where I was and what I was doing in such dirty clothes.

It then hit me. I have never let out such a loud swear word than that moment.

I ran to the computer, sobbing by now, and attempted to call Mum or Dad. As I began to tear up and look down at my lap, I noticed the state of my pants. Beneath all of the crusted blood was evidence of a genuinely dangerous crime. I wish that I had have taken a photo of it before I handed it into the police. Only Angus Gilbert and my friends at SISU got to see it.

In the right-hand pocket area was cut and torn fabric in the exact shape and dimensions of my wallet. Upon closer inspection it became obvious what had happened, and the police confirmed my suspicions later in the day. A knife had been used.

On the inside of my thigh was one incision made in a perfectly straight line going down the leg of the pants. On the outside of the thigh was a much more botched job. A few missed slashes were made which were shown by the scratches on the fabric and the occasional hole poked in where they had tried to get in. Eventually, a successful cut was made. It spanned the vertical length of my wallet and then wrapped a few centimetres horizontally on its bottom side. The black pocket fabric had also been slashed.

I couldn’t help but be annoyed at why the criminal didn’t just go through my pocket like a normal thief would. Why did they have to wreck a decent pair of pants in the process? But that was the least of my worries at that point in time.

Outside of my pants, the state of the rest of me was a wreck. My bed was dirty and bloodied, my shirt had blood splatters over the chest and my boots had dried mud all over them. My glasses were nowhere to be seen – either crushed on a street somewhere or stolen, most likely.

Mum reacted in the best way that you possibly could as a Mother. She didn’t flip, she maintained her perspective as me being the victim rather than “getting myself into this”, and she calmed me down. It was a textbook response, and it gave me the ever-so-slight boost in my spirits which I needed to get going for the day with a police report being my primary goal.

First, I gave Angus a quick call and then went to collect textbooks at the university. Along the way I ran into Latisha and Florian among others. They told me that after speaking to the blonde girl I went to the bathroom and wasn’t seen for the rest of the night. When the whole group left the club at 2am they had assumed that I returned home without telling anybody.I also passed Carrie who was particularly worried for me, and she offered to accompany me to the police. I accepted and off we went.

We first stopped at the university police station, but they told us that they weren’t a full-fledged station and that we needed to walk down the road to a bigger station instead. We followed their instructions and two baozis (meat buns) later we were at the station. We explained to the police officer what had happened and showed him my clothes. He told us to wait around while he brought some investigators across who would help us out. The investigators took Carrie and I’s basic contact information before telling Carrie to leave and having me follow them to the investigation headquarters in Hongkou.

We took the lift down to the basement and walked through a number of big steel doors and security checkpoints until we reached the interrogation and questioning hallway. I was put in one of the rooms and cameras were set up in front of me. This was at 3pm. The questioning went until 9pm, and it stopped for a brief dinner break. It only took one recount of the story for the lead investigator to get very agitated and openly hostile.

“No, listen to me, no, stop talking,” was commonly heard as soon as I began answering a question which was given to me.

Whenever my translator was suspected of being inaccurate (which I can confirm she wasn’t), the investigator would yell at her. It was very intimidating for the both of us, and I started worrying more than when I first came in to report the incident. Photos were taken of every part of my body and my clothing. My pants and shirt were chopped up with scissors for DNA testing. Blood was taken from a prick on my finger. Swabs were taken from the tips of my fingernails. At one point, the investigator even asked me for all of the card and PIN numbers of each of the four credit cards which were in my wallet. I gave him the numbers, but not the PIN numbers. I just felt uncomfortable doing it. He claimed that they were needed to track the ATM history, but I made a decision to stick with my gut on not giving them to him.

“Why? Why aren’t you cooperating? Don’t you trust me?” he kept on probing.

“No, it’s not that I don-”

“No, stop. Listen to me. I’m the one who speaks. If you don’t trust me then why should I trust you?” he demanded to know.

My increasingly angry responses didn’t help my cause.

I genuinely felt like I was being silenced by the very people who should have been listening to me. Over dinner when the translator and I got some privacy, she gave me some honest advice.

“I really don’t think you should report this. You and the investigator clearly don’t get along, but I think he’s trying to make it that way so that you give up. He doesn’t want to have to deal with you. This is why Chinese people don’t go to the police – it creates more problems than it solves.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had already abandoned hope of ever catching the perpetrator after setting foot in the shoddy interrogation rooms, but I was at least hoping that I would be listened to.

When I went to go to the bathroom during dinner I was quickly given a cup from the water cooler and told to give a urine sample for drug testing. I thought it was odd since the medical professionals had already left but thought very little of it.

Back in questioning, the investigator reminded me on many occasions that I was free to leave if I didn’t want to cooperate. He tended to repeat this every time my answer was “I don’t remember.”

“Is there a mistranslation in the word ‘remember’?” I asked, in both English and Chinese. “Because I genuinely don’t remember. That’s not a lack of cooperation, that’s the truth.”

“You’re trying to hide something from us.” He went on to recite the legal consequences of concealing information or providing false accounts.

“Have you never seen a case where alcohol or drugs have impaired someone’s memory?” I asked.

“No!” the middle-aged man laughed and shook his head. “No, I’ve never heard of that in my life!” he repeated.

I stormed out of the room at this point. My translator followed me.

“Why doesn’t he believe me?” I begged to know. “Surely you can tell me. You understand the conversations he’s having with the others in there better than I do.”

“He think you’re too embarrassed to tell him that you accessed sex services,” she snapped back.

It clicked. He had asked me that question about ten times, and each time I gave a vehement “no”. It was a very truthful “no” to. I know that even in an intoxicated state my moral compass remains in-tact. That’s a part of myself that I’m very proud of. But it turns out that the type of crime which was committed against me is commonly seen in prostitution. I went back in the room to reaffirm my answer to the investigator. He didn’t acknowledge the fact that I had spoken, and instead told me that I now needed to get in a car and go to the hospital for a blood test. I obeyed.

At the hospital, just as the equipment was being set up for the blood test, the investigator who was supervising me received a call from the hostile guy.

He turned to me and said, “You have provided us with false information. We need to go back now.”

I was understandably scared. It had been told to me many times that I would face serious legal ramifications for doing such a thing. Arriving back at the headquarters, the investigator was there to meet me. He sat me down, put on a very serious face and looked me dead in the eyes. It makes me sick just writing about this. I was so, so scared.

“We have CCTV footage of you at the entrance to the club at 4:20am. You lied.” he stated, emphatically.

“What? What do you mean? I said that I didn’t remember what time I exited the club.” I was confused.

“Yes, exactly. You said you didn’t remember. We have proof that it was 4:20am. Those two things don’t line up.”

As some context, I hadn’t yet remembered anything which happened from midnight until I woke up at this point. The taxi and bashing incidents resurfaced after researching pictures of the area the next day.

I was gobsmacked. Corruption in action. After a protracted argument, the investigator performed a classic Chinese bureaucrat backflip, just like the teacher back in Xuzhou who was stealing my living allowance.

“You said that you left at 2 or 3am.”

The translator was just watching now, stunned. This was going down in Chinese.

“Oh did I now?” I pulled the signed transcript of the questioning off the desk and pushed it towards him. “Go on. Point to that bit.”

He started shuffling through the papers. I noticed the characters where I stated that I do not remember leaving the club.

“THERE. Proof.” I jammed my finger into the paper.

The investigator completely ignored me.

“Why did you lie to us? Do you know the legal consequences of this?”

I stood up for the final time and said that I wanted to go. I asked for a printout stating that I had made the report which was promised to me at the start of the day. I intended to use it for my insurance claim.

“Sorry, that is against Chinese regulation because we suspect you of lying.”

Cue more argument. The one possible rectifying outcome of this, an insurance claim, was also going down the drain. I gave up.

“I want my clothes back, too.” I shouted (the things I do for the blog…).

“Only if you’re willing to suffer the legal consequences,” he replied.

“Legal consequences” seemed to be the only two words this guy knew, and yet he clearly didn’t know the full meaning of them. Legal consequences tend to result from doing something illegal.

As we were exiting the room and the investigator had turned the lights off, I asked him if he was going to use my urine sample which he had left in the room next to the bin.

“Oh, yes. I’ll get it tomorrow.”

I left. The last thing that the investigator said to me was that he would send me an update of the investigation on Monday. I do not plan on replying to it if I don’t have to.

They didn’t care about me. They didn’t bother hiding it, either.

Paul, who I went to visit later the next day, had a very good point about this scenario. They probably see multiple of these cases per week, and they likely all get shoved off like this in a bid to preference bigger cases. He said not to be surprised if my urine sample returns a negative test for drugs even if I definitely had my drink spiked just so that the police have a reason not to have to deal with me. He also suggested that this may have been why they were willing to test the sample so long after the incident – each extra hour increased the chances that the substance wouldn’t be found in my system. If they wanted to show emphatically that I was drugged, they would have tested me as soon as I arrived.e

It wasn’t right of me to get so angry at the police. Who knows what they could have done if I crossed them the wrong way. I’m not making excuses for myself, but I was fed up with being victimised once again. At the time that I most needed emotional support, I was getting the antithesis of that. I wasn’t being believed.

I did get one good thing out of the police, though. I got to see the CCTV footage of me leaving the taxi and re-entering the hotel which sparked a lot of memories about how I got home.

I spent the evening telling family that I was OK and writing up a full account of the events while they were still fresh in my memory.

Day 184 (10th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

This morning I got the most well deserved sleep-in of my life. I woke up in time to take a video call from a young middle-schooler at Trinity College who had asked me to do an interview for his assignment on depression which I felt privileged to be asked to do. His Dad came on the call at the end and even mentioned how their family used to live a few doors down from Mum, Dad and I on Champion Road in Gladesville when I was an infant. What a small world.

I also did a tutoring session, meaning that I’m now a few dollars closer to where I was before the mugging.

I gave Paul and Soph a call in the morning to see if I could come over and talk everything over and they welcomed me with open arms. As soon as I finished tutoring, someone was at my guesthouse to pick me up and bring me over. As I was walking out my door I went to put on my watch until I suddenly realised that it too had been stolen.

It was good to finally be able to tell everything to people who actually get it. It was comforting (oddly enough) to hear that incidents of drink spiking are not all that uncommon around Asia, and that these experiences with Chinese police are also not uncommon. Helping take Rex and the newborn Matilda for a walk around the French Concession helped get my mind off everything. We picked up some peppered steaks and plenty of ingredients for a good salad and returned home in time to watch the Wallabies win. I was back to feeling that “home away from home” feeling, and it was great.

I decided not to stay the night due to work early the next day and instead I swung past a shop on the way back to Hongkou to buy a temporary mobile phone.

Day 185 (11th of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

After an hour of work in the morning I took up Florian’s generous offer to take me out to breakfast. I rode my bike to his student accommodation (another hotel elsewhere on campus), and we ate breads at a European bakery all morning.

I went directly from the café to ICBC to cancel my debit card. To my astonishment, no money on it had been taken. I would have thought that the criminals would have used it all online by now, hence why I had prioritised other things over going to block the card. The queue was estimated to be two and a half hours long, though, so the staff told me that it was best to return tomorrow to order in my new card.

While at the bank I also received an email notification which showed that my phone had been tracked to an electronics market in Shenzhen, a city in the southern Guangdong province. This must be some sort of organised crime syndicate. They had already siphoned off my phone to be sold. I wiped the phone as soon as I received the notification to lower the chances of an identity theft.

As soon as some more tutoring was done I swung across to Paul’s to sync my new phone with an online backup which wasn’t working over my room’s Wi-Fi. It turns out that it was a problem with the backup itself which was corrupt. It was a shame. It means that I’ve lost all of my budgeting data from my whole gap year (I had recorded every transaction… I had graphs projecting my estimated spending by the end of the year and it was all neatly sorted into a visual representation to show me what was chewing up my money the most). I’ve also lost all my Chinese flashcard data which was how I learned a lot of my new words. Oh well. That’s life.

On the way back to Chifeng Road in Hongkou, I went to Nanjing West Road. This part of Nanjing Road which is further inland is a hub of shopping in Shanghai. I came here to buy a new pair of stab-wound-free chinos.

Back at my room, I couldn’t help but begin to feel the mental toll of the whole incident. I was feeling awfully low. Not a depressed low (thank God), but a different kind of low. I feel violated. My body feels violated, my belongings feel violated and my personal space feels violated. It’s a very unique feeling – one which makes you feel completely inferior. Like you’re at the bottom echelons of the social food chain. In reality I know that it’s not the case. Whoever did this was the scummiest of the scum. But you can’t help but feel a little weak over the whole thing.

But one thing is for sure. It’s all onwards and upwards from here!

Missing you all.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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2 thoughts on “My Darkest Week

  1. What a nightmare Xavier, We were all so anxious when we heard from Dan.
    That feeling of violation from both perpetrator and police must be the worst. As you say ,onwards and upwards , no doubt a lot wiser for the events. Dan is the most excited I’ve seen him about anything. I hope the pair of you have a great time but most importantly stay safe.
    Next blog less muggings and more disneyland Please.
    Thinking of you
    Tone

    Like

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