Cutted Chicken in Shanghai, through a First Reads drawing on GoodReads. The author is Sharon Winters, and I wrote the review in January of 2014.
I enjoy travel memoirs, especially when the travel happens in countries I will probably never visit, like China, so I was very excited to win Cutted Chicken in Shanghai from a First Reads drawing. I was a little disappointed when I started reading and found the author is nothing like me. Well, ok, we are both “white” American women, both educated, both writers. Unlike me, Sharon Winters is married to a man whose job took them both to China in the mid-90s. Also, it quickly becomes apparent that Winters and her husband have a lot more money than I’ve ever had. I don’t know if Winters would call herself rich, but she sure seems rich to me. (Some examples: Winters loves to shop and most of her adventures recounted in this book center around shopping. She buys over 150 paintings during her two years living in Shanghai. She also buys countless pearls; at one shop in Beijing, she buys 15 pounds of pearls in one day! Most telling is where she and her husband live. The two of them inhabit a four bedroom, four bath apartment for which the rent is $6300 per month! [Winters is quick to point out that “this price does include the furniture rental.”])
At the beginning of the book, I thought I was getting the “adventures” of a rich, pampered lady, and I didn’t think I was going to enjoy that very much. I kept reading, though, and by the middle of the book, I was charmed.
The aspect of Winters I most admire is her desire to communicate in Mandarin, a notoriously difficult language to learn. She starts studying the language before she leaves the US, and continues her studies as a student at Fudan University in Shanghai. Most importantly, she speaks Mandarin every chance she gets. She speaks to her driver in Mandarin and gets him to correct her homework before class every day. (She also helps him with his English, including teaching him the term “SOL” without telling him what it means). Chinese people are constantly surprised (and usually charmed) when Winters speaks to them in their own language. Sure, she makes mistakes. (Once she addressed her language teacher as “rat” instead of “professor,” then humorously writes, “[f]ortunately, I also know how to say [in Mandarin], “Oh, I’m sorry.”) But she doesn’t let her mistakes stop her from trying again (and again and again), and I highly respect her determination and perseverance.
Yet, some of Winters’ experiences in China perplex me. She is terrified to cross streets because of the thick traffic and lack of crosswalks, so she always gets someone (friend or stranger) to walk her across while she keeps her eyes closed. After two years she still has no idea how to cross a city street, and I want to shout at her to grow the fuck up!
She has a driver, provided by her husband’s company, and she seems to go nowhere without him. She explains, “Because a car accident in Shanghai could cost a company millions of dollars, the company [her husband] worked for assigned drivers to all US employees and their spouses.” It is unclear if Winters is even allowed to go anywhere without her driver. The first of only two times she leaves her apartment alone (yes, at two o’clock in the morning, but only to walk one block to buy an ice cream bar at a kiosk), the night guard at her apartment building narcs her out to her driver, who is very mad at her and tells her she should never go out alone at night. She chalks this up to “the protective instinct men have where women are concerned,” but I wonder if the driver was worried about losing his job or having to answer to some governmental force if Winters had been harmed in some way.
Winters does seem to genuinely like her driver; she calls him her friend and writes that they kept in touch after her return to the U.S., but I can’t help but think that if I were living in Shanghai, I would have wanted to ditch my driver at least some of the time in order to have adventures on my own. If Westerners were simply not allowed to wander off alone during that time period, I wish Winters would have just come out and said that. Otherwise, she looks to me like a bit of a ninny too scared to even take a walk alone.
As I said, Winters shops a lot, and she’s not afraid to negotiate with merchants to get what she considers a good price. I’m always skeptical of Westerners who want to haggle to get even lower prices on what seem like bargains to me. Yet Winters shows herself to be a really sweet person and not a cheap American by her interactions with a “nearly blind old woman” who sells string at a flea market. On several occasions, Winters addresses her with the respectful form of hello, then proceeds to buy all her string at ten times the asking price with no bargaining at all! Winters writes, “Do I feel sorry for her? No. I admire her greatly, and when I hold her string in my hand, I see her face and whisper to myself—a great woman held this string before me.”
Some parts of this book seem to be filler. Winters tells stories about her children, her childhood, and her family history. None of these stories have a lot to do with Winters’ life in Shanghai. Many passages read like a holiday newsletter sent out to family and friends to show them how cheerful and chipper Winters is in the face of this whole new world that is China. I’d rather hear more about the gritty side of China (such as the memorial dedicated to the massacre of over three hundred thousand Chinese civilians killed by the Japanese Imperialist Army in 1937 and having to meet the seafood before eating it at many restaurants.)
All in all, I did enjoy reading this book and learning about one woman and her time in China. I guess I can learn some things from a rich lady too scared to cross the street.