I have had a few people ask me 'what is this compound that you live in?' So I thought I would tell you a bit more about the place in which we live.
A compound to me sounds and usually is luxurious. Gates, guards, luxury housing, community pool and tennis courts, space, green manicured lawns and leafy trees. Compounds are not necessarily like this in China. There are plenty here, don't get me wrong. There are some incredibly ostentatious compounds around. One is being built just down the street. French inspired homes and apartments, fully furnished in over-the-top old style furniture, lots of gold and paisley. Naturally it is called The Palace. Greg and I live several steps down on the luxury accommodation scale compared to The Palace. However, it is still quite a little gem.
As you walk down Lane 169 Jiashan Lu, you can often see into the little apartments that line the lane. These, I would say, are for the less wealthy, those who have likely lived here for a long time. It is mostly older people, retired people who live in these apartments that would be cheap to rent or purchased back in the times when the French were kicked out of Shanghai and real estate was cheap. They are old and they are tiny and they do not seem very livable. When I say tiny I mean one room that includes bunk beds, a kitchen, and the bathroom is in the kitchen. Some of them are filthy and some of them are looked after and as clean as they can possibly be considering the circumstances. Rarely do they have air conditioning units and these people live out their life on the street. In 35C heat where else would you be? A breathless hole in the wall or snoozing under a tree in the street? This is where the lady and her family were recently evicted. It is also where the rubbish bins and drain ways are. Life only just livable. You would never see this 'quality of life' in an Australian city.
As you come to the entrance of our compound there is a boom gate that is always up, and a guards box. There are a few different guards and from what I can gather they live in the compound. They are residents that do their little piece for the community. In the mornings it is a lady guard. She wears an official button through blue shirt with an official looking badge sewn onto the sleeve and pocket. She usually kicks around in flip flops and shorts, although there are days when she is in full uniform of a knee length pencil skirt and closed in black shoes. She has short curly hair and a pleasant face that will give me an approving nod as I walk by.
In the mornings a gaggle of women sit in the office with the guard. Discussing events of the past 24 hours and observing the comings and goings of the residents. There is a white haired lady who wears big sunglasses and has a stony face. She always sits and as she sits leans forward on her cane staring down the lane, only occasionally nodding her head. The other ladies will be laughing - she sits devoid of laughter.
When I arrived I vowed to walk past each day and wave and say hello to the ladies. For the first 6 weeks they stared at me and there was no friendly hello back. It was very confronting to me as I am used to a world where people just naturally, out of sheer politeness and habit, say hello in reply. Here manners and what we consider social norms are not normal at all. If you are a stranger you are treated as a stranger, an outsider who may or may not be welcome. Recently something changed within the compound 'ladies mafia' as I call them, I now get hellos and waves as I walk by and there is one lady in particular who waves enthusiastically at me smiling and saying hello before I even do. She makes my day, everyday! In my western view of life she is normal and I feel accepted by her.
There are 4 blocks of apartments in our compound. Each the same as the next. They are 4 stories high, painted what was once a creamy colour and have old fashioned push out windows. The glass in our doors and windows is very old and I would say it comes from an era where they were hand made. There are faults in the glass and instead of being clear to look through, the image you see when you look is wavy to indicate their age. Each apartment has a small balcony, although I rarely see anyone on them. Mops hang out of windows, laundry is hung on bamboo rods to dry in the steamy summer air. There are well established trees which attract little birds to flutter around and chirp. There are notice boards that have the most important pages of the newspaper displayed in them for everyone to read and there is a community room. Three days per week there is activity in this room. I have zero clue what happens but people external to the compound come in and do... Stuff. That is the best I can describe it. Sometimes it looks crafty other times it looks like they are being lectured. I am not allowed in that is all I know. I walked up to the door one day just for a look and was shooed away.
The matriarch of our set of units is an old lady. She lives on the ground floor right at the entrance to our building. She opens her doors and windows whilst she is cooking or has friends over, otherwise it is closed up tight. Her apartment is very, very dark and the only light that enters comes in the back windows. When I first arrived she would refuse to acknowledge me. I would wave and say hello to her and each time I saw her and she would stare at me and snarl. I refused to give up on her, each time saying hello only to be greeted with a snarl or at times completely ignored. But word from the 'ladies mafia' must have gotten back to her and now she smiles this beautiful warm smile and replies "ne hao". Recently a younger woman has moved in. My assumption is that she is the daughter and that she is a teacher. She arrived about the time life was breathing back into the dormant schools of the area. I am most likely wrong but I like to imagine what everyone does for a living. I like to humanize the people of my compound.
On a Saturday and Sunday morning the calming sounds of a beautifully kept piano resonates throughout the compound. It is coming out of the 3rd floor on the second building. Whom ever it is that plays that piano does it with such finesse. I could sit and listen to them for hours. Greg and I often discuss what sort of person we think it is. A child prodigy perhaps or an old lady who was once a well known concert pianist? It is likely that we will never know who slides their fingers up and down those ebony and ivory keys but I am certain they bring peace and a happiness to the many people that share our space.
There are animals here too. The most notable animal of the compound is Pierre the white toy poodle. Poodles are very common in Shanghai especially little brown ones. They trot along the street with their owners, perfectly coiffed and manicured like little cream puffs. Greg and I have named this little poodle Pierre because in the cooler months when Greg first arrived he used to wear little coats. He had two to keep him warm. A red one and a yellow one. He was quite the fashionista. In the hotter months that I have known Pierre, he just kicks around in his delightful doggy fur. Pierre is the one creature that I have not managed to get to be friendly. Every time I see him, I crouch down low and show him my limp hand to be as non threatening as possible to this edgy little pooch. Every time he barks and carries on like a right little sod. You can always tell when Pierre has been let out of his home to have a wander because there is constant barking. He barks at everyone who goes by, near or around him. Trying to flex his tiny territorial muscles. Even his owner laughs at him when he tries to be tough. He just isn't and in actual fact is a timid little thing. I would love to be friends with Pierre as I would love to have a little four legged friend to greet but alas I just don't think it will happen.
The kids have recently returned to the compound to go to school. Many kids are sent to their rural relatives for the 3 month summer break and come back in time to start school. (It started on September 1st) so now there are occasionally kids on bikes or playing with bubbles and other toys outside. I dare say that there will not be a lot of playing in the coming months as things heat up at school and kids are expected to do hours of homework and extra curricular activities to round out their education.
So that is our compound. I wish I knew its deep inner-secrets and the intricacies of its comings and goings but for now and until I can speak the language well, I will not know anything more than what I can observe as I walk in and out. I do like it here. I like that the ladies mafia know everything and now that I get waves and 'ne hao's' each day they are keeping an eye out for me and my safety. I am sure they are as curious about me as I am about them.