One morning, as I left my apartment late for work, there was a group of four elderly Chinese people wandering around looking for something just outside my building. They were chatting nonchalantly with each other, but I could feel that some sort of excitement was in the air; all four of them held half-sheets of pink paper with Chinese writing scrawled across it. I wondered what it could be; they seemed united in the spirit of an innocent quest, periodically referring back to the half sheet of paper for – what? Direction? Instructions? Some sort of tour? Then I realized: –It’s so obvious! They must be doing a scavenger hunt for seniors! Two scenarios were possible. One, these four people were doing some sort of awesome old-people double date. Two, all of the older adults in Shanghai are involved in some sort of massive, conspiracy level scavenger game, and it has up till now been hidden with remarkable success, because to fail to do so and allow it to be discovered would alter the very fabric of life in this megacity. Shanghai could be shaken it to core. This would mostly be due to the massive increase in demand for either an earlier retirement age or an expanding in the rules regarding which ages are allowed to play, but either way, the game won’t be able to handle the massive influx of new hunters and the whole balance of China could be put in jeopardy. I love scavenger hunts*, of course, and was somewhat disappointed that One (1) Harried Foreigner Running Late for Work was apparently not to be found on those mysterious pink lists. I was not going to be included.
It was the first time I’d seen those sheets of paper; a mistake on the part of the distracted hunters. Outsiders must never be given a clue as to the true activities of the older crowd here in town. I’m sure those two couples will get a stern talking to. Once I had realized what was going on, I kept my eyes open on the way to work. Just like on all mornings, scavengers were everywhere; just as someone who just learned parkour now sees a whole new world of things to climb up and jump over and flip off of, so my eyes were opened to the strange activities of the older population. This hunt must be among the world’s top five; all of the players have most likely lived in Shanghai their entire lives and know so much about the city that Google’s child Maps would sit wide-eyed at their feet. You remember how wide-ranging scavenger hunts could be as kids, when places like The Hills, The Creek, The Pipe, Our Cul-De-Sac, Your Cul-De-Sac, The School, The Slide, The Swings (I could go on and on) had real significance and immediate name recognition? Imagine that, but with decades and decades of additional adventure experience, spread out over a city of 23 million people (yes, almost the population of Texas. In one city. I know, this place is crazy). Epic? I would submit yes.
The next couple I saw confused me, I’ll admit; the man and woman were standing atop the pedestrian bridge, and he was communicating something to his companion using some of the strangest, most exaggerated body language I’ve seen here in Shanghai. He would semi-squat, arms descending and ascending in unison in lazy jumping jack style, as if he were pantomiming picking up a tree or trying to mimic an enemy in Space Invaders. Curious, I glanced over the railing in the direction the pair was focused and saw a cop car! I realized the lady was trying to peer pressure her husband into totally stealing one of the trees in the garden which the police officer was guarding; this officer was most likely there because for some reason senior citizens had been reportedly stealing trees for a mysterious conspiracy game. –Don’t be a sissy, she was saying. –Space Invaders. You know. They move up and down? Like this? he was replying, squatting, standing, squatting, standing. –What are you talking about?! Focus! she replied, frustrated. (EDITOR’S NOTE: I may have mistranslated for personal amusement. This sort of purposeful mistranslation is quite the substantial obstacle when attempting to learn a foreign language.)
I was aware of seniors for the rest of the morning; I knew when several walked by flashing smug smirks that they must have found the coveted #373, and understood when lone scavengers would hurry by in a daze, racing against the clock to find their target. Now the countless great-grandma partner-in-crime duos (which I could explain previously only as seeming ‘vaguely… conspiratory…’) made sense – no one would/could/should suspect a thing! All this observation led initially to a somewhat disappointing realization: the hunters I saw carried nothing other than groceries, and in two instances, things to sit on. But wait – it made sense, I realized! All it meant was that this was an extremely practical scavenger hunt! These hunters were scavenging for grocery bargains in the early morning! While the rest of the population does things like eat breakfast and be tardy to work, these dastardly geniuses were getting all the deals! I’m onto you guys. I’ll keep pulling the sweater. Eventually the whole thing will unravel.
With powers of observation so attuned that morning, I also saw a bird and a four-winged green insect locked in an epic battle that saw them light the sky above the sidewalk. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that battle, with one or the other being the protagonist, in about four Disney movies. I was on the way to McDonald’s for this great deal they have where you get a little chicken muffin and a coffee for a buck. (Don’t judge me for eating at McDonald’s in China; they still have a great value menu.) I could not figure out if I wanted to stay there and work on WiFi or head into the office or find a coffee shop or use the day to visit showrooms. I was frozen. This happens every other day. I’ve been trying to make up my mind about whether I’m indecisive and haven’t yet reached a conclusion.
*Sometimes I am reminded that I have to be careful when explaining this topic. I love scavenger hunts because I love the hidden kind of treasure you hear stories about and have to find through an epic adventure that involves swashbuckling (something modern experts assume had to do with swords). I talked about this to my girlfriend, my mind in a one-track la-la-land of Treasure Island and the Dawn Treader and Fair Blows the Wind. To my amused embarrassment, she brandished her characteristic quick humor (read out loud for best effect):
Me: I love hiding things.
GF: Don’t say that to your girlfriend.