One of the funny aspects of living abroad is that things from home that ordinarily wouldn’t interest you very much take on a new significance. I’ll almost always eat at least one meal in McDonald’s when I’m out of the U.S., even though I don’t normally like their food very much. In part, I want to see what’s different there, but another part of it is that there’s something oddly comforting about being surrounded by the mass-market familiar amid the foreign.
This explains why I walked into a bar around the corner from my apartment early this morning and sat down to watch the Super Bowl. I’m not a football fan—as far as I can remember, this is the first Super Bowl I’ve seen since 2006, when I worked as a server at a party—but I couldn’t pass up the chance to check out one of Shanghai’s many Super Bowl-watching opportunities. I chose the one closest to my home, figuring that at the very least, I’d have a substantial, calorie-laden breakfast (because of the time difference, kickoff was just after 7:30am in Shanghai), not something I ever cook for myself.
PiRO has about fifty seats, and all of the first floor was filled when I arrived shortly before the game started. I wound up claiming a comfortable easy chair on the balcony with a chandelier partially obscuring my view of the TV. No matter—I was knitting or working on my laptop and just listening to the game for most of the time. The vast majority of game-watchers were foreign men, a couple wearing football jerseys but most of the rest dressed in business suits and toting briefcases, apparently hoping to catch as much of the game as possible before they had to head to the office. While Super Bowl parties in the U.S. serve nachos, beer, and wings, PiRO’s customers were dining on a breakfast buffet, washing down steak and eggs with coffee and juice.
I only saw a couple of other women in the crowd—one a Chinese woman accompanying an American man, another a vocal Ravens fan whose French boyfriend looked bored out of his skull before he finally left at halftime. Nearly everyone was, like me, multitasking, tapping away on laptops with one eye on the TV screen and rushing outside to make phone calls during commercial breaks. In the U.S., I often feel that time stops during the Super Bowl—emails cease pinging my inbox, supermarkets are empty—but here, expats have to fit it in among their normal Monday morning activities.
(Those commercials, by the way, weren’t the same famous [and expensive] ones airing in the U.S. We were watching the game on a cable channel that played local commercials, so I saw a lot of ads for Indonesian Airlines and wonderful-looking resorts in Thailand. After reading about how poorly most of the American commercials treated women, I’m not sorry I missed them. Do better, advertising industry.)
Having only the vaguest ties to both San Francisco and Baltimore (I lived in Southern California; my grandmother grew up in Maryland), I chose to favor San Francisco for two reasons. First, I have a lot of friends who are 49ers fans. Second, I like the clean, melodic translation of “San Francisco” into Chinese: Jiu jin shan, “Old Gold Mountain.” Fourth tone, first tone, first tone. Ba’erdimo, in comparison, is a painful transliteration that knots up my tongue.
The Ravens fans in the bar had a lot to cheer about throughout the first half of the game, and even though “my” team was doing poorly (really poorly), there’s something infectious about watching sports in a crowd. And after the halftime show and an extended power outage, during which a lot of the assembled viewers gave up and left, the momentum swung to the 49ers and the other half of the bar started shouting and clapping when plays went their way.
By the time the game was winding down around noon, only about ten of us were still there to see the final moments. Groups of Chinese businesspeople began to enter PiRO for lunch, most of them regarding the stray foreigners focused on the TV screens with bemusement, though I heard a couple of men figure out why we were there. The game ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper from the 49ers, and our small band of expats dissipated. Back to work, back to life, away from the temporary home-away-from-home we had found on Super Bowl Monday in Shanghai.