Recent

Crawfish boils aka how to trick people into thinking you’re glistening, not sweating

Crawfish boils aka how to trick people into thinking you’re glistening, not sweating

The roar of the cicadas in the summer is deafening. The past few weeks have been deafening, sweltering, and muggy. Seriously, Shanghai is a stifling oven cracked all the way up to broil. Actually, no, not an oven. That’s not excruciating enough of a metaphor. […]

Shanghai and the art of letting go

Shanghai and the art of letting go

The first time it happens, you rarely notice it. First it’s your favorite Hong Kong Milk Tea kiosk replaced by metal shutters. Then, it’s a laptop repair kiosk torn apart overnight, used USB cables dangling amongst newly-drying racks of giant eels. Shanghai is a city […]

St. Petersburg: Then & Now

St. Petersburg: Then & Now

To be in St. Petersburg is to tip-toe around the edges of a porcelain a faberge egg.

There is something fragile, delicate, gilded about every memory I hold of my city. There is something romantic about its crooked and uneven pavements, its bronze status decaying to an emerald green, its bridges lined with sphinxes and horsemen that open each night for the passing ships.

And being back to St. Petersburg, I can’t help but feel that I am disturbing a part of myself that too is delicate, a part of myself not meant to be touched, lest I break those memories that I’ve carefully composed of a city that exists only in my mind.

This is the first time I am really back in St. Petersburg since 2001. It’s been almost sixteen years since I touched ground inside the only city that has truly felt like home. And it terrifies me. Because sixteen years is a long time. It’s long enough to wonder how many of my childhood memories are real and how many are made up – composited from years of dreaming and dreading my return. Whereas the rest of Russia was harsh and foreign, St. Petersburg was always mine. It was was the epicenter of Russian culture, it had survived 900 days of siege and starvation during WWII, it was ravaged by gangs in the 1990s. But it was mine. That had to have meant something, right?

June 1st. My first day back in St. Petersburg, after a red-eye flight and the shock of 41ºF weather in June. I’m ready. Ready to be welcomed back with open arms. Ready to feel like this is the homecoming I have been waiting for for sixteen summers. It’s my first day back in St. Petersburg and I feel nothing. I try hard to bring up memories after we accidentally get off the wrong bus stop (Moscow RAIWAY station, not Moscow SUBWAY station, of course!), but they’re not there. I’m in a strange town and my Uber driver asks me if I am American. I tell him I’m home, but he doesn’t believe me. I am trying to remember of something, anything, but nothing comes to mind.

My vision of St. Petersburg is the vision of the 90s. We called it бандитский петербург – “St. Petersburg that belongs to the bandits”. It’s a city that’s dark, that always smells like cat pee, that’s overrun by gangs. There’s a smell of fear, piss, and decay in the air. Organized crime runs the streets. But that’s not the St. Petersburg of the 2010s.

I can’t remember the geography of the city –  which way towards the center, or the street names: Nevsky Prospekt, my favorite bookstore, the hermitage, Moscow Railway Station, Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. Nothing. I try so hard to come up with any any memory, a single part of the city that I remember. But I come up with nothing. I feel nothing crossing the Palace Bridge, or standing at the point of Vasilievsky Island, or looking out at the the statue of the Bronze Horseman. Sixteen years had passed and after sixteen years, I felt absolutely numb.

The more I try to remember, the more foreign the city becomes. My city grew up. I grew up. And somehow it doesn’t feel like we are longer together.

Homecoming

I never got around to publishing this last week. I’m working on something about my time in St. Petersburg now, but my feelings are so different from what I wrote last week that I feel this needs to be published before I write anything else.  […]

Shanghai-Tested: My first ‘Chinese’ haircut

Shanghai-Tested: My first ‘Chinese’ haircut

The hairstylist put down the bleach and took out a jar of brown dye. That’s when I realized something had gone awry.  As part of my recent deep-dive into embracing China local life, I took the plunge and did something I had never done before – I let someone who […]

A morning commute in Shanghai

A morning commute in Shanghai

 

My scooter slips. I skid into a crack on the pavement and veer sharply to the left. The man on a motorbike to my left narrowly avoids me and squeezes past, unfazed. The car behind us screeches to a halt, the driver’s palm glued to his horn. He doesn’t stop honking as I readjust the pedals on my scooter. He continues honking as I get back into street formation. He doesn’t stop honking, through we’re at a red light and traffic has halted to a standstill.


My morning commute is twenty-five minutes on an electric razor scooter, disobeying traffic laws, dodging bicycles, pedestrians, and families of five perched precariously on a single moped. Shanghai is a city of almost 24 million people, yet China is a country where a red traffic light is merely a suggestion.


I’m on a Mobike, too low for my height and it feels like I am driving the bicycle equivalent of a clown car. The left brake tugs against me and gives out and I am flying forward, turning left down the wrong way of a street because there are no cars. It’s only ten minutes to get to work up Xiangyang road, until I cross the elevated roads and bike into a narrow alleyway. I walk my bike through the steam of 10am noodles and the workers who eat them, the middle-aged woman huffs at me, but I give her a sheepish grin. She understands that there is méiyoŭ bànfǎ.


On Fridays and Saturdays, the elevated highways light up a blinding blue-neon.

 

 

Spanish paella, LobsterFest 2017, and other reasons to celebrate Spring

Spanish paella, LobsterFest 2017, and other reasons to celebrate Spring

I had planned to write about how the miserable of the past week, but instead I’m writing about the beautiful. I’m writing about the beautiful, because life in Shanghai has reached peak levels of the exhausting and the absurd, and when things get tough, there’s really no […]

The most beautiful things about Florence

The most beautiful things about Florence

I feel like the word breathtaking is overrated. We use it so much that when something truly takes our breath away – and I mean with that sharp intake of breath and an utter loss for words, I completely lack the vocabulary to put my feelings into words. […]

The courage to eat with a spoon

The courage to eat with a spoon

Learning to use chopsticks in China is easy. Learning when not to use them is hard.

 

Dinner in Shanghai – my home for the past two years – is rarely eaten alone. A dinner is the sort of grand occasion where one squeezes a group of seven or eight (let’s say eight, because eight’s a lucky number in China) in tight plastic chairs across a large, round table. You sit down, unwrap the vacuum sealed pack containing a small plate, a bowl, a tea cup, and a wide-slotted spoon, then someone  – traditionally the youngest, with foreigners, usually the one closest to the tea kettle – pours out tiny cups of muddy, lukewarm green tea. Then, the food arrives, always on shared plates – deep bowls of catfish stew with Sichuan peppercorns, fish-fragrant eggplant in a sticky-sweet sauce, soft tofu with pieces of ground, browned pork.

 

At these dinners, using chopsticks is a point of pride, another piece of the cultural barrier chipped away. When your Chinese friends compliment the way you picked up that cucumber slathered in chili oil and vinegar, it’s the same kind of sense of accomplishment you feel when a cab driver finally understands what your directions, or when the bank teller knows that you are at the bank to replace your card, because a rabid ATM swallowed the last one.

 

In a place so different from the sleepy Massachusetts town I grew up in, I’ve often felt the need to plunge into Shanghai life headfirst, to have the authentic experience of living abroad in China. Some mornings that means forgoing my double espresso breakfast routine for warmed soy milk. Other times it’s resorting to drinking room-temperature water in sweltering July heat waves, because only tourists ask for their water iced. There’s always a guilt that comes with getting a salad and sandwich combo for lunch, or paying close to eight dollars for a jar of organic peanut butter.

 

But this desire to fit in is, at times, frankly idiotic. It’s one the cultural myths we build about living in a foreign place – and how it has feel different, even when life abroad is not really as alienating as it may seem. People in China don’t just eat Chinese food. They don’t sip tea in dim teahouses; they line up behind you at the Starbucks to pick up a morning latte. Most importantly, when you – a foreigner trying your best to fit in –  maneuver slippery tofu onto your plate with chopsticks, people around you forego authenticity and pick up a spoon.

 

After a few months of looking like an idiot at the dinner table, there comes a moment when you too get the courage use that spoon. It’s only when you get the confidence to understand what needs to be authentic and what doesn’t, that living (and eating) in China finally starts making sense. This desire to to live authentically is just a need to prove to ourselves that we can embrace life abroad, with all its difficulty, its thrills, and its challenges, but that doesn’t always mean that we forego common sense. People in Shanghai use spoons for eating fried rice or picking up soft tofu. They too watch superhero movies on weekends and eat eggs at brunch.

 

Living abroad, at the end of the day, is simple. When life – or the waiter at the dinner table – hands you both chopsticks and a spoon, you can, and you should, forget decorum and just use both.
Leaving WordPress

Leaving WordPress

I’ve done it. I’m self-hosting my blog! This feels like a big step, because Skipping Customs (first called Pasta Republic) is something I started over three years ago and over the three years it’s become a place where I’ve been able to openly (or sometimes not openly) document […]