There are times when it feels the life in China is nothing but an exercise in skirting rules and regulations. Everything is legal here, until you ask someone whether something is illegal – so in most cases, it’s better not to ask. Everything is legal […]
It’s not easy to come home. First, there’s the sixteen hours of the flight back, which is in itself a special kind of torture. There’s the reverse culture shock, this inability to comprehend what it’s like to be among people who speak your native language. […]
The hot pot tasted of spoilt milk and grey, maze-like brain bits bobbled among the mushrooms and the red dates of the soup. Our waitress had told us that there would be no meat in the broth we were ordering, but obviously something had been lost in translation.
So, after two years in China, I did the only thing I could have done – I fished out the brain matter with my chopsticks, laid them in a neat pile to the side, and did my best not to taste the soup as I dipped enoki mushrooms and tofu skin in the boiling broth. Sometimes you do your best ordering off of a Chinese-only menu, but you still end up with chunks of brain in your soup. But that doesn’t stop you from ordering hot pot the next time you crave it.
Something about living in here China that has fascinated me so much is the way life here has made me immune to the absurd, has made me shrug off the illogical, has made me embrace the unreasonable. I both love and detest that situations like this leave me unfazed. And it’s not just the brains. It’s seeing the girl next to me on a plane pull out a pair of plastic gloves and a tupperware of chicken feet and proceed to suck the meat off the foot bones; it’s the daily near-avoidance of death by vehicular manslaughter; it’s the swarms of people, the questionable restaurant hygiene, the brain matter in my soup, but it is also no longer something that terrifies.
Living here is something that never stops being thrilling.
I haven’t liked my writing much recently. I feel that I have so much to write about, so much that I have observed around me, so much that I want to put into words. But when I start putting these ideas on a page, a part of me falters and fails to translate the words floating in my head into words on the computer screen.
But there is no time like the present, because at the present I am home sick with pneumonia, which is giving me the lung capacity of a chain-smoking octogenarian and which has put me on bedrest. It’s awful. I feel like I am under house arrest – a strange, self-imposed house arrest, because I do try to escape, I really do, but even going down three flights in my building to take out the trash makes my chest heave for air. So I am resigned to sitting under a blanket (because Shanghai is cold), being licked by my dog (because she is maniac who is beyond herself that I’m home), and trying to do work in a semi-coherent state (which has proven fruitless).
I was excited to go to Italy. I really was. I had never visited before and we were going for a week of being surrounded by Renaissance masters and eating olives in any size and form. My heart was aching for the bowls of pasta and bottles (bottles!) of wine that I was to devour. In retrospect I may have moved too fast.
By day two, I was delirious with a fever and my left chest was throbbing with a stabbing ache. By day five I hobbled through the Duomos and the Uffizi Gallery. By day seven, I was back in Shanghai, with an x-ray confirming a pneumonia diagnosis, and a prescription for enough antibiotics to sterilize my entire body. By day eight, I was on bedrest.
And I’m still on bedrest. Shanghai is re-awakening after spring festival, but I am stuck at home, stress-baking blueberry muffins and slowly getting back to my blog.
I can never really put my finger on what it means to live in Shanghai. And I mean, live in Shanghai, to get the most out of this city, while still remaining honest to my identity outside of it.
A few friends came through town this last weekend. We met up for dinner on Friday at Jianguo 328, which has the best Shanghainese food in the city (seriously, if you are ever in Shanghai, make time to visit Jianguo 328). We had hong shao rou and crab meat with tofu, and it was wonderful to catch up on life in China after being here almost two and a half years, but thinking on it now, listening to myself talk about my plans for the weekend felt a little like a sickening to-do list of a 20-something in any major large city: spin class, brunch, spin class, Christmas market, a visit to the newly-opened Taco Bell in Shanghai (okay, I stand by that last one). I don’t know if they were judging me, but I was judging myself.
I feel guilty about saying and doing some of these things, because on the surface, it makes me seem like I am living outside of Shanghai. And am I? Is it wrong to start my breakfast with coffee instead of soy milk? Am I an outsider just because I still drink iced drinks in December? And if I am not experiencing China, then what am I even doing in Shanghai?
On the surface, it at time feels like I am not a part of China, but the longer I live here, the harder it becomes to separate life experiences from China experiences. Because, to me, eating pomelos for snacks, listening to my ayi complain about the weather, or going down the wrong way on a one-way street on my scooter are not tourist experiences I travel halfway around the world to experience, they are part of my every day life. Living here is experiencing China, no matter what it may feel like in those moments.
It’s honestly so hard to balance between these two extremes of living in China. On Sunday, J and I went to spin class in Lujiazui (on the Pudong side of the river) right in front of the Oriental Pearl tower. But we were there for the opening of the first Lululemon store in Shanghai, doing a spin class entirely in Chinese (or at least one of them), because the brand was expanding into China. Does that count as a foreign experience? Or are we doing something international? But honestly, does it even matter?
I crave home in Shanghai, and sometimes the familiarity of things that used to make me happy overwhelms me. I love recognizing the things I used to love back home, but the longer I live in Shanghai, the more those recognizable the things I’ve gotten used to in China become.
When I’m no longer a tourist, what is there left to do?