Things we learn right away that we cannot do at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai:
- Do not bring in cell phones.
- Do not bring in your passport (or do, but it will be taken and held at the door until you leave).
- Do not bring in your Kindle (lest the copy of 50 Shades of Grey you likely have on it scandalize a consular officer).
- No photos are allowed.
- Visitors are to be escorted on premises at all times.
What did we get ourselves into..
Last Wednesday D and I attended a town hall meeting at the American Consulate, which was held for concerned (and unconcerned) citizens to express their opinions regarding the current election, the state of affairs in the US, and to get to know our consular – because we are far from home, and in some ways, this is the only chance we get to people who represent us back home
Before I visited the consulate, I had thought it to be more of a a country club – a respite for weary Americans who find themselves missing home in China. I never expected the place to make me feel so intimidated And while the building still gave an impression of a stately, old manor, a manicured lawn, and a game of golf not too far away (actually, there were no golf courses nearby, just the Iranian consulate, which in an ironic twist is right next door), the lack of agency and the watchful eye of Big Brother reminded me that I was still in Shanghai.
But in some ways, this was America. This was the densest population of US citizens in Shanghai that I’d seen in months (visits to the Goose Island brew pub notwithstanding). And then came the town hall part: Americans asking dumb questions in a public setting, which is always my favorite part of being a US citizen.
Okay, they weren’t all dumb questions, and many of them were valid to life in Shanghai. Questions like:
- What can the US government do to help parents put their kids into local schools in China? (Very little)
- What does the Consulate think about the new administration? (Officially, no comment)
- Have things in the State Department changed? (No, they have not)
- Can I drive a car in Shanghai with my Wisconsin license? (No, and why would you even think about asking that question?)
- But I’ve driven a car here for the past eight years, are you sure? (Yes.)
Being there, among my fellow citizens made me realize that I do feel like my relationship with my country is still evolving. Since I have left in 2014, I have changed. The US has changed too. I still love my country, my state, the city I grew up in. And while this fake familiarity, this weird, military-guarded compound in the middle of the French Concession in Shanghai may not be the real America, it’s still a piece of home. And when I left the town hall and the consulate building, I felt like I had been somewhere that was a little closer to the States than to Shanghai – and not just because I swiped a small stack of napkins with with Seal of the United States from the refreshments table.