The train is pulling slowly out of the station and moving into the great interior of the vast middle kingdom, which is zhongguo. It moves slowly, a snake in the firelight of the millions of LEDs shining across the square. This is our entry to Shanghai. NOt on the train. Above it. The eleventh floor of the Zhabei Holiday Inn Express.
The massive building works, covered in their characteristic greens and wildly ordered scaffolding are rising out of what seems to be a massively early darkness for April. It’s 18:30. A huge electrical storm is brewing.
The smog was not yet what it would be, being only April 2015.
Shanghai has a busy, otherworldly look to it in all the videos one can find online. It litteraly buzzes and shimmers with intensity, a growing metropolis of the most 21st century kind. But in person it is nothing of the sort, except for perhaps around East Nanjing road station. The buzz dimmishes to a dull roar, with the wide roads of Minhang quiet and nearly empty at nighttime. The place that we live is actually one of the quietest that I have experienced in a long time, given my history of the Seoul Metro Area and London. It’s calm there, and although the area we live in has high rise apartment buildings crammed in next to one another, it is nothing like the housing projects of the states. The new line 12 opened in December, and if you were to simply take it out there and walk out from the airport itself, you might mistake it for Glasgow.
Yet the LEDs of the buildings, swimming by in the aftermath of a ten or twelve hour shift, burn my retinas palpably. When did I ever work this hard? I’m not sure. I’m pullng 45-50 hour weeks, week in and week out. That doesn’t count the travel to or from work, which is often significant. I have to walk out my door at exactly 7:24 AM or I will not be able to get here in time for a 9 o’clock class. When the time outside of work comes, there isn’t very much to do.
Everything seems to be in a mall here, and I can’t stand malls. I never go to them in the US, and I tried to avoid them mostly in the UK (Although one of my favourite breweries, one which feels a lot like Colorado, is inside the largest mall in Western Europe in Stratford). I wish I had the pay grade that I did in the Brewdog Bar in London…this is a ‘manager’ position which runs me ragged and pays less than I got at my job straight out of college. Of course, the advantage is that my standard of living is lower than before, and my dreams likewise clipped at the wings in terms of material possessions and big houses and cars and kitchens. Shrunk down to manageable, yellow teapot size.
And yet, the dreams are at once wider and more expansive than ever. At 28, I am still not settled. I am married. I am highly educated. I graduated from a top UK university only last year. I can still read and comprehend four major world languages, and marginally get by in two more recently-acquired ones. Yet I do not dream of a house. Not of a cul-de-sac. I dream of a horizon that goes on forever.
My dreams are in a paradox. At once, clipped and stretched. It’s a strange place to be. The wide, quiet places of the Earth are calling to me bodily at this very moment. The quiet of Minhang is nothing at all compared to the breathing, moving Quiet that picks you up in her hands in Patagonia, turning you over and over to see what exactly you are made of. A child with a new favourite shell from the beach. The wind is the only thing that you can hear. The stars are the brightest.
My coworker told me this week that she has never seen a cow.
I laughed, uncharitably. I laughed for far too long. I laughed until she started to look hurt, and then I felt terrible. But still. It is a crazy thing to experience, having someone tell you that they have never seen a cow in their entire life. I could be forgiven for it, given that the high school I graduated from is surrounded by the beasts. I would watch them during lessons that dragged on too long, especially at this time of the year. It was comforting to watch them, licking the randomly discarded farm equipment in pure unadulterated joy and stupifaction. In Chile, cows were the harbingers of the landscape that is not so very different from the one of my birth. In England, cows wander on the lawns of Cambridge’s King’s College, for fuck’s sake.
Another coworker asked me an honest question recently. How do you see the stars?
I didn’t laugh at that one. I didn’t understand what she was even asking, at first. She asked me three times. She was literally asking me, how does one look at the stars? What do they look like?
I…I have been lucky to see the stars on many occasions in my lifetime. The wide swath of the sky covered by what appears at first to be a cloud, but is actually the MIlky Way, the galaxy itself, spinning with us in it and a billion stars. I’ve seen the stars in the Atacama Desert, bright and insistent. In the campo between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, many mornings and nights. In the perpetual twilight of Patagonia in winter, the stars were often inlaid with golden pink light around them. The Southern Cross. In this empty northern hemisphere, I’ve seen them in the darkness above the Grand Canyon. In the hazy springtime, just barely, of Tuscany. Above the castle at Montalcino, where the stars themselves seemed to be drunk on Barolo that I had sampled with my classmates. They were winking at us flirtaciously. I’ve seen the stars come out of a crystalline blue sky on Independence Pass in Colorado. At 12,000 feet, a newly-engaged woman.
And…making her question even more bizarre…I’ve seen the stars here in Shanghai.
I wonder if the LEDs are put in place to make up for the lack of stellar light here. Of course, there is an observatory (functional? How?) just a block away from where I work, bathed in the light of LEDs and lasers in Xujiahui’s busy streets.
I wonder if I misinterpreted the question, or if it is just that she hasn’t looked up from her phone when outside in years.
My life in Shanghai isn’t bad, but I have been more miserable here than in some places. My boss asked me the other day why I am not really considering renewing my contract for the next year. He just said, “China gettin’ to you?”
It’s not. It’s not really. I think that a major reason why it’s not the place for me is that it is incredibly boring for me here. I want to be outside hiking and doing things. The AQI doesn’t exactly permit that when it hovers around 180 PPM and makes my throat taste of metal every day. I want to be experiencing China and weirdness and cultural issues and I just simply don’t here. Other than people telling me that they have never seen cows or possibly not understanding what stars look like.
It’s nowhere near as difficult in some ways as Korea. The cultural differences are largely exaggerated in my opinion. It’s just not that hard to adjust to life here and once you do, it’s easy to just be trapped in goddamned malls and do nothing much except work your arse off.
Now that it’s winter, the only things to do are basically go to the pub and go to the pub. We have been to the museums, and they are fine. My ennui is probably due to being spoiled rotten by London. London truly has a huge amount going on. Shanghai seems to simply have a huge amount of people going about their lives in a mostly orderly fashion. It’s fine. It’s just not my place. If I could love spending money, it would be my place. But I’m not into manicures or expensive brands. I don’t have a smartphone. I don’t want one.
I will escape. I often do. Today, seven years ago, I woke up and got on a plane to move abroad for the first time. Tomorrow, I will email some farms in a far-flung area of the world to see if we might move there and learn.
Shanghai is impermanent.
When 2014 became 2015, we were in London. When 2013 became 2014, we were in London at Liverpool Street. When 2012 became 2013, we were in Seoul. And in 2011, I was in Colorado. Shanghai’s New Years was somehow just as subdued as in my hometown of a puny 20,000 people. Somehow, 25 million in perhaps the biggest city on Earth didn’t party hard to bring in 2016.
All the big events around the city were cancelled due to the deadly crush at the Bund last year. No light show. No fireworks shows. No gathering on E. Nanking Road. Universities also cancelled their parties. Shanghai joined the surprisingly thick ranks of major world cities which cancelled New Years, including Bruxelles and Munich. Paris toned it down somewhat in the face of continued threats.
I got off work at 19:45 and walked up to get the 732 down to Minhang, our home in Shanghai. Xujiahui was busy, and there were police cars stationed in front of the Uniqlo store and the plaza. The street kitties were already out in force, perhaps sensing that people would be giving them extra treats tonight.
A low rumble and the characteristic ear-rippingly high pitched horn of a truck rolled over the crowd at the bus stop, and a major military truck went zooming by. Empty. Apparently it had dropped off it’s contingent already. This was the only major security I saw all night.
Nearly 20 minutes later the damn bus finally showed up. It took a further 35 minutes to get down to my husband’s school. 9pm by the time we started waiting for the second bus.
On the 764 we flew past industrial supply shops in their thousands. Huge amounts of the construction material that China uses to make this city into its 21st century form must come through those stalls. A few more twists and turns, and poof! Writing in Hangul appeared on the buildings and we were in Koreatown.
Our festivities consisted of Korean barbecue on the third floor of a building, with one free meat won on the lucky wheel. Thin, marinated beef slices. With a little beer and soju, too.
Then, to a bar that is simply called Carlsberg. To have a Carlsberg, of course.
Carlsberg bar is a real bar. It kind of feels like you are in the 1990s, back when people could smoke indoors and you wake up after a night out with a full pack of second hand in your lungs. Remarkably similar to any day waking up with China Lung in Shanghai during the winter, which usually involves coughing and hacking for about ten minutes upon getting up to use the toilet.
In Carlsberg, there are stickers with old logos of US products all over the walls. It makes you feel a little a home, but also like it couldn’t possibly be home. Someone was sick in the sink of the ladies’ toilet early on. I was actually nostalgic about the colour of the puke…Korean Kimchi Pink. Hadn’t seen that in a long while
We wanted a tequila for ringing in the new year, but our friend C had gotten a little too loose lipped about his intentions to walk out with a glass pitcher (empty, but a prize nonetheless). The pitcher was exactly the kind that I used to fill with sugary ‘jugo’ for the table noon and night in Patagonia.
The bartender totally spoke English. He moved the pitcher subtly out of reach and served us sweet Vermouth on the rocks instead of tequila. A sly move, and one that allows everyone to save face. He still served us. C was definitely in a state where he swore up and down it was actually Jose Cuervo. Maybe there was a splash for taste, but I doubt it. I will have to remember that trick for when I go back to bartending in the future.
Then it was 00:00 on my Nokia Brick.
“Happy New Year!!”
We clinked the glasses of watered down Vermouth and about halfway through drinking mine I realised that our voices had echoed weirdly in the bar. It was oddly quiet. No countdown. No cheer. Nothing to indicate the new year on tv. No fireworks, despite fireworks being a big part of our time in Shanghai so far.
It seemed for those in that Korean bar in Shanghai, it was just another hard drinking Thursday. Hardly anyone seemed to notice as 2015 faded away and became the past, another country.