Thank you, Shanghai, for everything.

Posted by Bao on Monday, January 9th, 2006

Yesterday we went out to Tong Li, a small village by the river about one hour from Shanghai. On the way there we passed more construction, huge billboard signs, and a lake so large and so grey that it erased the horizon line on our right side. Tong Li is a popular tourist spot (mostly for Chinese tourists), its houses and citizens reflected in the mirror-like river - at first glance it seems nothing like Shanghai, but look closer and see construction workers building amidst rubble and people hustling products and the place starts looking familiar.

We have some great coffee, meet some people and chat, wander around a beautiful garden and pond framed by polished lacquer wood buildings built in that old Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon signifying style. I can’t front, the place is dope, and if I had hella money and any land at all, I would want to live in a crib like that, daydreaming of bouncing off the carved wood walls, running on top of bamboo and saving the world with my indomitable kung fu.

At night, while Dom and Joel work on editing a short clip for the website and Carrie starts sorting through the paper mountain of receipts we’ve accumulated during our time here, I wonder if I should stay in the room, read myself to sleep. But a huge part of me screams to myself, YOU’RE IN SHANGHAI! YOU LEAVE FOR PARIS IN TWO DAYS! HOW CAN YOU JUST STAY IN YOUR HOTEL ROOM?! Though over the last few days I’ve been taking more and more walks by myself, the broke pragmatic hoodlum in me won’t let me sit in my comfy Puma sweatpants and watch Chinese basketball on the television, my broke non-world traveling upbringing tells me I gotta enjoy this opportunity while I can.

I decide to take another long, long walk by myself through the streets of Shanghai. My Asian face and my non-Mandarin/Shanghainese speaking tongue tells everyone I come into contact with that I must be from Hong Kong or Japan, two places I’ve never even been. Later, when Kelly tells a waitress that I’m Vietnamese, she replies that Viet Nam is not a country she’s ever heard of, and looks at me suspiciously, as if I was some wayward Chinese boy hanging out with Westerners and pretending he doesn’t speak Chinese because he thinks he’s better than anyone else.

No matter. When I’m alone and walking quietly by myself here in Shanghai, I don’t think much about where I’m from, don’t want to get hung up on what people think and wonder about me. It’s enough to drink in the smells, signifying Viet Nam and Frogtown and Chinatown in my nose. It’s enough to slowly realize that, though I still can’t speak or understand much Chinese at all, the music and the life of the language is becoming familiar, even comforting, to my ears. Rakim once rapped, “it’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at.” Well even though I promised I wouldn’t think about the former and fear to think about the latter, here it is: I’m a Phillips ghetto nerd in Shanghai, one more quiet wanderer in a city of 18 million, not believing the outrageous fortune I have to be here, to be tolerated and endured even as my tongue can’t speak the language and the money from this project pillows me from whatever hard knocks that Shanghai life would throw at me.

At a dark street corner, a man and a woman operate a wonton and noodles cart, bustling with customers who bark their orders and disappear into the night only to reappear just as their food is ready for them, as if this is a dance they are all used to. I clumsily order a bowl of wontons by pointing, give the man my patented inarticulate look when he speaks to me in rapidfire Shanghainese. A young man who is quietly waiting for his noodles smiles softly and tells me he speaks a little English, and helps me order, then asks if I’m Japanese. “No,” I say, “I’m Vietnamese. From the U.S.”

He nods his head slowly, his eyes considering me, then asks, “you’re a traveler, then?”
“Yes,” I say out loud, and in my head I continue, “yes, a traveler, something like that.”

He smiles, and gazes at the white mass of tangled udon noodles in the crinkled bag on the cart, just a few fingers away from where the man busily wraps wontons as if his hands were an automated dumpling making factory and the woman bubbles MSG-laden broth over the dance of wild flickering flames. “Good choice,” the stranger says, “this place has very good noodles. I like them very much.”

For a few moments we stand in silence as a multitude of Shanghai citizens hustle and maneuver around us, and we quietly become part of the ebb and tide of humanity, swept up and carried whether we like it or not, a torrent of black hair and yellow brown skin flowing like a midnight river through the city. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say, we are the blood in this city’s neon veins, we nourish it and pollute it, fill it and drain it, encumber it and keep it alive.

Then the stranger’s food is ready, he grabs the bag and gets ready to go, and why shouldn’t he, it’s only fair, he was here first. He looks at me and grins, runs across the street, his left hand holding his food package, right arm thrown crookedly into the air, and says to me, “you have safe journeys, goodbye.” “You, too,” I say, but later I realize that I didn’t say it loud enough for him to hear, my inarticulate farewell drowned out byt honking taxis, the hiss of a cooking fire and the banter of friends and lovers as they walk down the streets that, one way or another, will always be theirs.

Thank you, Shanghai, for everything. Safe travels, and good luck in all things. I miss you already.

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