As some or less than some of you may know, after a grueling 9 months in the real world, and perhaps at the brunt of it all in the sweat soaked streets of Manhattan, I sought respite through a 4 month vacation (that is still largely ongoing) beginning in China, specifically Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. For the first few days after landing in Shanghai I felt really good, maybe a little too good. There was something very unusual but also incomparably comforting about entering into a sea of bodies just like mine that made me feel at home even though I was thousands of miles from it. The first week in Shanghai was a national holiday so everyone was off work and on the streets, slowly ambling along the river that separates the old Shanghai from the new. You couldn’t escape the luxuriously slow rhythm both because people had nothing else to do but enjoy the sun and also because it’s nearly impossible to upset the pace of a million people walking in tandem. It’s hard to explain the “at oneness” I felt there, maybe it was the realization of my unconscious habit to give a tip of acknowledgment or self effacing smile to Chinese couples on the street or to groups of mandarin speaking cliques moving inseparably through crowds of brown and blonde hair, or maybe it was looking around and seeing every phenotypic variation of myself without the need for that same reminder of solidarity. The fact that I pored over thousands and thousands of faces in what felt like complete disguise -no one had a reason to look or not look at me- and yet I wasn’t incognito, I just was without any need for explanation or justification. I was just another face in an ocean of black hair and brown eyes, which surprisingly made me feel even more welcome.
But eventually this romantic impression left me for a much less satisfying one. It wasn’t long after these first few days in Shanghai that I became increasingly annoyed with the different cultural norms that showed themselves at every available opportunity. Perhaps it was the brazen lady who shoved her way to the front of a dense mass of people waiting altogether civilly for their turn to get on the subway, or the middle aged man in a tank top barely big enough to cover his pouting belly who hocked a wad of semi opaque loogie right next to my foot, or the woman squatting at the top of a staircase refilling used and thrown out water bottles to resell downstairs while I looked on in horror, speechlessly shoveling boazi into my jaw dropped mouth. Yes, it must have been one or all or a lot more of these moments that made me crane my neck in nostalgic comradeship when overhearing a tourist say “general Ts-oh’s chicken please” or “no American toilet? Never mind then”
But then there were enchanted moments like when Jenny, the restaurants manager at the Grand Hyatt where I was neither a guest nor patron, walked me down deep into the mall to hand deliver me to a box of tampons that was so fortuitously the literal only box that it seemed as if it’d been hand selected and reserved for me, or UFC who drove us two hours to and from a sparsely populated beach framed by two heaps of seemingly floating mountain that looked straight out of the movie Avatar, or distant relatives I’ve only ever met once and ten years ago who treated me like a combination of their best friend and master.
Which leads me to a slew of somewhat obvious and less obvious conclusions. I’ve determined the feeling, maybe even rush I got when I first arrived in China is similar to waking up on a Saturday morning, strapping on my maize and blue and making my way to the Big House for a fall afternoon football game–everyone’s fumbling through the streets as obnoxiously as you, people are hanging off wooden porch beams screaming because everyone else is and no one cares cuz we’re all in this together. That sense of unity is forgiving and justifying, you don’t have to have a reason why you’re laying face down in someone’s lawn, you’re part of a greater shared experience that exempts you from judgement or explanation.
Yet the fact remains that sometimes I think people in China do gross and/or rude and/or strange things, but that’s ok because I’ve realized (and have been realizing through different experiences abroad) that I’m much more than I’d like to admit a spoiled, often ignorant, and entitled American. And as much as I’d like to rage with people wearing the same jersey as mine, I wasn’t brought up with the same school spirit. While I uncompromisingly appreciate, protect, and am proud of my ethnicity & background (and I can’t emphasize this enough), I’m still more culturally American than I am anything else–I’m used to sitting on a toilet that stands off the ground when I have to potty, to people who are polite even if just for formality sake, and to whining and complaining when things aren’t as entirely convenient as I think they should be. I guess for better or for worse that’s what makes me feel at home, even if we’re not all Chinese.
Our first day in Shanghai looked something like this: