Backlog of Travels: Part 4: Christmas in Shanghai

At 5:45am, two days before Christmas 2012, Cliff and I took a taxi to the airport and then a plane to Shanghai. It was bitterly cold there for us sub-tropics dwellers, at 30-odd degrees Fahrenheit, and immediately upon leaving the Shanghai metro we spotted a cleverly located shop selling hats, gloves, and scarves where we bedecked ourselves appropriately with winter wear.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and took off to find People’s Park, a journey which first led us astray to the aptly named Sculpture Park, which was sprinkled liberally with, you guessed it, sculptures of all makes and models. From giant animals to cascading showers of metallic trash, we took in the unexpected art tour and then had a conversation in our by-now-quite-rusty Mandarin with three park guards who had very different opinions about where People’s Park was.

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Once we found it, we were bewildered by the slow-moving, massive crowds of predominantly elderly women. Following the crush into a long, dark tunnel near the entrance of the park, we saw what the fuss was about. The tunnel, and indeed every path radiating out from the entrance of the park, was lined with what appeared to be resumes. They were each numbered, with a photo of the person and a detailed list of their physical attributes, career prospects, personalities, and more. I had found myself in what must have been one of the world’s largest dating pools in history, and it was all being conducted by the old aunties or grandmothers of  the bachelors and bachelorettes. The youngsters being pawned off on one another were in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Very few of them were in physical attendance, as you might imagine, but the resumes were all that was necessary for their elderly relatives to go about their matchmaking business.

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We made our way out of the crowd and found two things of interest: an art museum where we happily spent a couple hours, and then a rundown old fair with a few functioning rides. I could not be persuaded on them as they went too high into the air for my tastes, but Cliff gamely rode one.

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After visiting a bit of Shanghai, we took a train to spend a couple days of our brief trip in Nanjing, a city unfortunately known for the historical massacre of Chinese men, women, and children by Japanese invaders in 1937. This single horrific event has flavored Chinese-Japanese relations ever since, as the Japanese government has never formally apologized or even admitted that the massacre took place. Compare that to the vast reparations and official apologies that Germany has made in the wake of the Holocaust, and what it would have been like for the world if Germany had NOT done so, and you can see why there is so much anger left simmering in Chinese society toward basically Japanese anything.

Last year, during a lesson in which we read a story written from the point of view of a young Japanese child who lived in the US during World War II, a 5th grade student told me that her dad had told her that the Japanese were bad people for what they had done. I navigated the situation as gracefully as I could, but actually reading the short story by Yoshiko Uchida was much more effective than I was – reason #1,000,000,000 why literature is important to developing empathy and understanding. (I should mention that this was the same student who later agreed when another student said that he was “sometimes germaphobic” to a certain ethnic group. My vehement outrage at that statement was perhaps not my best teaching moment, but it got the point across. What children learn from their parents sticks, so PLEASE TEACH TOLERANCE.)

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The Japanese – Chinese feud is not omnipresent in the society, however. An opposing anecdote: I made friends my last couple weeks in Longgang, Shenzhen with a woman who had approached me while shopping to see if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Thrown off guard, I said no, several times, but she was persistent and I’m no good in the face of persistence, and so I agreed to hang out with this perfect stranger. She was very nice, we chatted about not much at all, and I found out she lived in my apartment complex with her Japanese boyfriend, and that she worked at a Japanese company.

The best place in Nanjing to get information on the subject is the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, where Cliff and I went on Christmas day. The Memorial Hall did not mince words/images/etc. in regards to its history, nor should it have. The high estimate of massacre victims tallies around 300,000 – deaths not of soldiers but of unarmed, starved, defenseless citizens. Parts of the memorial hall were staggering in their simplicity and solemn beauty – an example being the gargantuan statue of an emaciated woman at the entrance, slumped with legs splayed, pain etched in her stone face. Other parts were overwhelming in their aggression and insistence – walls of photographs of atrocities, piles of bones.  Some parts were absurd, such as the cheaply mechanical recreation of a Japanese soldier entering a Chinese house.

Following through the museum led us out into a long dark corridor with candles illuminating name upon name of the known victims. After this reflection in the dark, there was light, as the tour ended outside with a long shallow pool of water leading to a giant stone memorial carved with words of peace.

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We also made time to walk the Nanjing City Wall. Having lived in the sweltering sub-tropics for three years, I have often felt starved for seasons, especially autumn. When our taxi driver – who was very kind and told us about all the different places we should try to see – dropped us off, the heaviness of the morning disintegrated and I felt actually frolicsome as I darted up the stone steps leading to the wide city wall. (Darted might be a bit of an exaggeration – my ankle was still swollen and twisted from a hiking incident a couple weeks before.) We were stopped for a couple pictures before we could get very far, but after we’d done our foreign-tourist photo duty, we were left alone on the wall.

Alone.

In a city of over 7 million souls, for the first time since I’d stepped off the plane in Beijing in August 2010: alone.

It was so beautiful up there, with a breathtaking view of the city and the lake. Leaves blanketed the top of the wall in autumn colors which seemed improbable at the end of December: yellows, oranges, browns. We walked a couple miles down the whole length of the wall – we knew we should turn back at some point but it felt so good to keep skipping ahead, to lean over the wall, to take pictures, to have impromptu races and to not be pushed or crowded or anything else that is daily life in a busy city.

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Eventually we ran out of wall and had to literally come down from our high, but that tall, leaf-strewn, expansive, and gloriously empty place that gave me such peace and joy on Christmas day is a forever-memory.

Though we could only experience each place briefly, I thought Shanghai and Nanjing exuded dynamism and vibrancy and would be amazing places to get to know for a longer stretch of time.

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Awake

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This is Birdie – and yes, she does know how cute she is.

It’s not quite ten o’clock here and, a couple hours from bed, I already know I won’t fall asleep tonight. It’s not that I don’t want to. I have a head cold and my new kitten, Birdie, keeps me up at night, every night, since I got her four weeks ago. Of course I want to sleep. But some nights you just know that you won’t.

Often what keeps you awake is the day refusing to fade from your mind. It’s worries, unfounded or otherwise, responsibilities that you haven’t quite seen through to the end, encounters with new people or old that have sparked your imagination and lingered, memories of days or months or years gone by waiting for the dark nighttime hours to be fully explored. Monsters under your bed.

Other times it’s something a little less mentally intrusive and a little…louder, like tonight and I know no matter how tired I am, the thing that’s keeping me up is only going to get worse.

The monster under the bed in this case is the typhoon roaring outside my window, working itself into a frenzy. I know it hasn’t reached its peak yet. In Hong Kong, there are typhoon warning signals that range from 1 to 8, with 1 being the mildest, 3 middling, and usually jumping straight to 8, the most dangerous level, when the situation gets really serious. We’re forecasted for an 8 around midnight tonight. There’s been one other 8 in the past ten years, and that one occurred just this past September (mentioned briefly in this post).

A typhoon in my apartment sounds like a club that’s hired a bad DJ. My room is loud, riotous, but the noise is unpredictable, with no steady rhythm, and it just keeps getting louder and louder. My apartment faces the sea, taking the full brunt of the wind and the rain, but without danger of flying objects (knock on wood) as I’m high on the 26th floor.

Birdie’s not sure what the noise is all about. Then again, she probably doesn’t care, either, since her nights consist not of sleep but of chewing my hands and batting at my nose with her extended claws.

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Scientia: Inaugural Issue Spring/Summer 2012

Sleep or no sleep, I have big news: Scientia, the magazine that was supposed to have been published in December, is finally out and ready for an audience. I’m proud of it (although, at this point, I honestly am quite sick of looking at the articles) and am very glad that it’s a real thing that I can hold in my hands. Thanks to our amazing new designers, it looks gorgeous as well. I wrote the CTY cover article, as well as some other features and reviews. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, but I’m looking forward to building off of this issue to make our second one (slated for a November/December publication) even better than the first.

Other significant news includes the fact that I’ll be in America in two and a half days. I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends, and soaking up northern Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Chicago as hard as I can in just ten days. It’s not enough time and never will be. Lifetimes could be lived in all those places and that wouldn’t be enough time either. But I’m ready for my tonic: the little bit of home that will get me through the next however-long.

Meanwhile, I’ve got packing to do, a kitten to amuse, and a typhoon to wait out all night. It’s going to be a big one.

Countdown: 16 days until takeoff

It’s been hot here long enough that I’ve forgotten the cold. When it first started to warm up in May, during those first 90F + days, I was so grateful for every minute of sun. I gloried in the sweat trickling down my chest, back, forehead, the crooks of my knees and elbows. It felt like some vague and ancient worry was being baked away, along with the ache in my bones from being too cold for too long. The hassle of boots, heavy coats, icy floors and toilet seats was suddenly and seemingly permanently behind me. And the people rejoiced.

But now it’s the third week of an intense heat wave, high humidity, and I’ve been retreating indoors to air conditioning, to my fan and water bottle and trays of ice cubes. I have forgotten, the way I always do, that things I’ve wanted so badly lose their charm once I’ve got them. I’ve forgotten that habits are less interesting than novelties. I have to be a more active participant in gratitude. I have to work harder to remember why this abominable heat made me happy in the first place.

As if the weather has heard my complaints, the wind is up and a brief rainstorm just burst overhead. Thunder brews in the background. The sky is dark and the treetops wave wildly like they’re dancing in a mosh pit. A kid runs by on the sidewalk: red shorts, blue shirt. Barefoot.

Today I returned library books, cashed checks, asked about exchanging currency, and purchased a money belt. I’m importing my favorite comfort CDs (Jewel, of course) into my iTunes so if I need the sounds of home in China, I have them. Two friends are subletting my room for most of August. Every little thing. Wrapping up loose ends. I’ve spent the last week drinking too much and eating too much with people I love, people I haven’t figured out how to miss in the way I’m going to miss them.

I don’t like goodbyes. I’m bad at them. But I don’t want to rob anyone of your goodbyes if goodbyes are important to you. If I said I’d see you again before I left, I may have been lying. If I lied to you, I’m sorry. Come find me. I’ll brave a few goodbyes.

I’m scared. I’m at that point where my sleep is always restless. I read about cultural “do’s and don’ts” before bed and try to go over basic Chinese phrases in my head and imagine scenarios in which this adventure is everything I imagined and more. I dream about love and betrayal, close friends and acquaintances. I dream for six or seven straight hours and then get up feeling tired, like I’ve been running all night.

Big thunder! Pounding rain! My street’s going to flood again.

I’m curious about the weather in Beijing and Shenzhen. Hot and humid seems to be the year-round consensus. We’ll see–weather’s never as easy as that. I like to be surprised.