Shanghai, you’ve done a number on me. You’ve spun me in circles, made me laugh until tears in my eyes, made me sick, and thrown me in new lands I’ve never explored before.
I’m here to say “Hello” to you, Shanghai and “Goodbye” all at the same time. Remembering and digesting all that has passed and what it has meant to me. You are something special that I will never forget.
I still remember the first impressions I had of arriving in your bustling, cold and grey arms early November. Your streets filled with smells that intoxicated my nostrils. Smells mostly familiar, some I have forgotten. And one or two smells that would make me gag because it smelled like flesh. My first impressions of you were not pretty ones. They were vivid, engulfing and confusing.
One of the worst things I saw was walking on the street and seeing a stick protruding from the back of a parked scooter in the side walk in front of the 12 line Zhaojiabang Lu metro stop. From the stick strung a dead tortoise hung sideways. It was one of the most disrespectful ways of treating a dead being I’ve ever seen. Its one thing to hear/read about what and how animals are killed and treated, its another thing to witness it. My return home was filled with tears under my hood with my smog mask to disguise my grimace of pain, blinding pain in my heart. I observed the street sweepers cleaning after those throwing cigarettes carelessly on the ground. I saw below the Bund’s skyscraper cityscape, a sea of trash.
I remember entering the subway for the first time and looking left and looking right, and as far as my eyes can see were people looking down with their necks craned over their mobile devices some with headphones. I’ve never seen anything like it. I never would think to take out my phone and be so absentminded about my surroundings in such a crowded public area. The phones are extensions of people’s arm and the headphones an extension of people’s ears. Those who did not enjoy this deep enchantment of the digital screen were napping or gazing into a distance. Sometimes there are groups of friends chatting. They stood in sharp contrast when looking around. Those who spoke, one could listen to and hear the conversation across the subway car.
I remember the terrible pollution, which I guess, I’m happy now is just a memory. Now during the spring and summer months the pollution is practically nonexistent in Shanghai (so far). On days it would go above 200 AQI and the smog would sting your eyes. My asthma began to act up (which it hasn’t since I was young, or when I fell really, really ill). I got an infection 3x since I’ve lived here for just under 1 year. Fortunately, healthcare isn’t bad here as long as you have insurance. The hospitals nearby have international areas catering to foreigners. Medicine is also inclusive in the coverage and I didn’t have to ever pay anything extra for it. I felt lucky at the same time, it was necessary for my survival. The irony was thinking about how expensive the same medicine I would need be back in the US. The same steroids for asthma would be 45$/ea, but here it didn’t cost anything extra. At least in my sickness, it was not burning a hole in my wallet as it does in the US, I do everything I can to stay healthy for the sheer reason of knowing being sick is expensive.
I remember the moment I walked into this awesome tattoo shop that was so intricate and had a pet cat and lizard inside. I knew that one of my biggest withdrawals from home will be music. I decided to bring my djembe with me and to bring it with me as often as possible. It became a wonderful ice breaker as I met the owner of the tattoo shop and spoke my little broken mandarin at the time, which was far worse because I was still confusing some tones with Cantonese at the time. I taught him a simple rhythm and he played it back to his friend in the shop and me. A small joy and smile came after he finished. I think this is one of the beautiful things about music. It reminds us of the beauty of sound in a child-like wonder. Remove perfection and norms, music is something we all can connect on even without words that we can understand from each other.
I remember the friendly hotel staff at the service apartment I stayed who helped me immensely as I was beginning to learn to navigate the city. I remember that between the coldness of the city, the endless shopping, the loneliness in those eyes I walked passed, I noticed small pockets of light, love and connection. And I cherished those the most. So much so, I realized that’s what I wanted to focus on. I realized in the first few hours of being in the city, how easily people can get lost here. If you have any doubt of who you are, or have any room to let others decide, you will become shaped and lost in the city.
Along with my first impressions of the city came also a rollercoaster of work in a new exciting chaos. What also came was a long-distance relationship and a whole bucket of guilt and unresolved issues with leaving my love for a new strange city. Here I am swimming in a pool of lost souls dancing with my lonely self. I said that I have nothing to lose but myself in the end, and I don’t want to lose at all. I faced each chaotic moment in my heart with a gentle touch and a loud scream. The pain would erupt with tears and then it was empty. Patience was important. Growing was a slow aching process in the beginning, but with each stretch and each leap in my spirit, I realized more about myself than I have ever in a long time. I learned to come to peace with a process that takes time. I learned that understanding my light and my love takes time. I learned to love the imperfect process to come to an imperfect end.
Shanghai you gave me fire in my soul…
With each stroke of my heart was a twitch in my body. I found freedom in letting my body free. I discovered a beautiful community of acromonkeys which gave me a newfound understanding of my body and what is possible. I reignited my friendship with dance, the twirling, complex creature that erupts from my soul. My closest gifts stood by me in the distant city from home. It brought me new love with souls I will never forget. A love that will always give no matter where we are in the world. A love that will never stop.
I’ve learned that travel isn’t for seeing what is outside of ourselves. Travel is for seeing what is inside of ourselves. I will carry my joys, sorrows and confusion from this part of my life more deeply than the pretty things or the things captured in simple photographs. I have never struggled more with my relationship with photography than now. I am not sure how any of it can express the depth of my experience here, and maybe it never will.
Shanghai, I want to say “Thank you” for all the loved ones you have brought me, the challenges and darkness I had to overcome, and bringing me on my way to find my inner light. Cheers to almost one year together and maybe we will see each other again!