On July 18 I’ll make the journey south to Changning, Yunnan province to officially start my new life as an English teacher in rural China. First, I decided to reestablish my bearings in Shanghai, the city where I spent the majority of my 20th year and along with Sherman, CT and New Orleans, one of the few places in the world I’ve ever called home.
International travelers enter Shanghai through Pudong airport. Like many cities in China, Shanghai’s airport is a solid hour plus from the city. The taxi ride gives arrivals a chance to acclimate to China after the 14-hour plane ride from the eastern US. I hop in the back seat, tell the driver the address and then sit quietly, pondering how to begin my first real live conversation in China in over two years. It doesn’t happen for about 45 minutes, when I finally muse “This traffic isn’t that bad.” We talk about the traffic for a few seconds before segueing into the obligatory, “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in Shanghai?” “How old are you?” back and forth. This is a great way to kick off my reintroduction to Chinese, because I had this conversation every day during my year abroad. We get to the hotel before anything beyond routine small talk ensues. I promptly go to sleep.
I walk outside to find a city mired in oppressive heat. Unlike in New Orleans, though, where the summertime essentially holds the city hostage for 2-3 months, Shanghai, a city of 20 million+ feels unaffected. The city is as bustling as ever. Once I come to grips with the heat, I am able make some observations about the state of Shanghai, two years hence. It feels like I draw fewer stares than I did last time I was here. Perhaps I’m not as strikingly attractive as I was two years ago, but that’s unlikely. More and more foreigners are coming to Shanghai, and the exotic curiosity of the white man is disappearing. However, even in Shanghai, Mainland China’s most cosmopolitan city, Westerns (especially non-tourists) are still a negligible minority. When I do pass another foreigner on the street, I often struggle with whether or not to acknowledge our novel existence with a head nod or some other gesture that says, “I feel you.” Second, my Chinese is rusty. I frantically search my dictionary for nearly every sign I see, like a child trying to soak up every bit of new language I am exposed to. I experience my first Mandarin misfortune when an older female cashier tries to give me a heads up:
“Your fly is down,” she says.
“Oh, good,” I nod and laugh, feigning comprehension as I turn to leave.
“Your fly is down!” she pleads before I open the door.
I turn and nod and give a thumbs up, to which she responds by repeating, “YOUR FLY IS DOWN!” and gesturing forcefully to the source of her ire. I handle business, internalize the phrase for future reference (ni da lalian dakai de) and continue on.
It’s nice to be in Shanghai again. I do feel a connection to the city, especially in my old neighborhood Hongkou. Even as mainland China’s rapidly expanding capitalist experiment, Shanghai maintains the same unique dynamic it had when I left: old and new, traditional and foreign juxtaposed so tightly that Chanel and Gucci can share a block with closet sized tailor shops that prefer to make their products on the spot, sewing machine and all. Even in Shanghai, BMWs still have to fight with rickshaws for the road, although neither pays much mind to stop signs or pedestrians. There is fabulous contrast everywhere you turn.
At night I meet up with my old friend Cao Long. Cao Long is from Anhui, west of Shanghai. I met him two years ago at a sushi shop in Chifeng Lu subway station, where he worked. I used to go to his shop three or four times a week. They even named a roll after me (the Tai Le juan, Taylor Roll) and put it on the menu. It’s pretty edible. Cao Long speaks about five words of English, one of which, curiously, is “elephant.” Obviously our conversation is rather constricted. We have the “What are you up to?” conversation and talk about sushi and drinking beer. We have a shared interest in these two subjects. Even though the conversation doesn’t get super deep, we enjoy each other’s uncommon company. I am probably Cao Long’s only foreign friend and he is one of my few good Chinese friends. We come from completely different backgrounds. We learn a lot from each other. I am excited for the time, two years from now when I can come back to Shanghai and speak freely with Cao Long and others, my expression of thought unrestricted by vocabulary.
Especially with my limited language, it’s near impossible to shake the label of foreigner in China. The American ideal of citizenship and nationalism separate from ethnic background is essentially a foreign concept here. In China, foreignness is evident at a glance. So, my goal is to get as close to “unforeign” as I can in the next two years. I can’t change my face or my hair color, but I’m looking to be immersed in China. After two years I want to be able to speak, think, and feel Chinese. I’ll chart my progress here.