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Return To China

October 8, 2017

Dear Aunt Pat,

I was offline for twenty-four hours, which was a gift; a certain, quiet thrill; an act of faith.  I boarded a plane in Queens for a journey over the north of the earth hoping to eventually end up in Hope’s company at a bar near her work in the Jing’an district of Shanghai.  I had a transfer in Beijing where they took my duty free purchase and I almost left my passport. 

It was in the cab finally in Shanghai, racing down the highways with the windows opened after showing the cabbie my destination in a script that is utterly cryptic to me, that the industrial smell hit my nose and the small pang of pollution touched the back of my throat, and I realized with a sudden, deep smile that I was back in China.

It worked.  After a bit of banter and a generous tip to the driver, gratefully received, I rounded a corner with all my luggage into a small courtyard bar and found Hope with friends.  We embraced and toasted negronis and then she walked me back through newly mysterious streets, my luggage clattering on the cobblestone sidewalk, down the short lane and up the dark wooden stairs to her temporary, high-windowed apartment in Shanghai.

Along with the delight of unexpected familiarity, being back in a land I had no vision of returning to a year ago, there was also the complementing delight of being somewhere utterly new.  Especially in the first few days, though it continues two weeks later, walking a single block feels like being a genuine explorer, stepping curiously and courageously into the unknown.  I would venture forth, feeling like I was really pushing the bounds for the day, until realizing how short the return trip home was.  In those first days, I took fewer pictures, but remember the shallow petite storefronts that seemed to have no door, just a missing wall revealing someone’s steaming kitchen; a woman crouched on a bucket cleaning off a chicken bone looking keenly around her; men lounging in lush chairs or lawn chairs as the afternoon heat passed slowly indoors and out and the objects in their shops remained static; a back alley soup establishment with a crowded table out front; an unusual block of low buildings with its first floor storefronts boarded or cemented or cinderblocked into permanent closure, the windows above open and uncertainly vacant. 

At least in the case of China for me, I did not quite know what I had seen or experienced the first time around until I saw it again and recognized it.  The most immediately memorable icon has been what at least one guidebook simply refers to as Chinese architecture, typified by large sets of residential towers, exactly the same in their group, regularly looming over any horizon near or far.  There is something about their incessance that was familiar, but also something familiar in their particular aesthetic. They seem to always claim a pastel tone that has been browbeaten by the soot of the city.  There is something also lego block-ish about them, I think due to the repetition of a visible air-conditioner for every unit and the commonplace poles jutting out from each terrace for drying laundry.  When I wonder where the additional billion people of China live (a billion more than the US), I think, “Ah, here.”  When Hope and I took the train to Hangzhou in my first week there were also notable stretches of these buildings in what appeared to be the outskirts of the city. 

The other aesthetic piece that seems to be undeniably Chinese is the beautiful gray alleyways speckled throughout this modern metropolis.  There may be a shade of red brick along one side; and the accents of color from hanging laundry, plastic buckets or dustily twinkling bikes always seem to catch the daylight just right.  In those alleyways, what feel like sudden windows into a quieter and calmer China, suddenly everything is pedestrian size, arched in clotheslines, puttering with watchful residents and soft, shadowed doorways.  As I searched for our new apartment a week after my arrival (found on AirBnb, technically illicit in China), I passed more than one lane and took photos of a few, always feeling a bit invasive for doing so.  When I found our street number, I was suddenly walking down and through one, to the very end, hanging a left deep within the city block, stepping through someone’s shared kitchen and up well-worn wooden stairs.  I found the keybox and let myself into our new one-room abode where Hope will continue to stay several months after I am back in New York. 

And so it feels like we’re getting a little step into an older China, one with a bit more texture and humanity.  It is impossible for us to blend in as we walk the many thresholds past our neighbors each day who seem to hold varying degrees of welcome and skepticism towards us.  From within each alley, the light is as beautiful as I hoped it might be when gazing down them from the street.

Though Shanghai is also rightfully known for its soaring skyscrapers, a modern skyline that continues to grow by the day, it’s these humbler architectural components that give me the delight of feeling far from home.  And it is a wonder to be sharing it with Hope.

Lots of love to you and Bill,

Tim

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