Creative Nonfiction

Shanghai Awakening

4 October 2016

The putrid smell of trash met my nostrils when my mate and I arrived at the entrance of the alleyway in the middle of the night. Both tired from the flight and with no Chinese to speak of, we somehow arrived at our accommodation after a brief panic about where the hostel actually was. Luckily all we had to do was walk down the alleyway with our noisy suitcases clacking over the cobblestones until we saw the one out-of-place lit doorway leading into the cosy hostel. After putting our stuff away, we walked to the nearest Family Mart for smokes. Beat from the flight, we sat outside taking in the humid and polluted Shanghai air while further polluting our lungs. My banana yoghurt drink did not suit the taste of nicotine. I looked around and thought, Damn, I’m in China.

Shanghai was never a travel destination for me. I’d heard stories from friends who travelled there to holiday, or study, or both even while I was still in DC and it simply never quite sparked an interest. This time, however, it was a no-brainer – I could do an intensive course with 10 of my mates while also getting a mini-vacation out of it.

I was lucky to bump into my friend at the airport, ensuring I would have some company when I arrived in the unfamiliar country. Yep, as an American among mostly Aussie students I became an honorary Australian almost instantly. I was unbothered, since my identity is often debated anyway. Mexican, Mongolian, American – oh what the heck, I’m Aussie too. The name gave me comfort as I slathered Vegemite onto my toast in the mornings before class.

We didn’t stay at the hostel, of course. The next day we met the rest of the gang at the actual hotel we were all staying at, near Fudan University. From the 11th floor or so, I had a decent view of the Wujiaochang side of town. The smog was incredible. I wished someone had told me that my coughing would get worse and that I wouldn’t see blue sky for days. Ah, blue skies. Looking into grey, I longed for the deep mesmerising blue that is the Mongolian sky. His text message interrupted the thought. “Did you get to Shanghai okay?” he asked. I hesitated. Anxiety slowly rose the way it does when I feel forced to do something I don’t want to do – in this case, reply. But I did.

We’d never married but it sure felt like a divorce. It’d been months since we split and about a year or two since the relationship was broken, and the more time I spent away from him the more I realised all the ways we had held each other back – or that he held me back, at least. In the larger scheme of things, we weren’t together for long, a thought that comforted me on the bad days. But it was the longest either of us were with anyone – a necessary pain. Be careful who you get attached to. Shit, five years. I told him it might be a good idea if we don’t stay in touch for the rest of my time in Shanghai. He was hurt but it’s not like we stayed in touch back home anyway. I just didn’t see the point.

The jigsaw puzzle of a city shunned me and yet beckoned me. It was exciting at first but melancholy began to catch up to me on about the sixth day. I blamed the heat. I was becoming Meursault, looking for my Arab under the sun. Between classes, Snow Flake beers and cigarette breaks with White friends, my frustration enabled me to open up to the gentle indifference of the world. I couldn’t decide if I was in an anxious dream, if I was a bug or if this was my heaven. I was comfortable and content with my academic opportunities, but petty and nauseatingly self-centred.

Perhaps it was the city or perhaps it was the sun but I did eventually meet my Arab. I didn’t mean to but God has a strange sense of humour. The Arab and I became friends almost too quickly. I didn’t withdraw though, as I have always liked the challenge of quick thinkers. I noted his pitch, tone, accent. With eyes that punctured the undercurrent, he spoke with intensity but then would let out a child-like laughter. He was a curious creature. And he had a way of smoking his cigarettes rather elegantly, with swift motions of the wrist and seemingly nimble fingers. Riding on the back of his scooter, I watched the silent streets zoom by. His dark brown curls tickled my face. He too was a gypsy. We attract who we are, I suppose.

The afternoon back to Melbourne was lonely. Airports always fill me with a mixture of salty tears and guilty joy, plus I understood all too well the crossroads I was presented with. No longer a child, the decision was all mine. But the nagging thought that we forever become responsible for what we tame reminded me of the unfinished business back home: papers to write, bills to pay, a life to re-strategise, reality to confront. Innocence was stolen from me long ago and our youth never belongs to us, but I suspect that the bulk of adulthood is to find our way back to what is essential. “God-willing, mijita,” my abuelita always says. Up in the sky, watching the sun rise, I missed her. I told her nieta that, God-willing, I would find for her what is essential. A still-wintery Melbourne welcomed me back with open arms.


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