Shanghai feels incredibly familiar, yet is like no other city I’ve ever been in. I haven’t really seen much of yet, but so far it’s a pretty awesome city. After a weekend here, I’m moving around by myself on the subway and taxis. Granted, being really foreign in a city full of foreign people who have gone through the same thing, really helps. People have printed cards with their address written in Chinese, which you hand to the driver and then lean back comfortably in the cab. Subways are very well-marked, and are in both English and Chinese, and by far easier to navigate than the New York City subway. It feels like Shanghai must have been a very difficult place to arrive to (the way most of China probably still is), so much so that people who did it now make it super easy. I remember trying to do that for guests in Bombay, which is still, I’m realizing, a difficult place to arrive to, and in Bombay people speak English. I know exactly two words in Mandarin (or any other Chinese dialect, for that matter): Ni hao (hello), and xie xie (thank you). My ability to do things is honestly very, extremely limited; but I can see that it is absolutely possible to exist comfortably in this city with perhaps only a slightly larger vocabulary. I want to be conversational at least, and can’t wait to start learning.
At first smell, Shanghai smells like pollution and Chinese herbs. The pollution part is simply that – pollution. At first I tried to place it, but it’s not car-exhaust like in Mexico City, and it’s not sewage-body-odor like in Bombay. It’s not even that gross smelling. It just smells dirty. The Chinese herbs part I can’t quite place, but it’s what the water tasted like also (the taste is starting to fade now, I think I’m getting used to it), and people sometimes smell like that. I’m making it a minor goal to identify that smell within the year (fish-oil, perhaps?).
I’ve been intuitively comparing Shanghai a lot to other places (like I just did above with the smell), and I finally stopped to think about it yesterday. I think that with comparing comes the process of recognition and integration of a detail, a situation, or a behavior. If it’s done in a healthy way, comparing can lead to isolating the ways in which the current experience is unique, through recognizing the collection of factors that make it so. And then it becomes easier to make a place your own.
My frame of reference is so broad at this point that I sometimes get surprised at the analogies I make. They seem so random even to me – and I know the whole story of me. It’s funny what I’ve integrated from each place I’ve lived in, and how the experience I was having mattered so much. I think the place I least compare, in general, is Vermont, in part because it’s so unique, but also because the experience I had there – college – was very singular in my life. (Certain aspects of Israel, however, do remind me of Vermont a lot. Case in point of a weird analogy that makes total sense to me.)The point is that there’s always something; the world, after all, is mostly the same, and so are people as they exist in it. What I love, and would love dedicating my life to, is noticing the little-big things that make each place unique, because each place truly is its own. That is why place, and therefore distance, culture, history, identity, community, nationality, etc., still matter. It’s also why, in spite of the realm of the Internet, reality, in all its shades of light and dark, is still so overwhelmingly important.
I remember talking about how I should try not to compare Shanghai with Bombay. It seems funny now, given that my first inclination would not be to compare it to Bombay at all. I’m realizing that, out of all the places I’ve lived in (including VT), India really is the most different, the only one in its category. Perhaps after I go to Africa it won’t be so lonely anymore. Shanghai, however, might also be unique in its category, because it is such a wonderfully modern, hip city, with a lot of spunk, terrible driving (still not as bad as Bombay, and worse than Mexico City, but also less heavy in terms of traffic) and an incredible amount of cultural (and culinary!) diversity, both Chinese and international.
However, perhaps the thing that makes it really unique is that it is a city in Mainland China that is home to thousands of permanent westerners. This is a very new thought I’ve started developing, and there’s much to explore in this direction (especially as I haven’t yet been to Hong Kong, another international city, though not in Mainland China). But I’m excited about exploring what this new kind of identity is all about, how it affects its surroundings, and what relevance it might have to my work.