It was only when I departed Shanghai for the last time that I realized how truly otherworldly a manifestation of human life the city is. What follows is the story of my departure.
Her smile was at once tentative and wild. “Lina,” she said. “I am Lina.”
“This way.” She pointed northward. “Were you waiting long?”
I looked back at the sea of cycle rickshaw drivers that had swarmed around me in the fifteen minutes prior, each one gesturing at the one next to him as I turned away–an analytical curiosity, as clinical as it was intrusive. The sky was blue, clear and open, although the extra light served primarily to highlight how little of Shanghai’s uniform dinginess comes from the contaminant layer that blocks out the sun even on days the weather man says should be cloud-free.
“No,” I replied, the two of us having turned a corner in the time it took me to think through my response. “Just a few minutes.”
Another pit stop. “I need to get some water.” Lina excused herself and walked through the wall of cigarettes and other tobacco products that former an archway in front of the nameless the convenience store. The boy behind the counter–I absolved myself of moral responsibility by believing his parents were in the back somewhere, waiting to take over for him when they got done fetching extra stock–completed her transaction without so much as looking at in her direction. It was as close as cashiering can be to an art form: his fingers and hands moved over the register keys and then through the stacks of bills from which he drew Lina’s change like the people who always manage to run into others they need to meet without any effort. Although I was exactly as much an anomaly to him as he was to me, our only eye contact occurred when my awestruck stare crossed his. The primary distinction to be made between us is also our greatest commonality: he had almost certainly never seen someone like me–and for most of the eight months preceding that moment, I hadn’t either.
As my bus sped away from Jing’an Temple later that evening, veering first onto the Yan’an and then the Beihai Elevated Roads, I was panicking: in the span of three hours, I had traveled literally as far away as I’d been from the place I lived and still been within Shanghai’s city limits, given an English lesson I didn’t plan to a young woman I’d never met before, packed a small portion of what I owned–everything I cared about–into three small bags, ordered in lunch for the first time in weeks and left my apartment locked with my keys inside. My body was leaving Shanghai; my brain kept telling itself I wasn’t going to go through with it. My heart was someone in-between, straddling the Texan capital it never truly departed, all the places between there and China it had left pieces of itself and plotting coordinates for the next phase of the bread crumb trail that always seemed to vanish before anyone could make use of it. The bus twisted through the bamboo-thick skyscrapers strewn around it like pins that fell onto a cushion exactly parallel to one another–perfectly, but in the absence of a pair of ears awake enough to catch the drop.
Lina and I trekked on, this time westward, toward the home she promised me was just past every street we traversed. Da hua san, I read, the neon sign as dull as a forgotten junkyard school bus. Big Flower Three. The English came much later–at the time, I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of seeing something in Chinese and understanding the meaning behind it without needing to translate.
Lina seemed unaffected by the strange brightness that washed over everything. She was equally accepting of my usually-awkward tendency to pant heavily and walk quickly instead of stroll and chit-chat–in fact, she was beating me at my own game.
We turned left and walked around a steel gate that almost completely blocked out through traffic. The guard inside the booth neither asked us for identification nor offered to open sesame for us: he was in the middle of a very important nap. By the time we were inside the proper, we’d made a U-turn, traveling in exactly the opposite direction as we’d been moving moments before. I would literally never have been able to find my own way there had Lina not met me: her building was as distinguishable from the dozens of buildings leading up to and following it as M&M’s of any single color are from one another. Still, she managed to find it without a seeming glance.
We walked up several flights of stairs, five to be exact. When the woman opened the door, a child significantly younger than Lina tagging along behind her as she cleaned, I felt as certain she was the family’s ayi as she was its matriarch. The contrasts were alarming: the interior of the house–I wouldn’t call this place an “apartment”–was huge to the point of being vacuous, the amount and sheen of the gold that seemed to adorn the furniture strewn everywhere precisely as bizarre a fit for the three people standing in front of me as the likelihood that anybody who lived in such an apparent dump of a building had enough nice things to convince me they could afford tp hire a nanny. Neither of them said a word, anyway.
I felt guilty as Lina’s lesson passed: reading from a copy of Aesop’s Fables I’d stolen from Kenneth as I rushed out the door to meet her, I assigned her specific fables and sets of questions about them with the idea that I would be able to ignore all of her output but still assess it accurately. As she droned on, I daydreamed of precisely the mechanism I would follow to complete all the pre-evacuation procedures I needed to do before arriving at the airport far enough in advance of my flight to be permitted past security.
As the bus passed over Lupu Bridge, the sun–for once it was out–began to set over Shanghai, which seemed never-ending and alien in its extent. By the time I really paused and took inventory of what was spilling out in front of me, the World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower looked like a pair of long needles descending onto a vinyl record with grooves as deep as ocean trenches. A poetic denouement–certainly a denouement, anyway–although I couldn’t help but feel like one of the chumps in Soylent Green who accepted death and a pretty sunset in exchange for forfeiting the opportunity to transcend the nightmare he lived in.
Sometime before arriving at Pudong Airport, I came to realize that I never truly hated Shanghai, although I often blew off steam to that effect. I hated the fact that Shanghai was a mirror: every bone I had to the pick with the city either started or ended with me, whether it was the polluted air and water and how they reminded me that I’m acne prone in all but the cleanest conditions or my pre-arrival bias against rain and cold weather and how the Yangtze Delta winter and spring had gone on doing what they’d been doing since long before I knew that China’s financial capital was named for the fact that it rose “above the sea.”
The last remnants of daylight fanned out in all directions from the ever-shrinking skyline, somewhere between lasers and tentacles in their rigidity. I couldn’t tell what they meant–if you’d asked me to speculate even an hour earlier, as I wrapped up my eight-month marathon tour of the Middle Kingdom, I would have dismissed them entirely. It posed a profound final question: is this beautiful because it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it, or because you’ll probably never see it again?