Four days ago, I was quite dissatisfied with Shanghai and with living abroad in general.
I wanted to go home to Canada, to go live in the forest and bake bread and raise goats and make really awesome goat cheese and to say, quite pleasantly, fuck it to this whole expat/travel lifestyle. I was fried. I’d had enough of being an outsider far from my family, far from my own language and far from my own past. I wanted to remember who I was again. I wanted to feel like I was fully inhabiting my own skin, not just trying on a million others for size.
I’ve been doing this (living/travelling abroad) for nearly 17 years now so it’s not something I just jumped into and found to be not up to hyped expectations. I’ve been in Shanghai for over two years now as well. Again, no newbie culture shock to be found there. I mean, it’s not even China that was shocking me. Objectively, I quite like the place, heavily censored internet, heavy metal rice and toxic water excepted. It’s a really easy place to live, to be perfectly honest.
I have a good job with remarkably affable students who make me guffaw with snorty laughter at regular intervals. I live in a lovely flat in a building with non-abusive neighbours. I have unlimited access to really good cilantro and hand-pulled noodles. It’s a good life, objectively.
Unfortunately, I’m not really an objective person. I’m crap at it. I can see the objective aspects quite clearly but that’s as good as it gets. The objectivity is skin deep, penetrating about as deeply as a finger poke in the ear (see above). I could be surrounded by stacks of gold bullion (all mine!), adoring fans, an infinity pool with a Balinese view, and ten weeks of paid holiday per year and I’d still have a small nervous breakdown every Saturday morning like clock work, expressing my deep dissatisfaction with the way I’ve sculpted my life.
I mean, I don’t want gold bullion! It’s meaningless! And the fans are depriving me of my calming solitude whilst affording me no real companionship. And an infinity pool? Nice, but I miss trees and the ocean and I don’t want to be yet another pampered foreigner in a delusional paradise (at least, not all the time). And the paid holidays? Actually, those can stay. I like paid holidays.
The thing is, unfortunately, things can be perfectly marvellous in an objective way but if they aren’t what the inside voice is craving, then, well, they’re just wrong. And things have been quite frequently wrong here for the past two years. And before that, for 6 years in Turkey, on and off wrong (but with great, unbridled optimism!), and before that… pretty much more of the same. I’ve been on the move since 1994 trying to find that elusive combination of feeling like I belong, mixed with a lovely sense of surprise, challenge and mystery.
And what could be wrong with living in shiny, modern, international Shanghai, really?
There’s a very strong brunch-eating, bar-going, stuff-doing, quite affluent expat bubble here that I can’t quite penetrate because I’m a bit out of the loop and don’t really like bar-hopping or brunch-eating with people I don’t really relate to. And I will admit that this city has been one of the hardest I’ve ever lived in, socially. I just don’t feel it. Too much business, too much money, too many suits. People don’t come here for art or poetry or spirited debates in dark cafes. It’s a very Type-A kind of city and I’m a Type QZX kinda gal. I feel like a lonely misfit a lot of the time.
At work, I have no colleagues in my program. I work in a wholly Chinese campus that’s rather deserted most of the time, in a very hectic, dusty, noisy, urban Chinese neighbourhood in North Shanghai. I teach 18-20 year olds, so they are my main contact during the day. I like them but they aren’t my friends. They are my students. I am still responsible for their behaviour and achievement.
Their English isn’t great and my Chinese is generally worse and my contract stipulates that our interactions be in English (because, well, that’s my job). Our communications tend to be fairly superficial for a number of reasons, some of which are mandated by the government (don’t talk about anything interesting, especially if it begins with the letter T), some of which is due to the kids’ really sheltered upbringings and limited life experience. They really haven’t got a clue about a lot of things that are important to me. Which is fine, because I’m sure they feel the same way about me.
I imagine it’s somewhat like being a stay at home mother of a dozen toddlers, craving adult company and adult conversation at the end of the day. It’s rather lonely and isolating on bad days, whimsical and calming on good ones. I’d love to go for a beer after work for a venting session but, well, there ain’t nobody there. Literally. My campus is like an afterthought to the main one. It echoes with emptiness and unlit hallways. After a year and a half in this position, sometimes I wonder how I’ll deal with another year and a half.
I could go on about the lack of trees, the lack of green-space, my yearnings for a hint of hill or dale or anything to breakup the sea of tall buildings, demolished buildings, construction sites and overhead expressways.
I could say I have issues with carelessly homicidal scooters and cars that plough through red light intersections. I could say that I miss having healthy skin and non-lank, electric hair and tap water that isn’t actively bad for the body.
I could bring up the fact that I probably consume more pesticides than I ought to, and possibly more than my fair share of melamine. I could rant to no end about the increasingly limited access to the internet and the bull dozing of life-line VPNs. I could bring up my daily heartbreak over the brutal poultry executions I walk past on my way to work. The blood on the streets. The feathers.
I could. Except, really, they aren’t intolerable. They’re all kind of interesting, in a tangential kind of way. As I said before, Shanghai is a very easy place to live, objectively. It’s just not a very good fit for my very fussy, very vocal inner voice. Something just isn’t quite sitting right. Maybe it’s my isolation. Maybe it’s the incompatible ideological fit. Maybe it’s just restlessness.
I have to tell myself daily that we’re here for the money and for the massive paid holiday time that university jobs provide, here to save for future travels, here to save for not-so-future travels. Working in Shanghai lets me comfortably go to Burma for a month, to Cambodia for a fortnight, and soon home for 3 weeks then to Sri Lanka for another month. All within a year. Objectively, this is pretty damn amazing.
We eat well here, which is something I haven’t always had the privilege to indulge in. Shanghai has a million amazing international restaurants and import grocery stores as well as a million amazing places from all over China. I drink Oregon microbrews here. I have a cupboard full of La Costena tomatillo salsas. At our favourite Hunan place up the road, we drink Belgian Trappist beers with our spicy pickled cabbage and garlic shoots. We have a favourite little Italian place run by a Shanghainese Italo-phile that makes the best tomato-basil-fresh-mozza salad and they know us by name. We were invited to Nepali Kitchen’s 10-Year Anniversary party and were plied with free drinks and cheese balls and repeatedly thanked for our patronage.
Shanghai is no Kayseri, where I once spent two years trying to figure out how to make something, anything that didn’t taste Turkish out of the seasonal-only local produce. Eating locally and seasonally is marvellous until you hit mid winter in central Anatolia and are sick to death of peppers and eggplant and not much else.
I remember feeling so damned isolated out there in the middle of nowhere with the same repetitive choices and the same stares and the same goddamn Nescafe.
I remember dreaming of coffee, of sushi, of spices that went beyond sumac, pul biber, nane, tarçın, dereotu and whatnot. I knew it was irrational and selfish and culturally absurd to expect to find exactly what I craved in a place that had no reason to carry it. I knew that Kayseri had no real obligation to provide me with turmeric and galangal and limes– but I still felt overwhelmingly sad that I couldn’t get them.
I dreamed of being able to take control of my life and to choose the spices I craved. Yes, by that point, spices had taken on a greater meaning than I’d ever anticipated. I envisioned rows of little jars filled with everything you’d need for a proper jalfrezi or madras curry. After my second year in Turkey, I went home and assembled a thorough spice collection to take back with me.
Here, I can get it all.
So, objectively, this is a good place to be, at least for now.
And if I’d told myself that a week ago, I’d have smacked myself hard across the cheek and told myself to shut up and get real.
But you know what? Sometime over the weekend, Spring came. Clear days with blue skies started to outnumber the hideously oppressive grey ones. I started doing my interview series and ended up talking to a dozen really interesting people who are in roughly the same boat but in different countries. I had coffee with one of them and am planning to do so with another.
All my words that had been pent up just poured forth– those words that should have been slowly trickling out over after work beers with friends and colleagues.
And this past weekend I spent two days running around Shanghai with Unbrave Girl who was brave enough to come down from Wuxi to meet me. We journeyed out to the absurd new suburb of Thames Town and spent an ironic Sunday taking pictures of a million brides in a fake British ghost town. We drank ironic German beers and laughed at everything. Suddenly, Shanghai is almost kind of sort of maybe possibly okay.
Ask me again next week when it’s cloudy and my students are snarky and I have no visitors.
But for now, I’m okay. I think.