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Of all my memories of Shanghai, I most clearly recall sitting on the bus. Specifically, I remember looking out at miles of e hi-rises, hundreds of them, bland, uniform, claustrophobic as gravel, but overwhelmingly big, filling up both ground and sky.
That was the ride from the airport into the city, one strip of high-rises after another. The ground is very soft, the tour guide said, but the foundations are strong. I saw no people opening doors, climbing the stairs or walking on the narrow pathways. The buildings could have been deserted if not for the laundry, multicolored at least if not exactly cheerful, dangling from long poles beneath what seemed like every window – and serving, visually at least, as gardens, flowerboxes, reminders of beauty.
I felt extremely tired as I stared at the laundry.
The idea that people pulled those shirts and undergarments inside at night, that they really lived there, exhausted me. I had never seen so many ugly structures in one place, so much strictly functional homogeny. I couldn’t imagine anyone falling in love in those hallways or finding a reason to be generous to a stranger.
I know they do, they must. We humans always find ways to make our lives a little magnificent, even in traffic jams and basement offices. We have favorite songs. We have homemade desserts. We have libraries.
Anyhow, I was also tired for unphilosophical reasons. We’d stayed in Beijing for four days, then spent the morning, beginning very early, flying to Shanghai. We’d been on either a bus or a plane all day, and I was ready to stop moving and to eat – but to eat turkey sandwiches or something, not bok choy and fried fish with a stunned fried face. I felt excited to see Shanghai, but also homesick. I wanted a day off.
My fiancé sat beside me, playing Zelda on the handheld Nintendo DS he’d brought along.
I had no such distraction. I was stuck in China.
I felt determined to enjoy it, to soak it up. So I listened as the guide talked about the many businesses that had made Shanghai their base. I watched the high-rises, one strip after another, each row aimed at its own vanishing point.
By the time we finished lunch, I was delirious for something pretty. The guide seemed to intuit this. He took us to the Jade Buddha Temple.
It was early afternoon on a weekday. There were no pastors or services. American tourists stood around, snapping pictures and asking loud questions. Unfazed, worshippers dropped to their knees and prayed before enormous statues – not together in an organized event but individually, openly and, it seemed to me, each alone with his or her deity, despite all odds in a city of some 18 million.
From there, we rode to the YuYuan Gardens, the dreamiest place.
Even in March, a coat-weather, non-flowering month, the gardens bloomed – a more than 400-year-old Ginkgo tree, stone lions guarding the archways, dragons stretched on top of walls, small houses designed merely for the emperor to hold conversations with his guests and “free foot massage” walkways, lined with countless, rounded stones laid out expressly to satisfy bare feet.
Somewhere in the yin-yang passageways – one bright, sunny and manly, the other shaded and feminine – I lost my cynicism. I imagined the people who lived in the high-rises, sneaking through the dark and clasping each other, making outrageous, gorgeous promises to each other. They knew these trees and rocks, and the archway shaped like a vase. They went to church not because it was Sunday, but because they wanted to connect with Buddha. Now.
Every time I saw laundry for the rest the trip, hanging from unassuming windows in residential clusters all around the city, I smiled knowingly.
I’ve been back from China for about two-and-a-half months now. When I see it written out, it doesn’t look like a long time. In reality, which happens well off the page, it’s a mountain of life – thousands of sensory experiences so much more immediate than anything that happened in Asia, from the unanticipated French donuts to the designer jeans I paid seven bucks for.
Reality accumulates fast. It pushes itself out of the way. As Chuck Palahniuk writes in “Rant,” can you even remember what you had for dinner last night?
Maybe not, if you had your usual granola. But if you ordinarily eat meatloaf and potatoes, and last night was the first time you ever ate granola for dinner, you’ll remember.
And I remember the smell of the jeans shop on March 15. I can still see the face of the woman who sold Michael and me a pair of nail clippers. I can hear the engine on the crowded boat we rode on along the river, taking a series of shaky pictures of the nightscape, focused and determined, as if we’d never seen lights before.
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