Lunch (Thoughts of Shanghai)


Late lunch was xiaolongbao from the original spot on Wudong Lu.

Still didn’t take a picture — ate them all with dark rice vinegar (the Zhenjiang variety of legendary origin) before I could even pull out my smartphone.

Later that day I would take a taxi to Pudong with several large bags and check in for a red-eye flight direct to LAX. First, I’d eat these eight dumplings — minced pork mixed with spring onion and aspic set inside circular unleavened dough wrappers then folded and pinched shut — directly from the bamboo steamer. These were the same ones I tried after arriving in Shanghai last year: the ones with vinegar poured in the same saucers, red chili sauce served with the same tiny spoons.

Exactly eight dumplings; no more, no less.

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Everyday

The international student apartments on the north side of Fudan University’s campus were situated fairly close to the dumpling shop. The walk back took five minutes as always.

The same spot would likely look completely different now. Wudong Lu was largely torn down and rebuilt after we left the city. Living there the whole time might have made it seem like a transition at least, but now, two years later, it’s not so clear.

It’s kind of like that time when they built up the south side of town in Camarillo and it was nearly impossible to remember what was there before the construction. Similarly, Wudong Lu would seem different for about a week until its new format became the norm. The mind finds the route of least resistance to remembering even if the heart doesn’t want to forget about how things used to be.

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Sometimes it’s possible to remember around those cognitive barriers.

Smell is a powerful trigger for this. The smell of garlic on my fingers reminds me first and foremost of Dunhuang: we ate noodles in broth with plain bing and spicy, pungent, raw garlic to accompany. After that it reminds me of 凉拌黄瓜//liang2ban4huang2gua1 (cold mixed cucumber salad) that I would eat with the same two friends near campus.

The sense of smell is itself an integral part of taste, which, for me, is a continuously evolving experience. Somehow, in 24 years on Earth, I had never tasted the exact combination of chili, salt, citric acid, fermented fish sauce, and unripe papaya that characterized some of the best meals of my life. Now the pickled sour taste reminds me of street food in my second hometown.

Blue light penetrating through the naked tree branches in the park outside my window reminds me of the time when I would walk home to see the evening sky nearly bursting with purple ultraviolent aquamarine — sky tinged with bright orange (like the peel of a Pixie tangerine) that I would run underneath, on the ground.

Hearing a very particular, contended, bell-like chime reminds me of when I went on foot in the warm wind and sun nearly everywhere in Bangkok (twice), and then spent that night acquainting myself with some excellently flawed humans. These were/are incredible people. Part of this was done barefoot; also, those bell-like chimes remind me of that crazy perfect view at the Vietnamese Buddhist temple hundreds of miles north in Vientiane. [honest side note: never thought I’d write about Bangkok on this blog]

Walking from the cold outside into a warm room with high ceilings and dark decor brings back the feeling of being thoroughly enveloped by the genuine warmth of Xi’an, where nighttime seemed like the only time and everything was decked in high-contrast colored light.

Or the opposite: walking from the warm outside into a lobby backlit by natural or golden floodlights with a soundtrack of oscillating electric fans to meet a somewhat raucous greeting is somehow exactly like entering the lecture hall at TU Berlin.

Arriving in Luang Prabang — late night and hungry — to step out into a wall of humidity and a language barrier so precisely paralleled my arrival in Shanghers: vivid, flooding memories of uncomfort and mystery, all. And of course the unexpected comfort of being back in Vientiane (Patuxai is really quite beautiful, as are the people, and the food, and the flowers, and the That Luang) felt like a third homecoming.

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“Everything changes when it’s spoken out loud.”

Somehow, when we describe the places we visit and the things we do with adverbs and adjectives, it has a reductive effect — when we use words to define our experiences, we somehow make it that and only that. This doesn’t sit well with me. What I’d rather do is let all the experiences just be there without description or judgment or digestion: raw, germy and fermenting of its own accord, with flies all around, stale, and aged too. [disclaimer: this logic does not apply to how I prefer my food]

Instead of calling it what it might be with words, just let it be what it is — ‘home’ — and live it.

Once I let myself do that, I found myself loving nearly everywhere. Really, everywhere is quite incredible if you think about it. Millennia occurred before we showed up, and the universe coalesced from dust and dark even before that. Those skies outside the window? They’re eons in the making and that’s straight-up wondrous.

Maybe that’s why sometimes, when walking to class under gray clouds with spitting rain or feeling dry wind on my face or balmy sunshine, it feels like home.

Most importantly, oak, wild mustard, and soil (chaparral in its tone), are irrefutable signs of home.

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Shanghai is like a microcosm of the world. Everyone’s here, a few people run things, no one really knows what’s going on, and shit happens.

Looking Down

However, the place is perfect for developing a particular kind of sixth sense: knowing when and how to ignore trivialities (like haters or people staring, for instance). An example follows: acting like an idiot in public is really not that bad, and everyone was already staring at you anyway. This way, you never have to do the “did anyone else see that?” glance over your shoulder. People for sure noticed and then immediately forgot about it afterward. It’s quite freeing, really.

This slow transition to effective ignorance in Chinese society is a revelation. It completely corroborates every truism that recommends living your own life unfettered by the Man and striving for greatness with every means at your disposal. Because of this, you get the sense that you can be more of a whole person despite the different norms and issues. Not to paint with a broad brush (also cognizant of the fact that everything looks better in hindsight), but this mode of seeing the world makes life particularly rich here, and this richness is doled out heartily like pearly Eight Treasure congee in the morning.

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Despite the billions of people on this planet and the millions that live in Shanghai, the world still has enough space for everyone to pursue their individual purposes. Wherever they lead and with whomever they unfold, our paths are made possible on this solitary Earth of ours.

What a gift: to be able to leave home in search of something great and then return again in meditation and wonder.


I’d like to quote a friend, in full:

Practicing gratitude includes your ability to accept compliments and gifts. You don’t have to reciprocate with the gifts or put yourself down when you’re complimented. Just say thank you. Saying thank you is the most sincere way you can honor the gift-/compliment-giver.

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Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai from September 2014 to July 2015 while studying Mandarin at Fudan University and teaching English. Since then, he's continued writing and working in Ventura County, California.