China: No Longer of my Mind, but the Real Thing

signI just got back from China. Such a breezy thing to say, and yet it's taken me a lifetime to go. I lived in Hong Kong between ages two to three, was carried through the crowded alleyways on the shoulders of our aged “House Boy,” a Chinese grandfather whom I loved. But, before this trip to Shanghai, I had never set foot on the mainland before. And yet, as I walked down the crowded streets of Shanghai, I felt oddly at home. I don't know the language, knew no more than a few people in a city of 24 million, and yet, didn’t feel one bit ill-at-ease. I had heard that Shanghai is a relatively safe city, but I don’t think that was why I felt so comfortable there.

clothes drying

As I suggested in the Author’s Note at the end of River of Dust, families pass down wisdom and pain in equal measure—an inheritance that translates in ways we don't even realize: for me, that inheritance apparently includes a sense of belonging in China.

In the older parts of the city, which mercifully still exist but may not for long, elders still sit out on stools, eating soup, playing cards, chattering in angry voices that no doubt aren't angry at all, but only sound that way to my untrained ear. Laundry is left to dry everywhere. I wish I’d taken more photos of clotheslines, because the Chinese were wildly inventive about where they place them.

As I roamed these familiar-seeming streets, I had to wonder if China had appeared the same when my father grew up there, or, even before that, when my grandfather arrived in 1907.

Shanghai 439

The new parts of Shanghai are so space-aged and oversized as to be unrecognizable as particularly Chinese. Except, in a way, the view from The Bund across to Pudong seems quintessentially Chinese: showy, shiny and all about façade. We used to call it “Chinese gaudy,” a style that I had assumed went out with the Cultural Revolution, but seems to be reincarnated in the massive city of the future across the river in Shanghai.

My hosts at the Shanghai International Literary Festival were friendly and welcoming and I loved meeting fellow authors and learning about their books. My old friends Tina Kanagaratanum and Patrick Cranley of AsiaMedia shared their longtime ex-pat knowledge of Shanghai to help demystify the place. And, on top of more memorable experiences than I can count—an excellent hotel with staggering views, great quantities of Shanghai dumplings consumed at all hours of the day—I also somehow managed to meet and chat with Mick Jagger!

Mick Jagger at M on BundSir Mick was in town for three shows and, on his first night, he visited the beautiful, important M on the Bund restaurant and Galmour Bar where the Shanghai Lit Festival events also take place. (Pictured here is Michelle with Mick at her restaurant on the night of the siting). When we got word that he was there at the bar, several of us sidled over and I ended up standing right next to him. In the course of introductions, he shared some quips about his audience and I asked him how he handles jet lag. As he told me his recipe of sun lamps, Vitamin D, melatonin and water, my mind was screaming: you're talking with MICK JAGGER!

And so I was. Yet it felt strangely on par with the rest of this trip of a lifetime that may very well turn into a hint of things to come. The Lit Fest has kindly invited me back next March to their Beijing site, so the China barrier has been broken for me for good. I can’t wait to return again to that strange, yet familiar, land.