I woke up on Sunday December 30th deciding that I’d go to Shanghai the next morning. It would be my first New Year’s Eve not spent watching “Phantom of the Opera” with my friend Laura in the basement with chocolate sticks as cigars, and I very suddenly wanted to run racing into the world to do something crazy and impulsive.
By late Sunday night, I booked one of the last spots in a hostel called “Old West Gate International Youth Hostel” and by Monday morning, I was cramming things into my backpack to go to the train station. My feet were already racing as I made a mental check of the essentials: underwear, socks, toothbrush, clothes (translation: scarf to put over dirty clothes to appear like a new outfit), camera, money, cell phone, notebooks and pens. I also packed my high heels and texted a Shanghaies woman, Evena, who I’d met on my last trip there. She liked to go out. I just told her “It’s New Year’s Eve, I will be in Shanghai…can we go dance?” I banished the niggling thought “You haven’t gone to a club since senior week in college, and do you really want to be doing this?” because this trip was not about planning. Hell, I only had scribbled directions to the hostel in my notebook, and didn’t even have a train ticket to get there. I just wanted to get there as soon as possible.
I also got in touch with someone else over in Shanghai who liked to travel. He’s Chinese and his English name, as cheesy as it sounds, is Charming. The last time we’d met, I was trying 臭豆腐(smelly tofu) for the first time, so was amazed that he still wanted to chat despite the weird faces I was making at the time. My hostel was near “Old Shanghai.” He told me a park, a bridge, and I said I’d get there when I could. And so I was on the newly-built subway with my backpack, sort of behind schedule, but then conceding that there never really was one to begin with, so it was okay. I sped over to the ticket line as soon as the subway deposited me at the train station, and the rows of people snaked back to the doors. By the time I got to the front, I’d already seen two trains depart for Shanghai.
“I’d like the soonest ticket to Shanghai.”
“One leaves at 2.”
I looked at the clock. 1:45. “Okay.”
And so I raced over to the train, which was boarding as I rounded the corner, showed my ticket, and wedged my way into my seat, panting, amazed that no one else was in as much awe for the amazing thing that is being on your way to somewhere else.
Once the train arrived in Shanghai and I got off, I began asking for help finding the subway, and then the route, and then the road my hostel was on. I zigzagged through each hub, each person leading me to the next place, pointing, and then repeating the directions when I asked for them again, slowly, in what I knew to be precise Mandarin for my benefit. I found the hostel, which was marked by an old gate swung open on Penglai Road, and a small archway with more wrought-iron gates inside, made to look like Old Shanghai. The road was flanked by local Shanghaies hanging blankets out to dry, food stands, gated stores, and even an erhu player in a corner by his home. Inside the hostel, scarves draped over the poles, and several other guests leaned over books and laptops on cushy couches. Basically what Professor Trelawney’s common room would look like if it landed in China.
Then I asked around again, eventually zigzagging around until I found the park with the bridge and Charming looking at his map intently. “I think you went to the wrong bridge…” Charming said, and I admitted that I’d actually gone into the park to try and find him, flailing and snapping pictures of traditional architecture while a smooth voice said “We are now closing, please find the nearest exit and welcome to come again.” He neatly folded the map and asked where we should go. I just said we should walk around Old Shanghai, which was the architecture from the 30s and 40s and look around a bit. Charming moved slowly, which was at first obnoxious, but ended up being a great benefit, keeping my tapping toes from racing past small corners with old birdcages and sculptures carved from elephant tusks. Every small corner opened up to show hunks of jade, copper statues, and old boxes with smiling faces on them.
We went back to the hostel so he could nab one of the last rooms, and then I pulled out my heels to unceremoniously transition to wherever Evena deemed necessary to go on New Year’s Eve.
I assumed there would be fireworks, but that was about as far ahead as I’d thought. When Evena came to the hostel and I mentioned that, she just paused and said “Well, there might be lasers…” and we waved a taxi to fly off into the area by the Bund.
I saw the lasers as we walked clicking our heels to her favorite club, which was a combination of several and which also gave everyone a mini-flashlight-ring to dance with. That night, we rang in the New Year with cannons blasting popcorn kernels and confetti, balloons poised over nets to be dropped as the night progressed, and “Gangham Style” playing at midnight. There were the loping foreigners gyrating in the corner, the Chinese people swaying and watching them with curiosity, and the bartenders probably hoping they’d get a decent enough check for the evening. Evena and I conquered the dance floor and everyone shrieked combinations of “Happy New Year!” and “新年快乐!” when the DJ announced that the countdown was complete. The rest of the night was flashing cameras and slap-happy people repeating “Happy New Year” which quickly sounded more and more like “Hippy Near…” as the night progressed and glasses emptied. I marched back to the hostel with a wide grin on my face, shamelessly content with the dance songs then stuck in my head.
The next morning came like a slap in the face, and as I looked around the mysterious hostel I’d only really just used for the bed, I packed up my things to check out. Charming was already by the door with his backpack, and we got going for some more exploration that day. He’s a math teacher, and so it was no surprise to me that he was fond of reading his map and plotting precisely where we’d have to walk. When I explained that I was a Humanities person, he seemed to understand why I didn’t even bother to read road signs. The route we walked took us through crowds of antique stores where I saw old suitcases, model planes, a clarinet, tin canisters, old pocket-watches, pins, pictures, postcards, bracelets with stones (most fake, according to Charming) and vendors all saying “Hello, have a look, hello, cheap, hello, you like, hello…”
Maybe this makes me a stereotypical tourist, but I loved it. I like old things in general because they’re broken, ripped, crumbling, faded, brittle and bruised in every way imaginable, and it’s the scars that tend to tell the best stories. Life is more or a less a roadmap of bruises, as far as I’m concerned.
Charming then led me to the location of the first meeting of the Communist Party of China, where we got to see wax replicas of the then-only 14 members around a table, and examine the old magazines behind glass display cases. Charming told me a lot about the CPC and as we looked at samples of Mao Zedong’s poetry and calligraphy, I learned that even after years and years in China, I could very easily walk away never actually understanding how things worked.
After we left, Charming took me to 复兴park, where we stood still and drank in the local culture. He told me that, with every new place he goes, he will always take time to go to a park to see what the real culture is like. There we saw people huddled around tables to play card games, having animated debates face to face in the courtyard, kites being fed string little by little as the wind lifted them into the air, and a band playing what sounded like two different songs at once with five saxophones, a keyboard, and a violin. The warm afternoon felt infinite. Charming pointed to foreigners wanting me to tell him where they were from, and I tried to discretely hang out nearby to hear them talk and try and guess based off of accent. In turn, I asked about Chinese attitudes towards Westerners, and why so many of my students were obsessed with the NBA when they could be learning about Toaster Strudels or something.
But soon, I had to descend to the subway again to get back on the train to Hangzhou. I was a little less lucky getting to my train on time, but the warm sun still shone inside me and glowed all the way to Hangzhou. On the subway there, I went all the way to the back to watch the receding tunnel behind as oblivion became a platform where passengers waited like ghosts to board. And as I stepped off and walked the familiar path along Sparkling City to my apartment, I thought that maybe it was nice being a ghost drifting wherever the wind went and to wake up with the intention of living without intention, if only for a little bit.