A blue tooth brush, a cartoon about a boy, and a little white dog; that’s the extent of the memories, I have of my early life in China. I left when I was 3 years old and going back, I had fancy ideas of what Shanghai would be like. My mother told me about when Shanghai was the “Pearl of the Orient”. There were people in beautiful clothes, shops everywhere, lights at nighttime, good food, and fun. She warned me that Shanghai was no longer this way because the Cultural Revolution that changed everything, but inside of my mind Shanghai was a sparkling city.
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The part of Shanghai that I visited appeared to be government built tenements. The generations that endured the Cultural Revolution lived there. My grandmother and uncle live there, in a flat that saw many generations pass. The apartment was gray, drab, and dirty. The winding staircase had little lighting. The small doorway opened onto a closet sized shared kitchen that connected two apartments. The apartment was tiny and the shower didn’t work well because of very low water pressure and no hot water. The people that lived in and around the area, and the people that walked the streets, appeared to be very plain. In this section of town everything appeared to be gray.
This was not the Shanghai that I was expecting, but it was what opened my eyes. I had assumed that even if my eyes didn’t recognize the city, my heart would. However, I didn’t feel anything for the alien city. I felt a pang of disappointment. It hurt to know that just a generation ago Shanghai was a beautiful city. I daydreamed of meeting family members that I would immediately bond with – lost uncles, cousins, and aunts that would love me as much as I loved them. That did not happen. Dinner with the family was an awkward affair. I spoke in my broken Mandarin and nodded a lot. They were strangers to me, but strangers that clearly loved me. Sitting with them, I could feel the vast difference between them, versus my mom, and me. They appeared world-weary, while we were fresh.
The best time I had was when I went shopping with my aunt, my grandmother, and my mother at Waitan. Waitan was vibrant and alive. Vendors were everywhere and sold everything from food to expensive silk Qipao’s. There was music, wonderful smells of roasting meat, and a pond filled with golden koi. The buildings had the typical old style sloping red-tiled roofs and lanterns were streamed across the walkways. It was an echo of what I thought Shanghai was supposed to be like. We went crazy there. Shopping is a sport in China and we were the pro-players. The defense was on the line and ready. They yelled, sneered, and whined at the vendors, who did the same. The score: 300 Chinese Yuan to 65, in 10 minutes. I left with a shop-worth of stationary. The shopkeeper just sat on a chair and mumbled, “cheap, no good, never again!”
By the time I left China, after a two week visit, I was ready to come home. I missed the American air, the food, the showers, and my bed. But most of all, I missed the optimistic feeling that being a teenager in America gives me. We have opportunities to be what we want to be, unlike in China where you either make it or you don’t.
I realized that China will always be just a “place” to me. America is my home and my future.
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