> rewind to: in transit on a tuesday in july
On a Tuesday in July it was pouring rain and early in the morning. I said goodbye to our German roommates, who were ironing their trousers and getting ready for work. It would be our last time together–by the time I get back to Shanghai, they will be back in Germany enjoying authentic strudel.
I luckily had a ride to the airport arranged for me and we crossed the skyscraper forest in in our van, rain pelting its sides, crossing almost the full length of the forest–man is it a long way.
In line for the baggage check I met a businessman who was thinking about taking his business out of China. “They make stuff cheaper, but it’s never on time! ! !” He was heading home for a few months to mull it over. He had about 7 boxes to check. He lived in a rich city south of Shanghai, where he thought the money is getting out control.
He told me some funny things about driving in China. You can get traffic tickets via camera. But the only way for him to find out about the tickets was to go online to a website all in Chinese, which he couldn’t navigate. He tried to settle up before leaving, but it turns out you only get something like 12 strikes. But he’d had more than 12. So if that happens, you bring a friend with who you’ve convinced to take on your extra strikes. He gave up.
He was so classically disgruntled. I know his feeling of amplified and perpetual frustration is not rare among foreigners in China. I totally empathized with him. I also thought, well, what the h are we all doing here anyhow? And: this is a good time for me to leave and re-charge, I haven’t hit that point yet. Also: China is pretty funny in retrospect. And by retrospect I mean after a long, long time.
Now home, people keep asking me, “How’s Shanghai?” I’d read on an expat blog before leaving that you should come up with a one or two sentence response to ease some of the stress of returning home. Not everyone really wants to hear all about it, they said. Which is true. It’s also just a hard question to answer. China is fascinating, and the people are open and often friendly, and there are so many things to learn and discover and laugh about. . . But China is not an easy place. Probably not for anyone, but particularly not for a bumbling foreigner. There are so many ways for your buttons to be pushed and your patience to be tried and your competence and daringness to be tested.
I am also a Sagittarian, so at times I err on the side of honesty (at least when my Midwestern in-directness steps aside.) So. . It’s hard for me to say “Oh it’s awesome! I love it!” because. . . that’s not exactly the case, though it would be a handy thing to be able to say. I want to say, “It’s a big challenge,” because it is, but I feel like that is received as if I am saying “Oh it’s terrible and I’m trying to be polite” which isn’t really the case either. But it’s not, say, a week on the beach in Mexico or a semester in Paris eating baguettes and looking at art, even if the French might laugh at you or give you a hard time and not smile very often. I feel China is so different, complicated in so many varying ways, from political to ideological to linguistic to hygienic to practical. I’m sure other places are also this way, but China is the one I have to answer to.
I watched so many movies on the plane home. I love that part of long flights so much that I prefer to leave in the morning so I can maximize my movie viewing. One of the movies I watched I thought would be pretty bad, but it turned out it just silly in a Meryl Streep way, and its title gives me maybe the best answer I can give: “It’s complicated.”