In our [Shanghai] hostel a frightfully young Vancouver girl was awake at the same time we were. So small and frail with a headband and round cheeks. She’d been studying in Beijing for 10 months and now she was done and going home. When I said I was from Winnipeg she said there were a bunch from “that side of the country” she’d met up north. I bit my tongue to refrain from asking which side that was? The middle side? But really who does it benefit to go on about East vs. West divisions? Especially when we’re all in China. One World One Dream. [Please be aware how sarcastic that is. -JJU]
The girl did make me wonder if Reyn and I seemed that young when gallivanting was our trade. She was probably only 20 instead of the ripe old 22-23 year olds we were. I don’t remember being on tippytoes when talking to hostelmates and sounding so damned naive. Or maybe it wasn’t naivete but petulance: “Ten months and I was done. I’m going home.” Ah home. Right now, five days into my journeying I have all the home I need in a place to stash my bag.
Before [getting to Nanjing] though we had to leave Shanghai. I was carrying my giraffe bag with all my international travel gear over one shoulder and the camera bag over the other. After grabbing roasted sweet potatoes for breakfast we headed back to the Bund.
I do like standing by rivers. Probably part of that Peg City heritage. When someone comes to town you bring them down to the Forks where you get to stand by two rivers. And shop and eat and all that but the important thing is you’re letting the water flow past you. Easy enough to say that in human-scale terms a mountain hasn’t changed, or a wall, but a river is always different, usually within the same banks but never the same water, barely the illusion of continuity. What surrounds it, what’s planted, is of course what you look at. The Pearl Tower the boats full of coal, the yellow vested pilot taking pictures of the tourists, the LG and Jahwa ads that disguise how far back the buildings really go.
Of course another permanence on the Bund is the presence of people trying to separate tourists from their money. Two nights before, Holly’d had the price of water jump five-fold on her down there. The toy of the day was a spinning ball with laserpointerish things that would sweep a circle out around it. These things were everywhere, spinning away. Plus the usual “PostcardsRolexGucci!” kind of things.
Then a 15-year-old boy came up. I remember his face being sort of pushed in, or maybe his hair was just sort of crowding forward on his face, to see what the excitement was about. A pubestache may or may not have been involved. He had a spiel.
“Hi it is wonderful to have met a foreigner on this fine day because you are so clever…”
Holly interrupts. “Foreigners aren’t clever. People are clever.”
He launches right back. “But foreign countries are so economically advanced they must be more clever than we Chinese…” which Holly takes exception to again. They banter a bit with the kid having canned responses for everything. He gets into the sad story of how he used to be a student but had to come to Shanghai to work and was looking for a job but it was very difficult, He was from Xuzhou he said, which, weirdly enough is where Holly’s roommate is from. Holly expresses astonishment. I stare at the river.
Then he gets into the main bit. He left home when his father “went mental” and hit him and his mother and then he ran away from home and he hasn’t found a job yet but is very hungry and could we please buy him some food? We were about ready to leave anyway so off we go. Bye bye Bund!
Once down the steps he tells us we can’t go one direction because of the construction, “but there’s a restaurant back over here” that would meet his needs perfectly. We say “We’re going this way. We need to cross the street.” And so we do, with him now reluctantly following along. Holly’s asking how long he’s been in Shanghai. “Only three days” he says and she laughs. “You know I don’t believe you, right?” He doesn’t respond.
Eventually Holly bought him a couple of buns at a convenience store – “I feel like such a mom; you can only have two” she said – and then he left us. Who could have taught him that whole routine we frustrated? A mystery.
After shaking the kid we spent a couple of hours perusing bookshops. Holly wanted a yoga and a Tai Ji book, which she eventually found. I successfully restrained myself from buying The Birthday Book which was a collection of short stories selected by Haruki Murakami. The only new thing actually written by him in the book was the introduction. But still I coveted it. Those bookshops didn’t have much better prices than McNally but still I was so tempted by tomes I hadn’t seen recently or the British variant covers or what have you. I know.
Then we ate lunch at a packed Xinjiang noodles place. The night before Holly had a good chat with a talkative young Yang Rou Chuar [barbecued lamb skewers] guy. His face had been very wide and constantly almost-wincing. In my mind he only has one arm, something I know to be patently false. Another face we passed that day was heavily fat, a man taking money at a jiaozi place. He sat and wore a white (paper?) hat, wanting nothing more than a little peace.
We took the subway to the train station, loaded down with ice cream in waffle bowls. Delicious ice cream. Delicious bowls. We were on vacation.
The train station was packed, as such places often are as we waited for the D428 to take us away. It’s a fast train, digital car numbers, “airsickness” bags, lots of legroom and sloped forecars so it looks like a bullet train. I don’t think it hit those types of speeds though. And it wasn’t as futuristic as the trains Aileen and I took in Romania, but still. The frequent riders could use their passes just like on the subway.
I read on the trip. Read and wrote a bit. [Fragments noted elsewhere from that train ride: Suzhou - soldiers in uniform with yellow basins strapped to their packs. A leaning temple atop a hill. The spines of the rooflines seemed older, more Chinese than I ever remember seeing before.] There wasn’t much of a break in the habitation. So much housing. That almost made me nauseous. I don’t know why. Just these subdivisions sprung up of identical 15-storey buildings made me feel more in the midst of filing cabinets for humans than walking through skyscraper forests ever does. Probably the distance that does it. Nothing in there could be human, or good for humanity could it?