Shanghai: The Person and the Place

By Jane Wang

The rain in Shanghai glitters like its towering skyscrapers, crashing down upon the monoliths in great waves that blur the scene until vision is barely a sense. During the monsoon season, it pours with a swift periodicity, spill giving way to sunlight so fast that there’s no time for a rainbow, and your clothes are only as damp as they were this morning when you rushed them out of the dryer. People dash for the sidewise shops, clambering in together to twiddle with trinkets and snacks instead of facing the storm outside. The umbrella vendors who stand outside metro stations selling cheap 15 yuan umbrellas finally manage to sell a few. My dad says, “Why should I be afraid of a few molecules of water?” and we run back into the emptying street, fully soaked, no cover, because we know that when the rain passes, we’ll be dry again.

It’s in the summer when the monsoon rains come, and it’s in the summer when my sister and I go each year to live with my dad in an apartment full of fish tanks and books in the heart of the city.

There used to be a quaint little shop just a few metres away from the apartment building; I’m not sure if it had a name. It disappeared at the end of last summer to some other place in Shanghai where the business is better, though I could swear that between the three of us, we provided all the business they would ever need. The windows into the shop were plastered over with blue-toned movie posters of the most recent American and Chinese movies. The shop was unextraordinary, inside and out, but for a city as financially successful as Shanghai, the price of 12 yuan per DVD (2 US dollars) was cheap.

Last summer, my dad, an avid fan of the “classics,” screened all the Star Wars films for us for the first time. We bought all seven DVDs from that store and spread the screenings out over a little less than a week. Nearing the end of the marathon, one night, we rushed to eat a quick dinner of leftovers. My dad had work the next day, but we stayed up late in the dark anyway, letting the shadows disappear into the siren sounds bouncing across the streets beneath. We finished the sixth movie with a sense of disappointment, wondering, who ever knew Anakin could be such an idiot?

In retrospect, that was an unfair question. Anakin didn’t fall into the dark side by accident. Anakin chose his path, initially, to protect his family.

My father, too, left us in the US for his family back in Shanghai. His parents had cancer, and he returned to take care of them. When they died, he stayed there. And now, we make our way out to Shanghai every summer, shuffling back and forth between parents, between homes.

My parents have been too different for so long that maybe my father’s return would have had no use anyway. My mom likes reality, sunny days, roses, and happy endings. She is, above many things, an optimist. When things look up, they look up, and when they’re looking down, they still look up. She doesn’t like cartoons, because they’re not real. My dad lives in dreams and late-night internet window-shopping odysseys, instant delivery, alien battle-themed computer games and solitaire and dreamy house décor with which he fills every living space. The apartment is scattered with sea-themed sculptures and old memorabilia, glass seahorse lamps and mystery books. My mom believes that reaching the destination is paramount, and my dad believes that the true meaning is the road in getting there. And that always seemed to get in the way of their agreement, in how they carried out their lives. They were too different in ideas and practice to make it together. I know that a lot of children who come from broken marriages wish their parents had stayed together and saved themselves the drama. I think it’s for the best that my parents don’t see each other most of the year.

So like migratory birds, we arrive each summer where the artificial sounds of the city overpower the music of birds chirping from tree to tree in the daytime. Cigarette smoke clouds around each corner, as do the people rushing about on scooters, screaming at each other from across the stoplight, just get out of the way! I contrast Shanghai with my other home, to the resignation of flat American accents and rows upon rows of corn in the endless fields of Pennsylvania. I feel Pennsylvania is heartless. It’s cold and dry and flat, and it has none of the vertigo, the night-shine Shanghai puts on display.

The Shanghai Aquarium is a feat of elegance and glass. My sister and I visited often. This was our 6th time, and that night we slept over. We toured the entire place like it was brand new, fresh in a unique time of day, and when it got dark, we set out our sleeping bags on the conveyor belts below sectioned glass tunnels, which housed above them coral reefs and schools of fish, shining in liquid light. When everyone had gone to bed, I snuck out with my sister to take pictures with our digital cameras. The glittering fish were asleep and corals swayed like wisps in the artificial dusk. All in the silence were little breaths from the sleeping second-graders and the occasional ding! of a WeChat message quickly shushed. The fish were floating gently in aquatic dreams above our heads. In that moment, time stopped and the water ceased to flow, and the coral stood calm and still. The night froze for us, and age became an impossibility, far far off in the distance.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. In part, I was over excited. But I have always been a light sleeper, and I don’t fall asleep easily. It could be partly biology, but I lay most of my insomnia’s claim to the same thing that pulls me endlessly into artificial fluorescence and blue-lit screens when I should be giving my eyes a rest. In Shanghai’s nighttime, the city shines too bright, and one day the electricity has to go out, so make now last forever, and don’t blink. I texted my dad that I wasn’t feeling well, and he picked me up past midnight (my sister stayed behind, asleep under the ocean life) – speeding into the commercial district of Shanghai in a taxi to save the day. All under the cover of darkness and fog we flew back home past glimmering buildings and glistening street lamps. I let the window open and looked up at skyscrapers, reaching so high into the clouds that I couldn’t see the tops.

My insomnia worsens in Shanghai. My father and my sister and I walk through the streets past 11pm because none of us need sleep in the summer, and we window shop until our feet hurt, simply because the sights are endless. There are two giant malls just down the road filled with the most expensive name brands – Gucci, Chanel, Hermès, and Ralph Lauren, five Starbucks, a Buddhist temple, five Häagen Dazs. The famous Paramount ballroom of Shanghai, a hotspot of culture and dance in the 30s and 40s, is a gambol away. After our weekend eat-outs, we’ll go for Starbucks or ice cream. No one needs a reason to celebrate when here is the center of the worldwide party.

But Shanghai is more than that to me. The monsoon summers, the soft thunder in the hot afternoons, the tall buildings to lean on, the rain. Shanghai is a separate world, father and daughter and city and language and worlds building upon each other second by second with no place for breath in between. Shanghai is a seamless dreamscape, a swirling land cloaked in neon lights, where night and day bleed into one another endlessly, where the rain drenches us for a moment, for a season – where we are together, in the center of it all, taking in the downpour.

Jane Wang is an emerging author, crafting works of creative nonfiction and fiction. She is interested in expanding her horizons from her elegantly shaded visual art, 9 years of somewhat diligent piano playing, and an admittedly subjective exploration of aesthetics. When not spewing silvery thoughts onto the digital page, she can often be found studying advanced-ish maths. Pennsylvania, USA is her year-round stay, but Shanghai, China is an old haunt from where she lives and relives her inherited culture and also from where she ekes inspiration and a desire for experience. Beachwood is her favourite candle scent.