I’m dozing off in the Shanghai subway. We’re on a school trip. I’m fatigued from the flight and trying to socialize. I hang suspended amidst that in-between place, a dreamlike transition from wakefulness to sleep and back again. We still have a long way to go before we get to our stop. An announcer’s voice then reaches through the haze and knocks at the inside of my skull: “the next stop is Jing An Si.”
What do I remember? The first time I saw that temple? What the station looked like? What it was like the very first day I was introduced to this hustling city on a steaming July day? Do I remember the bedroom I slept in for a whole year? Do I remember how long I harbored that stubborn crush for, on a tall boy back in Korea? How quickly does a momentary state of mind slip away, and the myriad of trivial and abstract ruminations that hang precariously onto that specific time of day and location of the body?
We slide into the station and I look out the window. The black characters plainly spell out the name of the station from which I used to get off and walk home. The doors open. The doors close. The view outside the window becomes a blur. And just like that, it’s gone again—a fleeting glance of something that reminded me of what used to be home, what my life used to be like here.
People usually react with surprise when I tell them I used to go to school in Shanghai. I’m usually hesitant to say anything like “I lived there for one year.” What does it mean to live somewhere? What qualifies as taking root and becoming a resident? A year seemed so long in seventh grade. By the end of that time, I could converse with the local people without fear (though not without error), my friends at the tiny international school I went to felt like lifelong companions, and I was almost used to the two-person family, just me and Mom. And something else that feels unbelievable to me now: I felt I was beginning to understand China, the machine, the tongue, the people, the culture, the land. Perhaps just an inkling, not bad for a 13-year-old.
And where is all that now? When I was in Beijing a month ago, I couldn’t ask the bus driver to close the window because I didn’t remember how to say window in Mandarin. I had leaned forward, ready to speak, had almost opened my mouth when the absence of words caught in my throat. I was firing blanks.
I felt exactly like I had back in seventh grade when Mom (cruelly and unreasonably, it seemed to me at the time) made me ride the subway home from school by myself for the first time. I wasn’t ready, I insisted; I didn’t speak Chinese well enough, I wouldn’t know what to do if I got lost, and most of all, that very environment petrified me. Mom had waved my concerns away. “You know you have to get off at Jing An Si. You know what that word looks like. That’s enough, you’ll find your way.” And I did.
So the nostalgia was there. The sight of “Jing An Si” printed in black hit me like a brick, and these thoughts flooded my brain in a matter of seconds. This post is just an attempt to unpack them; not to point them in a direction or to hope for some illumination of my past, but simply to put them in a line and put them on the internet where they hopefully will not slip away, like so much does. Permanence, that bird. Eluding me at every step. The reason I write letters to others and blog posts to myself. It’s like I’m constantly looking forward to shedding my skin and moving to some newer stage, except I want to hoard the old skin, too.
What is it to me now, then, if so much of Shanghai has already fallen through my fingers and returned to the vast desert of unclaimed memories? I suppose it matters that it used to be my world, at least. And I suppose it matters that, since the muffling cover of familiarity has now been lifted, the next time I step out onto Wai Tan at night, those buildings may steal my breath away once again.
Just a ghost, just a touch, the person I used to be. Just a handprint of Shanghai on the inside of my body. And somehow, I’m feeling as lost as I did back then, facing a long and daunting ride. Except back then, I was finding my way back home, and now, I’m finding my way away from it, and there are no words printed in black to tell me here, this is where you are supposed to end up, this is what you are supposed to want.