I begin to count the scars on my body as soon as I hail the only cab I spot from the hotel’s courtyard. Dadi, I hear myself say. The first word I learned in the Shanghai dialect. A cigarette burn brands my left forearm, the shape of a tiny whale. I make up a story, tell people it’s a birthmark. I leave out the context, the backstory, the nights smoking packs of slim mentholated cigarettes with strangers whose secrets waft over on thin veils of smoke escaping their lips. Multiple mosquito bites pepper both of my legs, signs of my stubborn refusal to protect my limbs from the torrential downpours that arrive with spring, that I dance in with my friends. A fading scar from a fall after a night of club hopping mars my right knee. I run my hand over my neck wondering if there’s a bruise there too from last night. Battle scars from life in Shanghai. Proof that it is not all a lofty dream made of feathers from birds let out of their cages.
What is it about physical contact? That refuses to leave the confines of your memory? I did not study abroad and then miraculously “find” myself as so many other students claim. Number one, this was not my first time out of the the US. In Shanghai I lost bits of myself, tossed shards of myself to the wind, melded together a little more strongly the contradictions that make me up. I search for signs of it–what everyone is talking about–in my notebook, my iPod when I am back in the States, away from the clubs, the cabs and the Chinese classes.
My notebook is filled with snippets of memories, film strip moments captured and re-arranged. My iPod is a virtual diary, the connection to Shanghai I carry in my pocket. Meticulous visual notes, a hoarder of my nostalgia. Instagram’s filters, the uniform square format, the hash tags create the illusion that I can compartmentalize myself, my experiences, my travels into easily accessible byte sized bits. But that’s all it is. An illusion. I know neither more, nor less of myself. It was not love at first sight for me and Shanghai, a caption reads, but like coral that grows on a reef, this city is becoming an inevitable part of me. Sentimental to a fault, reductionary. Written about three weeks after a rat fell through a gaping hole in my bathroom’s ceiling.
Still it fascinates me how a simple loose ceiling tile changed the course of that rat’s journey, displaced it, sent it careening down into a world it knew nothing of, into the unfamiliar. The day it happened I re-learned the word for rat , lao shu. Wo de fang jian you lao shu, I complained to a security guard who had been in a deep slumber before a posse of new friends and I valiantly descended the stairs. He laughed, sent a young man up with a long stick and then sent us on our way. It’s China, someone said to me shrugging before offering to sleep in the hallway so that I could sleep in his room without fear. Lao shu. Forever stamped in my memory, forever tied to the sound of a few pebbles falling onto hard tiles.
It’s China, I think to myself when He replies via text message, that yes, we should have dinner and drinks while He’s still in town. Amidst the noise of the karaoke singers in a bustling restaurant in Pudong, I sip my Shirley Temple and imagine the sound. Pebbles falling onto hard tiles.
I remember the things that make this city loveable: that traffic rules are suspended when you cruise around on your bicycle, allowing you to weave in and out of bus lanes and rows of cars at your leisure, that Pizza Hut here is a higher brow restaurant instead of a fast food joint, complete with classical music lightly playing in the background and heavy glass doors which belong in the lobby of a high end hotel, that the hanging laundry adorning the sides of apartment buildings signals the teeming life that exists on impossible levels in this city.
I remember the being in awe of the mix of the city center’s architectural styles, a mix which condenses Shanghai’s cosmopolitan history into graceful neoclassical structures, traditional sloping shikumen roofs and the distinct Art-deco facades of old hotels built in the 1930s. And I remember the desire I felt when I first met Him. The instant attraction and the feathers tickling my stomach whenever he touched me. And I remember the guilt and the shame. And then I let those feelings go and feel no regrets, let them rise up like helium filled balloons.
I left bits and pieces of my fragmented self in the letters and handmade cards I left my friends, in the books and discarded objects (a pair of scissors, 3 textbooks, a box of tissues, a bottle half filled with shampoo) I left in the tiny single room I resided in on the uppermost floor of my dormitory, Xue Si Yuan, in the blue and yellow threads of the friendship bracelet Micol made me that slipped off my wrist during a day of sightseeing, in the long kisses and moments of dancing free up against His lithe body, in the secrets I let set sail in the conversations to friends I trusted. In the shame I let set sail away from my soul as I boarded the plane back to New York City.