Back to Shanghai after vacation with a refreshed perspective

Letter from China
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
Published: September 7, 2007
SHANGHAI: The most underrated aspect of vacation is without a doubt its end. Returning to work and especially returning to a foreign country where one works has at least one precious element, however, and that is clarity.
Except for one’s first arrival in a country, when all is new and hopefully exciting, no moment rivals the vacation’s end for perceptiveness. Unlike stumbling into a country fresh for the first time, the returning vacationer also has a store of experiences, a baseline that gives his observations valuable context and keeps them honest.
I was returning from the foothills of the Virginian Blue Ridge Mountains, where corn and soybeans (for China) grow, where crickets chirp and cows moo and horses seem more common than people.
The shock of the new for me came as I stepped out late in the afternoon on my first day back in China to encounter busy foot traffic just beyond my front door. Mine is one of the smallest and most relaxed Shanghai streets, but even the routine experience of walking around the corner and hailing a cab was a bracing reminder of what I knew well but easily put out of mind, that I was back in one of the world’s biggest and most densely packed cities, and a lot farther away from Virginia than the mere tally of frequent flier miles would suggest.
My next shock came the following day when I left my office for lunch at the usual time and found that three of my regular spots these last few years had all closed. These were places where, as a steady customer, I had established a reassuring coziness, where they knew my name, or at least my face, and treated me with what felt like more consideration than a random walk-in.
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There had been nary a word about the impending closures or relocations when I left town three weeks earlier. Not a hint.
Finally taking a seat, 20 minutes later, now on my fourth restaurant, I reflected on one of the most common features of life in China’s great cities: the profound impermanence of things. I had thought about this plenty before, but usually it was in terms of other people’s lives, like the working-class residents of the grandly shabby old Shanghai neighborhoods who are being relocated en masse to distant, half-built suburbs. They are making way for an ever newer city, packed with skyscrapers and stripped of the organic feel of real neighborhoods.
I have spent much of my spare time photographing these kinds of neighborhoods these last few years, often just before the bulldozer arrived. The closed restaurants were my bulldozers, and the shock of impermanence and the disorientation that it brings, on this day, was all mine.
Some comfort could be found, though, in idle little interstices of the next couple of days, and it came not from within but from watching how Shanghai people themselves cope with so much hectic and constant change.
So much of journalism, and none more than foreign correspondence, consists of training a critical eye on one’s subject, of plumbing its faults. The return from vacation is as good an opportunity as any, though, to appreciate what works, and to savor the charms.
I was reminded of this as I peered out my office window to notice in the distance the near-completed profile of a new contender among the world’s tallest buildings. Could it be possible? It would appear that the top 15 percent or so of the building, still braced in red scaffolding, took shape during my brief absence.
Just then, in the middle distance as if on cue a flock of pigeons wheeled into the late afternoon light, released by their keeper from a low-rise home tucked invisibly amid the crowding towers. It’s a sight I’ve seen every day here, as true as clockwork, but today it was more than that. It was a statement of endurance of the spirit, and of almost defiant attachment to things that are not trendy and commercial, and above all not new.
This side of Shanghai winked at me a few more times, before the jet lag had worn off and the routines taken hold. There was the small shop-keeping family that sets up its dinner table on the sidewalk a few feet from a busy intersection and enjoys an early evening meal al fresco in the late summer air.
There were the grillers of chestnuts with their wheeled carts who made their seasonal appearance, lending an appealing fragrance to the evening breeze. There was the recorded announcement played by the man who rides his bicycle through the neighborhood each evening to remind people to put the garbage out. I am sure it will begin annoying me in a few weeks, when the sound becomes just another layer in this city’s often overwhelming din, but today it still had charm.
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