The mother is wearing a bubblegum pink shirt and tight jeans. The toddler is barefoot and perched on her hip, staring at me with his fist in his mouth while his mother orders at the counter. The father, a large man with a sheen of sweat on his forehead, is wearing Adidas sandals and socks. The couple is disagreeing about what toppings to get on their pizza. The father starts to lecture the teenager behind the counter about something that, judging by his confused look, the teenager does not understand. That makes two of us. I’m standing in a noisy Domino’s in a suburb of Shanghai, blinking into harsh fluorescent lights, my ears buzzing and full of a language that, frankly, I am tired of not understanding.
A small, tan-and-white Chihuahua lives near a fire hydrant I pass every day. I think he belongs to whoever owns the shop across the street from the fire hydrant—I’m not sure. But I know that he is there every morning when I walk to school, sniffing around the peeling red paint and licking the cracks in the sidewalk. When I turn the corner at 8:50 a.m., coffee in hand, he is there, smelling and tasting the morning. He is my one daily constant in a city of constant chaos, a city I feel like I’ve been crowd surfing in for many days.
I can say two things in Mandarin: “Good morning” and “I am a tiger.” I learned that second sentence from one of my students, Frankey, after I heard how lovely the word ‘tiger’ sounded. I tried to explain to Frankey that it was metaphorical, that in Shanghai I felt like I had to adopt the fierceness of a tiger just to step onto the street. That to be a tiger in this city helps me face the accosting traffic, the men constantly spitting on the sidewalks, the people who push and frown their way past me.
I did not say all this to Frankey. I thanked him for teaching me a little bit more Mandarin.
I am in Shanghai to teach a leadership course to Chinese high school students. I’m part of an instructional team put together by Duke University, and for the most part, teaching is going well. Our students are as fascinated with my co-instructor’s bald head and my tattoo as they are with the leadership curriculum we are teaching. They are talking sponges, absorbing and questioning everything. The days are long here, but I love being in the classroom.
What I am not loving is Shanghai. And I can’t stop analyzing why that is and why I feel guilty about it. I have loved almost every new place I’ve ever traveled to—why is this place different? Have my travels hardened me, made me less accepting of the discomforts and annoyances here that I would normally greet with a shoulder-shrug or a head bobble? Am I resisting this city because my new home, New York City, is waiting for me? I sense a shift. For years now, I’ve felt compelled to explore the U.S. more, to put down some semblance of roots in a place I can commit to for an unknown period of time—a place to call home on my own terms. This is what New York will be for me, I hope. And I think this is why I feel so pulled to the new adventure that’s about to begin there.
I know that many of the things I don’t like about Shanghai are things I am sure to encounter in New York. But in cities like Shanghai, speaking the language is everything, and my two sentences of Mandarin do not help me order dinner or decipher street signs or ask to whom my Chihuahua friend belongs. I rely on my Mandarin-speaking colleagues constantly, and this lack of independence does not a happy traveler make. I look forward to returning to China someday to explore other parts of this vast country, away from its congested cities. For now, though, I am realizing it’s okay to not love every new place I travel to. This does not make me a picky traveler or a close-minded person. It just means I am discerning what I value and most enjoy in my travels, and what I do not.
I’m not sure why it took me this long and so many new places to learn this.
Our last day of the leadership course was my 25th birthday. It was a fantastic day. For the past 10 years, I have been lucky enough to celebrate my birthday each year in a new place, almost always in a new city or country. My students made my birthday in Shanghai very special, surprising me with gifts and snacks and even a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in both Mandarin and English. I was fortunate enough to spend my birthday doing something that always brings me joy: teaching.
Most of our instructional staff flew back to the States the next morning, but I stayed an extra night in Shanghai. I had just turned 25. I was coming off of an intense summer, one of many highs and lows, and was about to move to a new city and begin graduate school. I decided to take to heart what my best friend told me to do on my birthday: “Treat yoself.” So I checked into a hotel for a day and night of luxury.
I immediately changed into workout clothes and took the elevator down to the hotel’s gym, where I ran and ran and ran on a treadmill, sweating out Shanghai’s smog. I practiced yoga in a quiet, dark room. I swam laps in the hotel’s huge pool. I indulged in the steam room and the Jacuzzi. I read. I ordered room service. I took a bubble bath and when the suds began overflowing, I let them. I sat on the king-size bed and looked out at the water and skyscrapers. I read some more. I took a stroll on The Bund, enjoying a bustling Saturday night in Shanghai, and then fought the crowds to enjoy a delicious $5 dinner of spicy noodle soup with sides of kimchi, seaweed, and boiled peanuts. When I came back, there was a slice of chocolate birthday cake and a glass of champagne resting on the bed, courtesy of the hotel.
Looking back, I realize that day and night was one of restoration. The treats were nice but what I really relished in was taking time to just be. I had forgotten what it felt like to be still, to not be constantly on the move and onto the next thing. I had been running from the busyness of the spring and the sadness of the summer, running to different cities and countries and new experiences. And now I was about to run and dive headfirst into a new life chapter in a new city.
But first: an immaculate king-size bed to jump on. A bubble bath to soak in. And a piece of chocolate cake with a single candle for me to light, make a wish on, and blow out with a big, deep, grateful breath.