By Celeste Hughey
I have been here before. The summer of 2001, before the world changed. I was fifteen and bursting at the thought of China. China. I would say it to myself just to try to make it more real. China. The China I read about and dreamed about and dragged myself through character quizzes just to be able to say “Ni Hao” to the customs agent at the airport. I spent years imagining those first moments. Would it be half as staggering as I wished for? Would my lifelong fascination hold up to the reality? Would I be floored by the foreignness? And I was—I think I was—because I’ve come back.
When I first came, the area around PuDong International was bleak and hazy yellow in the morning sun. The highway was new and cut through farmland. I must’ve fallen asleep because when I woke up we were descending a massive, spiraling highway ramp into downtown. The chronology of those first days remains disjointed. I remember, though, walking through a tunnel to a subway in a sea of black hair, my shoulders above most people’s ears. And the stares I got. The looks of bewilderment. How did you get here? Why are you here? Why aren’t you above ground with the rest of the Westerners? There was also the constant, breath-seizing zeal of unfamiliarity. But those impressions are blurry now and memory snapshots fade in and out like a dream moments before waking.
The farmland isn’t there anymore. Even before landing, I could tell I was not returning to the same place. Housing developments and warehouses cover the fields that first introduced me to China. Shanghai was eager then and ready to impress. Now, Shanghai is buzzing with self-consciousness. It is polished and preening.
And the city is trying to impress me. The bars and stores are glitzier. The English is honed. There is cheese to be found in restaurants. Certain city blocks are a hybrid of any-metropolis. They are at once familiar and totally bizarre. The dizzying ‘different’ that met me before is hiding and, in some cases, seems gone altogether. Even then, though, signs of encroaching modernity loomed over the historical sights. I still have a picture of the Dragons snaking along the top of the Yu Yuan wall with a lone skyscraper jutting out behind it like an awkward teenager. That building is still an awkward teenager but only because superior skyscrapers now dwarf it. I was an awkward teenager then in desperate need of attention. And China gave it to me, the six-foot tall, tan and curly creature. My picture was snapped multiple times daily. Now I’m not such an anomaly. The stares still come but with less frequency and less interest. I have been here before, and so now have many others.
But I’m not mourning the Shanghai I first met. I have fresh eyes and this is a fresh city.