I live on the west side of the Huangpu river, where there are all the coffee shops, restaurants, malls, cars and scooters you could hope for. Sometimes it is nice to cross to the other side of the water, where there is a 45 km foot-and-bike path and where, even if it isn’t actually, the air feels fresher. This time of year there are marigolds along the path and some of the trees still have their leaves.
A few weeks ago, Josh and I took the line 2 subway (which I like to complain about because it’s always crowded and I’m a grump about sharing space on the subway) under the river, and got bikes from the ubiquitous bike-share program Hellobike. Armed with a baguette, some pastries that are like madeleines but aren’t, and a thermos of instant coffee, we leisurely biked in the very autumnal air. (The only speed of biking I know how to do is leisurely. Sometimes I think I might just tip over sideways, I go so slow.) We saw a big bridge, biked alongside barges lumbering down the river, and heard a saxophone coming from some hidden park.
We noticed buildings every once in a while that looked like little cafes, with signs that said Service Center, and each had a number. Heading home we stopped at one and it was the most pleasant discovery. A big room with big windows looking over the river. Tables and chairs, a sofa, and a counter with stools along one of the windows, bookshelves with books for borrowing, and an electric tea kettle for heating hot water. It was basically the coziest coffee shop I’ve been in, only you don’t go to buy anything (you can bring your own food and drink, and there is drinking water available); you simply go to have a space to be.
Josh and I settled in with our treats, coffee and books. The winter sun came warm and low into Service Center 4. Some people typed away at laptops, others read, and three older men sat around a table, emphatically discussing (something), drinking tea and peeling oranges.
– Harry Potter y la orden del fénix by J.K. Rowling (author), Alicia Dellepiane, Gemma Rovira Ortega (translators) – The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (author), Margaret Mitsutani (translator) – Washington Blackby Esi Edugyan – Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (author), George Bird (translator) – The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
– The Library book by Susan Orlean – La familia de Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela – Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
– Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
– Harry Potter y el misterio del príncipe by J.K. Rowling (author), Gemma Rovira Ortega (translator) – Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worsley – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar
– The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams – The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan – The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee – North by Scott Jurek (with Jenny Jurek)
– El Little Príncipe by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author), Ilan Stavan (translator) – Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer – The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers – Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank
– Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney – The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaantje – The Final Solution by Michael Chabon – The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager
– Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos – Crónicas marcianas by Ray Bradbury (author), Francisco Abelenda (translator) – The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout – Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (author), William Weaver (translator)
– In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick – Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie – The Lost City of Z by David Grann – A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway – The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
– When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – Buzz, Sting, Bite by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (author), Lucy Moffatt (translator) – Normal People by Sally Rooney – O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
– Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon – Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout – Cantonese Love Stories by Dung Kai-Cheung – Labrador by Kathryn Davis – Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth
– Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Harry Potter y las reliquias de la muerte by J.K. Rowling (author), Gemma Rovira Ortega (translator)
Outside the wild boars root Without bending a bough underfoot
My fight-or-flight response system is heavy on the flight side. One time I was walking with my friend Danica when a big dog behind a small fence startled us with loud snarling. Instinctively, I placed Danica (maybe with a gentle shove) between the fence and me and took off running down the street. Another time, I saw a huge spider crawling on my friend Maren’s shoulder. I screamed and ran away, then screamed again from a safe distance, and wouldn’t even come close enough to tell her there was a spider prancing about on her.
The wiring of my sympathetic nervous system isn’t great for friendships (luckily I have very patient friends), or for being out in nature, because everything in nature is a little bit scary. Which is probably one reason I didn’t finish a 260-mile hike in July with my big brother, and why, when Josh and I came upon a small herd of wild pigs on a trail in Hong Kong, I reflexively ran the opposite direction, bopped off the trail and scrambled down a hill. After a roundabout go of it, we got back to where we would have come to a trailhead had we stayed on the trail, and saw hikers and joggers happily going through the group of pigs. One jogger got out her phone and went right up to a small pig to get a picture. So maybe I didn’t need to panic, after all.
Despite, and because of, the wild pig encounter, that hike in Hong Kong was one of the loveliest of my life. We started the walk from our hotel, wound our way over steep hills, on dirt, concrete, and brick paths, went up so very many stairs, and almost always had a view of green hills and bays with yachts and boats and barges. Our plan was to walk about seven miles from our hotel to a well-known trail called Dragon’s Back, and walk five miles on that trail until it ended at Big Wave Bay. Josh did the navigating using a very useful and mostly precise app called maps.me, but the distance it predicted was not quite accurate.
After eleven miles we hadn’t reached Dragon’s Back yet. We were a little hot and a little under-hydrated and hungry, when we saw stairs leading down to a mostly secluded beach. It was late afternoon and the sun on the sand and water was very inviting, and after getting in the water we sat on the stony beach and ate Lara and Kind bars and dried hawthorn fruit, which is my favorite treat I’ve found here. Shortly after that we found Dragon’s Back and saw more views and paragliders and people. We didn’t make it all the way to Big Wave, but the unnamed, unexpected cove was just as good (or even better, who the heck knows) and at the end of our hike we enjoyed a dusky walk toward our hotel, through a quiet and tiered cemetery, and into bustling Hong Kong.
The next day, we took the Green Mini Bus 40 along the coast to Stanley Bay. I really like seaside towns in the off-season. They are quiet and seem to move a little slower than normal and smell like sea salt. I assume, in addition to it being November, that the protests decreased the number of tourists. We didn’t see any of the protests (and didn’t seek any out, worrying a little about endangering our Chinese visas), and offered (impractical) mental solidarity to them, while enjoying the privilege of being carefree tourists. After a swim in Stanley Bay and a picnic with everything that a picnic should include, we hiked toward Repulse Bay.
It was a shorter hike, about five miles, and the first leg meandered past two Buddhist temples, quiet and with incense burning. We had gone about four miles when we came to some steep stairs that lead to a road that we would follow before jumping onto the last bit of trail. Josh was walking a little ahead of me and suddenly stopped short.
“That is a big mother—” he said, taking a step or two closer to get a better look. Blocking the top of the stairs were a stout wild pig and her two adolescent children. So I said, “Okay, we don’t really need to go to Repulse Bay, bye,” and turned around, because that’s what I do. Luckily, Josh was reluctant to turn back (we were tired and wanted to sit on the beach and were so close), and we waited until we saw the piggy family trot into the woods, then we continued up the stairs. I’m not sure what plans the wild pigs had, but I didn’t want to be included in them, and worried they might like to chase after and then eat a running human, so I made myself go slowly, but was very ready to fly.
And it turns out it was well worth coming close to battling the wild pigs. I swam in sunsetted water— one of the best ocean swims I’ve ever had—and read on the beach, and drank an overpriced vacation coffee and watched the sun do its thing over the hills and ships and water.
And Polo answers, “Traveling, you must realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form.”
Flying into the Tokyo Narita airport feels like flying into Kansas City, but not in a bad way. Even though I was excited to see Japan (and Asia, for that matter) for the first time as we descended toward Tokyo for a brief layover, I was sort of relieved to see the familiar bunches of trees and quilt-y farms and low-hanging clouds. It made Adventure feel a little more like adventure, which is, to be honest, more my type of outing.
Before leaving I was very eager to move to Shanghai. I felt antsy in Minneapolis and I wasn’t sure What I Wanted to Do (which disappointingly probably means how I wanted to make money), and I am very glad to have come here. I’m excited to explore other parts of China while here, and, in the future, to explore other countries. At the same time, I’m trying to figure out the value of having Experiences and Adventures versus being near people that I know and love.
To be sure, there is a lot that I like about Shanghai. There are bakeries and incredible public transportation systems and Mandarin lessons and fruit shops on every block, and there are tall, lit-up buildings, and parks with their park-cats and their denizens practicing musical instruments. There are the innumerable delightful daily interactions, like when the corner store clerk plopped two Chupa Chup lollipops in our grocery bag on October 31 with a grin and a very heartfelt: “Halloween!”
But China is also far away from a lot of people that I really like (for example, you, seeing as how you’re reading this [hi, Mom and Dad!]).
Shortly after starting my new job, I had a tremulous week of feeling wholly uncertain whether it had been the right decision to come here. I think a lot of that was getting adjusted to a great many things, including a very different type of work (so many children suddenly descended into my life). But even though the novel context magnified the emotions and now I feel much more at ease, I still want to unravel this desire to go out and about and see the world at large when that means geographically distancing myself from familiar and loving people.
I once had a college advisor tell me to abandon traveling because photographs just end up in the trashcan and to become a lawyer instead. I don’t think that there is any inherent merit in traveling over not traveling (in fact, if you don’t like traveling, it can probably be one of the most miserable things to subject yourself to), but I do like it, and it is what I want to be doing right now. It’s more than just photographs (even though I value those—I take dozens of really unfocused pictures a day); it’s about—and this is the part I can’t quite explain to myself—that shapeless genre of Experiencing New Things. I like the joyful struggle of trying to communicate in a new language and I like looking at a menu and pointing to a picture and seeing what I get, and sometimes I even like the jostle of walking among dozens of pedestrians and dodging scooters taking shortcuts across sidewalks.
But I also like, and miss, the smaller adventures of being closer to home: learning to fish and doing crossword puzzles in Broomfield; taking walks and watching fireflies in Columbia; playing pingpong and losing at chess in Lafayette; feeding chickens and eating in the fresh air in Boulder; drinking tea and talking short fiction in Denver; running along the Mississippi in Minneapolis; taking a reluctant dog for a morning walk and stumbling up the Great Sand Dunes in Alamosa.
Maybe it’s just that I’m realizing you have to choose one place to be in at a time, and that’s sort of a bummer when where I’ve chosen to be means being 6,000 miles away from quite a few places that feel like home. So, yeah, I’m glad that things don’t always look very different all the time.
You send your lover off to China and you wait for her to call
There’s nothing like stepping out your front door in a foreign city while listening to wistful early aughts music to make your life feel like a montage: an eddy of leaves intimates the arrival of fall; a scooter loaded with three generations beeps by; the vendor with the fish-and-something-else-filled pastries wipes down her cart, all while Mr. Counting Crows’ nostalgic voice propels you down the sidewalk.
And so, in homage to the montage, here are some highlights
from our first month in Shanghai:
(tl;dr: we’ve been in Shanghai for a month!)
We met our real estate agent, Tina, in a sunny alley somewhere in the Jing’an District where we had told her we wanted to live. She pulled up on a scooter and after briefly showing us two apartments that didn’t have kitchens and were out of our price range, she said not to worry, that there were plenty more apartments to see, and “Let’s go!” Which, to our delight, meant jogging after her as she assertively scootered in the street and on the sidewalk, steering with one hand and making phone calls with the other.
In the stairway of one apartment lived the most courteous
bird who greeted passersby with: “Good evening! Have you eaten?”
With Tina’s help translating, we signed the lease and paid the deposit on our new apartment (unfortunately with a birdless stairwell). Tina pointed out a bundle of sugarcane on the floor of the landlord’s office. She named the province it comes from and showed us how to eat it. There’s something enchanting and whimsical about eating a stalk of sugarcane with your landlord and realtor after signing a lease.
To turn your Z Visa into a residency permit you have to pass a medical examination. To get to the medical center you walk through a suburb of Shanghai that feels like Holland, and then enter a compound of buildings situated on very beautiful grounds.
The medical examination begins with cryptic shuffling from
room-to-room for paperwork (Josh was sent to another building and our friend was sent from that building to the building we had started out in) and then standing in line to pay an undetermined amount, which ranges, we are told, from 0 to 750 RMB. Everyone in front of me was asked to pay 461 RMB (about 65 USD) and when I got up to the window I gave the woman five pink 100 RMB notes, which she promptly handed back to me along with the paperwork I needed to proceed. Meanwhile, in the other building, Josh was asked to pay the 461 RMB.
The examination then includes being issued a very comfortable robe, which felt much more like a spa garment than anything you’d find in a hospital.
The actual check-up is an impressive feat of efficiently administered medical tests on hordes of mystified foreigners, most with no Chinese, all with varying degrees of English, communicating with medical professionals who have in turn their own varieties of English. The level of communication in lingua franca English is remarkable here, and I feel very fortunate that it happens to be my native language.
All of us robed and bewildered foreigners, passports and paperwork clutched in our hands, were then cycled through the medical tests in a mysterious but organized way. Josh and I, for example, never saw each other once in the maze of hallways and rooms, but we had all the same tests done and finished at the same time. With very little linguistic communication, we received an EKG, chest X-ray, ultrasound, had our blood drawn and our eyesight tested, and had our height, weight, and blood pressure taken.
Everything felt sanitary enough and all the medical personnel were polite, but if you wanted to you could imagine it all feeling very much like a YA dystopian novel: foreigners in matching robes on a grim rainy day roaming grim clinical hallways, being shuffled from medical test to medical test with no way of knowing what to expect next.
Or, as Josh put it, it felt like there was a chance we had just
signed up for the army.
Sites, food & everythingelse
Each day is filled with details specific to being in a new place. Everything is novel. Every day Josh and I walk on a new street, see a new site (a small boy sitting on the back of a scooter while holding a cat that is tucked into a backpack and has a cone around its face!), try a new food, mispronounce a new word. To top off the montage, here are a few more photographs from the past month:
The best part of all this is that I’m here in China, experiencing all these adventures, with my specialsomeone, so I don’t even have to wait for him to call.
– Pragmatic spectator cheering on participating friend
At 7:00am, Josh and I headed out the door to jog to the starting line of our second marathon. We had woken up earlier than we needed to, but were well-stretched and, for the most part, not grumpy. It was 48°F with no wind and no rain. Most of our training runs had been in the 70s, so although the conditions were about perfect, my legs felt a little more tight at the outset than I would have liked.
It really is all mental
“Mental fitness plays a big role during competition. If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you.” — Philosopher Kipchoge
As soon as I crossed the starting mat, my mental game nimbly escaped from me. I was surprised at how overwhelmed I felt at the number of participants and spectators and had a hard time settling into a comfortable rhythm. At the halfway point, my mental game was so off that I started crying—not from muscle cramps or aches, but simply from feeling overwhelmed. Patient Josh had the mental capacity to carry both of us through my blues, as he kept the pace, made jokes, pointed out signs and cute dogs and asked me to tell him the most surprising twists from the first two Harry Potter books (turns out Voldemort is involved in both of them!).
Around mile 15 I was finally able to shake off the grumps and start enjoying the fall foliage and the very enthusiastic spectators lining almost every part of the course (I actually think running a marathon takes less energy than watching one in the style that those supporters did). Somewhere during mile 16 I overheard an exchange that got me through the next 10 miles. A spectator had spotted his friend on the course, who said that things were going pretty well but he was starting to feel it. The spectator responded in the most matter-of-fact way: “Well, Mike, it’s a marathon.”
Oh, right. It’s okay to not feel comfortable. So I began feeling much more at ease with my discomfort and started interacting a little more with the spectators to take my mind off of running. The Chicago marathon was going on at the same time, and we were curious about the results. As we passed one group of spectators I asked no one in particular who had won Chicago and, without missing a beat, they shouted, “Mo!” Although it was a brief interaction, for some race-magic reason, it was very uplifting.
At mile 20, my legs were feeling well enough that I felt confident I wasn’t going to have any muscle cramps (something that I experienced during my first marathon), which buoyed my spirits enough to avoid any pits of despair in the last 10k. When Josh and I saw the finish line, I glanced at my watch and realized we were going to make it across in just under our goal time. I slumped over the final mat, hugging Josh and yelling: “We made it! I didn’t think we were going to!”
Josh and I are training for our first 50k, which we’ll undertake on December 1 outside of Scottsdale, AZ. Update: After limping across the finish line due to a knee injury at the Broomfield Marathon in November 2018, we did not participate in the 50k, and have seldom run since. When the time is right, I’m excited to get back on the running horse and gallop off!