Settling in

5 Sep

The Puxi side of Shanghai, as viewed (by someone else) from the Lupu Bridge

“I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like…”  Having departed Pudong Airport minutes earlier with a representative from my gap program, I now sat in a taxi, destined for my new home, listening to a taste of the old home: Cee-Lo Green, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson. While the rep, Jin Dan, and I made sporadic small talk in Chinese and English, the driver mercilessly fast-forwarded through his defective (and undoubtedly bootleg) CD of pop hits; he had little affection for slow ballads. But I wasn’t bothered. In fact, the up-tempo songs were a pitch-perfect match for my mood. 15 or so hours removed from America, watching low-rise apartments tinted orange by the late-afternoon sun whisk by, no amount of fatigue could dull my excitement to be in Shanghai.

After 45 minutes, the taxi abruptly pulled to the curb. I looked out the windows. Grocers, restaurants, newsstands, convenience stores, establishments of all varieties lined both sides of the wide, four-lane boulevard, Jinshajiang Road. Above the frenetic street rose apartment buildings five or six stories high. This would be home for the next three-and-a-half months.

Soon after stepping out of the car, I spotted five middle-aged Chinese women standing across the street, one of whom had to be my host mother. Sure enough, one perilous jaywalk later, I met my host-mother, the four other moms and Mason, a fellow “gapper” from San Francisco who had arrived a few days earlier. Mason took one of my bags while I carried the other up a flight of stairs to a second-floor apartment that overlooks Jinshajiang Road.

I spent a few minutes freshening up, then Mason took me on a tour of the East China Normal University (ECNU) campus, a five minute walk from my apartment. We entered at the main gate, an imposing white stone arch where a handful of policemen stood not-so-vigilantly, and through which motorized traffic passes. Beyond this edifice we walked straight, down the main campus road, as Mason identified points of interest. We ended up at the office the gap year organization, CIEE, maintains on campus, where I was introduced to the staff and teachers. In the adjacent room, I examined the small library of China-related books CIEE maintains. A sign on the cork board kindly requested that I, an international student, not show any books to Chinese students, as some of the material is banned in China.

When I returned home for dinner, around six o’clock, two new faces had arrived: my host-father and his (I think) college-age son, Dawei. I was happy to have Dawei, who speaks a little bit of English, end the uncomfortable silences that punctuated the dinner conversation whenever I had trouble unraveling what was being said or asked. My host-father, one in a long line of Chinese men to wear boxers and little else around the house, also tried to accommodate my months-dormant “Chinese brain” by talking slower and using different phrasings, but to no avail. After dinner, animatedly pantomiming how to operate the multiple doors and locks that lead into the apartment, he had more success getting the point across, though the words were still incomprehensible.

By this time, the jet lag I had so far evaded became palpable, the need for sleep overwhelming. I ventured to my bedroom, where suitcases lay on the floor untouched. The stifling Shanghai humidity as well as a desire to “do as the Romans do” compelled me to strip off extraneous clothing and slip under a single cover sheet. As I lay in the darkened room, a chorus of car horns, the rumble of mopeds, the loud jests and jubilant cries of ordinary people, the pulse of a city; they were all audible. For the first time in memory, I drifted to sleep listening not to one heart, but two.

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