Saturday, May 26, 2012

Goodbye Shanghai

My company didn't want to pay to have my belongings shipped to Beijing so instead we agreed that the four of us flying up (I'm the only permanent post) would just check all of my earthly possessions and everyone else would go carry on. Today I broke down and bought an extra box to ship. In it I've packed a juicer, hiking boots, a massive pink cosplay wig, two bags of Yunnan-roasted coffee, my copy of North Korean monster film Pulgasari and my Chinese homework, plus some clothes and books. Necessities, all. 

Packing is exhausting. I came to Shanghai with two huge bags. Two months ago, I sent my little brother back to the States with two even huger bags and I've already packed three sizable bags for Beijing. Now my apartment is fairly empty and if someone asked me to make an itemized list of what's in these bags, I wonder if I could remember even a quarter of it. I don't think I'd be that sad if one or two didn't make it to their final destination. I guess I don't care that much about most of my stuff, but it's comforting most of it is coming north with me. I'm still probably going to have to buy a new comforter and some dishes and a coffee pot. On a somewhat related note, I sent these shoes home with my brother. By my count, they've crossed the Pacific Ocean at least four times. I will also be hand carrying a tube of Mao-Era propaganda posters I bought at the Shanghai Propaganda Museum to Beijing, then I will hand carry them to Taiwan in July when I visit James and he will hand carry them back to the good old USA. Those are definitely some of my most precious possessions. Just a moment ago James walked over and put my ceramic sunflower seed (from Ai Weiwei's project) on the coffee table and reminded me not to forget it. To celebrate the demolition of his Shanghai studio, Ai Weiwei (who was barred from coming down from Beijing for the event) had folks feed everyone who showed up river crabs and gave away art books and seeds, Jess went and brought me back a seed.

Last night my editorial team here had a big night at our favorite wine bar. Right as we sat down, my photographer nudged me and pointed out that one of my subjects from my very first cover story was also in the bar. I said hi to the guy, turns out he too is moving up to Beijing this week, to launch a startup. People are always leaving Shanghai. It's just that kind of city. 

I managed not to get too emotional saying goodbye to everyone, because I knew if I did I'd probably be a big blubbery mess. Our photographer put together a compilation of photos he's amassed over the last two years of all of us on the job. They're wonderful. It was the best send off gift. If I muster the patience, I may try to post some of the photos here later.

I've had a great two years. I had a job that I loved and I got to work with a team of fun people that I genuinely liked. Other people in our company have mentioned how often they hear laughing from the editorial department. I'm sure we have the loudest office, and also the most fun one. I feel like my adult life really got started in Shanghai. I will remember this as a happy stretch where I grew a lot and wrote a lot and saw a lot and did it all in very fine company.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Big News

I got called up north. I've dashed my carefree summer non-plans to go become the chief editor of That's Beijing. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) how many Anna Wintour jokes I've received since the news became public, which was only very, very recently. I've also heard Beijing traffic horror stories that make Los Angeles sound down right suburban.

I haven't blogged any in the past couple weeks as all of this was finalized. It's been my preoccupation of late, but I couldn't say anything until all was decided so I haven't said anything at all.

This time next week I'll be waking up my first morning in Beijing. I've given away most the things I'm not taking. My flight is purchased. I've said a lot of goodbyes. It's a bit easier since a lot of people are in Beijing now and again so we don't have to act like it's quite so final. I've also been in the awkward situation of telling people in my outer circle of friends that I don't have time to grab a drink after work this week since I'd rather spend time with the people who matter before we're separated (obviously I didn't add the last part). 

Last night I had a dream I found an extra large duffle bag (something I need in real life) and that as I cleaned my room I kept pulling old food from out beneath my bed. I pulled out two old roast turkeys coated in moldy white film and as I took them out to the dumpster in the hall I kept passing people who'd already left Shanghai.

Up until early this month the idea of living in Beijing never seriously crossed my mind. Strange times. Although I think my friends in America are less surprised this time around as every time I say "Oh I'll probably/definitely be back in America by _____" I wind up pushing it back. They're used to it now.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Happy Birthday, Richard Adams

Every day I get the Writer's Almanac in my inbox. Honestly, usually I can't be bothered to finish reading the poems they send and I hurriedly skim the newsletter that follows, but I'm glad I didn't miss this item: 

Today is the birthday of the novelist Richard Adams, born in Wash Common, England (1920). He was working as a civil servant, and he had two young daughters, for whom he often made up stories. They were preparing for a long car trip when one of the girls told him he had to make up a new story, a long one that would last the whole journey. He began to spin a yarn about a band of rabbits escaping the destruction of their warren. There was Fiver, a weakling and a prophet; along with Hazel and Bigwig, inspired by two soldiers Adams had known during the war.
The story lasted the trip and more, and when it was done, Adams' daughter Juliet said, "You ought to write it down, Daddy. It's too good to waste." He did, taking nearly two years, and it was rejected by many publishers as too grown-up for kids and too simple for adults. A small publisher finally accepted it, but only printed a small initial run and couldn't afford to pay Adams any advance. After notable positive reviews, sales took off and within a couple of years, Watership Down (1972) had sold more than a million copies.

On my dad's recommendation, I read Watership Down in 1997, on the two-week trip my family took to adopt my oldest little brother, Billy. I'm overdue to reread it. I remember being very emotionally invested in those poor little rabbits. I'd never heard the story behind the book, so what an interesting little surprise.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's good to be good to people

We have a great cleaning lady at work. She always says good morning, she's mindful of whose coffee cups belong to whom, she tells me what fruits to avoid in the afternoon for the sake of my Qi, and she loves to tell me and my co-worker that we're beautiful. Who wouldn't love that?

The other day, while I was out of the office, she teared up while showing a letter she'd written to one of my fellow editors. It was addressed to our company's previous landlord, who was apparently very kind to our cleaning lady. Then, still feeling emotional, she told my co-worker that people always ask why she spends so much time chatting with the editorial department. She told her it's because we always look her in the eye when we speak to her and she can tell by that how we feel about her. She said she knows her job isn't regarded as important, but she appreciates the respect we give her.

My co-worker gave her a pat on the back, feeling awkward and embarrassed, because it's not as if this is something intentional on our parts. If I had to guess, there are probably two reasons our department stands out in the eyes of our cleaning lady. (We're the only department that's majority Western.) Culturally, eye contact is more important to us when addressing people. And we have different feelings about relationships and power distance. We have much less of a problem telling the boss when we think he's wrong, and we also probably are more inclined to chat with the cleaning lady. 

I've seen (not regularly, but sometimes) Chinese people treat service staff in a manner that to me seems appalling and dehumanizing, behavior like snapping one's fingers at a waiter in a restaurant and not looking at them or saying "please" or "thank you." And it took me awhile to adjust to the fact it's acceptable and expected to address your cleaning lady as "ayi" (aunty) and your cab driver as "shifu" (skilled worker). Here on the mainland, we're supposed to address waiters as "fuwuyuan" (service person) because "xiaojie" (miss) is a euphemism for prostitute in the south. I still slip up and call a waitress "xiaojie" sometimes (which is acceptable in Taiwan). It just feels strange reducing someone to their labor. I had an equally hard time in Taiwan where everyone addressed the school managers as "zhuren" (manager). I wasn't expected to do this since I was a foreigner. What's more disconcerting to me is when the Chinese editors who have to deal with our censors address them as "laoshi" (teacher), which is a form of respect for older, educated folks. 

Of course I prefer my own culture because it's mine. But that's not to say everyone else is wrong, or that the other departments in our company are wrong for not taking more time out of the day for our cleaning lady - she doesn't expect it, but she appreciates it. 

It's easy to lose your manners in Shanghai. There are low expectations for showing consideration to strangers. Sometimes it drives me nuts. There's a checker at the corner grocery who seems to make a point of ringing up the items and then chucking them away from your open plastic bag, just to make the point that she isn't going to bag your groceries for you. Fine. But just because there's a low bar where social expectations are concerned, doesn't mean my personal bar has to sink too. Since my co-worker told me about her conversation with our cleaning lady, I've tried to be more intentional about looking people in the eye and smiling and almost always that friendliness is reciprocated. It's so much better to concentrate on conveying good feelings to others than to dwell on frustration. I'll try to remember that.