Type
Reflection
Category
Writing

Notes on Shanghai

In every room for loneliness, I notice windows. How the fractured light pours in through angles. How the dull white noise empties itself into the echo of a siren. There are no neighbours here; people drift in and out as they please. I listen to fragments of conversations I am not part of. The city speaks, and I wait. When I catch my reflection in the glass, I am surprised by my own face. I watch myself being watched. Unsure if I am inside, or out.

Liminal spaces exist in the ambiguous – on the train ride home, in the grocery store, in the empty parking lot at midnight. You bump into a childhood friend in the bathroom queue at a concert venue, and laugh at the absurdity of it all. You take the night bus, you watch cars pass. More windows, more lights. Even then, tenderness for this strange world we inhabit. There is a certain beauty that follows constant movement, like the slight blur of a film still. I know it in the impressionist’s careful hand. In the quiet hours of writing, when I slip out of this world and into the next. These are the places we disappear to. The in-between, the foreign self.

 

Dear Daffnie & Donna Our granddaughter:
How are you.              Time is

 

very fast.        
   Since we come back from Australia,        there have been one year.
We are all the time think of you.         Ye Ye and Nay Nay wish your sisters

 

will make more          
      progress and         good health.
Your Ye Ye and Nay Nay
in Shanghai China
2009

 

Winter in Shanghai is a thinly veiled portrait. Every recollection is tinted blue, wrapped in a wool coat, thrown carelessly into half-packed luggage. Moments of clarity come rarely, sparked by the most mundane memories: crowded markets, the smell of instant coffee, my grandmother’s hands clasped around mine. There is a sense of urgency in the quick tongue of Mandarin, mirrored in the busy streets that smile at me with teeth full of light, saying, follow me, follow me.

Between skyscrapers and screaming neon signs, there are empty alleyways, and pockets full of silence. Translated literally, Shanghai means ‘city on the sea’. It was the first city opened to foreign involvement under British imperialism, and Western influences are present in even the most sacred spaces. Remnants of European architecture look grey next to the yellow ginkgo trees. The colours bloom slowly, then all at once. My childhood fascination turns into a feeling I recognise as longing.

I was newly nineteen, and it was my second time visiting my father’s hometown. I stayed in a white hotel room with my mother and my sister. We are used to our quiet living in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, so this small shared space was not unfamiliar. We left clothes drying near the heater, and stockings strewn on top of open suitcases; the kind of intimacy that only grows in a house full of women. When you are on holiday, the space you inhabit is not a replica of home, but a transitional place for the old and new. Every day you wake up to bleak art on the walls. Art Deco mirrors reflect a line of unused coat hangers. You step out and return with the same promise that you will be gone soon.

In the box hotel room, I tried painfully to recreate old rituals. I sat down with a boiled kettle and a paper cup of black tea. I kept a pile of books on my bedside table, but only ever picked one up to feel the comfort of its dense weight in my hands. I thought of Sylvia Plath. In my dog-eared, well-worn copy of her collected journals, there is an underlined passage that says, ‘Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth.’ To go on living, near the earth. Without the constant ache of finding words or making art, I began to dream lavishly of an idle life.

There is only one filled page from the makeshift diary that I carried with me during my trip. It is a little black notebook, small enough to fit into the palm of my hand.

Tuesday 28th November 2017

I am away from home, and as usual, I feel strange. I’m too tired to write. I come home and fall asleep instantly. What can I say? I love Shanghai, I despise my father. I am spoiled and fat all day. I want to make art that is inspired by this city, but it’s hard to find words. The hotel room is small and cramped, but good. Everyone is kind to me. My grandparents love me so much. I’m scared they will die soon.

 

I didn’t read much while I was in Shanghai, but I found myself drawn to the bright red and yellow paperback cover of Haruki Murakami’s memoir. I picked it up from a large stationery store for seventy-six ren min bi. His words seem to follow me around. I often imagine myself as one of his characters, frequenting libraries after-hours, playing jazz music. Possibly wandering off with stray cats. In every Murakami novel, night scenes are alive in the unknown. Men are lost within themselves, women are objects of desire – they fuck, they disappear. They marry silence.

In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes, quite literally, about the physical and mental strains of marathon running. To go on and continue. And how it is manifested in the act of writing, an enduring race against the self. I read it slowly, in the hotel room, in the back of a taxi, suspended in the air on the plane trip home. When I listen to ‘Darling Be Home Soon’ by the Lovin’ Spoonful, I imagine Murakami listening to it on his morning jog. They are two of the only things that make me think of Shanghai in my everyday life – the song, and the book. It stands out on my cramped bookshelf, fitted neatly between 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood.

English translated Chinese books are thin and small, and all the pages feel familiar to me. I know them as gifts from my father, packed into a single suitcase between paper fans and dresses that don’t fit right. Love is always mediated through symbols here. A peeled prawn or sliced fruit means: take care of your hands. A texted photo of the sunset means: I’m thinking of you. No parting words. Our twin moon faces, illuminated by the artificial light of airport terminals. In Shanghai, my father stands taller. He walks with the confidence of someone who always knows where they are heading. We talk amiably about nothing. Bodies stretch and grow, moments are lost, feelings poorly translated. Between the two of us, we hold ten years’ worth of silence.

 

(Every night is a feast that pulls at my paper-doll appetite. It starts with the slow trickle of wine, followed by the slight groan of chairs being pulled under feet. We sit at round dinner tables, and unfold paper cranes made from napkins. The sound of laughter is lifted over my head – no one speaks to me directly. I grow used to the conversations of men. I am the youngest; I serve them first. When the cold dishes arrive to herald the start of the meal, their names roll off my foreign tongue with new discomfort. Liangbanbocai, zuì jī. My father, drunk off spirits, has a voice that slices through the room. I listen to him like a small child. I smile when he tells me to, laugh when I hear everyone else laughing. There is a faint humming in the air that surrounds me. Outside, the sky blushes pink, then deepens. The half-moon that rises is the red crescent lipstick stain on my teacup.)

 

On my last night in Shanghai, I dressed myself as a parting gift. We were going to a distant relative’s wedding, and I decided to wear a qipao for the first time. It was white cotton with a red-trimmed mandarin collar. Loose around the waist, and too long for me. I felt like a different person in my new dress and my borrowed heels. I clumsily painted my face with red lipstick and dark eyeliner, fussing over myself in the small bathroom mirror of our hotel room.

‘You look very Chinese,’ my mother said, lingering in the doorway.

What she meant was, you don’t look like me. My Filipino blood lingers in the forgetful slip of my accent, and the warm glow my skin. Of all my mother’s inheritances, I carry her grief like a loaded gun. The song of our home is an elegy. I learn to smooth sharp corners with a rehearsed softness. I don’t speak any Mandarin, but I stumble through the language of Tagalog with a clumsy tongue. I eavesdrop with ease, no matter who is speaking. My mother tells me I look pretty like a doll.

The beauty of the qipao is not the embroidered silk or the careful folds, but the relationship it has to the body wearing it. It fits like a second skin. It hugs the hips, it suffocates. In my cheap qipao, I become an Oriental caricature of someone parading as a Chinese girl. The high slit screams erotic, exotic. In his study of cultural appropriation, Adam Geczy says: ‘the Orient lives on everywhere, including in the Orient itself.’ In every dream, I am a voyeur to myself, possessed by the white man who lives inside me. The body is dispossessed, then colonised. I live in this constant state of untangling – watching, and waiting and, crawling out of something I barely recognise, like an unfocused photograph.

 

Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa once said: ‘alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of colour does not feel safe within the inner life of the Self.’ What is the Self, and where does she live? The postcolonial third space of liminality is both startling and comforting, but always heavy with longing for a place that doesn’t exist.

Whenever I write about this yearning, the ache that lives in the spine is a language I never learned how to speak. There is no desire to feel full, only a hunger for the absence of absence. Every poem calls for silence. Every line is a week of weaving; staring at walls, at strangers, at the slow changing of seasons. All day, I sit with the feeling. I speak to no one in an attempt to hear myself. The constant knocking is a feverish pulse. The stanzas are stitched together through gritted teeth. How it hurts to become.

In June, the beginning of a new winter is a gentle reminder of how quickly things pass. I meet Emma in a tea cafe near my home. We are friends from university, but we share the same long distance between the city and the suburbs we grew up in. We sit together, knees touching, and speak tenderly of loss. After returning from her trip to Vietnam, she is eager, almost hopeful, for a deeper connection to her family history. ‘I feel like I have to unlearn it,’ she tells me. ‘It’s painful. But we have to start somewhere.’

Her stories have a warmth that is absent in my memory of Shanghai. She knows Vietnam is the motherland with a hand that always feeds. Her crowded dinners are home-cooked meals of steaming fish. The colours she remembers are blue, or yellow, or rusted street-lamp orange. We mull over the experiences we share, and the ones we do not. Trauma is an exchange of feelings that are yet to exist. When we bring it to the light, we unearth something so terrifying, it is almost detached. I hold it out before me with guilt. I close my eyes.

Emma tells me she is interviewing her dad about his own trauma, and how it is carried through family. I am always envious of people who are able to speak freely with their fathers, but I bury the thought for another day.

‘I hope it goes well,’ I tell her.

‘Me too,’ she says. ‘But it’s okay if it doesn’t.’

 

(Shanghai, I am your golden daughter.
I swallow what you feed. I walk through the halls of my body          like it is a museum of lost things.                        
                        Here is the room I built on my own.               Window of my heart,              small mouth
for sunlight and cicada songs.            I am your prodigal son,

 

I raise myself. You are a         burning city. I am                   the witness of your red hands.
I’ve been smelling the smoke for years, but there is no fire.
You dress me              pretty, you want me sweet. I write to you
in my mother-tongue. There is no fire.)

 

There isn’t much to do when you arrive home, except to revisit places that are somewhat familiar, and wonder if you have changed. I wear my green dress, I slip my headphones on. I get off at Central station and walk down the same path I have followed many times, towards the White Rabbit Gallery. It is a small sanctuary in a world of Western art. As an exclusive collection of contemporary Chinese artwork, it houses a maze of Chinese ink, subdued pigments, and audio-visual installations that speak to cyberpunk futurisms. I know it is a white woman’s vision of an authentic China. We are always familiar with odes to the motherland, but never with the children of its diaspora. Asia continues to exist in the Western imagination, as I shift through the fragments of what I thought would be my home, of the image of China that I have been fed.

All the faces here look like my own. We stare at each other with misgiven intent. I see the slope of my eyelid in the curve of an impasto-thick smile. Piercing blue porcelain. China doll on the shelf. In Cui Jie’s oil painting Crane’s House 3, the urban Shanghai landscape is reinvented into a hybrid collage. Pastel colours bleed into each other, scratched and dripping wet. She paints the apartment complex windows as empty reflections of muted grey. I open the door to this surreal place. Tentatively, I step inside.

 

Image: Flickr

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Donnalyn Xu is a Filipino-Chinese writer from Sydney. Her work has been published in Honi Soit, Hermes, The USYD Anthology 2017, and Growing Strong. She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney, studying Media & Communications with a major in English and Art History.

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