Farewell to Shanghai
I’m sitting on the balcony of my Shanghai apartment, emptied out months ago by movers. My apartment building has a filthy pool that hasn’t been used in years, but it’s kept full, and the ripples reflect light onto the balcony ceiling like I’m on a resort holiday. I was woken up around 7:30 am by the construction of the office tower/mall next door. As I sit on a rickety IKEA lawn chair and type this, dozens of workers are banging, soldering, and building away across the street, the noise ricocheting around the block. The air smells of saw dust, paint, and incense from a neighbor’s family alter nearby. It’s far from serene.
I don’t mind it. This is the cacophony of a city moving forward. The eerie silence of lockdown granted me a new appreciation for what I once considered grating noise. So much has happened since I left in August of last year. More lockdowns. Protests. The overnight lifting of zero covid. Massive covid outbreak that graphed like a rollercoaster ride. And now… Spring. I got back just as the weather was warming, and people can’t stop telling me about my good luck.
Sure, there have been many catching up conversations about the hardship we and the city endured in the past year, some reliving of the wildest, most nonsensical moments during lockdown, but all in all there’s a sense of a new chapter. It's hard not to want to stay and write that new chapter with my friends and fellow city dwellers.
Shanghai had been my home for the past 10 years. I arrived as at 27, and I’m about to turn 37 at the end of this month. This city was where I fell in and out of love, built a career, made and lost friends. Every other street corner marks a memory. Here was my first, second, and third Shanghai apartment. This was the bar where I had that terrible tinder date that should have been a paid therapy session. This was the park where a friend and I shared one last cup of coffee before she departed Shanghai. This was the theater where I spent many nights either enjoying or performing a show...
It's a privilege to be able to come back for a farewell tour. Many of my friends here are envious that I *get* to leave. There’s still a sense that Shanghai’s stuck. Creativity under censorship is compromised. It still thrives, but certain creative muscles, much like my leg did in a splint, inevitably atrophy with long disuse.
Shanghai had become my comfort zone. And the thought of leaving it behind plainly terrifies me. The fear coexists in equal measure with the excitement for all the possibilities of a new life in the greatest city on earth. I try to remember what kind of headspace I was in when I decided to move to Shanghai 10 years ago. 27-year-old Vickie didn’t worry as much. When I first moved to Shanghai, the comfort zone I clung to was my romantic relationship. It kept my world small.
It was far from an easy landing. I got a couple of crappy jobs at first, quit, and then was unemployed for a good six months before I finally got an offer with Gensler, my big break. Looking back, I recall many empty, lonely days. I was too intimidated by Shanghai’s chaos to venture out. I merged myself into my then boyfriend’s life and neglected to start my own. I relied on his social circle and neglected old hobbies. But once I got out, Shanghai never stopped surprising me with new adventures, for good or ill. I started doing things like burlesque and comedy, and built my own circle of friends, many now scattered all over the world.
Ten years later, this whole city is my comfort zone. And it grieves me to accept that my next chapter isn’t going to be written here. Rationally, realistically, I know New York is NEW YORK. A city I’ve dreamed of living in since childhood. But the awesomeness of New York doesn’t cancel out my love for Shanghai. I’m glad I got to return to see it in full bloom, instead of having my last worst moments in the city define my departure. I’m not arrogant enough to think that a city of 25 million will somehow stay stuck in my absence. And I’m grateful for the chance to be humbled by its forward momentum and leave on good terms.