Thursday, July 5, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai

The midnight wind howled wildly on my liquor-tinged face. I was seated at the back of my roommate's motorbike, speeding past red lights, taking in those fleeting seconds of eternal youth. Shanghai's glitzy streets zoomed by in a wild blur. I've never felt so free.

We had just come from a downtown club filled with friends from Fudan - a night of festive dancing, funny poses, and farewell hugs. The sun peeked from the horizon; July was going by too fast. We rode past the pavements still alive with tipsy foreigners and beeping cabs. Shanghai, the city that never sleeps. We pass by the French Concession, Nanjing Road, the Bund... these places trigger in me a high-speed reel of reminiscence. As my mind flashed across the memories, I realized that they were too important not to keep. Since then, I waited for the words to come, for my emotions to build momentum and crash onto paper as ink. It's not easy trying to catch a waterfall in a bottle, but here goes.

In August 2010, I came to Shanghai with little more than a scholarship notice and a mindset for adventure. As I stood quietly in line during registration day, my thoughts drifted back to the smooth-sailing life I had left behind, and I pondered about the possibility of spending one lonely year in this strange city. As it turned out, those thoughts wouldn’t even last a day. After wandering around the sprawling campus for about an hour, I found the dorm building and went up to what was going to be my home for one year, Room 327. I was lucky to find a great roommate there, who then introduced me to our friendly third-floor neighbors. We would spend the next few days partying at Shanghai’s famous nightspots, drinking and dancing as though we had known each other for years, and nothing would be the same since.

In the first semester, everything hummed with a sense of carefree newness. From the dingy corridors of Building 2 to the bright open spaces of Guanghua, our classrooms gathered people from different nations and even more diverse backgrounds. I had classmates who were exchange students, central bankers, part-time models, and full-time bums. In this melting pot we lived a hundred vicarious lives through stories we shared in our accented English and broken Chinese. The more we shared, the more we discovered that we weren’t so different after all. It was amazing how a bunch of strangers hailing from every corner of the world had all been brought together at the same time and place by a common desire to learn the Chinese language. 

Although we had our fair share of homework from subjects like Intensive Reading, Listening, and Writing, no one really studied. On warm days, we would run to Fudan’s many open fields and play football. As it got colder, we tried go-kart driving, yoga, movie nights, and midnight snowball fights. We were part-time students and full-time fun-seekers. On the day before our exams, we played 4 on 4 DoTA in our neighbor’s room for eight hours of bliss, interrupted only by a McDonald’s delivery at 3 in the morning. 

For many  of us, it was the longest we had ever been away from home, and no one dared to waste this unprecedented freedom. We got to pick oranges in the middle of Taihu with a group of North Korean scholars during our field trip. We grabbed the chance to watch the world’s top tennis players during the Shanghai Masters. While traveling around Beijing, we spontaneously decided to book a jampacked, standing-room train to Inner Mongolia, where we spent a day horseback riding across Hohhot’s endless grasslands. And right before our exam week, we went straight to Nanjing after yet another DotA all-nighter and climbed behind a guarded fence to reach an ancient mountain observatory.

Weekends were all about playing drinking games at the dorm lobby, drinking even more at the smoky grounds of Helen’s, and hopping around clubs once we started to get tipsy. On the way back we would open the cab windows and let our singing voices crack the silence of the breaking dawn. Every other weekend, there would be some friend of a friend holding a house party at Tonghe, which were peppered with heavy drinking, occasional flirting, and formulaic conversations asking where you’re from, which class you’re in, and how many clubs you’ve been to.  

The second semester was a little tamer but no less fun. As I grew more familiar with Shanghai life, I started to establish set routines. I had classes from Tuesday to Friday, where we studied Business Chinese, Law and Finance in China, and Chinese Economic History. Group presentations replaced the previous semester’s homework and exams. Since we would usually finish class early, I spent my afternoons playing basketball in the open courts or loitering around sunny Wujiaochang. I especially enjoyed riding my bike around the campus in the midst of the spring breeze and dancing leaves. 

My routine was not as set with food. On some days, my classmates and I would bring Coco milk tea and some oily Muslim chaofan to the Guanghua grass field for a short lunch picnic. We also made the rounds at nearby restaurants like the always-packed Dongbei restaurant and crowd-favorite Ciao Cafe. On Wednesday nights, we had Filipino potluck dinners at my friend’s place down the street. For most other nights, we alternated between delivery food, street food outside the dorms, the basket of crispy glazed ING chicken, and rice meals from the Japanese restaurant with the creepy ayi.

The highlight of the second semester was definitely our school trip to Guilin. The twenty-three hour train ride to Guilin was a Hogwarts Express of sorts. We owned that train. More than a hundred Fudan students mingled boisterously on the way to a land of legendary beauty. Guilin was also where my twenty-one year streak of quiet birthday celebrations ended, on the night of April 12, 2011. I received a string of surprises throughout the day, climaxing when I entered my dark room and around twenty friends from around the world came together to greet me with a birthday cake and a bottle of Maotai. Already drunk at the bar, I got dragged to the stage to sing random songs. We headed to the club afterwards, where pandemonium struck at midnight. They played the Happy Birthday song, and more than a hundred people sang and cheered and jostled me left and right. All the while, I tried to keep my composure but inside it was fireworks. I was in a daze, a state of mad euphoria which my mind and senses could no longer comprehend. It was my best birthday ever. 

The next few months took us to even more places. We journeyed to the picturesque mountain range of Huangshan and to my ancestral hometown of Xiamen. We biked around the hills of Chongming islands. In Qingdao, we joined the US delegation in a televised parade that marked the beer city’s anniversary. On the weekends that we weren’t travelling, we engaged in less clubbing and more indoor sports, food trips, and KTV sessions that meandered till dawn. 

Fudan had become our home, the stage of our shared experiences. In the short span of time when this group of strangers crossed paths, we found a big brother from Korea, a lover from Africa, a best friend from Spain, someone we look up to from the other side of the world. I would learn a great deal from these people, things that classes will never be able to teach. Walking on the school grounds, I would see familiar faces hailing from unfamiliar lands. In many ways, that little corner of Shanghai was the world - a world that got bigger with all the grand sights and colorful stories, but also smaller because now in every corner of the globe we had someone we once watched a movie with at Wanda, or shared a drink with at Helen’s, or rubbed elbows with in the suffocating crowds of M2. This big world had become such a cozy place.

Still, July came too soon. I like to believe that I will meet everyone again, that those last weeks were not goodbyes but see-you-next-times. But life is not a perpetual reel of reminiscence - some friends are recurring characters, and some just play a single act in the story of our lives. Looking back, I've come to realize that what matters most is not the duration of our friendships but rather the impact that we had on one another at that moment in our lives, such that our time in Shanghai became an existential turning point for many of us.

A year has since passed. I wrote this to chronicle those crazy times, those ordinary places we turned extraordinary through our recklessness and joy. I wrote this to remember that once upon a time, we were all strangers from strange lands, yet our stories all intersected in Shanghai. We spent the best year of our lives with each other, and we would leave with a constellation of memories and friendships that light up the world.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stumbling upon the meaning of home in a faraway place

I'm on my office computer now, on the tail end of another lazy day. I just finished my last project, an innovation trends study for airport retail. My boss is currently on a business trip, and since we're all partners-in-crime here in our small office, I'm basically free to do anything I want. Normally, I'd be on another tab right now, scrolling down an endless Facebook newsfeed and right-clicking "Open in New Tab" for every story I find interesting, which eventually leads to 50 new tabs and the next few hours flushed away. Repeat ad infinitum. I indulge in this strangely therapeutic madness whenever I'm bored, but today I strangely have an itch to write, something I haven't really felt in months.

I've been working here in Shanghai for more than seven months now. I'm generally satisfied with my work (although the pay could be a lot better) and I know that I've been blessed with a wonderful opportunity to work in a small company with a big brand prestige, meet interesting people in the Chinese and European business circles, and engage in my ideal line of work which are innovation and consulting. Moreover, it's the experience of working abroad which I really find enriching. For better and for worse, the unprecedented freedom I'm experiencing here has changed me. Facing unknown expectations, adapting with foreign coworkers, finding my place, doing my own chores... This is Real Life 101, and I'm definitely learning a lot both inside and outside the office.

I was going through some of my old blog posts earlier, and it's funny to see how idealistic, romantic, and existentially restless I was back then. I have changed a lot since then, but in many ways I'm still the same college self who wrote all those entries. I found it especially funny when I read an old entry entitled "Boredom and Escape", where I rant about how bored I was in a dull semester with an unending barrage of homework and how much I wanted to escape from it all and live a free life somewhere else.

Well, here I am now, and I've come to realize that living abroad is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.

The freedom I'm experiencing here is certainly refreshing, sometimes even empowering. I can choose to do things by myself without the shackling comforts and parental impositions I experience back home. I just love the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning and knowing that I could shape the day into whatever I want it to be. I take my notebook and iPad, walk to the nearest metro station, and ride it to a random stop. I feel like eating pizza and pasta, so I walk into an Italian cafe. I stay there the whole afternoon downloading the latest apps and reading a book I've always wanted to read. As I gorge on carbonara and sip a hot cup of espresso, I think about what I want to do the next day. I feel like playing basketball, so I text some friends to meet at the Fudan courts the following morning. I receive some replies, along with an invitation to drink at a bar near Xintiandi after dinner. Since I had nothing else to do that night, I reply yes. This is the life. The life I've always wanted.

Only when I stopped being a student did I see the underside of the independent lifestyle, and how tiring and lonely it can sometimes get. During my first year here as a student, all I had to worry about were what new places I would visit in the weekend, where to have dinner, how to spend more time with friends. Everything else was taken care of. I guess many people hold on to the student life because it holds the sweet spot between freedom and set direction. You're free to meet, learn, and do what you want, yet there is already a present structure to follow.

Working of course is a different story. I have to wake up early, care about how I dress and act in front of coworkers, and finish tasks I couldn't care less about for the sake of impressing my superiors. Work doesn't end when I leave the office, as I have to worry about my visa issues, rent contract, unwashed dishes, groceries to buy, and a ton of other things my local coworkers won't have to worry about.

I also realized that living abroad means learning how to cope with the changes that happen all the time. One day you spend every waking moment with a tight group of friends, and the next day they just go back to their homes on the other side of the world, and you don't know the next time you'll see them again. Most of my friends have since left Shanghai, and these days I spend my weekends either reading and Skyping in my room or aimlessly roaming around Shanghai's glitzy streets. I rarely felt it during my carefree student days here, but now it's sinking in.

I miss home.

I miss the stable life where relationships aren't as fickle as Shanghai's weather. I miss freely playing basketball in our backyard and not worrying about groceries and laundry. I miss eating isaw and Chickenjoy, watching ABS-CBN, and driving to SM to escape the heat. Most of all, I miss listening to my parents' stories and laughing at my brothers' latest misadventures in school.

Why does the grass always have to be greener on the other side? The sentiment struck me as hard as DOT struck the social media airwaves: It's still more fun in the Philippines. Beneath the sweltering heat and grime, the broken street lamps and meandering traffic jams, the Philippines is a charming country - a colorful hodgepodge of American, Spanish, Chinese, and indigenous influences, a place where no hardships can ever stop people from smiling, singing, and helping out a friend in need.

I always naively thought that living abroad was an easy ticket to happiness and a golden pass to accomplishment. My life plans have always been built on the premise of going to another country. Now that I'm almost two years into it, I realize that it's not as clear-cut as I had thought. Yes, my stay in Shanghai has led me to a cool job, a bunch of wonderful people, and some of the most exciting moments in my life. But most importantly, it led me to the realization that there is no such thing as a greener pasture. It had to take eighteen months and over a thousand miles, but now I'm beginning to see all the great things I've taken for granted about my country. As I count the days before I go back to the Philippines, I realize that there's no other place I'd rather call home.