We are just getting to know each other, Shanghai and I. I feel this could be the beginning of a great friendship. Like in Vienna, there are many lessons to learn, especially at the beginning. Unlike Vienna, they seem easier to learn, less degrading. This is perhaps why many in this city never do learn the language or assimilate to the culture. I feel inspired to do both, because the international scene here is so strong that there is never shortage of venues for retreat should it become too overwhelming. The international bookstores, cafes, supermarkets, schools, radio, TV, and even restaurant deliveries. There is a entire city within a city here designed and marketed purely for foreigners.
This bright “pearl” of a city, known in the late 20’s as the “Whore of the Orient,” has a long history of imperialism. The foreigners who settled down here during early part of the century, portioned the city into concessions which became completely independent, including governing bodies and fire brigades. We live in what was formerly known as the “French Concession,” an area that has maintained many of the historical momuments of the imperialist days (villas, beautifully manicured parks, etc) as well cultivated a truly colorful scene of international restaurants, boutiques, and museums, etc. I told Patrick that I could spend the two years alone simply walking up and down the streets of this district. Unlike many of the other major metropolitan cities I know and love, New York, London, Paris, the character of the neighborhoods differs not only from block to block, but really from one end of the street to the other. Just yesterday, I was walking on the major shopping boulevard Hua Huai Rd. very much resembling any from the West, and I turned on to a perpendicular road to find myself in completely different world…vendors preparing supper on the street, tiny little avante garde boutiques with bags of the day’s garbage to be picked up in front of the door.
Yes, the biggest change from the pureness of Vienna has to be the smells in this city. Due either to the book I am currently reading (upon recommendation from my Occi friends, Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind) or to the sensitive nose I inherited from my mother, I am constantly identifying smells. I remember the discussion I had with Laura one day about smells that remind us of “home,” and I wonder with which smells will I associate Shanghai: will it be the strong herbs frying in the woks, the lamb scewers grilling on the street corners, the exhaust from the many scooters/motorized bikes, the garbage that repeatedly ends up on the doorsteps, the humidity in the air that feels so tropical or a combination of these?!