It’s 8am and the street is already alive with food vendors frying up breakfast pancakes–or “jian bings” as they are called–cars are honking and people are waking up to get started on their long holiday weekend. Much has changed since the last time I visited Shanghai in 2010. In some way, I feel as if I have arrived at a time when the city feels so ripe with newness, trends, and people of all kinds of stories.
Since I’ve been here in Shanghai, I’ve encountered many new people who have shown me tremendous warmth, hospitality, and friendship. Being here reminds me of how wonderful it feels to savour places and things that get better over time. Any place I travel to, I am forever enchanted by the stories of people we meet that make each of us, uniquely who we are. The husband and wife who wake up at 3am to prepare the day’s sale of egg pancakes; the woman who rides her bike stacked high of recyclables she’s collected; the dancing couples who sway so sweetly to the franco-chino jazz every morning until sunset at the park across the street–these stories of how life, other than our own, can be enjoyed so simply. I feel enriched by this form of shared experience as an onlooker of life around me. While many of us travel to see new places, experience new activities and cultures, one facet that remains sort of overlooked are the relationships and connections we make with the people we meet when we travel.
I had expected to spend more time seeing the arts in Shanghai, but instead I found myself enriched by the people I met here–their stories, our shared experiences, their insights, humor, their surrender to bravery to live in a city so vibrant and frenetic with life at all hours of the day. Shanghai doesn’t stop moving and neither do the people that inhabit the place. I am drawn to these people. The Shanghainese. The ex-pats. The not-so-sure what I’m doing next people. The quirky stand-out personalities. The ones who choose to make the most of life when they are so far away from family. I am drawn to these people because they remind me of how delicate relationships are–the ones we have with ourselves, with others, to things and places. In a city that comes off as cold and unrelenting, Shanghai surprises in its pockets of soul found in the ones who make visiting the city worthwhile.
Shanghai’s pulse has a beat that draws you in and dares you to dance with it. There’s an abundance of things to do and see here that one visit would not be able to cover. The cacophony of cars, pots and pans clanging, oil frying, and people (so many people) chattering, throw the senses into an overwhelming stew of madness–a mesmerizing madness albeit. I love how the old mixes in with the modern and new. I love that these things remind me that harmony can exist with the past, the present, and the future.
We spent a beautiful day at the Yuyuan Garden, centered close to Pudong, Shanghai’s financial district. The gardens were built during the Ming dynasty by a lieutenant for the comfort of his aging parents. I reflect on how much resilience and beauty such an artifice as old as these have survived through the ages–how grounding it is to sit and meditate on how much of life is a reflection of who we are as beings: complex, delicate, changing, broken, a never-ending cycle of renewal and maintenance of our awareness. And then there are the bridges we build to connect the old and new, the past and the future. I am reminded as I meditate on those crossing this bridge at the gardens that sometimes we need to build bridges to cross from the old to the new. It isn’t that we want to forget the past, but that we have to build the courage to walk, calmly back and forth, and remember a few beautiful things that remind us why we move on and grow.
You cannot come to Shanghai and experience everything it has to offer. Shanghai is a platter of so many amazing things that one can only choose to savour a few things during their visit. The people you meet, if you are so lucky to make connections that travel through time, are an absolute delight, and these connections–even in passing–are sometimes the most refreshing and memorable moments of our human experience.
It isn’t an easy task to introduce yourself to a stranger and show your self and vulnerability, but I have found in all my travels and experiences that the more often we display empathy and compassion not only to ourselves, but towards others, the more we feel full with the kind of closeness, intimacy, we are all so starved for; the kind that we experience when we meet someone who has felt something similar, a sort of knowing and understanding, that I too have someone who can relate.
I grin as I write this because I am in awe of how transient and transformative Shanghai feels now that I’m here, again. I am both sad and happy that I will only get to savour these moments, these people, and this strangely chaotic, but vibrant metropolis for only a short while. I am comforted, however, in the thought that when we savour the places we travel to, the people we meet along the way, and the relationships we create and maintain, we give room to the incredible feeling of experiencing something ripen over time, allowing us to treasure the connections and friendships we create as the years go by.
In a span of 10 days, Shanghai has given back what I most wanted to feel safe with when it came to travel: that leaving a place and the people you’ve met and experiences you’ve made, become arriving to a space where you can reimagine the journey you’ve been on and reshape it to tease out the courageous grasp for a greater life and all that is next.
I leave you with a poem that has great resonance in my heart and hope that you discover that the leaving and arriving to any new place or relationship we have, are all part of our journey in understanding our unique human experience.
THE JOURNEY by David Whyte
Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
on an open sky.
has to be
so you can find
the one line
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.