If there’s one thing New Yorkers pride themselves on, it’s their ability to confidently jaywalk through the most intimidating traffic and not die. I always assume that the same intuitive sense of when it is safe and when it is not safe to cross the street as traffic hurtles towards you would just carry from city to city. However, the amount of times I have almost been hit by a car or a bike here in Shanghai has been concerning.
In “Landscape and Character,” Durrell explains how when he travels, he often sees the people of whatever city he’s in as “characters as a function of landscape,” meaning that the strangers we briefly cross paths with just add to the way we understand how the city feels. I’ve found myself running into the same recurring characters in traffic as I’m walking around the city again and again: the young delivery man on break, relaxing with his feet on the handlebars of his bike as he smokes a cigarette and laughs with his friends, the fashionable young woman riding her motorcycle while wearing a skirt and still looking amazing, and the tired workers sitting on the side of the road. Sometimes I forget that all of these people have their own complex lives and aren’t just part of the landscape of Shanghai.
Most of the people I observe are bikers. Everyone seems to bike here and the regulations are more or less nonexistent. I see entire families all sitting on one bike together – business men, mothers, children, even dogs. There are countless bike sharing apps that let you just pick a bike off the street, scan its QR code, and ride away, charging only a couple cents total. When you’re ready to get off, all you have to do in scan the QR code again and you’re good to go.
The night I felt the most connected to the Chinese community actually came from making a mistake while trying to get to the waterfront. A friend and I decided to finally go check out the Bund and, according to Google Maps, the river was only a five minute walk away. I think we were actually at the Bund for two minutes tops, then veered off into alleyways and side streets while trusting an app that’s technically not allowed in China for directions. What was supposed to be a five minute walk turned into a thirty minute walk with no sight of water. We ended up ditching our original plan and rested in a park.
At one end of the park, we saw a huge crowd of people huddled in a circle and heard so many different strains of music and cheers. When we checked out what was going on, we saw a portable karaoke machine and an older man belting out the words to a Chinese song that the onlookers seemed to know as well. An older woman danced at the center of the circle. Even though the man’s singing was not perfect, he seemed to have no sense of self-consciousness. As I stood, clapping along, feeling invisible but still present, in this random park that I found by accident, I felt a sense of Shanghai’s spirit – unashamed, imperfect, and characteristic of the way tiny communities are built on the most seemingly meaningless connections.
Durrell says the best way to travel is without too much factual information and I agree. By observing the people and the hidden, accidental sites, I think I’m getting a much more realistic representation of the soul of Shanghai.