Shanghai in Love

In The Art of Travel Spring 2018, Shanghai, 15. Farewells by William Denning1 Comment

Last night, four friends and I walked around the corner to a small Chinese restaurant for a final dinner. Inside, there were no pictures, and the menu was completely in Chinese. At first, I was apprehensive but soon realized that I had the skills that I needed to order exactly what I wanted. This, above all else, is what I’ve accomplished in China.

As we sat, we went around and talked about what we were proud of during the semester. Some talked about feeling more confident in a different space, some about learning to navigate somewhere foreign, some about academics, language, and art. I had never done this exercise before—going around and saying things you’re proud of. Without this structure, the conversation seems pompous. Yet, when we go around, when we each are able to be proud, the experience is joyful and exciting.

I’m proud of proving to myself that I can make it anywhere. Similarly to moving to New York a couple years ago, I had my doubts. I knew I could do it, but could I enjoy it? Could I truly experience it as a local, or would I always be an outsider? Would there be a time when I was never truly lost?

They say that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Shanghai has contradicted this tenfold. To live in New York is to live in a place that is too dirty, too expensive and too loud. Yet, to live in Shanghai is to live in a place where people who look like you have only started to come in the last few years. Where the language is near impossible yet the technology is far beyond ours in the US. To live in Shanghai is to struggle with food you don’t like because you don’t know how to order anything else, and to anticipate disaster. It’s to be embarrassed when your sentence structure is wrong and to be proud when you can give your taxi driver exact directions.

But, I think above all else, Shanghai has taught me, maybe for the second or third time, how to be in love with my own life. Recently, I’ve been thinking about romanticization and its ramifications. In critical studies, we understand romanization as distinctly negative. Look at any orientalist painting and you’ll see it. Yet, there is a positive factor to it. To romanticize your own life is to bring about all the things that you are—where you live, where you go, what you do—and imagine them in a movie. See the plot, the story structure. Admire the set design, the art of everything. Pick up on patterns and try to read what isn’t there. It’s fun, and it’s given me the distinct feeling that Shanghai is trying to tell me something.

In the next few years, I plan to be back to figure out what that something is. The city is beautiful—the country is beautiful—but I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of its depth. Like New York, when leaving Shanghai I find myself already making plans to come back, already visualizing where I want to live and what I want to do. And that factor, that craving to return even before I’ve left, is what makes a city beautiful. It’s a feeling caused by the city itself. Endless mystery and exploration, the feeling that I’m missing something at all times. It’s a good feeling. Lively and exciting.

Finally, I’m going to miss Shanghai for its food. At first, I couldn’t find a lot of what I wanted. Yet, you try new things (and there are a lot of things to try). I’ve fallen in love with Chinese cuisine in a way that America will never be able to satisfy. But it goes both ways, When I go back nothing will hold me back from getting Chick-fil-a and Chipotle every day until I’m satisfied. I’ll eat hamburgers and burritos and pasta and cereal, but I’m sure there will be a moment where I miss the noodle truck across the street from the school building or the dumplings from the mall next door.

I hadn’t really left the country until I moved here, and now that I’m leaving, there are so many places want to go.

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(Image: Shanghai at Night; Source: Virginia Duran)


  1. I really like how you explained the romanticization of your own life. I think Berlin has taught me something similar. I’ve never had the experience of moving somewhere that was different than the world I knew, and I think this allowed me to feel appreciated in a way that I never have been and actually receive it with less cynicism. I also intend to return to Berlin to try to feel that endless mystery again. Also to get my favorite street food again haha.

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