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Becoming a Shanghaier

April 7, 2011

I can’t ever be Shanghainese; only those born in raised in Shanghai are Shanghainese. They even speak their own dialect. Nong hao, they say, instead of ni hao.

Am I a Shanghaier? A Shanghaian? A Shanghai-ren?  The expats, the laowai, we’re such a mainstay of this city, such an identifying characteristic of Shanghai that we can, I believe, become Shanghaiers. We’ll never be Chinese, but we can be Shanghaiers, because the outsiders are what make this city so special. We and our bars, our restaurants, our Western-ness. In so many ways, we define this city. And, in so many ways, this city defines us.

What I’ve realized is that, since graduating, there has been a huge hole in my identity that I’ve filled with Shanghai, and with China. In high school, theater defined me. In college, college itself defined me, as I believe it does for most undergraduates, because your whole existence is so wrapped up in this entity that goes beyond time and place, has its own population, culture, traditions, meanings.

Then suddenly, it’s gone.  Some graduates jump right into a career (although, with the crisis, this has been harder to do). Some jump right into more school. I jumped into a different country, let it envelop me. Now, when I talk to friends back home, our whole conversation revolves around China. It’s not just that I live here – I’m all up-to-date on the news, I know the geography, and other people don’t know these things. China sets me apart.

My family came to visit in mid-March. As a host to family in this strange land, I was able to see just how well I’ve gotten to know this city, how close it has come to being home for me. I know the districts, I know street names. I know restaurants and bars. I know organizations, I know people, I know landmarks. I know the language. I really have become a Shanghaier. And I’m worried that when I leave, which will likely be quite soon, I won’t know who I am.

And here’s the other part that scares me: although people always give me praise for moving abroad, tell me how brave I am, or how smart I am, it was actually an easy out. The way law school is an easy out. I moved right from college to China, and while this was a trying move in many ways, psychologically it cowardly. It was an escape. I don’t have to figure out my life, as long as I’m far, far away.

China is only as real as I want it to be. I have a job, I pay the rent and bills, but at the end of the day, nobody expects anything of me, as long as I’m a Shanghaier.

It can’t last. And as soon as I leave, people will start to expect great things from me. I have no idea where to start.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 4:03 pm

    Omg, existential crises. Try logotherapy & Frankl. Uber-helpful.

    ❤ Jack

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