上海人 (上) Shanghai People Part 1

In 2006, I went to Shanghai with this man:

Grandpa Ho in Shanghai’s Park Hotel, aged 97.

Shanghai was his town. He wore it on his sleeve, in his breast pocket, on his tie. You could see Shanghai reflected in his smooth shiny forehead and carefully polished shoes. You could smell it in the lanolin of his neatly combed hair. He passed away two years ago in Taipei, but up until the very end he traveled back to his hometown at least twice a year. We say he went to see his daughters, but in truth, it was to refresh his lifeblood. A city can do that for you.

Some twenty-nine years ago my brother Howard was born in Taipei and five years after that, I came along. Technically, for those who care, we are Taiwanese. Our parents were born in Taipei, where their parents had come to during the Cultural Revolution (and at the mention of this, we are supposed to frown at China and at Communism). We are more familiar with Taiwanese customs and cultures than we are with China’s. We spent months here every summer and some winters too. My brother lived in Taipei until he was five and I, if one were to add up the dates of entries and departure stamps in my passport, have probably spent the same amount of time, if not more. And yet we say we are Shanghainese. We say we are “people from outside of Taiwan” (外省人 wai4 sheng3 ren2) and when people ask “Where?” We say proudly, “Shanghai. We are from Shanghai.” Such is the custom.

If life is about symmetry, or about fulfillment of some unspoken duty, then it would appear that someone in our family, a clan so inwardly Shanghainese despite being so outwardly Taiwanese (and American, for that matter), would inevitably go back to where it supposedly all began. But when my grandfather was interred after a very distinctly Taiwanese funeral, a strange thought invaded our collective conscience:  Were we still Shanghainese? Could we really say we were when the only man in our family to have been born there was now buried in Taiwanese soil?

Sure we have relatives in Shanghai, but they were more like vaguely familiar acquaintances, a jumble of smiling faces with titles like “second great aunt” and “third cousin twice removed.” We mulled over this for two years. My uncle, who had done a little business in Shanghai before, closed shop and thought about selling the small house he had bought there. In the meantime my brother went off to graduate school to complete an MBA. Upon graduation, he put on his resume, “Speaks Mandarin,” and a smattering of other details that caught the eye of a man who put him in touch with another man. He was interviewed. Weeks went by. Then months. And for a while it seemed as though my brother would be employed, if at all, by an American company, not too far away from home in Orange County, California. Then seven months after graduating, he got the call. Would he relocate to Shanghai?

“Of course,” he said with confidence, and after a brief moment, a wavering identity was restored: “I am, after all, Shanghainese.”

From now on, I will go to Shanghai to see this man (on the left):

Brother Howard with cousin Karen, aboard Shanghai Metro.
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