The plan was to fly from Seoul to Shanghai, spend a few quiet days with my brother and his wife before my cousin Karen came into town, at which point we would change out of tennis shoes and into heels and go out into the booming, boozing haze of Shanghai’s nightlife. Then, on Sunday morning we’d beat ourselves awake at 6AM, eyes painfully sensitive to air and light, hair still smelling like last night’s smoke and board a six-hour bus ride southwest to the Yellow Mountains in Anhui Province. We joked about the photos we’d take: done up, mascara’d young women in nightclubs and lounges, tired hags in the clouds high atop the Yellow Mountains.
“You guys have very diverse interests,” my sister in law mused.
That was the plan. What happened instead was I arrived in Shanghai from Seoul at 2:30PM, was greeted with icy cold rain, a half-hour wait for a taxi cab and then an hour long ride from the airport (the closer one, no less) to my brother’s place. I was underdressed and a bit tired from all the waiting, but still, I was in Shanghai and even though my body said, “Heeey, maybe you outta take a nap,” I shrugged off the fatigue, threw on an extra sweater and took a long walk with my sister-in-law before heading to dinner with my brother and his coworker in what seemed like the outskirts of town.
The coworker, a Korean named Daniel, had asked my brother a few months earlier if it would be alright to send some vitamins via his sister. They were much cheaper in the States where their safety and purity was assured. My brother said sure why not and a few weeks later a shoebox-sized packaged arrived from GNC at our house in Orange County, filled with fish oil and men’s daily vitamins, the latter of which made my mother wonder what the hell I was doing to my body. I explained that they were not for me and packed them into a largish suitcase with my scarves and shoes and brought them back to Taipei. My brother then came to Taipei from Shanghai for Chinese New Year and I handed him with the vitamins for his Korean coworker. Upon receiving the vitamins the Korean was pleased.
“When your sister visits Shanghai, I will treat her to dinner for her troubles.”
It really was no trouble (I marveled at the Korean man’s patience, waiting nearly three months for vitamins!) but this is why, after leaving Seoul, my first meal in Shanghai was a Korean feast in Shanghai’s Korea Town, adjacent to a Korean shopping center called Seoul Plaza.
My medical expertise tells me it was the sudden change in weather and not the food that made me sick. The dinner was delicious – a spicy mix of seafood and vegetables paired with endless Korean pickled side dishes and the most excellent bowl of white rice I’ve ever had the pleasure of chewing through – though I still get a bit nauseous thinking about that night’s dinner. I ate more than I normally would have, an unfortunate side effect of fatigue, but was otherwise in good spirits and looking forward to the night’s slumber. Walking out of restaurant into the freezing Shanghai air, I imagined that the Korean food had warmed me. Back at the apartment I changed into pajamas and clearly remember thinking as my head hit the pillow, “I will sleep very well tonight.”
And I did, until 6AM when I woke feeling ill in a vague, indescribable way. It was as though an insidious night terror had crawled down my mouth in the middle of the night and lodged itself in the core of my body, a limbo neither esophageal nor gastric. There was the faintest nausea with an indeterminate discomfort in my belly and a feeling of occupancy at the base of my throat – symptoms which on their own would cause me no worry but experienced altogether made me feel unsure about my existence. What was it? Like a word on the tip of one’s tongue, I could only say over and over again, when my brother woke and asked what was the matter with me, that I “did not feel well.” It was the understatement of the year. I was no stranger to stomach flu or cold and fever, but now the symptoms came from all directions and muddled my mind. Later my aunt would guess that I’d become victim to Taiwan’s latest flu virus, something that sounded like Nola, but without going to the doctor, we couldn’t be sure. I lay in bed ailing, the more coherent parts of my brain deciding whether to stay in Shanghai and calculating what the loss would be if I went home early: 500 RMB fine for canceling the Yellow Mountain tour package and a 700RMB fine for changing the flight and most painful of all, my cousin’s utter disappointment.
Going to the mountains was her idea and I was surprised that she had suggested it. I don’t know anyone else in my generation who would say, “Yes, let’s go clubbing in Shanghai and have a fancy dinner and all that, but please, let’s also see the Yellow Mountains.” That’s my cousin Karen for you. But I suppose when one is an overused and under-appreciated cog in a giant accounting machine, anywhere outside the office building would seem a respite. It makes sense then that the Yellow Mountains in Anhui, the backdrop to such films as Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and inspiration for James Cameron’s Pandora in “Avatar” were, at least two weeks ago, Karen’s much anticipated escape.
It would be better to see the mountains with her than not at all and she gamely researched and booked the trip, finding two of the mountain’s best-rated “resorts” (dismal two star motels at best, by most traveller’s standards) and looking up the area’s most popular trails for us to traverse. She had, a few days before her departure to Shanghai, assembled a respectable collection of borrowed hiking gear: a friend lent her his backpack and a coworker a pair of walking sticks, the kind that folded up into a tiny cane when not in use. To everyone she talked excitedly about our plans. Some of her coworkers looked on enviously before turning back to their computer screens.
My aunt, not wanting her daughter to freeze to death in one of the world’s most famous mountain ranges, took Karen to the department store to buy a full set of Gore-tex outerwear to guard against the chilly mountain air. Karen had perused various online travelogues that advised travelers to prepare sustenance as food up in the mountains was expensive, so she’d gone to 7-11, stocked up on instant noodles and stolen a few packets of instant oatmeal from her office, where on Thursday evening she was only half-heartedly discussing convertible bonds with her manager. Her heart was already climbing the vertical steps leading up the Yellow Mountains and she could very nearly smell the crisp mountain air when she received the string of woeful text messages I sent her from the chilly guest room of our Shanghai condo.
“Hey Karen, I’m really sorry, but I got really sick all of a sudden. I don’t think I can go out never mind go to the Yellow Mountains. I think you should cancel your flight….”
She didn’t respond until a few hours later, but what happened, I learned after returning to Taipei, was that at 5PM on Thursday evening, she’d gleefully told her director that the convertible bonds would have to wait until after her trip to Shanghai. With a skip in her step, she went to check her phone to see if my aunt had called about her coming home for dinner, and instead saw the texts. She read them with the cliched sinking feeling all humans experience at one point or other and with her heart no longer light and her feet suddenly slow and lethargic, heavy, went back to her manager. She asked him to continue about convertible bonds with a muted expression.
“It can wait,” the manager said, waving her away. He knew when the underlings were checked out.
“I’m not going to Shanghai anymore,” she said and glumly explained what had happened.
Her manager laughed, not meanly, but patted her arm and said, “Well, since you’re not going anywhere, we’re not exactly pressed for time. Go tie up your loose ends and we’ll talk about it tomorrow. “
She cancelled her flight, the tour package, and on Friday, arranged to return all the things she’d borrowed. She’d unfortunately cut the tags off the Gore-tex stuff which made it hers forever, and the noodles, well, the noodles would stay uneaten in the kitchen cupboard.
The next morning, her friends and coworkers either jeered or looked at her strangely, “Aren’t you supposed to be partying in Shanghai?” they asked.
She hunched her shoulders and muttered something about her cousin’s weak constitution. The computer screen blinked with the likeness of convertible bonds, whatever the hell they look like. Karen blinked too. She shook her head. Expectations, she decided, were a dangerous thing. About 700 kilometers away in a much bigger and colder city, her cousin dragged herself out of bed, rushed to the toilet and threw up the remnants of a Korean feast.