Immunity

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.

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100 Years of Vanity, Part V

She was a terrible cook, but nobody could peel shrimp, crack open a crab or a lobster, a mussel or a clam, or disassemble a German pork knuckle as adroitly as my grandmother could and to her liking. No one else could make friends with servers and maitre’ds and managers alike despite being with the most difficult customer many of them had ever known. She knew his appetites better almost, than she knew her own, and it was at the table that we learned how little we knew how to communicate with him – the least we could do was follow her lead. But it was too obvious, to both ourselves as well as to the rest of the world, that the family was at a loss on how to appease my grandfather should grandma step out for a moment.
But these moments were rare – for twenty years she was unfailingly by his side, always there to cater to his vanity, and on the morning of his one-hundredth birthday, she was there as well.
God knows what he dreamed during the night, but at four am his eyes shot open with an all-consuming hate for his aged complexion. Perhaps it was the thought of appearing before four hundred guests under bright ballroom lights, but being an innately vain man, he decided to take extra precautions. He shuffled resolutely into the bathroom and turned on the lights. A few feet away, my grandmother stirred in bed. Having spent the last twenty-years sharing his biological clock (one that wakes often at odd hours of the night to use the bathroom or read the paper-or both), she simply turned the other way and pulled the blanket up to her chin. My grandfather ran his fingers along the shelves, silently reading the minute labels until he found what he was looking for. He began his work.
The balcony, where my grandpa usually stood doing his morning exercises was empty. The bathroom door was closed, a strange phenomenon, for in his old age, the fear of an unheard fall led him to bathe with an open door. She was worried – aside from the hundred ticking clocks of my grandfather’s collection, it was oddly silent. No running water, no brushing of teeth or wringing of frayed undershirts. She went to the door and knocked. Nothing. She knocked again but not before hearing the distinctive click of a compact being closed.
“Can I open the door?” She asked.
“Hmm.”
“What are you doing in there?”
When my grandfather failed to respond she held her breath and turned the knob, bracing herself for what she was not sure, but certainly not to find her husband, a distinguished gentleman to all who knew him, with his face done up like a retired geisha who had failed to remove the makeup from her last night at the teahouse. He turned slowly, a crazy, hunched wax man, and had he the humor to give her a devilish grin she might have died of fright. Instead he said nothing, nodding subtly as though using up an entire bottle of foundation on one’s one-hundredth birthday was de rigueur, and went back to work.
My grandmother rubbed her eyes, not sure if she was dreaming. Why the mask? Why the rosy cheeks? Did he intend to celebrate his one-hundredth year as a lunatic? A transvestite? But the man had laid out his suit and shoes the night before, pairing a red-silk vest with a red-silk handkerchief and now, he apparently wanted his cheeks to match. Between gnarled fingers he held, gingerly, the blush compact in one hand and the brush in the other. Round and round he went on his left cheek, seeing only the perfection of perfection- he was merely enhancing what he always had. He was a handsome actor preparing for his greatest role ever.
Grandma, now fully awake, stepped in.
“You look…” she considered his one hundred year old ego, then thinking about the four hundred guests and her seat next to him, she considered her own, “You look ridiculous.”
I was getting my own beauty rest two floors above, but I imagine a small tussle took place in the master bath that morning as wife tried to wrestle away blush compact from husband.
But he said nothing. Chuckling softly at his handiwork, he handed the compact to her.
An hour later grandma had exhausted an entire box of Kleenex and half a bottle of makeup remover. Her husband’s skin glistened once again in its natural beauty and his cheeks glowed with the faintest pink, from having been rubbed with tissues.
“See,” my grandmother told him, tossing the final Kleenex into the wastebasket with its makeup-laden siblings, “You don’t need any of that makeup – you are handsome enough as is.”
He looked in the mirror and agreed, touching his face and enjoying the softness. Then he looked at her, his patient, adoring wife who had always known best. He looked at her tired face, the dark circles under her eyes, her fuzzy hair – she looked that way because of him, because of all the energy and love she spent on him. He loved her for that.
Still, it was his birthday and she would be sitting next to him.
“We haven’t much time,” he said, handing her the compact, “you’d better get started.”

The End 

100 Years of Vanity, Part IV

The young woman was thirty-two, the same age as my aunt, and forty-eight years younger than my grandfather. And she was beautiful. Petite with strong, high cheekbones, full lips and a full head of thick hair, a shock of surprise rippled through the family when they met her for the very first time. She was beautiful, my aunt recalled, but she had a hard look about her, as though something or someone was forcing her to marry this drastically older man. But far from it, her decision to marry my grandfather was entirely her own.
            She was working as an administrator at an appliance company, filing forms and payments on air conditioning units and refrigerators, when a coworker, the sister of an aunt, suggested that she meet an elderly man she knew.
            I was two at the time and living an ocean away in a leafy suburb of southern California, utterly oblivious to any grandmother but my mother’s mother, who lived in the neighboring city and made sweet buns for us at Chinese New Year’s. As I played in American sandboxes, the union that would provide me with a Taiwanese grandmother was being arranged in the humidity of Formosan air. The mental intricacies that would push a young woman of thirty to agree to meet a man of eighty with the implied expectation of a partnership remained uninvestigated for years, but as I grew older and my grandparents’ relationship became clearer, I opened my ears and became very still when my grandmother was out of the room and the other women remained behind. In this way I pieced together a shadowy history of my grandfather’s last wife. 
Five years prior to her marriage to my grandfather, she had been in love with a man closer to her own age. They had both come to Taipei from the poorer southern city of Tainan, hoping to make a new life for them in the big city. A friendly and sociable woman whose confidence was boosted by the move to a bustling city with the love of her life, she quickly found a job at the appliance sales company and worked diligently, saving most of what she earned towards buying a house with this man. He on the other hand, remains largely a mystery – my grandma only ever told my mother once, vaguely, about what happened – but what’s clear is that after five years of life in the city, her savings close to what was needed to buy a house, she came home from work one night to find the house empty and the man gone along with every penny in the bank.
I’m not sure what sort of conversations they had on their marriage night or in the days after, but I believe that my grandfather asked no questions. The ease with which he lived was the same ease by which others conducted themselves around him. His new wife felt this immediately. My grandmother, the only one I have ever known on my father’s side, did not marry for money per se – though of course the money was welcome – rather, she wanted a decent man. I am not one to explain the psychological process that leads one to marry a man forty-eight years older – maybe my grandmother was a little crazy – but in all the years I have known her, and him, neither grandma nor grandpa ever gave any indication that they were nothing but meant for each other.
Just as with wife number four, my Grandfather lavished his new bride with gifts and countless trips around the world, except this time with grandchildren in tow. Which suited my grandmother fine, because she was as humble as my grandfather was vain. She delighted in the old man’s vanity and even encouraged it, for she loved to comb his hair for him, to buy him the latest Japanese beauty creams, and to pick out brilliantly colored ties and handkerchiefs. In China, she bargained fearlessly for the best prices on suits and shoes, her Mandarin saturated with a heavy Taiwanese accent that would normally cause mainland vendors to disregard her, but her easy laugh and friendly nature made her hard to dislike. And while in the first decade and a half of their union my grandfather was fully capable of doing all these things himself, he delighted in her company and the looks they drew as they walked down the street and into restaurants.
Had the age difference not been so wide, they would still have made a strange couple, for my grandmother was notoriously the most tackily dressed member of the family. She wanted none of the finery so coveted by the fourth wife or the social status of the third. She wanted only the security of being with a good man, and my grandfather, aside from his narcissism, was a good man. It wasn’t until after his ninety-sixth birthday that the first signs of senility began to show, but even then my grandmother rose to the occasion. Though she had the financial means, my grandmother refused to hire a caretaker for my grandfather and gamely assumed the role of nursemaid, chef, driver and secretary. Despite his growing need to sleep and a diminishing appetite, my grandfather maintained a robust social schedule, keeping memberships at several of Taipei’s ritziest hotels, to where he treated his friends for lunch. When these men, many of whom were also retired customs officers had begun to die off, my grandfather took to treating officers from later generations or his colleagues’ grown children and their families. These elaborate, time-consuming meals were by no means exclusive to customs officers. I remember many a summer afternoon whiled away at a ritzy hotel buffet or within the dim, wood-paneled dining room of an upscale steakhouse. My grandfather specialized in treating people to the business lunch: three courses for the price of two. These meals became a family tradition – a rite of passage for anyone who wanted to know the family better and it was during these meals that any outsider, and the family as well, acknowledged just how necessary my grandmother was to my grandfather’s wellbeing. 

100 Years of Vanity, Part III

His sons were horrified. They warned their father about the rumor they’d heard: the woman’s last husband had died in a mysterious manner. Though extremely rational and normally disdainful of anything that bore the slightest whiff of the superstition, my uncles went to consult a fortuneteller (most likely on the recommendation of my second aunt, who seems to know all the good fortunetellers). The prophetess said this: “Beware this fourth wife: she has the qi (energy) of a husband killer!” What the fortuneteller meant was not that she had murdered her last husband, but she had a ruinous air about her – whoever married her would succumb to her insatiable karmic appetite and have his life drained from him. But my grandfather chortled, “Husband killer! Doesn’t she know she’s wife number four?”
Filial piety bound my uncles to let their father do whatever he wanted, including squandering a small fortune on the wedding, gifts and anything else his high-maintenance bride wanted. They honey-mooned for what seemed like half a decade, traveling across the world twice and taking photographs in front of every famous monument – their pictures have an air of glamour about them, my handsome grandfather in his three-piece pin-striped suits, arms crossed confidently across his chest, and his beautiful wife, dressed in luxurious silk and linen pantsuits, elegantly at his side. On the surface they were a beautiful couple, and when they weren’t abroad they were entertaining at home, attending parties and premiers, concerts and theater.
The things that brought them together – her beauty, his wealth – could only last so long, and as her looks faded she became more and more demanding, wanting each year to transfer more and more property to her and her children’s name. When his sons approached him to put a stop to it, my grandfather shook his head lightly and shrugged, “She loves money. What can I do?”
He put himself first and this meant avoiding confrontation at all costs. He would never be the one to suggest a divorce, or even think it. They were messy and in bad taste. Instead, my grandfather continued to live. It was around this time however, that he began to practice selective hearing and while his wife’s screeching for money became louder and louder, he perfected his inner calm, tuning her out to gaze at her once beautiful face.
One day, after nearly ten years of marriage she became enraged after being refused one thing or other and screamed, “I want a divorce!” Before she had paused to take a breath to reevaluate my grandfather stood up from his desk.
“You got it,” he said, and walked calmly out the door.
The marriage ended and my uncles breathed a sigh of relief, though they wondered if their stepmother had escaped with her life. However, not too long after, she too passed away from illness. She was a year shy of seventy.
By now, my grandfather was eighty years old, but looked not a day over sixty. His daily regimen persisted through the years and had served him well; it became apparent that he was in impossibly good health for a man his age – he would live a very, very long time. No one knew this better than my grandfather.
Months after the divorce he called in his second son’s wife, a sociable young woman with a large network of friends and family.
“I want to remarry,” he said.
“Of course,” she replied, “You’re in excellent health and have plenty of years ahead. You ought to remarry.”
“To marry someone young,” he said.
My aunt smiled, “I’m sure we can find someone who knows a nice woman of sixty or seventy.”
“No.”
“No?”
“No.”
At this, my grandfather leaned in and said more words to my aunt than he had spoken to anyone else in a long while, “I’m eighty,” he said, “And I know I will live for a very long time. If I marry someone now who is sixty or seventy, in ten years they will be seventy or eighty – and I don’t need to be a fortuneteller to know that they’ll need someone to take care of them by then. I don’t want to be old with old. I need someone who can take care of me – for however long I live.”
My aunt was stunned, perplexed. How young was her father-in-law thinking? Certainly not someone younger than fifty? A thirty-year age difference was cause for scandal, but then again, so was a money-grubbing B-list movie star. My aunt kept the conversation to herself, replaying it in her head and wondering what to do. She didn’t have to wonder long. A few days later, it was announced that for the patriarch, a new bride had been found. 

100 Years of Vanity, Part 1

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At dawn on his one-hundredth-birthday, my grandfather shuffled quietly to the bathroom, closed the door, and began to powder his face. Though “powder his face” is an understatement. What he really did was raid my grandmother’s cosmetics cabinet and use up an entire bottle of foundation. He was working his way through a new blush compact when my grandmother intervened.

Home 3

I helped my brother pack. My father hunted high and low for a matching set of suitcases as a sort of farewell present for my brother – while many things, my father is not a good communicator of things emotional and this was his way of saying, “Travel well, my son.” I emptied out my brother’s closet, carefully rolling his shirts and pants into neat piles, making sure to leave room for ties, underwear, hats, shoes. His life didn’t fit as neatly as anticipated into two suitcases, but most of it did – we zipped them up and set them upright, marveling that these awkward twins on his bedroom floor could hold so much and still so little. We dragged them out to the car along with a large cardboard box filled with office supplies. I was sure it would be cheaper to buy supplies in China, but my brother insisted he would rather just take them to spare himself the hassle of finding an office supply store in labyrinthine Shanghai. “Good point,” I said. Though really I wondered if any of those items he packed had some sort of sentimental value. Could a stapler, a tape dispenser, a few pens and notepads remind him of home? But perhaps not. For the most part, he wanted to travel light. He left behind quite a few clothes, along with most of his books, golf clubs, and shoes, and I, a closet clotheshorse (no pun intended), admired his relative indifference to leaving these items behind.
“I’ll come back,” he said, “So you better not donate anything.” 
I gave him my solemn promise.
And just like that, he was gone.
Shortly thereafter I disappeared to Taiwan for two months, and my parents reverted back to the quiet life they’d lived while we were away at school. In Asia, I visited my brother in Shanghai and realized that while he had barely unpacked, he had, in his heart, settled in just as hardily into our family’s condo just as he had done in Podunk. My uncle bought the condo in Shanghai some ten years ago, predicting he’d need a home base for his frequent visits when business was good. Business turned out to be okay, but the condo was frequently visited by family and friends who stopped by for weekend shopping trips or expos – I had stayed there once in the winter and once in the summer, and found the condo’s location to be its only draw. Located on the twelfth floor of a tall building (which in its heyday was THE address to have on that street), we had a wonderful view of the city and a short walk (by Shanghai standards) to the nearest metro. Behind us, a fancy theater was being built, designed in that new architectural style that likens buildings to eggs and nests. We were on a street nicknamed Bar Street, once rival to Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong – at least in terms of noise –but was now a quieter place for expats and locals to gather. No matter how a man may boast of knowing Shanghai, no one can ever truly grasp its center.
My uncle had furnished the condo cheaply and on the fly, with matching, dark furniture in every room that ate up the sunlight and horribly mismatched drapes and bedspreads, most of which I suspected were gifts from relatives who wanted new drapes and bedspreads in their own homes. The kitchen was sparse, sporting only a few warped pots and pans and a paper cup that held disposable chopsticks. A broken hot water boiler sat collecting dust in one corner and holey, threadbare rags hung from a railing along the wall. There were two bathrooms, but one lacked a shower curtain.
“Yeah, I need to get one,” my brother said. I nodded, examining the dingy pink tiles and the yellow lighting. The fixtures depressed me. The place was cleaned everyday, so cheap is that sort of labor in China, but you can’t wash away bad taste – or age. But my brother, a man of simple tastes, was oblivious to all this.
“I suppose I’ll change it someday,” he said, zero intention behind his words, “but it’s pretty good for now.”
I thought about our home in California, and wondered if my brother still considered it thus. We had hugged and cried at the airport, but it had nothing to do with the actual house he was leaving, just the people inside. But had it been me departing, I would have cried just as heartily for my pink room, my books, my small but adequate closet, my bright, gleaming bathroom. I thought of my brother’s new old living quarters: this is not a home.
And yet.
I watched my brother move around the house in the comfortable way an actor moves around a set after a few weeks of filming – humans, we learn fast, adapt easily, don’t we? He worked at the dining table, which he converted into his workspace. Using water he bought on a weekly basis from the dingy convenient store downstairs, he poured hot tea in the kitchen always standing in the same spot, slightly to the left of the water boiler, and left his dirty dishes in the sink with the confidence of a man with a maid, who also washed his clothes and hung them up on the balcony to dry so that at night, my brother could bring them in if he felt like it. In the mornings, I wasn’t fully awake, but heard the beats – seamless sounds – of him readying for work, and those same beats in descending order (thump, thump of shoes being cast off, the jingle of keys, the creak of the doorknob) of his homecoming in the evenings. As a guest, I could imagine his life in the apartment without me – those same sounds, only perhaps the sound of my voice replaced by the sound of strange Chinese sitcoms complete with laugh track, or perhaps no voice at all but the sound of his fingers upon computer keys, another late with MS Excel. He slept well, ate well (by his standards, anyway) and while he spent most of his time at the office or at bars with friends, the condo was home in every sense that it could be, to a young man living in Shanghai in 2011.
Two months later I was back in the U.S. with my parents, in my room, throwing myself into working life, creating a routine that involved hot yoga, friends, and family. I had moved the coats to my brother’s closet to let my other clothes breathe a bit and wondered what he would say when he came back and discovered my little transgression.          
Very little, it turns out. On Memorial Day weekend my brother materialized at LAX with the express purpose of attending his best friend’s wedding. I picked him up, a huge American smile on my face, not really grasping how much I missed him until he was sitting in the seat beside me. Oh brother, where hath thou been?
“Man I missed it here,” he said. I sped down the 105, the LA skyline whizzing past, knowing that compared to Shanghai’s architectural beasts and beauties, LA seemed like the outline of a village. Soon LA disappeared altogether and we were in the quiet, tree-lined roads of our small town, driving past our middle and high schools like two visitors cruising down the proverbial memory lane.
At home he unpacked while I blathered on about dating, friends, family and hot yoga. A good brother, he nodded and smiled, moving a bit awkwardly around his bed and the lone suitcase, having left its twin in Shanghai, trying to figure out where to put everything. I wondered if he would want me to move my coats for the time being so he could hang his suit up for the wedding. He must have, at some point, noticed my coats in his closet – but he said nothing, nothing at all and instead hung his suit up in the bathroom on the hook behind the door. I found it there the next morning, slightly irritated that he had removed my robe to hang his suit there, then ashamed that this was the only space he could find.
The weekend flew by – the wedding passed, then Memorial Day, then Tuesday, Wednesday and finally, Thursday, the day of his departure. On Tuesday night we had gone out to dinner and he had said, suddenly, “I sort of miss Shanghai.” I realized then where his life was. Or more accurately, I learned how differently we, though siblings with a close emotional core, defined essential terms. He carried home in his heart, his being large enough to grasp it completely while I simply lived at home, it being a space to hold my heart until I moved on into the next. Is this the difference between people who are truly hardy and those who are only reluctantly so? My brother lived happily in Podunk, Pennsylvania and I only half-heartedly in Berkeley, New York, and Taipei. Space was merely space to him, a place a place. He possesses the only center he needs while I search for material, tangible tethers. World traveler, some people call me, but they don’t know the divided nature of my traveling. Abroad, I long to be home; at home, I long to be abroad.
On Thursday morning my brother woke up at six am to hug me goodbye. I was leaving for work, but something about the light, the time, reminded me of the morning he left for Podunk. That summer dawn, he had knocked softly on my door and whispered, “Betty, I’m leaving.” I started crying almost immediately, knowing not how our relationship would change, only that I would miss him terribly.

Now two years later he had left and come back again and again, with each departure feeling more and more final. And he was now leaving again. I hugged him tight, knowing that I would see him at holidays and on my own future visits to Asia, but that by then he would be at the door of or perhaps fully enveloped by his other life, just as my mother and father had been some thirty years ago, when they met and married and left childhood and childhood homes behind. But I do not dread this, this inevitable progression of life – we branch out, move out, move in, move on. My coats would stay in his closet and my brother would stay in Shanghai, for the time being, and then wherever he chooses to settle next. But we, regardless of where we are, remain close. Places, things, tethers – I’m beginning to learn they were always beside the point.

上海人 (下) Shanghai People Part 2

More than anything else, Shanghai is an attitude. But this post is incomplete because I often only thought to photograph people when it was too late – they had walked by, the moment passed, or it would have just been plain creepy for me to do so.

I use a small camera, not the kind that lends me much credibility as a photographer and thus am often turned down when I ask to photograph a subject. They assume, I presume, that I’m keeping their photos for a giant psycho-sexual voodoo collection. Which is true. But no, I’m joking. It lends me even less credibility when I say, “It’s for my blog.” or in China, “Boo-luo-guh.” So I have to be discreet, feeling half triumphant and half villainous, leery pervert- when I do snap a photo of someone without their knowledge… or sometimes, with them staring straight at me:

Arguably the best place to read the Sunday paper.

 What I’ve noticed though, is that laborers really don’t give a damn if you take their picture. They might give you a strange look here and there, but moving to the city (most laborers are not from Shanghai but from the countryside) has made them develop a thick skin to protect them from the sorts of evil only a big city can bring out in people  – what’s one young woman with a camera?

But for the most part, life is good. Hard, but good, with pockets of rest and gossip in between shifts:

After each day the brooms are fed to pandas. Just kidding. But seriously, these brooms work better than the ones with bristles.

And the shift itself, which depending on the restaurant, flies by because of the sheer volume of people you must work to feed:

A different kind of sweatshop at Xiao3 Yang2 Shen1 Jian1.

 Some people make a living – and friends- fixing the darnedest things, living by an old code: “Why throw it away when you can fix it?” The economy of it amuses and inspires me: 

A pot mender. His shoes however, are quite new.

 There is the calm before the storm:

A small hole in the wall thirty minutes before noon.

And then the storm itself:

Lunchtime.
The crowd only grew, as did our curiosity and appetite. We must have that rice! 

 And if one is not Shanghainese by birth, there is the process of becoming naturalized, by force. My cousin successfully shoved her way to the front of the crowd and seized one of the last few bowls of fragrant rice.

SUCCESS!

 A good day for the rice vendor; bad day for the dish washer. 

All around us, Shanghai.

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.