Art by Brooke Muschott
On one of our walks down the bustling streets of Shanghai, that great and wondrous metropolis, a friend once turned to me and bemoaned his current state of existence.
“Man, I really miss America.”
“Mmh?” I said, probably distracted by the moped that had just come hurtling our way, oblivious to the fact that we were, in fact, on the sidewalk.
“Yeah! I can’t wait to go back and work out,” he exclaimed, completely oblivious to my sputtering.
“Really?” I said, trying not to let it slip that the last time I worked out properly was not even registering in my memory.
“And the food! God, the food here is just too much, you know. Chicken butt hole skewers, I mean, what?”
Granted, chicken gizzard skewers do not sound like the most appetizing thing to digest, but the experience is priceless. Sitting on a rickety plastic chair, waiting for your mystery treat to be grilled and served to you on an aluminum tray, drumming your fingers against your moped helmet, observing your fellow night owls — this all occupies a special place in my heart. Fast forward a few months later, sitting in Jack in the box at 3 a.m. seems comparatively dull, and even incredibly depressing.
The bland fluorescent lights highlighting a delectable selection of American treats and reflecting off the clean, tiled floor seem soulless compared to the memories of midnight scooter rides around the biggest city in the world with a styrofoam bowl of fried rice in your right hand, praying to God you don’t die at the next intersection.
I remember sitting on the banks of the Huangpu River at witching hour, smoking a cigar and surveying Shanghai’s futuristic Pudong skyline in all of its glory. Subway closes at 10 p.m. in Malibu. It’s absurd.
Every week since January, usually when I am lying on my bed, aimlessly browsing on my phone (steadfastly committed to ignoring my homework), I receive a little ping in my email inbox saying that I’ve received a newsletter about goings-on at the Jia. It’s a cute little thing made by my friend Sara Hope, and it’s all animated and lovely and full of events that I’m not going to. Not because I’m an anti-social grouch (that was puberty), but because I’m stuck in the land of the brave.
I tried to ignore it, and take it in stride — surely, I will not fall prey to the throes of post-IP depression. Yet, after coming back from a debate tournament in Long Beach (this statement is self-explanatory), I logged on to Facebook to discover that a friend of mine had just touched down in Australia and had already made acquaintances with a wallaby. Given his gregarious nature, I’m pretty sure they became best friends shortly thereafter. A little pang in my heart made itself felt. A few minutes later, I was watching a video of my friends ringing in the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, and the little pang had mutated into a gut-wrenching feeling of, well, incompleteness.
“Does the feeling ever go away?” I asked a former expatriate.
“No, it kind of just gets further away,” was his answer.
I left Shanghai in pursuit of certain goals — graduating on time, getting classes I needed, etcetera. Logically, this computed pretty well, and I still think it was the right decision to make. But my heart, that accursed palpitating hunk of flesh that resides in my left chest cavity, seems to have decided to remain adamant that it should have had the right of way.
Throughout this semester you will probably encounter a few souls like mine — we drift in and out of our Malibu state of existence, probably wondering what our friends are doing in Turkey, feeling happy for them and yet secretly, quietly, a bit sad for ourselves. So what is one to do?
Returning to normality is a challenge, especially now that one has tasted what the world has to offer (chicken gizzards and all). Thank the Lord on High for the availability of friends, for they are my bedrock here. Without them, I daresay I would have drifted away into the vast ocean of profound dissatisfaction a long time ago. Yet, I still find my brain filled with mental flotsam and jetsam that clutter my head, things cast away from a world that I have long left behind.
This is where the danger lies — the danger of living in the past while the future comes hurtling at you like a Chinese scooter driver with no sense of fear. I have not found the way out of this post-International Program position, but I have found that a temporary remedy is to keep moving onward, and to never lose sight of why I came back in the first place. Perhaps one day I will be able to stand still and finally be at peace with myself.
Until then, I’ll see you around campus.
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