When to go

“How long would you stay with no friends?” she asks me from across the table one evening in June, and I count them on my fingers. Six, of every circle, next week five then four then three soon two and what am I to say? I sit in the shade with my glass of gin and wonder at my approaching loss.

Shanghai, like cities everywhere, was not built by those born to this river bend. It was, it is created by the migrants, the expats, the hopeful, the graduates. Its neighborhoods are filled with those here a generation, two, a few years. This sense of migration is audible in every conversation’s beginning, no matter the language. Hello, how are you, where are you from? A tacit understanding on all parts of how rare an answer Shanghai is.

Yet living closer to home would only make this question rarer, not easier. Goodbyes have the same poignancy in any language or location, the same sudden sense of lack on the walk home, the same odd silence from daily routine.

“The strangest thing”, she says, “is that I am not sure why I am going.”

The strangest thing I nod, though it is not. The strangest thing is that it has taken us all so long to realize what comfort home gives, and what where we are has to say about where we are going.

Standing in a bar, several nights before, five white men across the room gathered around a passel of bottles, mostly empty, and wondering out loud in drunken tones “what does it mean, being in China? We’re white, we’re laowai…”

There are certain parts of life that come round, now and again, and shake everything with their passing. Feelings that happen to everyone, in separate moments. Witnessing one’s own questions of years prior replayed in the drunken mess they must have been reminds not of drunken joy but of the passing years and the strange ephemeral nature of questions that once felt so all-encompassing.

In time, everyone moves away. In time, everything changes. In Shanghai, as the summer comes, so too do the goodbyes, as schools end, jobs finish. Like everywhere, people rush to move while the sun shines, having shunned such changes in the winter’s chill. Those that remain adapt, greet arrivals with the fall, and the changes sweep in. Speaking to a friend gone since August his fear of obsolescence is clear in “all of those names and not one I know” at a party description, the speed with which this city turns so stark in my now-unfamiliar routine. A month, or three, and whipped past by the world at speed.

“It’s about the people,” she says later, in an almost empty apartment in this city of 17 million.

Like anywhere. I hear different words, old echoes.

“I just don’t haven’t met anyone I really feel at home with.” A friend, at eighteen, leaving Syracuse.

“People here are so cold.” Another, leaving New York at 23.

“I need to be somewhere the people are, well, I don’t know…” a woman stammers, transferring colleges at 20. “Tokyo’s got this edge, the people are so pushy,” she continues, missing Osaka.

We move, leaving things we do not like, searching out better. A new city, house, country, job. A new set of friends. All these things we’re looking for around the corner, around the planet. The globe revolves, a year or maybe two, and again it’s the place that isn’t right, that hasn’t held to expectations.

In the chill of winter I make preparations for warmer weather, a mystery of heat my memory is too short to conjure. The friends are few and of a likewise lengthy stay, and our conversations turn to moving on with the summer’s heat.

Months later plane tickets are purchased, deadlines in sight. Shanghai empties, and our rooms are left to new arrivals clean.