Another decade

The evening comes to Shanghai through a filter of haze. It’s been a clear week here in the middle of October, clouds and blue skies every day. There’s still a tinge to the air though, something in the smell of the place that’s unmistakable. Shanghai has changed in the past ten years, but the smell remains. I step out of an airplane into the open air. Across the tarmac Pudong’s Terminal 1 beckons, a huge square of light against the gathering dusk. For a moment I linger at the top of the truck-born staircase, letting the memory take hold.

Ten years and two months ago I stood, stunned, on a similar staircase, on this same runway, in the same last moments of daylight. The details match: the yellow sky of pollution and arc lights, the huge rectangle of Terminal 1, the line of other passengers before and behind, and the smell. Around these details, everything has changed. Terminal 1 is mirrored now by Terminal 2, opened in 2006 and far more frequently used. The road leading to the airport has been re-done, and the maglev built. Metro Line 2 now reaches both airports, stretching across the entire city east to west. And the sprawl of Pudong has reached ever further east, though not quite to the airport’s edge.

I have changed far more than the view has. I am no longer surprised China Eastern is too cheap for a jetway. Walking down the stairs to the waiting bus I look around. There are a dozen foreign faces on the bus to the terminal. That first evening I was the only one, alone with out language, landing in Shanghai on a flight from Tokyo. In August 2003 at the height of the SARS panic few foreigners wanted to visit China.

Fewer still were looking to relocate.

Customs is no longer a strange labyrinth of paperwork. Instead it’s a routine I’ve been through dozens of times, if not yet a hundred. I do the math quickly. Sixty? The HSBC ATM I rely on for RMB has moved, to the front of the customs line rather than just after. Or is that Terminal 2? It’s been years since I used the old Terminal 1 and the two are mirrors, which makes recalling the differences more difficult. I do remember this building though, in good times: boarding a flight with a frisbee team, on our way to Korea or Hong Kong. We drank beer purchased from the vending machine in the check-in hall all the way through customs, through security. I remember pausing to set the open cans on the  X-ray machine as we went through the metal detector, laughing with the guards and teammates. So much has changed.

I remember meeting friends here, arriving from the US, the UK or Japan, to visit me and to explore Shanghai, all of China. I remember being met upon my return in November of 2004, having fled the US again following Bush’s re-election. The symmetry of all these trips is hard to escape, standing in line at customs.

Ten years two months and three days have passed from my first footsteps in this country. I slept in a windowless hotel room on Nanjing East, the pedestrian street, my first week in Shanghai. A horrible idea, it was the cheapest option I could find. I ate at Lawson’s the first night, a sad familiar brand from my life in Japan. I was unprepared for that first landing in China, without friends, language skills, employment, or housing. I spent three days looking for an internet cafe. During that first week in the hotel on Nanjing I walked home from an interview in Hongqiao. Those first few weeks were a challenge and an opportunity to let curiosity overcome uncertainty. My surprise at stepping out of the airplane into the open air of evening on Pudong’s runway that first evening turned out to be only a small shock, if a lasting one.

In Shanghai in 2013 I step into a taxi, glad to be able to speak Chinese again after months away. Gao’an Lu and Hengshan Lu, I tell the driver. And, as we start moving, “the air looks good today, tell me about the weather.”

As I’ve written before, in some ways Shanghai will always be home. Ten years since I first touched down, I am glad to have another look from the top of those stairs, staring west into China with the ocean to my back and the wind in my face.