Returning to the circuit, Los Angeles Seoul Shanghai Shaoxing, after a few years away, everything has faded slightly. The feel is familiar, but the names have gone, and I am constantly asked if I remember things I do not think I have ever learned.
Over the Pacific I watch a romantic movie and cry repeatedly. Without the certainty of destination the flight out is one of separation. In the airport in Seoul I am again the solo traveler, proceeding from Gate 25 to Gate 43 over the span of two hours. My movements if viewed from above would be erratic and unrepeatable. But I am alone, and whether I wander down a corridor to look for a bathroom farther from the smoking lounge or whether, unknowingly, I sit at Dunkin’ Donuts and then go looking for my gate on a board down the hall only to find it eventually, behind the donut counter, the result is the same. Two hours later, having used the free wifi that does not filter social networks to say goodbye on them, I am again on a plane, over an ocean that does not touch the continent I woke up on.
In Shanghai I am part of the flow, not surprised or hurried, filling out forms in Immigration with the precision of those who long ago memorized their passport and visa numbers. The lines are shorter and in different locations, but the process has not changed, no one takes fingerprints. Coming down the escalator I remember this feeling, from my returns to Japan. Seoul was just a touch stone, a way to remember where I was going by remembering how to get there, like passing familiar landmarks on the drive to a childhood home.
Getting cash from the HSBC machine that lies inside the Customs gate I wish for a view of myself, time lapse composited, doing this in 2004, in 2007. The change in attire, in airport congestion, in personal urgency. Arriving in the morning I lack the push of those whose flights land after dark, who suddenly find themselves far from home and very tired. At ten am I walk to the taxi line, words slipping back into my mouth as they are needed.
Shanghai has grown in my absence, as noted elsewhere, but this first day it is a veneer of uncertainty covered by the plush carpets of a four star hotel’s long term housing. In the morning I am on a train, to a city small and still building concrete towers. The list of station names along the way recalls bus trips along this route years before, to factories I no longer am responsible for, whose forgotten owners do nothing to ground my soul on this stretch of fields and rivers, cities and farms.
As the train passes a road in the smog-filtered morning light I watch the dozens of people on their bicycles and scooters waiting behind the guard rail. Out here past the plush edges I find China still the same, filled with the crazy combination of past and future, bullet trains that travel upwards of two hundred mph and peasants whose homes are built of mud. It is a cliche, but a comforting one, something I have lived through, and it pulls the veil of change from Shaoxing. The streets have changed and DVDs are harder to find, but electric bicycles are still silent, televisions still loud.
On the outskirts of Shaoxing I see a single story red brick building in the middle of a lake. With dark tiles on its peaked roof it sits on a small island, connected to the shore by a foot bridge, picturesque in the way only something made in the last century as a copy of something ancient can be. Whether house or storage area I can not tell, and imagine the owner waking every morning surrounded by water, perhaps with the accompanying fowl.
On the shores of the lake, set back from the water by swaths of grass that has never grown well, are fifteen story towers of sandy concrete, balconies of apartments built in the ’80s, dark and disheartening. Ten of them circle the water, and in the afternoon must cast shadows across it’s whole surface.
Back in China less than twenty four hours, still uncomfortable with the language and detached by the speed of transit, I watch the red building slip behind, curious about its inhabitants, more curious about its picturesque setting and invisible purpose.