Again thirty thousand feet up, on a flight of a length that will become rarer. Having said goodbye to friends and roommates, business contacts and those who welcomed me into Shanghai five years ago, I am on my way home.
The trip will not be short, though this flight, eleven hours of China Eastern hospitality, is about as quickly as one can swap China for the lower forty eight. Yet, having leapt across the Pacific in a binge of time travel, I will not continue east apace. I will drift, this evening into a sports bar in Santa Monica, to watch the Cardinals and meet old friends. I will slow my travels gradually, from plane to taxi to bicycle to, at last, sandal-clad shuffle. At this pace my heart may have time to catch up to my body, at least enough to be of use. Right now it is torn between a woman in the mountains of Colorado and a friend walking away from the intersection of Jianguo Lu and Yueyang Lu. It is torn between where I am going and where I have been, on a scale rare but not unique in my memory. I struggle to remember leaving Shanghai the first time, to Thailand and then the US in two thousand four, all belongings likewise shipped or abandoned. I barely remember those months at home, selling my father’s collections on eBay for money eventually used to return, post election, to Shanghai.
Today’s sense of confusion, loss, and singular aloneness does not echo that transition. The flight that comes back to me here in 41G, surrounded by sleeping Chinese and Americans, is the flight from Tokyo to Shanghai on August eighteenth, two thousand three. The boy on that flight cried often, for lovers, friends and the comfort of the life he had left. The sharpest memory, of standing on the observation deck at Narita, thankfully not alone, watching the incoming planes prior to my own boarding, brings sadness even yet. Saying goodbye today is like that, though in many ways it will never be so permanent. Most of my friends in Japan are still there, people I see rarely and think of often. Most of my friends from Shanghai are American or there frequently, and reunions will not be as costly. In some ways the Shanghai I have lived for the past five years is coming with me to America, somewhere. Though we won’t be roommates, and contact will become a celebration rather than a morning necessity, it will be more than I have with the life I lived from September seventh, two thousand one until that August afternoon two years later.
Shanghai was, in many ways, a second chance to make something lasting out of a new country. Sitting here, excited for the future but saddened by the exit, I know I have done that. And it’s a reminder, to all the friends I have scattered across the world: Eventually I’ll have another house to visit, another couch to crash on. For the next few weeks though I’ll be the one showing up, knocking on doors and looking for a place to sleep.