I left for Shanghai on Saturday morning, after a fitful, feverish Friday sleep.
I am a notorious non-sleeper — my body does not require a ton of it. If I go to bed too early, nine times out of ten I will wake up a few hours later and be up for the rest of the night. I have been this way since birth. I sleep more now than I ever did — and that is to say that I get 4-5 hrs of sleep a night, and maybe I have a “crash” night every month or so where I sleep for a long stretch.
If you’ve ever lived with me, you know that I am also a terrible “snoozer.” If you are my close friend, you know I unabashedly play what I call “time zone arbitrage” when I must wake up for a race, or meeting, or flight. The hotel concierge does not seem to have the same vested interest in me making my flight as does…my mother. And when it is yesterday night in Los Angeles, it is 530am tomorrow in London. When I must wake up at a miserable 330am for a 600am flight out of London City for a quick day trip to Frankfurt, well, it is nightcap time in Manhattan, and someone at home is usually happy to call, whereas Claridge’s is notoriously bad about waking me.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever called me to get me up for a marathon; a flight; a meeting? Right. On an ordinary morning, I set six alarms. On an extraordinary morning, I ask for help.
So Strand called me at 545am Hong Kong time on Saturday morning to shout me awake, because after a long week, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to get up on my own. And I was off. Hours later, after probings and flight delays and traffic, I finally met my friend Lucy and a school friend of hers in the French Concession (an area that was once settled by the French, and is still has a distinct character and strange history — probably the part of the city I love most).
I love Shanghai. Many people hate it — it grows and sprawls — in some ways, it looks remarkably like Southern California. In the financial district, the streets are wide; the buildings are tall with recognisable names plastered atop them. If you were brought to Shanghai blindfolded and then cast out into the light of day, you might not know you weren’t in the middle of some big American city. But for all its arguably Western quirk, it is still Chinese. And it is architecturally interesting; rapidly changing; aggressive; beautiful; cosmopolitan. It seems overwhelmed with an eager desire to obscure the ugly bits but it is not always successful at that. Shanghai, it seems, is maybe in the midst of an identity crisis.
Hey, girl, I can relate.
(From my 2008 pictures of the scale model of Shanghai – updated weekly? – from the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre)
I was in Shanghai last in 2008, with my ex-husband, who was ambivalent about the place, except for its cuisine, with which he fell madly in love. We went to one restaurant at Xin Tian Di (Xin Tian Di is like a…Third Street Promenade?) — some newish, trendy restaurant — and we ate some traditionalish Shanghainese fish dish. It was basically a whole white fish in a sweet-and-sour sauce. Andrew talked about that meal for a long time after — about it being one of the most memorable dinners of his entire life; as if the whole of Shanghai could be reduced to a shopping plaza containing the first Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf I’d seen since I had left West Los Angeles and a candy-coated river trout.
When I saw him recently, he mentioned the fish again — somewhat out of the blue, since my Hong Kong trip had not yet been on the books when we spoke. He said he had finally found a similar dish while out on a date, and he said how happy he was — both about the meal and the date. The Xin Tian Di experience had been the second-to-last date we had ever had, and to that day I remained ambivalent about both the date and the fish.
(This is probably why I am divorced.)
But coming back to Shanghai on Saturday confirmed that I loved the city for what it was and what it wasn’t — or what it hadn’t been and what I hadn’t been.
(Irony, defined…since this was snapped on Saturday.)
At the time of the trip, I hadn’t realised that as a wife, I was still the steward of my husband’s fragile heart — even as things were failing and even if he hadn’t been the steward of mine. I was so focused back then on the things that I didn’t have that I wasn’t a very good care-taker of the things that did belong to me. To us.
And when things got wrecked at home, I was ultimately the same way with Frederic. I had always been so concerned with what the addict wasn’t giving me, and wasn’t telling me, that I didn’t do my part of protecting those beautiful, fragile things he — and we— did share.
So going to Shanghai was literally a wakeup call — 545am; American Woman screaming from a British mobile phone. I am the steward of real and fragile hearts, and there are many stewards of mine. This moment in my life is not about what I am not giving or not getting, but it is about being close from far away; loving harsh realities; letting the past be past, no matter how good or bad the meal may have seemed at the time.