Shanghai Noons This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

December 19, 2009
By , Coquitlam, Canada
I have always considered myself Canadian. After all, I have an affinity for maple-syrup pancakes and tobogganing, and I say “Eh?” quite a lot. I even like the rain. Really, I do.

However none of these things hindered my excitement at going back to my hometown, Shanghai, for the first time in five years. My last trip had been nothing but a blur of loud talking, umami scents and tastes, and sleeping on a rock-hard bamboo mat for two weeks. Needless to say, this time I was determined to make the most of my wholly Asian experience.

Let's fast forward three weeks. I am sitting cross-legged on my bed, tears streaking hotly down my face. Kleenex and my diary are at hand. I write that I wish I had never returned. I write that my heart breaks.

It is the silence that kills me. When I lay my head down on my oh-so-soft pillow and my marshmallow of a mattress, the silence is tangible, no longer peaceful. It is a stone-cold rock that gives no answer to my sobs. I feel alone in the world, and upon remembering that my mother is in the other room, I cry harder, realizing that we are utterly alone in this strange place I'd called home just three weeks ago.

Shanghai is always noisy. It doesn't matter where you are, what time it is, or what you are doing. There is always the noise. It meets, maybe even exceeds, the element of rain in Vancouver. The noise was an annoyance my first days there, especially at night, when I squeezed my eyes shut and wished that the neighbors and shop owners downstairs would just go to bed, or be quiet already! The noise never stops. It is continuous, like the sound of the ocean ebbing in and out on the beach. It is perpetuated by the city itself. Eventually, I became desensitized. Even at night, it was no longer a nuisance, but a strange, cultural lullaby that cradled me to bed. I would wake up during the night and listen to people talking in the streets. There was always laughter at the stroke of midnight and at dawn.

There was always light too; here, I was not afraid of the dark and its secrets. The Chinese people chase it away. Slowly, this became my norm. The people I heard outside my window I secretly befriended. I smiled and closed my eyes, while their voices unknowingly lulled me back into dreams.

There was something else in Shanghai I wasn't used to in Canada: family. It did not matter that I could only speak bits of broken Mandarin; we communicated mainly through smiles, touches, and laughter. They studied my face carefully, stroked my hair, and complimented me on my Shanghainese. My grandfather made me honey-tea every morning and rushed through the humid streets to buy me dim sum. Food is the language of Shanghai, and dim sum is its official ambassador.

I played Solitaire and watched funny dating shows on TV with my grandma. I read, I slept, I explored the small streets where the locals wash their laundry in the streets and play cards around a makeshift table. People bike everywhere; I am constantly amazed at their kinesthesia as they maneuver between brigades of cars and jay-walkers. In the evenings, I listened to Lady Gaga and fed the litter of stray cats that wandered below our balcony. They looked at me with sly, almond-shape eyes as I threw them bits of aromatic sausage. I adored them and named every one.

My cousins arrived for lunch every day; they were both kind and easy to tease, even though we had not spoken properly to each other since childhood. We shared laughter over my grandma's famous soy-sauce duck or onion broiled chicken. I felt an aching in my chest sometimes; I couldn't believe I'd been missing out on this. It is all I ever wanted. I was so happy that my heart could have burst.

On the plane ride home I cried and thought of how my grandma's eyes watered slightly as I closed the door of the taxi. She waved at me until I was out of sight, and I wanted nothing more than to tell the taxi to turn around. I remembered I forgot to hug my cousin, and berated myself, thinking of his familiar face and feeling something huge weighing down my chest. I could not breathe.

I have returned to the land of the lonely, where my mother and I eat dim sum together only on occasion, and she is the only one to teach me the ways of the world. I wonder why we came to Canada in the first place when our home was flying by beneath our feet. I dare not ask her aloud, for surely her heart is breaking as sharply as mine.

So that brings me back to today, where I am still crying and no amount of tissues can stem the flood. The house is quiet. The city is quiet. I don't know when I will be able to look outside and marvel at the wonders of Canada again, or when I will be able to talk to my friends and not wish I were with my cousins. Do I feel traitorous? Only slightly, for Shanghai to me is incomparable in its merits. The only thing that separates me from my other identity is a 12-hour plane ride. To me, it is the world.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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