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Melody from Chaos
I tumbled out of the train, propelled by the torrent of passengers exiting. After standing sandwiched between strangers for the last hour, I only wanted to go home and shower. Yet my mom had other plans. After a few clicks on her phone, she pulled up her maps and announced, “Let’s first leave the station, and then we’ll get to explore.” Explore what, I thought. We just spent half the day riding a subway across Shanghai.
Oblivious to my irritation, my mom strode toward the door, and I trudged behind her. People in suits and dresses and ripped jeans scurried around the station as if scouring for food, bags in one hand and phone cradled in the other. All going about their own business, heading to their own destinations, and probably never crossing paths again, I bemoaned.
Sunlight flooded my vision as we stepped onto the sidewalk. There were even more people on the street, plus the honking of cars and vrooms of motorcycles. I wanted to close my eyes and retreat into my ideal vacation. Maybe lying in the sand, listening to the waves. Camping under the redwood trees, no people in sight. Or admiring historic artifacts in an air-conditioned museum. Definitely not walking on the streets with my hair puffed up like a burnt dandelion in the midsummer heat.
“In eight hundred meters, turn right,” chirped my mom’s phone, forcing me back to reality.
I asked her, “Where exactly are we going?”
“Next street down.” Before I could inquire further, she had already started walking away with her customary urgency, as if late for an appointment.
My blistered feet protesting, I followed in silence. How long is eight hundred meters? After several minutes, my mom declared, “Here we are.” I looked up from the concrete ground and saw nothing different. The same masses of people, same vehicles, same noises.
“Isn’t this just another street?” I said, struggling to keep the note of complaint out of my voice.
“This is the center of the city,” my mother replied, as if it explained anything. I followed her gaze and saw only heads blocking my view.
Moving my neck to get a better look, I grunted, “There are lots of people.”
“Exactly. When was the last time you were on a street like this?” Good point. At home, only the rumble of cars filled the silence on the sidewalks, where a lone runner or shopper trickled along once in a while.
Here in Shanghai, the flow of people seemed never to stop. Like ants darting from one tunnel to the next, people weaved in and out of side alleys, stores, and even traffic. It resembled a concert, with an assembly of instruments each playing its own strain. Staccato drumming of heels, high-pitched laughter of children, and the soft hum of voices all composed one distinctive piece. Even the sound of car horns, formerly so irksome, injected energy into the music.
An equally dazzling landscape accompanied the symphony. In the backdrop, a collage of stores featured bold advertisements and colorful menus. When I peered into the glass windows, rows of carefully placed goods beckoned me, from jewelry to mannequins to sample dishes.
Dishes! My brain started registering the scents that assailed my nose from all sides. One second, I smelled roast chicken. The next, durian--wait, more like pineapple. Or maybe the perfume of someone walking by me. The chaos of smells proved about as easy to discern as a tangled ball of yarn, yet the process of unraveling it actually soothed me.
As I stared down the street, I stopped avoiding people’s heads. After all, they took center stage as the composers, conductors, and players of the street’s melody.