This is the story of our final family trip in China. It all started one fine April day when, as Nick was putting the final touches (okay, tossing down the final unedited sentences) on his thesis, he had a remarkable vision. Huddled over his little laptop in the drafty guest bedroom, where he’d spent the vast majority of his uninspired life over the last six dreary weeks, he saw the peeling wallpaper before him suddenly peel away some more. The drab and yellowed paper lifted up and away, revealing not the inch-thick wall beneath, the medium through which the sounds of a neighbor coughing and hacking and possibly choking up blood often came to fill the many long, uncertain pauses between Nick’s tapping of his keyboard. Instead, the peeling wallpaper peeled all the way away to reveal a glittering azure sea, specked with emerald-colored islands and traversible via passenger ferry from Shanghai. It was a vision of freedom, of warm sun and salty breezes and Chinese seafood that was just-maybe somewhat safe to eat. It was a vision of the 嵊泗 Shengsi and 舟山 Zhoushan archipelagos, where the first rays of sun shine down on the Middle Kingdom each morning, and where in 1841 one of those sunrises was accompanied by tall-masted British warships, which shelled the coast and seized Ningbo’s tax barges until the Qing agreed to allow the unlimited import of opium. It would be out there, along the narrow, windy beaches of those small rocky islands, at the watery limits of China’s vast continental empire, and where continuing east means going back to the West, that the Hu Family would leave their final footprints in China. It was a glorious, coffee-addled vision.
The trip started out with two days in Shanghai. While I went there at least once a month for a salad and errands, Nick had avoided the place, complaining that Shanghai’ers were snobs or sometimes fretting that even the migrant workers on the subway were better-dressed than he. (When I suggested he just wear pajamas up there like all of Shanghai’s elderly men do all day, he correctly pointed out that he does not even own such a nice pair of pajamas as they.) So, coming up on the end of our time in the Yangtze Delta, we hadn’t seen as much of the ol’ Pearl of the Orient as we’d have liked.
Probably the most intriguing attraction that Shanghai offers is its outer parts. The city’s central Manhattan gives way in ever direction to so many Brooklyns consisting of thousands of identikit apartment blocks and the gated communities of the rich. Beyond those communities, on the other side of all the construction sites building new ones, is a bizarro version of rural eastern China that we’ve only glimpsed: mist-shrouded rice fields crossed-over by elevated highways; narrow crisscrossing canals plied by giant coal barges; and cracked, crumbling farmers’ houses sided, to the left, by a millionaire’s very own replica of the White House, and on the right, by a collection of shipping containers inhabited by migrants from Guangxi. On our second day in China, one of our Shanghai friends took Nick out here to play paintball, at a complex situated on an old, mucky, abandoned military facility, now staffed by gruff young Israelis. It was a Sunday, and the place was packed with young teenage boys wearing US-style camouflage utilities and shouting anti-Japanese slogans, their parents waiting on the sidelines or in their cars to offer their sons snacks or to brush the mud off their pants. For a new arrival wondering what to expect in China, venturing out to those parts provided the most accurate answer–whatever that answer was. It was easy what drove much of the writing on China we’d read before coming. In their efforts to explore and portray China to audiences back home, some Western authors become junkies of the weird, seemingly addicted to that thrilling, ironic sensation of inserting oneself into yet another paradox of China’s economic revolution. Two years later, Nick still wondered often, annoyingly, if he shouldn’t just buy an old electric bike and spend “the next month” wandering Shanghai’s ugly, fascinating fringes.
Alas, our final trip to Shanghai would not be so adventurous. Nick and I both had other items to cross off our two-years-running to-do list. Things we didn’t feel any urge to accomplish before our last month: Buy some souvenir-y decorations. Get a cheap suit tailored. Take Owen to the aquarium. Take one last look around.
Our souvenirs and aquarium errands took us farthest out from the city’s center, but still within the reach of metro lines built over the last six years. Living up to all the expat hype, the “antiques” warehouse that we visited really did amount to one man’s enormous and fantastic collection of old furniture and discarded curios. The place was just hard-enough to find that foreigners could revel in how adventurous it was to go there. Located across from a square-mile array of identical ten-story apartment buildings, down a gravel path beginning at the edge of a six-lane highway, the unmarked warehouse gave no outward indication that visitors to this spot were standing on the threshold of Awesome. Inside looked dark and dusty, and when we pushed the little door open it only moved a few inches, blocked by what turned out to be a stack of old chairs. We squeezed inside and found that the whole space was packed–floor to ceiling, front to back–with stacks and stacks of old, dust-covered junk, with only a half-person-wide footpath winding deeper into the darkness. We turned on the headlamp we’d been told to bring and set off. Under the light of the headlamp, the junk looked pretty good: wooden tables, trunks, armoirs, tiny stools, drums, Buddhas, jewelry boxes, wooden carvings, and every sort of old knick-knack one could imagine, almost all of it appearing to date from a pre-1949 period when an earlier generation of Shanghai nouveu-riche had also turned their trading profits toward conspicuous consumption. We dug around, trying not to bump into the other shoppers: two French women, and an ethnic-Chinese family of four from Malaysia. We were all foreigners here, excusing ourselves in hushed English as we side-stepped past each other on our ways to sift through yet more discarded junk of China’s last 100 tumultuous years. We searched and sifted in silence, intent on finding that representative piece, whatever it was, of China. The only sounds were the occasional clinking of cracked old porcelain, the clapping-shut of a loose-hinged incense box, and the soft whooshes of cars zooming past on the nearby highway. The proprietor, a wiry old man who greeted us with a nod, was busy trying to direct his son’s precarious effort to stack yet one more old chest atop an already-wobbling stack of a dozen. We brought him one find at a time, bargaining first on each item individually and then again for everything collectively. Then, with a couple knick-knacks wrapped carefully in our backpack, we wiped the dust off our noses and walked back up the dirt lane to the roaring highway.
Later we went to the aquarium, located in Shanghai’s business district, under the long shadows of three of the world’s tallest buildings. Owen walked through what was billed–believably so, at 155 meters–as The World’s Longest Submarine Viewing Tunnel/Shark Tank. Then we rode an escalator up through another tank, this one containing animals from China’s Yangtze Delta ecosystem. Amid the LED flashes of dozens of upheld camera phones, we suddenly found ourselves eye-to-eye with another artifact of China’s recent history: a Yangtze river alligator, one of the few alive today. The ever-pressing crowd seemed to pause for a moment, taking in one long, collective stare. The alligator, with one eye toward us, stared back. Then the press of the crowd resumed, and we surged forward.