Saturday, April 23, 2005

One Night in Shanghai...Part One

After leaving China in March 1980, I did not return for over thirteen years. There were a number of reasons. The experience had been overwhelming, I suppose, hard to process. I was young enough to not have a clear grip on who I was, and not so young as to be completely malleable. And it had been so difficult at times: wrestling with bureaucracy, with restrictions on one's movements, on one's associations. And let's face it: China was kind of depressing back then. The lack of opportunity of my students (that was their constant refrain: "I have no choice about it"); the suffering so many people had experienced during the Cultural Revolution - I'd heard too many stories. I couldn't imagine that China could ever become a more or less normal place to live, where people could have decent lives and live as they choosed.

And yet...while I was in China that first time, I'd toyed with the idea of taking a teaching job in the provinces. I'd had offers; it would have been easy for me to do. What stopped me was the sense that I hadn't yet lived the life I was supposed to live back in the United States. I'd just started college, shouldn't I finish it? More to the point, I'd gotten this notion that I would become a rock musician and/or a famous screenwriter. Somehow I didn't see myself doing that in China. And I think at the back of my mind, I felt that if I'd stayed any longer, I might not have ever left. And who knows, I still wonder what my life would be like if I'd stayed...

But mainly, once I returned to the United States, I wasn't really in much of a position to go back to China. I was once again a college student. After that, I needed to work. I moved to Los Angeles and began to establish myself in the entertainment industry, in one obscure corner of it, anyway.

In the meantime, I'd become slightly obsessed with making sense of my China experience. I studied a little Chinese and Chinese history. Mostly, I developed a fixation on Zhou Enlai, who in addition to being a fascinating historical figure, a complex personality and the leading architect of the People's Republic of China, was one handsome man. Also, he was the one leader who had somehow maintained the respect and affection of just about everyone I encountered in China at that time (I would discover later that this affection was both genuine and also encouraged by a political campaign designed to shore up Deng Xiaoping's new leadership).

It wasn't until the Beijing protests in the spring of 1989 that it occurred to me that I could return to China. I had the money and the vacation time. More importantly, it was seeing those students and workers and intellectuals marching peacefully, freely expressing themselves and having dreams and ambitions that in 1979 seemed inconceivable, that prompted me to go. It was the idea that all of these people I'd known had cast off their mental shackles, their fears, trauma and depression, that they'd suddenly developed hope.

I and a friend made our plane reservations. "In two weeks, Tiananmen Square!" we'd joke.

When all of that came crashing down, I couldn't even think about returning for a long while.

But in 1993, an opportunity presented itself. I read in the Daily Variety that Shanghai would host its first International Film Festival.

I had just started working in a low-level film studio job after a period of unemployment. I was broke - more than that, I was deeply in debt, and not making very much money. I had no vacation time. But it seemed to me that I had to go to Shanghai and attend this festival. It was a chance to combine two themes in my life - China and film. Who knew what contacts I'd make to further my so-called career?

Also, my friend with whom I'd originally traveled to China was sick. Dying, actually, though neither of us could quite accept this at the time (and I still believe he didn't have to have died when he did...but that is another story). Like me, he hadn't been back to China since we'd left in 1980. He wanted to go too.

I approached my then boss for permission to take the time off, without pay.

"If you go, they might close the department," he responded.

I tried to digest this. "You're telling me that the department is so shaky that my taking two weeks off might close it? If that's true, then I'd be an idiot not to take advantage of an opportunity like this. Sorry, I'm going."

Paul, my friend and traveling companion, agonized over the decision far more than I did. He was paranoid about leaving his building, for some reason. Something might happen to it in his absence. The building was an old converted movie theater in a bad part of town that he rented out, mostly for underground parties and porn shoots. During the LA riots in 1992, things had burned all around him, so I guess his paranoia wasn't completely unfounded. But the weird thing was, he wasn't even living there by the time we were preparing to go to Shanghai. He'd let the space degenerate into complete chaos. I mean, the place was an utter disaster, a foot deep in clothes and papers and trash. Rather than cleaning it up, he'd moved into a series of cheap motel rooms by the airport. Something in his building was irritating his skin, he told me, was giving him a rash. He could escape it in those anonymous motel rooms. A maid would come in every morning and change his sheets. He told me all this in one of those rooms one night, as we sat on one of the twin beds in the bluish light, drinking tequila.

Paul went back and forth over whether he should go to Shanghai. As our friend drove us to the airport, I thought he was having a full-on mental breakdown. I guess, objectively, he was. He was nearly crying. He thought if he got on that plane, he would die.

Nonetheless, we got on the plane and headed to Shanghai...


Anonymous said...

Excellent essay, but I'm unclear as to whether or not you and Paul went when you were saying, "In Two weeks, Tienamen Square". Or did the uprising prevent the trip? I realize I really should know the answer to this, but...

Other Lisa said...

Oh...actually it was Lisa X and I who were going to go in 1989...then Tiananmen happened, and we didn't go. Then it says "in 1993 an opportunity presented itself," or something like that (blogger comments don't let you look at the post while you are commenting).

Does that make sense?

schtickyrice said...


Excellent, this essay fits perfectly with the Red and Expert photo. Interesting that you were one of the few Westerners to see China in 1980. I happen to be one of the few Chinese to emigrate from China in that same year. I was eight years old at the time and left with my parents to reunite with my paternal grandparents in Canada...the memories seem so surreal, everything has changed so much...The China of my memories remains locked in that time warp of the late 1970's. I had been back once in 1988 and already felt like a stranger. Life moves on, things change, people change...I'm not sure if my next trip back will confirm a final break with my past or the re-establishment of new ties...until that happens, thanks for sharing the memories.

Other Lisa said...

Dear Schticky,

So glad you enjoyed it. I can only imagine how you must have made sense in your mind, first of Canada, then of China when you returned. The changes since 1988 are equally staggering. Where were you from in China? Beijing has changed so much it's barely recognizable. I found though that going back has both really helped me make sense of my past and also created new ties and new relationships. I hope you get a chance to go back soon.

I wrote some other posts that are more about my experiences then and also that whole process of trying to make sense of things - I think they are in the February archives - "Home on the Range" and "Fixing a Hole."

Other Lisa said...

p.s. and I hope to write part 2 of this essay - the actual Shanghai part! - over the weekend...

schtickyrice said...

Dear Lisa,

I grew up in Qinghai in the Northwest, not the nomadic Tibetan part but the Muslim part around the capital of Xining. Both my parents were southerners so it was particularly hard on them to subsist on a diet of noodles and momo. I've never gone back there since leaving in 1980...but it will definately be on the itinerary the next time I visit China.

We were originally supposed to emigrate to Canada in '78 and ended up stalled in Beijing for a year at my aunt and uncle's place on campus at Tsinghua University. There was an annual quota for immigrants to Canada and the Vietnamese refugee crisis had bumped us back. I ended up going to school in Beijing for a parents finally got fed up waiting and took us back to Xining in '79 before finally leaving in '80.

I had visited Beijing in 1988, just one year before Tiananmen. Beijing did not feel as friendly a place as it was back in '78. I remember a distinct feeling of disillusionment and disconnectedness. Perhaps my expectations were too high and unrealistic. Back in the early 80's, when you leave China, you really leave it behind...the food, the sights, the sounds, all of it. When I finally made it back it was all too disappointing. I distinctly remember feeling for the first time that I was Canadian...and then Tiananmen in 89 pretty much confirmed it for good.

In the last few years, as I get older, I have been rediscovering my roots and re-embracing my Chinese heritage. The misguided anti-Japanese riots of late don't help, but I've learned to embrace the good parts and leave behind the bad. I think you're right. Going back again for a visit would be a good chance to reestablish some new links and gain a better perspective...I just don't want to ruin any remaining good memories that I have.

Other Lisa said...

Dear Schticky,

I've noticed that the changes are much more dramatic in the big cities than in the countryside. You might find your old home province far less changed than Beijing (which truly is unrecognizable).

The changes are good and bad, I think. For a foreigner, it is quite a bit easier to get around in China now than it was 20 years ago, and people have a lot more personal freedom. But Beijing is much more of an impersonal big city than it was, with all the attendant stresses, and some of the development is truly horrid. My one consolation is that they will probably get around to knocking down a lot of the recent ugly development in a few years - maybe the next wave of building will be better...

I hope you do return soon - I would love to hear your impressions from your unique perspective.