When I dream about Shanghai, I am back in the French Concession on a humid summer afternoon. I am on Anfu rd, under the poplar trees with giraffe-spotted trunks. I am on Wulumuqi rd, walking down to the Avocado Lady. The city is pure chaos. I can smell the four-day old pork of the meat vendor mixing with the sickly sweet fried dough of the shop next door.
There are days when I still crave China like a drug. I close my eyes and behind them, I see is my life back in Shanghai – the stifling heat, the wet January cold that goes all the way to your bones, the October monsoons, the April pollen. The streets are frenzied, a sea of wanghong in Gucci tracksuits, scooters weaving their way through traffic, loud ayis with hairspray bouffants (that one that looks just like David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust), and me.
I’m cycling down Julu rd, past Donghu and Alimentari Grande, to Xiangyang South Rd, the street I lived on for five years, on my way to Café de Volcan.
Call it Stockhom Syndrome. Call it being an emotional hostage, but Shanghai still feels like home, more than any other place I’ve lived. And so, there are some nights I lay awake at night, on the verge of tears, craving the familiarity of my life there. I think about what will happen to the 80-something old man who spent the entire lockdown shirtless chain-smoking outside our door. I wonder if I’ll see him again and it breaks my heart to know that it’s unlikely.
I feel unsettled. The novelty of London has worn off and a long Winter is here. I have a lot of time to think and I am spending it going through that stage of grief where I dissociate and go back to dreaming of the city. But then, I read news of protests. I see photos of the police barricades on Wulumuqi road. I find article after article about how China will keep going with Covid-zero into 2023. I watch the video of BBC reporter Ed Lawrence dragged off the ground by his wrists and detained by the police ‘just so he wouldn’t catch Covid’. And I don’t know what to think anymore.
By the time I left China, it was a whisper of the country I fell in love with in 2014. So I think what I’m mourning isn’t the China that I left, but my life as it was 3-4 years ago. I never got the time to mourn that time. I feel like now I finally have time to process it.
And so I dream of the poplar trees.