Thursday, March 24, 2011


I might as well be talking about the last few years of this blog, eh? Kind of fell off the blogging world when I moved to China. It took a while to get settled, you see. And I had to deal with learning the language and figuring out where to get my bicycle tires fixed (free advice: don't buy a bicycle at Carrefour, get it at Decathlon). I was going to school every day and rotating our milk sources. And then when I might have started blogging, we were blocked from blogger and that was a good excuse not to start up again.

So now we're back in Korea and I find that I've been thinking about blogging again a lot lately but having been away so long it seems scary, somehow, to put myself out there again. And the bar is a lot higher now; there are a lot of bloggers out there when once there were few. I need to face up to the fact that if I'm going to write anything it isn't going to be stupendous because I don't have time to edit.

So... baby steps. Small posts. For today: silence.

So we're in the new place, and it's good. Really good. Dishwasher (haven't had one of those for almost 8 years, unless you count ayi, who washed dishes among other duties...), heated toilet seats, nice community sauna/bath and swimming pool, etc.

The first night we slept here (on a 손없는날: that is, a day in which the ghosts go up to the heavens to play, so it is safe to move), I was exhausted from the moving and traveling, ready to collapse in our old bedding in the new place. But that's when it really hit me that we weren't in Shanghai anymore: it was so quiet. In the background I could hear the hum of something, probably the heating system, but that's it.

There are many types of quiet. Quiet in this place is Hotel Quiet: a mind-your-own-business kind of quiet; impersonal and antiseptic.

We had just spent a few weeks in the U.S., and we visited some friends from Shanghai who had recently moved to a hillside house in Saratoga, California. The quiet on their porch was a sweetly relaxing kind of quiet, the kind of quiet that makes you feel like you are being cradled by the kitten-soft tongues of tree leaves. I wanted to just stay on their porch, immobile, and watch the centuries go by. I could understand in that moment why writers seek places to nature to write, and why Koreans bury their bed on mountain tops. It was the kind of quiet that says eternal peace and wisdom.

The quiet of that first night back in Seoul was an empty kind of quiet, leaving enough of a sensory black hole to suck me right back to Shanghai, despite months of effortless denial about leaving that place. I remembered all the night noises in Shanghai; the baoan guards talking into their walkie-talkies, bells clanging for various recycling pickups, ubiquitous honking, the sounds of children playing in the playground. Our first night in our last apartment in Shanghai (we lived in two different places) we were all sleeping in a huge mosquito tent in the living room because our bedroom was full of stacks of books (we had not yet bought any furniture). Around 1am we woke to shouts from the street: "小偷!小偷!" [Xiaotou!Thief!] It took us a few minutes to groggily figure out what they were saying, and then KC and I stumbled towards the verandah and looked out into the night. Baoan were coming from all directions, converging on the poor thief in the middle of the large road behind our complex. Some of the baoan were on scooters, and they were going to run him down. Eventually they caught up with the guy and started punching him and then dragging him towards the side of the road, I guess to take him to the police. We went back inside and went back to sleep. Shortly after that, in preparation for Expo, the city began repaving and fixing all the roads in our area, so seven days a week from 7am to 10pm we would hear jackhammers, steamrollers, and work crews trying to make their deadlines. Accompanied by the wonderful smell of asphalt, of course.

The first night we spent in Shanghai (in our first apartment), we were woken at 7am (it was Sunday morning) which what sounded like gunfire. Of course it was fireworks, not gunfire, and within a short time we had become so used to the sound that I barely noticed it anymore.

But that's what happens with a city, I suppose. You're so busy trying to figure out where to step and who to befriend and where to buy your veggies that two and a half years go by in a big whoosh, and you don't realize that you're carrying the place around with you, in the grime under your fingernails, in the soundtrack to which you fall asleep at night. Every once in a while when I'm walking around Seoul, remembering what it was like to live here before and comparing it to now (more on that another day), I get a whiff of Shanghai and my mind takes me back. I think of the odd scenes: the man carrying a bag of live chickens on the subway, or the taxi driver who, during a long red light, painstakingly weeded his white hairs by leaning awkwardly out in order to see himself in the rearview mirror. I think of the commentary that followed me whenever I walked around with my kids, "Three sons! Three sons!"

I don't think I appreciated what a persistant and colorful character Shanghai had, and how much I had grown to love it, until that quiet night.