Harking back to the G20 days of late 2016, Moonlight closed again, this time for a much shorter period of time. Following a series of flu-like symptoms accompanied by the unwanted monthly guest, I could barely get out of bed the first few days of this month. My boss kept calling me to work every day, but my efforts to get dressed and put on makeup proved futile. By the second week, the illness had finally subsided enough that basic chores could be accomplished and so I thought myself well enough to return to the daily grind. Unfortunately, my Brazilian friend, Viki, texted me to say that we weren’t allowed at the company for several days due to police checks. I had substantial savings from last month to tide me over for a few weeks, but boredom and aggravation soon got the better of me.
The month of March generally acts as a sort of catch-up game for Chinese and foreigners alike. Because of the spring festival in February, there’s a lengthy stretch of time where work can’t get done even if we wanted to go. Small restaurants empty out, there’s hardly anyone left in Shanghai to go to the KTV, and prices of services ranging from hair salons to taxis double for a period of two weeks to one month. Foreigners living in big cities find this to be an incredibly boring and lonely month, especially if they haven’t got time or money to leave the country for weeks. I’m no exception, so I welcomed March with open arms — hoping that I could finally go back to business as usual.
If you work in a KTV, you generally rely on your stable customers during government meetings which produce police crackdowns, when business gets bad for a while, or any other unexpected problem that could befall a girl. Though I haven’t been back in Shanghai for a long time, I managed to find one such amazing customer who has already helped me a ton from giving me a fixed amount each week to bringing me to nearby small cities for travel.
Yesterday, Da Lee and I went to Ma’an Shan, a small city in Anhui province where he’d grown up before moving to Shanghai twenty years ago to open a series of businesses and become the high-rolling, Benz-driving, boss that he is today. When I witnessed his humble beginnings, a small city with a population no larger than ninety-thousand people, hardly any cars on the road, small shops lining sleepy streets with random cats and dogs roaming about in mixed-species packs, it became apparent that we’d both come a long way from home.
I envy Da Lee in that he has friends he’s known since childhood who aren’t too far away. Not many people liked me when I was a kid and while living in Florida, I was nothing but a constant, giant ball of red-hot anger almost 24/7, locking myself away in my room to play video games and chat on anime forums. I grew up in an interracial family in a small seaside city in Florida filled with giant flying cockroaches and rednecks. Let’s just say that as an educated mixed kid from Chicago, I found it beyond my capabilities to tolerate their stupidity. The oldest friend I have is a girl I met in middle school who lives half a world away and couldn’t be more different from me today. Da Lee and I are the ones who made it out — the restless and the unsatisfied with small town life — feeling that the great, big world outside our childhood holes must be better than what we’d come to know up to that point. Not many people are born with that fire, that curiosity, and that drive inside of them. When I talk to the one friend I have from childhood, I’m reminded that most people’s lives are actually quite boring and that, generally speaking, most people feel unmotivated to change their situations if they’ve got everything they need for daily life or they’ve gotten used to a certain place. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think everyone has a role in life. Just like I couldn’t be satisfied living in a small city, chained to a life of menial, low-paid work, some folks find the stress and grind of a metropolis simply overwhelming. I have a great deal of respect for folks who show consistency. The problem is when people, like my childhood friend, complain about how terrible a place is and yet make absolutely no effort to leave because it’s all they’ve ever known. When I explained this to Da Lee, he chalked it up to mental laziness.
Recently, my mood hasn’t been that great because when we were finally allowed to go back to work, the business turned sour and I went three days this week without working despite coming four days in a row. At that point, I decided to call Da Lee and bring Viki to drink with him. The following day, we drove about five hours and chatted the whole way. I’m much more confident in my Chinese than I was before but I’ve still got a lot to learn. At a toll booth, a woman in front of us held up the line because she’d apparently lost her ticket. Da Lee, in an unusually anxious state, began shouting at and scolding the police officer. The officer, calm and smug as most cops in Asia, shrugged him off and went back to pacing in front of the toll booth. His nonchalant attitude angered Da Lee even more as he leaned on the horn and cursed in Mandarin, Shanghainese, and English. After five minutes or so, the lady in front gave in, paid her toll, and we arrived at the restaurant shortly after. Both of us decided to drink away our frustrations into the wee hours of the morning.
Today, I woke up with a pounding headache and a desire to lay in bed all day but I knew this would be a waste. Da Lee suggested going out for a massage to relax our minds and bodies. It was my first time getting a hot stone and cupping massage. When she placed the glass cups atop my back one by one, I winced in pain as the suction scooped the small bits of fat I had on my back into large, maroon, opaque circles. Though Da Lee felt comfortable after his turn, I couldn’t help but think of it as anything but satisfying.
Our last dinner in the tranquil, picturesque town of Ma’an Shan involved a seafood dinner, of course, suited to local taste buds. A dish of lettuce soaked in soy sauce, sprouts and tofu mixed together, and oily, salty fish sat atop the round table. While others ate with enthusiasm, I couldn’t bring myself to chow down more than a couple bites without grimacing each time. Let’s just say Anhui cuisine isn’t suitable for my palate.
As I sit on the train in first class, next to a Japanese salaryman returning to Shanghai, I wonder if I’ll be able to rely on my foreign and Chinese friends to help me find another place to work this time. I will fight to stay in Shanghai. It’s the promise I made to myself when I came back for the 5th or 6th time in late January. There’s no place like Shanghai. There’s no place like home.