I wish someone had told me, before I moved to Shanghai last year, to be careful to not let China make me a meaner person. I had thought that I had adjusted well. I had learned the width of the narrowest opening between two people that I could weave through on a crowded city street. I learned to accept the smaller dimensions of personal space here, but not give it up for the obnoxious, privileged young Shanghainese women who will cut you in line. I learned not to cross at crosswalks and how to judge the likelihood of a car hitting me by its distance from and the speed at which it is going. I accepted the fact that horns were going to blare at 3am, and have even begun to be able to sleep without earplugs.
I learned to survive, but I mistook my accumulated survival skills as signs of my emerging cosmopolitanism. This is what it is to be an urbanite! I thought. I am tough-skinned, competent, and worldly!
But in actuality, I was slammed by the thrice-as-forceful wave of post-graduate life, city life, and Chinese life all at once. I can't separate the three, can't ever figure out whether my feelings and frustrations are the natural reactions of a newly minted independent adult, those of a space-and-quiet-loving girl whose prior contact with cities up till now had been day trips into New York and Philly, or the result of coming to a Chinese city.
I no longer want to deny it, no longer want to cover it up with euphemisms. China is impatient and judgmental and unforgiving, and in my struggle to survive here, I've absorbed a lot of that into myself.
It's easy to internalize a lot of frustration in China. That's what happens to a society led by a government that doesn't allow freedom of speech. It only takes one bus ride in Shanghai to get a pretty thorough gist of what makes me angry here. As the bus pulls to the curb, middle-aged men and single-minded young mothers push shuffling old women out of the way to be the first onto the bus. The bus drivers slams the doors shut as soon as you step on board, barely avoiding catching the back of your shirt in its wheezy path. Slouching young men with artfully arranged bangs sit in the courtesy seats and bury their heads in their iPhones or iPads, determinedly ignoring the thin-wristed, white-haired little old ladies who cling to the side of their seats and struggle to stand upright as the bus driver lurches in and out of traffic with his hand permanently pressed against the horn. The man desperately missing his sixteenth cigarette of the day on his short bus journey groans and shudders and jerks his head and hacks up a thick gob of spit into the single, tiny, overflowing trash can. Oh, traffic lights? A mere suggestion. The thing that counts down the seconds until your light turns green? Obviously an indication that traffic is supposed to go when there are still 4 seconds left of the red light to go. If you get to your stop and the bus is crowded, which is often, it becomes a game of push and shove, see how many people you can bang with your overstuffed purse on your way to reach the door. The concept of letting people off the public transport vehicle before new passengers board? A mere concept, rarely put into practice.
A trip on Shanghai's public transportation illustrates the selfishness and inconsideration of a nation that adopted capitalism while still held in the thrall of communism. Knowing this, everything in China becomes suspect. The smiling, well-made-up waitress who serves you at dinner may be secretly resenting your white-collar job and accompanying salary. You buy a cheap watery beer for 40RMB at a pub that tries to evoke European legacies and feel guilty that your one beer could feed for one whole day one of the many beggars, often deformed or missing limbs from factory accidents, who sit in the streets. You become suspicious of every price given to you at the local market, wondering if the seller isn't trying to gyp you out of a few more yuan despite his already reasonably low price. Silence does not indicate contentment, but rather decades of pent-up frustration at inequality and corruption.
No community is perfect, but I never thought that I'd lose so many of the things I used to like about myself--listening skills, objectivity, concentrated kindness--so quickly, in this environment. It took almost a year's worth of unhappiness and regretful meanness on my part for me to realize that I don't like much of who I've become. So, starting now, I will strive to be more aware of when I'm being mean, and to resist the easy temptation of sliding into meanness. I will also write more about China, my travels, and my thoughts here. I haven't written as much about my life abroad as I had expected to mostly because I'm really unhappy with many things about it. But if writing about it will be my catharsis, then I'm going to. I'm going to put the truth out there, because I'm still an American citizen, I'm still a reluctant leader of humanity, and the truth cannot be denied.