A journey onward.
So here I am, back in Shanghai after two years. Little less than a week ago, I finally made my way back to the city that had been my home two years earlier. Now, 6 days in the journey, I find myself sitting at the counter of a Starbucks across the street from my building, while the ayi (a Chinese way to refer to the ‘auntie’ doing the housekeeping) is cleaning the apartment I rented through Airbnb. Next to me there’s a father playing memory with his son, dripping wet Chinese come in looking for shelter as the rain keeps pouring down outside and a dozen or so Chinese millennials swipe away on their phones as if it’s the most fascinating thing they’ve done in ages. Surrounded by these simple things, a familiar surrounding in an alien world, I can’t help but conclude that Shanghai has changed.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still rough edges that show how square-pegged western society is to the round hole that is this city. You will still see the grandpa’s spitting, you will still be overwhelmed by the disastrous smell of stinky tofu from time to time and a lot of Chinese people still give off the idea that they have no clue what they’re doing. A good example of that is the new popular bike-sharing service that is now omnipresent. As it turns out, not all the people riding the bike know how to do so or have even an inkling of the existence of a bell they can ring to communicate. Yelling seems a way better alternative to them. You needn’t worry, the quirky but charming things that make China unique are still very much present. It’s the things you hate while being here but look back on nostalgically when you’re back in the brushed off, closed off western ‘civilized world’.
But somehow, it feels like those little things that were previously the only testament of ‘Chineseness’ in an increasingly western environment, are no longer the only signs that this is China and not the west. I feel that in the past two years Shanghai has become a testament to a new Chinese world, where it is no longer ‘China with a western mask’, but a successful mix of both worlds. I know saying this might sound pretentious and has the air of confirming the western superiority complex, but Shanghai has grown up. It still has many issues, but I truly feel like it is now its own entity and no longer a complex, distorted mirror image of our western cities.
I am glad that I came back, because I feel ready to move on now. Frankly the Shanghai in my head was far more magical than the Shanghai of reality. In my mind, it had become this mysterious place where I developed a lot of my style and ideas and really found my voice. That remains true, when I went painting with my crew yesterday I still get more creative surges and confidence in my style than in a whole year of painting in Belgium. The thing is however, that I feel like I got what I came for. It’s time for new horizons. It is a very comforting feeling and I am confident that I am on the right track. Where I thought this trip would be one of continuation, it has become one of closure. And in that way, very much one of continuation, for every end is a new beginning.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read my ramblings and thoughts-put-to-paper. If they inspire you in the slightest to take a step back and check if you are really going where you want to go, then I am more than proud to have helped.