shanghai-skyline

Two Degrees of Separation (Between Us, a City)

In Culture, Essay, Spring 2015 by Kathleen ZhouLeave a Comment

Shanghai was the city of my great-great-grandfather, my great-grandfather and my grandmother. But Shanghai was never the city of my father, and Shanghai is not mine. Still, during winter break, I learn that the freshest scallion pancakes come from the dusty stall across Longwu Road, I learn which yellow convenience store sells the best baozi and which tottering bus to ride to the Xiao Yang Bao in Xujiahui for fried pork buns.

I read a minimal amount of Chinese, dress like an American and lose my keycard so often that the portly guard rolls his eyes whenever the silly American girl stands shamefacedly at the apartment complex entrance. I accidentally get caught up in rush-hour waves and am carried to the 4 subway line instead of the 3 line. I confuse 左and 右 and end up at Qidao instead of Dapuqiao. I forget to charge my phone and consign it to an untimely end on an hour-long bus ride through the underbelly of the eight-lane Middle Ring expressway.

Above me Shanghai spins its towering glass into a leering smile as it crowds the banks of the Huangpu River. Every day the gaps between its teeth grow smaller as cranes fill office complexes and apartment buildings with new steel supports and shimmering windows. Shanghai is the city in China. It has no qualms with boasting its tall skyscrapers, refracting light that escapes burnt-cigarette smog or singing to the beat of construction workers as they drill deep into the soft earth.

Shanghai in the summer is half tourists and half migrant workers — any residents with enough money flee the city heat. Shanghai in the winter is Shanghai: snatches of angry locals in the French grocery behemoth Carrefour; the tang of peppercorn rising above old alleyways in Caohejing High-Tech Park; red-orange lights above weary office workers streaming home.

I learn how to politely elbow subway riders and ask for directions. One night at dinner my father jokes that in my first two weeks of winter break I’ve adapted to Shanghai faster than he did in his first three months. I drink my tea and say nothing more.


By 1961 the Zhou family, once land-owning elite near Shanghai, had lost their land and ancient family home to Land Reform, their prestigious physicist and poet sons to labor camps or communes, and their Ming dynasty paintings to Anti-Rightists. My grandfather took his wife and the few brush paintings my great-grandfather had saved and left. My father was born an only son in Nanjing, a small countryside-city nestled in rolling hills three hundred kilometers away from the old Zhou home.

Eventually my father wound up in Seattle, a small city on the banks of a deep sound. Seattle is a quiet city. Its skyline is too small and too low to smile over the sidewalk like Shanghai’s. Boarding public transportation is a dance of excuse-me and you-first. At the age of fifty, my father perhaps intended to spend the rest of his life there. He had no family left in China that he wanted to visit and no care for the heritage he had exchanged for the promises of the United States.

My father originally left China intending to become a math or economics professor but ultimately became a stay-at-home parent picked up my brother from swim practice. My mother, oldest daughter of poor peasant farmers, followed him out of China intending to start a family but ended up the primary breadwinner. I have no idea how it happened. Was it when my father graduated UCLA with a PhD in mathematical economics and couldn’t find a tenure track position? Or when my mother decided to get her MBA? When the recession took out half of my father’s stock investments?

In any case, my father resents that he has stayed at home while my mother has had a life outside. My father says my working mother is why I never made many friends as a child, or why my brother never wants to make decisions, or why he has to control the family spending. Perhaps his thinking like that is why my mother started looking for a change. When an opportunity in Shanghai offered her a raise and a promotion, she accepted and my father followed my mother across the Pacific.


A week after I land in Shanghai, my father suggest that we go on a father-daughter date one night during dinner, when my mother and father and brother and I are all cloistered around the dinner table. He says the Shanghai library is beautiful, that I have to visit. It’s easy to switch from the 3 to the 10 subway line, he adds. I put my chopsticks down.

My father didn’t know I liked to read until an elementary school teacher chastised me for reading in class. My father became angry, and then even angrier when I said I read in class because I thought the teacher was boring. He threatened to burn all of my books, said it would teach me to be respectful. I threw every book on my bookshelf — my Harry Potter, my dictionary, my motley encyclopedias, my abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo — onto the ugly rug in front of his office and dared him to, even found the lighter from our box of camping gear in the garage. It was the first time I saw my mother cry.

It has gone silent at the dinner table. I am thinking my that father would never ask me to visit a library with him. I suspect my mother. When I glance at her, she is distracted by a show on the TV she bought off a neighbor, and when I look back my brother is watching me. Once, in a rare break of neutrality, he’d told me that I should be kinder to my father, that he was my dad, too. I’d replied that yes, he was biologically my father. I think now of how my mother flinched when I said that. I agree, pick up my chopsticks, and go for another piece of chicken.

The next day we go to the Shanghai library. I read an old copy of Le Monde. He reads Confucius. We get milk tea from a small Coco stand. I say I’m hungry. We stop by a new luxury seven-story supermall in Xujiahui, the tech center of Shanghai, to find food. The front of the mall is covered in a massive LED sphere that flashes advertisements for the stores inside. This evening, smiling women with white-pearl teeth tip their heads towards shiny beauty products. Inside, young couples ogle leather handbags covered in European logos. A little boy of about six or seven commands his family to and from various sweet shops from his perch atop his grandfather’s stooped shoulders. In a shoe store displaying overpriced Nikes and Adidas, a slouching young man is being trained to work the cash register. I watch a little boy scream for his thin mother, who is browsing through a shelf of neutral-colored perfume. Our footsteps speak quietly as we move through the mall. I say thank you when my father buys me a bowl of noodles from a fast-food stand in the upper level of the mall.


Shanghai’s subways are a set of whitewashed veins and arteries thrumming under the city’s skin. Shiny trains arrive in precise fifteen-minute intervals. The government tries to keep pace with the relentless influx of new faces. The first time I visited Shanghai, two years ago, there were twelve lines; now there are fourteen. With the expansion come more beggars. At least that’s what my father says as we board the 10 subway line and I see the back of a woman clutching at the shoulders of a young boy in a too-large jean jacket. By some unspoken agreement, there is a clear space around them, so no bodies block the sight of the rail-thin woman and the boy hunched in front of her.

I wonder why the riders are all standing on one side of the subway car when the other side, the side occupied by the thin woman and the hunched boy, is empty. My father calls them beggars. I look away from the woman and say that he can’t know for sure.

In Chinese, my father sneers that the peasants that come to Shanghai can’t find work. They’ve got no skills. He says these peasants will maim a child and use it to beg for money. He calls them despicable. I try to reproach him in his language, but he simply tells me to watch. The woman turns the boy and starts shuffling him towards the rest of the riders standing near the subway door. I stare. The boy has been blinded. His eyes are white and protrude from their sockets. His eyelids have been cut away, the corners of his eyes carved downwards and stitched shut to further expose the eyes. The cuts are so sharp and straight I can think only of scalpels as the other riders part cleanly in front of the boy’s unsteady shuffle. The woman hoarsely whispers for donations for her son, for his eyes. Her face is deep circles and harsh lines. The burnt-cigarette smell of the smog clings to her ratty jacket.

I give them five yuan. My father pulls at my arm until I am forced to step away.


Shanghai is a growing city with growing problems. But Shanghai smiles with every new building that shoots to the clouds, filling in the gaps between its teeth. With over twenty million people in roughly two thousand square miles, with cheap labor pouring in from the countryside and foreign companies sniffing out new office buildings, with glitzy marble shopping malls taking up ten-story buildings and old historic houses collapsing under the weight of bulldozers, Shanghai will be the jewel of China. The smog and the underemployment and the income inequality and the cost of living are ugly cavities in its office-tower teeth. But flaws can be buffed and glossed away.


Two hours, give or take, from the glittering glass facades of the skyscrapers crowding the banks of the Yangtze lies a derelict building crowded next to fresh-faced apartments. I imagine it to be built in a very traditional Chinese style: facing south, with sturdy slate-colored walls and curving rooftop edges. I imagine it looks like any other old building the Chinese government is eager to knock down. This particular dilapidated building, however, is the old ancestral home of the Zhou family, built sometime before the Ming dynasty. I imagine someone still remembers the Zhou family — the regional titans who ruled acres of farmland and sent sons to the capital to become politicians and poets, right from a derelict house in a far-flung corner of Shanghai.

Today no more Zhous live there, not when Shanghai beckons and proffers twenty-story high-rise apartments overlooking the Yangtze River, the convenience of yellow Lianhua supermarkets and the constant, comforting roar of cars down the dusty eight-lane roads. This little slate-colored home tucked away in a distant corner of Shanghai is all that remains. It has been parceled and divided and parceled and divided to the point that only enough land for a flowerpot could be called my own.

Sometimes, just before I fall asleep to blaring barge sirens and rushing taxis, I imagine a silver thread linking my wrist to the imaginary flowerpot sitting on my speck of land somewhere in Shanghai.

Near the end of winter break, I finally ask my father if I can visit the old Zhou house. Awkwardly perched along the doorframe to the master bedroom, I point out that the house belongs to me as it does to him. And I’ve always liked history.

“No,” my father says brusquely, frowning heavily. “No, there’s nothing there to see.”

I go back to my own room. I realize then that Shanghai was the city of my great-great-grandfather, my great-grandfather and my grandmother, but Shanghai will never be mine.

Kathleen ZhouTwo Degrees of Separation (Between Us, a City)

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