The sun is too bright in North America. Whenever spring and summer come along, I am always blinded by the overbearing light. It’s uncomfortable. Even by the coast – you’ll still see the sun shining after the rain.
But in China, you’ll usually see the sun blocked out by a grey sky.
“Leo, that’s cancerous smog.”
“I like to pretend they’re rain clouds.”
I don’t mind it being so dim all the time. I don’t mind the night sky being filled with artificial light. I like Shanghai’s city skyline – there doesn’t need to be any stars. Just Chinese Pizza Hut. All I need is a plate of cheap chicken wings and a willingness to ignore the unkempt of the streets.
Everything stinks. There’s a “Chinatown” in Shanghai.
Well, you could also call it the “lower-class zone.” Since that’s what it is. A lot of tourists there everyday, but the only thing that’s clean is the restaurants – and that’s probably only on the surface.
You enter through an elaborate gate, seeing those all-too-familiar red pillars. You smell smoke. It’s not incense – it’s just cigarette smoke. Nothing sanctified about that. Nothing sanctified about the whole place, but the Chinese herb vendors would tell you otherwise.
If you skip a few dozen kiosks and step over a few hundred pounds of garbage, you’ll eventually get to a massively crowded place. You’re walking shoulder to shoulder, and these are the type of people that don’t shower often. You’ll see unkempt mustaches and greasy hair all over the place. And tourists. A bunch of tourists, sitting around and fanning themselves off, looking at the tour map.
One out of every three people is spitting at the ground at any given point. You force yourself to ignore it, but it gets on your nerves. There’s garbage everywhere. There’s more garbage being thrown onto the ground. Everything is dirty. The road is dirty. There’s those black splotches that you see on the street everywhere. There’s smoke everywhere. There’s a lack of hygiene everywhere. There’s loud banter going on.
You struggle through the crowd. What were you here for again? You weren’t trying to enroll in a Battle Royale, but you’ve got your survival senses turned on anyways.
Oh, yeah. You were here for the steamed buns. The xiaolongbao. The very pinnacle of Chinese culture – over five thousand years of innovation; five thousand years of survival; five thousand years of dynasties rising and falling, all culminating to this one dish; this one point in your small, insignificant life.
You take a bite. The bun explodes with a flavour akin to ambrosia; the very definition of perfection. Pork shouldn’t taste this good, you think to yourself. You put the whole thing in your mouth. It’s about one and a half inches – just big enough to fit for one bite.
You swallow. Your mouth tastes like gold. It reeks of meat. It reeks of deliciousness.
It’s like a taste revolution – as you bite into it, you see a vision of China. You see the red of communism, the red of the forbidden palace, the red of the firecrackers, and the red of the flag.
In this moment, I begin feeling patriotic over a country that I wasn’t born in – I feel a longing towards something that I’ve never seen – the idea of “China” – the idea of a “perfect country.” In this moment, I am able to look past all its faults, and see only the perfection that lays on