Shanghai is different every time I’m here. It’s been warm and dry, making the smog this winter the worst in memory (though I see few protective masks). People are better dressed; there’s a more distinct street style. Fur-collared jackets, skinny jeans and black hi-tops. Gold phones, camo pants, floral print Supremes. Everyone’s more civilized too, Charlie says. More likely to wait for you to step out of the train or elevator instead of pushing their way in the same time you exit.
Our cousin Shaun takes us to a hotpot place near Jing An Temple. The restaurant is packed and has a half-hearted farmhouse vibe. We sit on small metal barrels as we wait for our table. Toward the back of the second floor, behind large glass windows, butchers in a clean white room slice exceptionally tender beef. Near our table on the third floor there’s a wooden cow on its back with sticks on the ends of its feet, like it’s balancing spinning plates, except the plates are lampshades. Someone behind me is wearing a t-shirt that says “fuck the past” on the front. On the back it says “fuck the future”.
The restaurant’s been open for not that long but Shaun ticks off boxes on the order sheet like he’s already been here a dozen times. Third time in a month, he says. He just moved back to Shanghai last year, after almost a decade in New Zealand, most of it doing 3D animation at Weta Digital. Now he’s working at a Chinese mobile game publisher. At a bigger family dinner the night before he elucidated for us the various regional styles of Chinese hotpot – usually some form of sliced meat or offal boiled at the table with veggies, then dipped in a combination of sauces. There are varying levels of spice, and some styles are more about the soup whereas others are about the meat. The restaurant we’re at now, Shaun says, is a meat place. It lives up to his promises the night before.
My energy’s been low these last few days since getting back from Southeast Asia. I’ve been sleeping a lot, recuperating. I think I still have jetlag. But walking around after dinner, at night in a big city again … it’s feels good. It feels like what used to be home. There’s a kind of softness that suits my current mood: enough people out for it to feel lively but not enough for it to feel chaotic. Walking feels effortless. So the neon glows in the evening haze and we walk, thirsty, without a set direction.