A Long Over Due Update

The most honest interpretation of my lack of posting here isn't because I have been too busy. Its that I am feeling more and more attached  to my life here. So I find it more difficult to justify spending time sharing my new life instead of enjoying and expanding it.

Since my last post, Life has required me to reshuffle my priorities in pursuit of a more precise definition of what my life here is going to be. Before my last post, I had viewed my time here in Shanghai as temporary and my relationships as particular to this time and place. Since then, I have developed a more everlasting view of the people in my life here and determined that I could see myself living here for the next several years.  I now envision myself watching my friends get married, decorating my apartment however I see fit, and launching my career from this school.

The people to whom I have bonded over the past several weeks are not the names and faces I, at first, introduced you to. In fact, my relationship with Kayla, Emily, Don, and Sarah is limited to a smile, a nod, and an exchange of basic pleasantries. But I have grown to have quite meaningful and deep friendships with four couples.

Hannah and Dan. A couple from Boston who met at a Social Justice conference. Hannah has forced me to become her best friend, not that I have any objections. Dan is an absolute delight to listen to; I love getting him started on a topic and watching and listening to his passion and insights. Together, the three of us can talk about just about any subject for endless hours. They are two of the hardest working people I have seen here and I consider myself to be a debilitating, but welcome, distraction for them. (Hannah is pictured above)

Vicky and James. Two worldly Brits who both have PhDs, love video games, and question everything. Our talks about Brexit have provided me a much clearer picture of the divide between the English nationalists and the more European-minded British people.  We have, on more than a few occasions, been in café or bar grading, eating, drinking, and talking all at the same time, with conversation topics ranging from self-reflective philosophy to the lore of Skyrim to the reasons and motivations for the rise of nationalism in Europe and the US to our past interest in model airplanes.

Kat and John. Kat, as I have said previously, is closest person to Mary Poppins I have ever met and John is a big man with an absolute heart of gold.  They have spent the past year traveling around Asia, which included a 3-month stint as volunteer teachers in the slums of India. Their dream as a couple is to open and run their own school in a developing country. They were the people I turned to in my darkest moment here in Shanghai and their aid was given so warmly and selflessly that I had no choice but to improve.

Aaron and Matt. Though not in a relationship with each other, they may as well should be. Aaron is my designated mentor, fellow history teacher, and my office is directly next to his. Aaron is a weird dude who operates at his own level in his own way. Between my inquisitiveness and his unconventional thinking, we have explored some bizarre and dark and inventive and hilarious corners of the human imagination.  Matt is a psychology teacher and psychological consultant (he cannot be called a therapist!) for the students of the school. He is one of the most mindful and empathetic people I have come across and is endlessly funny. A rugby-loving, beard-growing, body-building Jew from Alaska the size of a bear, he always garners looks of fear and curiosity from the locals. The two of them have their own language with each other—they use voices to represent different characters they have built up over their years of friendship. I am not entirely sure how I fit into their dynamic, but they seem to enjoy having me, so maybe—eventually—I will learn the voices as well.

In no particular order, here is a brief description of the past several weeks of my active life:
  • Visited, but did not enjoy, Shanghai Disney
  • Experienced Sleep No More, which was one of the best of my life
  • Enjoyed a fancy dinner at a double-Michelin Star Restaurant
  • Bought a bicycle....not sure why I waited so long
  • Relaxed with drinks at a rooftop bar overlooking the Bund
  • Began to tutor a student for some side money
  • Endured and overcame a wave of depression
  • Watched Dan fail a $30 eating challenge
  • Celebrated three friends’ birthdays in three VERY different ways
  • Bought new furniture and art for my apartment
  • Accompanied Aaron to a Shanghai soccer match
    • (Shanghai's football team won the Chinese League this year!)
  • Planned my financial future, including the creation of a budget
  • Danced at a 90s club with cute British woman and an adorable-but-way-too-drunk Chinese man
  • Immersed myself in a heavenly hour-long $35 massage
  • Gained 10 pounds from delicious food and too much alcohol
  • Failed to exercise much
  • Avoided news of the election….until recently
  • Injured my hand in a bar
  • Planned a three-week vacation in February
Since I do not have the time to describe in detail every one and since I am here to please the audience, I will now ask you all which stories you want to hear. I will tell the full stories of the two that receive the most votes, so whichever you want to know more about, feel free to comment here.

The last thing I will mention is how much more at-home I feel now that I have begun to decorate and furnish my apartment. At first, I thought that living in a spartan apartment would be healthy for me; it would keep me detached from any personal belongings, make me not want to spend much time in my apartment—and therefore doing more things. But only last week did my thinking change. I wanted to settle here. To make my own life here—which requires me to build my own living quarters. I cannot identify one moment or conversation that changed this thinking, but the change has unquestionably occurred.  Perhaps it was the realization of social stability. I have my job. I have my core group of friends. I am here. I am home.

The Tale of 3 Burgers

I ate 3 burgers this weekend and learned something new as a result of each one.

The Story of Burger #1

I was scheduled to go to Beijing on Thursday night via a sleeper train. I needed to go to Beijing to handle some paperwork that couldn’t be done in Shanghai (its a long story about paperwork and bureaucracy, so unless you are a paper-pusher-fetishist, you can thank me for skipping over it). I told the taxi driver to go to the train station, but the driver did not clarify which of Shanghai’s three stations and brought me to the wrong station. I blame myself for not specifying and for not monitoring the progress from my phone. The reason I didn’t use DiDi or follow my progress on the phone is my phone was low on battery and I was saving it for the train.

Which brings us to…

Lesson #1: Always have a fully charged phone when beginning an adventure. Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

So, I missed the train. At first, I was more disappointed with myself than angry about the lost money or opportunity. I needed to collect my thoughts, so I sat down in the terminal and talked myself through the situation. That is about when the fury with myself came in. It was the first time I had had a good cry in quite a while.

When the tears began I realized to what extent I was overreacting, I felt a voice in the back of my skull ask why I was. I laughed at myself, stood up, and walked to the nearest Burger King. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast; I had skipped breakfast to plan this last-minute trip. And there was no doubt in my mind that I was more susceptible to stress as a result.

And if I was going to eat food to settle me down, I figured I might as well eat some comfort food. And so I ate Burger #1. 

It was bloody awful. Probably the worst burgers I have ever eaten. Didn’t even come with french fries! But it calmed me down and I got home without incident.

The Story of Burger #2

Friday was not an easy day at work. Many of my colleagues contributed to my Beijing plans, a few changed their schedules around for my convenience, and I had to backtrack on a commitment I gave for Friday in order to go to Beijing. I had to explain and apologize to everyone for what happened and was embarrassed every time, despite all the efforts by others to blame the cab driver. It was an emotionally draining day. After work, I went home and immediately took a nap. I was prepared to spend the evening in my apartment, watching movies, drinking alone, and just recuperating.

Until Harry texted me while he was shopping at Walmart. He told me to meet him at the McDonalds on the bottom floor of the Walmart in half an hour. “come get fat with me” And so I did. I pulled my heavy head out of bed and met him at McDonalds. He knew I needed to get out of the apartment.

We ordered and went to sit down, when we saw Kristen and Luis at a table waiting for their food. We sat down and joined them; Kristen was visibly upset about something. We listened to her vent. Their food came first. While they were eating and we were still waiting for ours, we spotted Vicki and James looking for a table–luckily there was another table available next to us. They also described their need for something familiar.

I got a small double cheeseburger, fries, and some chicken nuggets for us to share. Burger #2 was fantastic. After my horrible experience at Burger King, that small McDonalds cheeseburger restored my faith in what a burger can be. And no, this is not sponsored content by McDonald’s. It was just exactly what I needed in my life at that moment.

After we had our food, an Irish PE teacher came in after he was done with the gym and a primary teacher came into McDonalds as well! He had had a Bad China day.

Without any coordination, 8 of us in 6 groupings from the same school had felt the need for something familiar. We all shared our frustrations and swapped encouragement and support. We had all been brought together to feel something familiar and we found something friendly. Food truly is the great uniter.

Lesson #2: Friends matter. Don’t be afraid to rely on them.

The Story of Burger #3

I made plans with Hannah on Sunday night to go to an Indian restaurant she had been dying to try. We left at 7pm. It was an hour-long bike ride away, but I hadn’t worked out that day, so I figured it would be an opportunity to get some exercise.

So I rented a bike and we got going. (Bike rentals are incredibly cheap; I spent 10rmb–or $1.50–on this whole evening’s bike adventures, which, as you are about to see, are substantial). The journey would have taken an adventure had we known where we going. The maps apps we were using did not update as we moved, so we went past where we needed to go quite substantially. When we arrived at the location the maps app had directed us, I locked the bike I was using (which ends the rental) so we could walk around the mall to find the restaurant. We couldn’t find it.

So, ever the resilient people, we found a new restaurant we wanted to try. But we couldn’t find a Mobike to rent–the one I had used to get there was rented by someone else. I don’t have any of the other apps active. The new restaurant was only a mile away, so I offered to run next to Hannah on her bike to get there.

It was closed.

At this point, it was 830. I was very hungry and more than a little sweaty. And Hannah and I were (semi-) jokingly saying very nasty things about and to each other in order to let off some steam. I proposed we head back to the fancy burger place we had passed to get to this dead end. They were a Michelin-star runner-up last year for their burgers–totally worth it going to while we were in the neighborhood. The fact that it was so highly regarded (and frequently recommended to us to try) meant it was in a league higher than the likes of the King and the Clown.

We sat down to wait for a menu. 10 minutes elapsed. Hannah and I played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would get up to get us a menu. I won. She returned with menus. We figured out what we wanted. Waited another 10 minutes. I got up and walked to the bar to order our food. While there, I asked for ice water.

Our food came reasonably quickly. Time to dig into a well-recommended $14 burger and enjoy a fancy-looking chocolate-mint shake! It had been 2 hours since we had left, we had burned 600 calories to get here, so my excitement for this first bite could not have been higher…

Burger #3 was probably the most average-tasting burger I could image. It had some flavor. The bread was soft, but flavorless. They didn’t grill the bun! There was absolutely nothing good about this burger.

The chocolate-mint shake wasn’t that sweet nor was it minty. It could be described as drinking thick dark chocolate milk. The fries were the same you could expect at a Denny’s and the ketchup was a house-specialty and had about as much flavor as a thrown-away tomato at a Walmart. I was legitimately baffled by how this place was so well-regarded. I will have some choice words for those who recommended it to me.

Hannah and I did not let the disappointing food ruin our evening; we enjoyed a fantastic and insightful conversation–an occupation Hannah excels at. We talked for about 30 minutes after we finished eating–it was now around 11pm.

We got up to go and walked to her bike. She stopped and slapped me. We hadn’t paid. They didn’t give us the bill! We, of course, had to get up and ask for it!

We walked back in and paid, though I argued (for the sake of it) that they did not deserve to be paid for a disappointing meal and terrible service. Hannah, who had been a server in a previous life, insisted that the difference would have come out of the employees’ paycheck and could not live with herself for stealing the food. We paid. Bitterly.

It took us a while to find me a bike for the return journey. A long while. So I continued to run. We passed several bikes that were out of commission and in need of repair. I finally found out, rented it and began riding. The seat was broken, so its vibrations were colliding with all of the wrong places. So I needed to switch bikes.

I rode that one until we found another. Switched to bike #3 of the evening. I so wish this would have been the last one so I could title this post “3 Burgers and 3 Bikes” but no. This one had a wonky chain. That eventually snapped on me! (Don’t worry, I won’t be charged for it). But it did cause me to crash–without injury. And I had to walk to find a new bike.

We got home at 1230. My legs were sore from propelling broken heavy bikes. I had sweated through both my shirt and undershirt.  I chugged what felt like a gallon of water when I got home.

But, I learned something important that night.

Lesson #3: I need to buy my own bike.

Oh and also:

Lesson #4: With friends, all things are possible.

Including the enjoyment of a disappointing dinner, the endurance of a rough night, and the escape from a bad weekend.

To my friends reading this and to those who participated in it: Thank you. 

Love and appreciation to all.






On Companionship

One thing I love about Shanghai is the guilt-free ability to take long showers.

My hair is still wet as I write here what I was thinking about in the shower.

I am someone who craves companionship and doesn’t fully embrace friendship. By companionship, I mean–I want someone to be my best friend. I want a significant other–regardless of whether there is a romantic side to things or not. I, perhaps, feel as though if I find a companion who I click with at every possible dimension, I will finally be a complete person. This is, of course, hogwash.

But it explains why I am so quick to let whither friendships that I can tell cannot be companionships. It explains why I am so easy to fall in love with people, despite knowing that due to our situation or their personality, we simply are not star-crossed lovers.

And in the shower, I realized that I am growing friendships here, but nowhere has it been more apparent to me that I lack a companion–and that that is okay.

Moreover, it is a useful challenge for myself to learn how to live more independently. To use various friendships and the support and engagement they can provide to enhance my experiences and stabilize my mental health.

For example, Don is the guy I talk to whenever I want someone to teach me something about soccer, kindness, or beer. I can talk to Kat whenever I want to feel inspired to follow my passions, travel the world, and to do good. I talk to Harry when I need to feel down-to-earth or when I need a jolly laugh. Whenever I feel like engaging in deep philosophical discussions, Hannah (who I have not formally introduced here; different Hannah from the one in the Oktoberfest picture) is my go-to. When I want to discuss coping with mental health problems, Hannah’s boyfriend Dan has been a valuable resource. Though none of these friendships are exclusive to those topics or experiences, I can be assured that if I feel like I need one of those experiences, I can talk to the designated person.

I used to think this type of friendship was exploitative or that I was pigeonholing my friends, but I’ve come to realize that just because an attribute of a friendship might be the foundation, it does not have to be the framing, interior design, and exterior painting.

I have also come to realize that it is genuinely unfair to expect one person to provide or be the source of all the support and interaction someone needs in life.

It is also useful to me to have a better understanding of what it is I need in my relationships with other people; I want a better glimpse of what I can provide myself, what I seek in my relationships with others, and why I find tiresome in others as well. In other words, I am collecting data for both how what I want, expect, and need in a companion and how I can be a better friend and eventual companion to others.

This genuinely feels like a mind-altering realization, but it is not yet complete. I hope you will challenge me on these thoughts. I eagerly encourage any feedback or comments to my thinking here. I need it, friends.