China is the land of my forefathers, but it never figured heavily in my upbringing on Maui, where racial identities are fluid and cultural practices blend together in a uniquely Hawaiian form. I caught glimpses of my roots when I traveled to Oahu a couple times a year to visit my grandmother, who spoke broken Cantonese over the phone with her friends and dragged me to Chinatown to parade me in front of the local shopkeepers. But I otherwise gave little consideration to the Middle Kingdom, even during my sophomore year at Notre Dame, when I enrolled in Mandarin 101 only to fulfill a language requirement after dropping out of Latin.
And that was supposed to be it, just a means to a generic liberal arts degree, then onwards to whatever other shit was next in my passively programmed life. But before all that happened I wanted to study abroad, and after a couple semesters of Mandarin, China became the logical choice. So I went with it, taking the next step in an arbitrary chain of events that led me directly into the perfect storm.
During the early 2000s, Shanghai was in the middle of a massive, decades-long economic redevelopment that was transforming the city into the crown jewel of China, representative of what this ambitious country was capable of as it stormed into the 21st century. When I arrived in 2003, the buildings were new, but everything still felt raw and a little wild, perhaps a consequence of the culture lagging a step behind the city’s rapid growth. Rules seemed flexible, if not optional, with the only limitation being a weak imagination.
Straight from the corn fields of Indiana, and ready for adventure, I dove headfirst into this surreal playground filled with tree-lined streets and futuristic skyscrapers, basking in the chaos while the rest of the world caught on to how cool of a place this was. One semester here quickly turned into an entire year, followed by two more years after graduation. Within this vibrant city of 20 million, propelled by unadulterated excitement and adrenaline, I found lifelong friends, amazing women, endless adventures, and a brash self-assuredness that I could push the limits as far as I wanted to take them. China has meant a lot of things to a lot of people throughout its 5,000-year history. And all of a sudden it meant something to me.
I recently returned to Shanghai as part of a two-month stay in China, and the memories of those years flood back as I retrace the streets I used to know and encounter old friends who shared experiences that forged a brotherhood. This city has changed—grown up, in a way—but an electric energy continues to dance in the air, beckoning a new generation of residents eager to leave their own mark on the ever-evolving cityscape. If our personalities reflect the places we have lived, then I am myself because Shanghai is pure fucking fun. This is no longer my city, but it will always be me.