我爱上海

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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.

Shanghai loves me. The feeling is mutual.
Shanghai loves me. The feeling is mutual.
Traditional Shanghainese shikumen homes, reflecting a combination Western and Eastern architectural styles, are giving way to modern developments as the city continues to grow.
Traditional Shanghainese shikumen homes, reflecting a combination Western and Eastern architectural styles, are giving way to modern developments as the city continues to grow.

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.

The idyllic French Concession, one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world.
The idyllic French Concession, one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world.

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.

in 2005, my two roommates and I traveled to Inner Mongolia, purchased mopeds on a whim, and spent the rest of our vacation finding our way home through backcountry roads.
in 2005, my two roommates and I traveled to Inner Mongolia, purchased mopeds on a whim, and spent the rest of our vacation finding our way home through backcountry roads.
The following year, inspired by the impromptu moped trip the year before, a bunch of us rented motorcycles and toured Zhejiang province.
The following year, inspired by the impromptu moped trip the year before, a bunch of us rented motorcycles and toured Zhejiang province.

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.

UniverSeoul

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Seoul gleams, from the immaculate subways and buses up to the skyscrapers crowned with neon signs beaming the names of Korea’s chaebol, family-run conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai which extend their reach into nearly every facet of the economy. In a little over half a century, Korea has transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest, and this newfound wealth is nowhere more evident than in Seoul, where the nouveau riche fill the plastic surgery clinics lining the streets of Gangnam and make nightly excursions into Hongdae, a neverending maze of bars and restaurants serving an insatiable desire to consume. Koreans love to eat out (but only in groups), washing down their barbecued pork belly with beer and soju while tapping away at cell phones that never leave their hands. There is a hustle and bustle in this massive metropolis, but also an orderliness and consideration for others exemplified by drivers never turning into crosswalks while pedestrians have the right-of-way, no matter if they are still on the other side of the street. On the surface, everything is a little too nice, but dig deeper, and you will find an ironic, almost American sense of humor lurking in the personalities of these perfect people, who never make eye contact, but they cool.

I stayed with Michele, a friend and former law school classmate who works for a NGO focusing on North Korean human rights issues. She introduced me to Seoul's vibrant food scene, including this restaurant specializing in dak galbi, a type of stir fry topped with ramen noodles and cheese.
I stayed with Michele, a friend and former law school classmate who works for a NGO focusing on North Korean human rights issues. She introduced me to Seoul’s vibrant food scene, including this restaurant specializing in dak galbi, a type of stir fry topped with ramen noodles and cheese.

As my mental frameworks evolve, random moments from my past flash to the forefront of my consciousness, reminding me of things I may have done differently had I known what I know now. But this is less an acknowledgment of regret than a celebration of growth. We learn from our experiences–both the painful and the pleasant–as well as the people who help create them. Not everyone is a guru, but we are all teachers, just by being present.  We tell our stories through the ways we interact with the world around us; the vibrational energies emitted from our bodies; the idiosyncrasies that reflect the inner workings of our complex minds.  There is nowhere to hide from others seeing us exactly for who we are, and no reason to, either.  We all originate from the same universal fabric.

Korean convenience stores often provide tables and chairs for customers, making outdoor cafe-style socializing affordable and accessible at all hours.
Korean convenience stores often provide tables and chairs for customers, making outdoor cafe-style socializing affordable and accessible at all hours.

So we live, and others learn, and vice versa, which endows us with a responsibility as interconnected beings to strive for an authentic and beautiful life, one that inspires during the seemingly insignificant moments that can in fact mean so much to someone, even if they never tell you, even if you never meet them, even if your message lays dormant until sufficient time has passed for it to become clear.