Although I call it home, I always find it tricky to explain what the city is like. For many people, Shanghai is a city of glamour and wonder. It has a beautiful skyline that rivals that of Hong Kong and New York City; it is an international metropolis with a blend of the oriental and the West; and it is a global financial center. It does bear an unflattering side, however – full of jaywalkers, seemingly suicidal bike riders and litter.
I define Shanghai as a city for the privileged. But there is a need for caution for this defintion. I am generalizing Shanghai with my life in the city. And I’ve got to admit, I cannot help but feel a biting uneasiness: I probably don’t know the true Shanghai because I never was a true Shanghainese.
For 18 years, I was protected in a bubble under the name of a waiguoren, or foreigner. In Shanghai, foreigners are treated as first class, followed by upper-class Shanghainese. Under this privilege, I was limited to my expatriate community of an international school, which means I was surrounded by people who were just like me.
I was almost never among the locals in the outskirts. I barely took the bus or the subway; I never ate local food (though it was more because it’s unhygienic); and not to mention socializing with the locals. The only local acquaintances were my ayis, or house maids, my private driver and my Chinese teacher. I lived obliviously blind to the privilege, not knowing, or even wondering about what the local majority was like.
It was the privilege that brought me to Shanghai, and yet it was also the privilege that limited me from getting closer to the locals, pushing me further away from getting to know the true face of Shanghai.
Thoughts came across my mind – ones that simultaneously disappointed and disturbed me. I could never completely claim ownership, or even fit in the city. I had no place to call home. I was nothing close to a Shanghainese, but a privileged minority.
Then I came back to Seoul, and felt that I was not a part of the majority either. And that is when I realized I could never be a majority in any part of the world.
So I decided to break the notion. The presupposing notion of reality in which something true is identified with the real. It does not matter if I have experienced the true Shanghai or the true Seoul. What matters is my memories and my perspective. There is no meaning calling the true Shanghai as the real Shanghai if I feel it that way. My experience in Shanghai is what makes it real. And now, I can confidently call Shanghai my real home.