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Little Heart

Shanghai street at dusk. Photo: Terry Chapman
Distributed under creative commons license.

I didn’t expect, before I flew to China, that one of the things I’d encounter most often here would be glimpses of my teenage self, that younger, healthy self I try not to think about too often now that I’ve left her so definitively behind. But I had forgotten that what I’d called my ‘long interest in China’ in my residency application really dates to my last two years in high school, where we’d studied Chinese instead of European history, and my first year at university, that pivotal year, where I had, as a result of this, learnt Mandarin. I’d loved these lessons, loved the way that the language had such a different grammatical and syntactical structure than English, how differently it expressed things like the division of space and time, how it made me realise, for the first time, precisely how much language affects the way in which we think about ourselves and our world, especially in that year when these things – who I was, and how my world worked – were suddenly so difficult for me to apprehend. In that year too I know that I found a kind of solace (the nerdiest kind) in the rote learning that the language required, writing out characters again and again and again, working in order not to feel. My interest in Mandarin was obsessive – I’ve always had this tendency – but it was also passionate and focused and excited, the kind of excited that’s untinged by anxiety, that I almost never experience any more. It was less than one year later that I fell ill.

From the moment I arrive in Shanghai people keep asking me, is this your first time in China? and I keep saying, I’ve wanted to come here for years, but for some reason never made it.

Except I know the reason. I know it very well.

Every time a piece or phrase of language comes back to me, I remember my adolescent self. Every time I encounter a bright-blue soft drink, or a street stall selling slushies with some kind of dry ice in the bottom that makes them billow smoke around the faces of the girls who drink them, I remember her: she would have loved these. Each time I see a statue of Mao or Sun Yat-sen.

I keep thinking: when I was an adolescent, the idea of being ordinary terrified me. And now it’s all I want.

The first thing that I notice in Shanghai, the first thing that fascinates me, is that public space is used so differently. The first day that I walk the streets here, to start to place myself within the city, to get a sense of how it breathes and feels, it’s a sunny day, though cold and smoggy, and there are women on the street hoisting bamboo poles onto any structure that will hold them: the metal frames that are fixed beneath their windows specifically for this purpose, but also tree branches, bus shelters, decorative trellises. There are long-sleeved shirts stretched out along the bamboo, the poles running the length of their sleeves, underpants pulled taut over clothes hangers, all of this damp laundry flapping in the wake of passing buses. There are women gutting small fish in the gutter with rusty-looking scissors, another washing dishes; one man shaving with a hand-held mirror. There are older men standing stock-still on street corners, and rotating each of their joints in turn. In the parks: groups of men grappling together in some kind of martial art, a woman singing along to a portable speaker, her voice clear and high and wavery, couples in sharp, black trousers waltzing slowly in silent pairs.

In the days that follow I see a woman holding her baby, pantsless, over a rubbish bin, so that he can urinate directly into it. A toddler poop directly onto the footpath, squatting beside a telegraph pole on a main road. A huge block of tofu left out to ferment in the sun. There are street sweepers everywhere, men and women in navy-blue coveralls, holding brooms made of rushes and metal dustpans on long poles. The streets are always spotless.

Public space here feels more public, because it’s always being used. There’s always, that is, a public on it, in it: it feels shared, rather than shied away from. Many of the houses open out into shared laneways and courtyards. Many more have front rooms that have been transformed into kitchens, with stacks of bamboo steamers wider than my arm span over vats of water, or enormous crepe pans jutting out over the windowsill, onto which steamy-faced women layer eggs and shreds of meat, spring onions and pungent sauce, for the office workers meandering past – they never hurry – every morning. The houses themselves are small, I later realise, and often sub-divided between several families: it’s unheard of that anyone would live alone. Many of the older buildings still retain their idealist, communist architecture – shared kitchens, communal bathrooms, conjunct laundries.

Public space here is more precious, I think, because the private barely exists.

In Shanghai, I forget to stand on the right-hand side of escalators. I forget to throw my toilet paper into the bin and not the bowl. I lean on walls when I wait on train platforms and in the elevator, but no-one else does; I fold my arms beneath my chest instead of clasping my hands at hip-height. I leave too much space between my body and the next one in the queue, so others assume that I’m not waiting and squeeze in front. I smile too much at strangers, rather than just nodding, and they must think I’m not all there. I say xièxiè so much that it’s impolite.

I don’t spit phlegm into the gutters. But I do vomit there, every now and then, and on more than one occasion it’s because I’ve had too much to drink.

China is a modern country, the writing students that I visit tell me. China is a developed country. China is not the developing world. They tell me Shanghai is a world city, Shanghai is an international city, Shanghai is a Tier One City. The expats tell me, Shanghai isn’t China.

There are as many people living in this city as in my entire country.

Some nights, I lie on my mattress in my little studio, ten storeys up, watching the city lights blink on and off, stretching further than I can see, further than I know I will visit in my time here. Some days I walk in crowds so dense that I just have to let them carry me. I think of how I stride at home, how I weave around the people moving more slowly. I relax here: I just have to let them carry me.

Most days, I walk along the Bund in the late afternoon; some days, the smog is so thick that the buildings on the other side of the river – the enormous glass skyscrapers, one shaped like spheres on a stick, one shaped like a bottle opener, one the second-tallest in the world – look like someone has tried to paint them over, off the canvas. But on the days when the sun is out, and the air relatively clear, young women pose before the sandstone buildings, in pristine white trousers or flowing, net-like skirts, leaning backwards and casually tossing a handbag or a jacket over their shoulders. Nearby, a suitcase or a wheeled shopping bag, full of changes of outfit, extra accessories.

Most afternoons, there are couples in their wedding outfits being photographed here too, although it’s not their wedding day, not yet – the photography is a production in and of itself. Sometimes the bride’s dress is clipped to her body with bulldog clips, sometimes she wraps a blanket around her body in between takes. There are always people holding portable lights, someone fluffing the veil to make it look like it is rippling in a breeze. One afternoon, a couple is posing in their wedding gear right at a bus stop, leaning over the rail and licking matching ice-creams, and not at all suggestively.

The streets near where I’m living are the commercial heart of the city. Each day I walk past enormous shopfronts, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Versace, with enormous screens playing video footage of tall, tall people tossing their pale heads down catwalks. My closest supermarket is in the basement of a megamall and I walk past L’Occitane, L’Oréal, Lancôme each time I buy my vegetables and watery imported cheese. I’m surrounded by things I can’t afford (not that I want them), and this is not what I expected.

I don’t know what I expected.

A week in, I go to Uniqlo because it’s colder than it should be and I don’t have nearly enough winter clothes. I find the thermal shirts, the ones I wear in Sydney, although here they only come in black and white and red, and riffle through the racks, looking for my size. A man comes over to assist, and I point, and say, dà, zhōng, xiao, big, middle, small. He nods, and I ask, xiao-xiao? even though I’m not sure if that’s a word. Méiyou, he says, don’t have, and first I think they’re out of stock. But as I wander around the shop looking at jumpers and thermal tights I realise that my size doesn’t exist here – because I’m not extra-small here, I’m just small.

I try on jeans that list their leg-length as ‘full-length Asia’. The length is perfect. I’ve never bought a pair of pants that I haven’t had to re-hem.

One week in, I catch the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing and watch the countryside whizz by my window. There’s an American man sitting next to me, tall and with enormous feet, a square jaw that looks almost cartoonish. We grin at each other and nod, and then he pulls a book out of his bag. absolute victory, its cover says, what business can learn from the war in iraq.

This too doesn’t seem like my world.

The countryside is mostly flat and grassy, although there are occasional hills in the distance that I imagine I can see sculpted into rice-paddy terraces, but I know I’m probably making them up. What I can see, intermittently and always suddenly, are blocks of huge apartment buildings, each easily twenty or thirty storeys high, arranged in grids in the middle of nowhere: five buildings wide, six deep, each building exactly the same. There could easily be a thousand people living here, surrounded by blank countryside on all sides.

I mention this to someone in Beijing, and he tells me that the government has dismantled many old-style villages, claiming the coal that they were fuelled on was too polluting to keep them operational. He says the villagers were compensated with these brand new apartments, with central heating, new appliances, wi-fi. But, he says, they couldn’t take their chickens with them. I think what he means is, they couldn’t take their way of life.

Much later, someone tells me that these buildings may well be uninhabited, that there are ghost cities scattered all over China, built on speculation, never used, empty and alone.

I arrive in Beijing during the Nineteenth Party Congress, and it’s all that the diplomats and cultural attachés I meet there can talk about. It’s a fascinating time to be in China, they all say, China is a country in transition.

On the morning that the General Secretary is unanimously re-elected – a few days after a vote was passed to extend his office term beyond the legislated ten years to the length of his life – I’ve stolen a few hours to go to the Forbidden City, the ancient palace complex in the centre of this place. It’s cold, barely one degree, and I’m wearing a padded goose-down coat that’s not my own, fur-lined gloves and an ear-flapped hat, all borrowed from a woman much taller and broader than me. A man asks for my passport at the ticket office and scans it into a machine. He takes my photograph. Two other people scan my passport into machines before I walk through the gates.

The Forbidden City is huge, much vaster than I had imagined, some of the pavilions regilded and restored, others dusty and decaying. The crowds are immense, and I soon learn to jostle for position so I can peek into the rooms, to push my way to the front of viewing platforms. In a courtyard, I ask a group of four women if they could take my photograph and they exclaim at my Chinese, though it’s a phrase I looked up on Google Translate, and I cannot understand what they are saying in response. They pull out their selfie sticks and pose beside me, pulling off my hat so they can point to my red hair. Minutes later, it starts to snow, and I take off my gloves so I can touch it. I’ve never been in falling snow before, and it seems magical, ethereal against this backdrop.

That afternoon, I’m in an embassy van on the way to a reading, and one of the staffers tells me that it hasn’t rained – or snowed – in Beijing in over 100 days, that in the old days people would think that the General Secretary had broken the drought, having a direct line to the heavens like his imperial predecessors. Maybe they seeded the clouds, her colleague jokes. When we arrive at the bookshop and shake the snow from our coats, the owner comments on it falling to the floor, and says it’s probably cloud-seeded. At the end of the event, my driver says, did you hear that they made it snow? And at dinner, someone declares, the snow is definitely artificial, because it was wet and not fluffy.

I wonder if this is how rumour becomes fact here, where you cannot get real news.

The pollution index used in China isn’t the pollution index used elsewhere. If it were, there’d be hardly a day where the air qualified as ‘good’ or even ‘fair’. The rules here are different: a day that would be labelled ‘very poor’ in Sydney is only ‘moderately polluted’ in Beijing.

Some women wear smog masks with kitten muzzles embroidered onto them, their very human eyes with thick mascara blinking above. Some smog masks are made of the thin paper of hospital gowns, and come in pink and blue. Some men wear thick white smog masks, rubbery-looking and curled over their ears, and with their white wireless headphones sticking out beneath them they look almost cybernetic.

I buy myself a Mao jacket. I buy it at H&M. I’ve wanted one of these for years.

Back in Shanghai, I go by chance to a mixer for young, professional women, held on the terrace of the restaurant hosting my residency. I end up talking to a woman named Lily, who has moved here from a northern city, a place so cold, she tells me, that you have to wear your phone around your neck, against your chest, or else the battery freezes solid. She’s moved here to start a fitness business, a chain of gyms and personal trainers, and from where we’re standing we can see joggers, pairs of women in baggy t-shirts and tennis shoes, bouncing along the Bund. This is a new thing in China, she tells me. Prosperity breeds joggers, and pet dogs: the tiny brown poodles I see everywhere, often wearing trousers, or miniature shoes.

Lily tells me that when her father’s house, the one her family had lived in for generations, was requisitioned recently by the government to make way for a new freeway, he stole the lintel from the front door and spent the next months carving it into a musical instrument, following tutorials on YouTube. Instrument, the word she uses, so non-specific I can’t quite imagine what kind it might be, let alone what songs it must strum.

China’s new prosperity – its Economic Miracle, as they call it here – has both depended on and brought about a process of rapid urbanisation, of huge-scale displacements from home. In 1949, the year that the Communists took power, barely thirteen per cent of China’s people lived in cities – the revolution, after all, had been a revolution of the peasantry, because the proletariat was simply non-existent. Now, the urban population is something close to fifty-nine per cent, and its fastest growth – almost a doubling – has occurred over the last twenty years. Beijing grew by forty-four per cent in the ten years between 2000 and 2010; Shanghai by forty-one per cent in this same time.

But as well as people who moved permanently to the cities, a massive ‘floating population’ of low-skilled workers from rural regions also makes up these numbers – around 245 million people, known mostly as ‘migrant workers’. These people are often living far from their homes, from everything and everyone that is familiar; but also far from their hùkou, their official household registry, which gives them access to government services like healthcare, housing and schooling. They mostly work in manufacturing goods for export. They live in tiny dormitories. They make Disney toys, and iPhones.

At Lunar New Year each year, it’s expected that people return to their homes, to their families, from wherever it is that they now live. This year, 385 million people moved around China at this time – it was, the newspapers all said, the largest human migration of all time.

When I first stand in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Station, from which all of the inter-city trains depart, it’s busy, but nowhere near capacity. It’s a huge, square room, the size of an aircraft hangar, cavernous and echoey. I stand, for a moment, against the railing on its mezzanine, holding the largest small coffee I’ve ever seen – it’s taller than my hand is long – looking out over the rows of plastic seats, the queues snaking from the turnstiles. I stand there, and I think: it’s hard to feel significant.

No-one else is here alone.

The Chinese word for hometown is laojiā (老家), and it’s often translated as ancestral home, because, on its own, the character 老 means old, and 家 means home. But 家 also means family – perhaps unsurprisingly, in a culture where connection to one’s ancestors is another kind of rootedness, another way of knowing one’s place in the world.

But Shanghai is many people’s laojiā too; there are so many people nostalgic for this city, just as there are so many people within this city nostalgic for other places, other homes. There are the people who speak, still, of Shanghai’s golden age, that brief period between the city’s opening up to international trade and the two wars, first international, then civil, that brought its flowering (this is the kind of language that they use) to an end. They never mention that this opening up was forced, a condition of a series of brutal treaties signed at the end of colonial trade wars, they never mention that in this period, half of the city was controlled by the half of a per cent of the population that were European merchants and entrepreneurs, that the city was riddled with opium and prostitution and gamblers and gangsters, that it was here, against these conditions, that the Chinese Communist Party was first born.

So many wealthy Shanghainese, as the Japanese and then the Communists advanced, fled their homes here for the special zones of Hong Kong and Macau, for Taiwan, and were never able to return.

A woman, a writer and historian, who grew up as part of this diaspora in Toronto, tells me her family’s old home is still standing. But there are almost a hundred people who live in it now, she says, not just my one family. Not just one family and their sixty-something servants.

I don’t know if it’s just a longing for laojiā that keeps this image of jazzy Shanghai, the Paris of the Orient, the adventurer’s paradise, so strong in people’s minds. On packaging – of lollies, cosmetics, tourist trinkets – and on postcards everywhere there is the image of the Shanghai Lady: a beautiful, hand-coloured woman posing against the background of the city, the image always blending East and West: she’s wearing the traditional qipao, but also holding a tennis racquet or guitar. She’s glamorous and liberated, cheeky and demure: she’s a chimera, and a Western fantasy.

Perhaps the dream is one of lost wealth, lost opportunity: Shanghai has never been so prosperous, so expensive, as it is now, and those who left also left behind properties and possessions now worth millions. Perhaps it’s just the dream of the displaced. Or perhaps the dream is for a China that was never torn apart, that didn’t convulse its way through the twentieth century in so spectacular and terrible a fashion, leaving so many dead and ruined in its wake.

At a university a writer tells me that he wrote a book called Shanghai Ladies, because men are better than women at writing about women, because men can see women for who and how they really are. A student asks me, do you think readers can tell that you’re a woman? and I think he thinks that this is something I should strive to overcome.

The next day, I sit and write in a café that I love because of its enormous, brass-framed windows that look out over a bus stop, continually unloading school children who sing as they run down the street and office workers clutching steaming plastic bags filled with pillowy mántou and fried dough sticks; I love it also for its endless reggae playlist. I overhear a man, clearly Australian, addressing his small son: look, he says, your mother’s very emotional. But when you’re a man you can’t be emotional, do you understand?

I read about a family from Hubei, near the centre of the country, now being relocated for the third time in fifty years. Their original, Ming-era village was relocated in the 1970s to make way for a reservoir, then this new village was relocated again when the walls of that dam were heightened barely thirty years later. Now, they’re being moved again, as part of the huge South-to-North Water Diversion Project, essentially an irrigation project, moving vast volumes of water from the fertile south to the dry northern regions of China.

Each time, the family has been compensated. Each time, the village’s name and government structures have been retained. But what has been lost, each time, is arable farmland, and the knowledge of how to work it, access to the odd jobs and small industries that many rural people rely on to subsist. All of this, but also something more ineffable, something more to do with home.

I read that elder residents of the area say that the reservoir ‘destroyed the local feng shui’ and so ‘nobody of note has been born’ in the area since.

I read that the Party plans to relocate ten million people over the next two years, for massive infrastructure projects like this one.

I don’t have an old home, I don’t have an ancestral home, I don’t think any white Australian does. My parents’ house, my first home, is still new: it is barely three years older than I am. It stands, furthermore, on someone else’s ancestral land – that of the Dharawal people, from whom it was forcibly stolen only a few generations ago. I don’t know from where my forebears come, and I’ve never been especially curious about this. But even still, it’s not an old home, or a family home, that I’m missing here. It’s my new home: that small world that I have built for myself in rented accommodation on the fringes of a city also gripped by rapid change, also slippery with great wealth and even greater inequality. It’s the small intimacies and interactions of my everyday there, the hot bread and takeaway coffees on my back patio on weekend mornings, the glass of wine and bowl of popcorn on the couch after a long weekday, the dog dashing to the door to greet me whenever I have been away.

I find a set of scales in my apartment and immediately wish that I hadn’t.

In Shanghai, I’m living in a studio apartment, on the top floor of a building that was constructed in 1935, in the middle of that golden age. It was built for a hotelier and businessman whose family had made their fortune in the opium trade, and who designed two grand buildings for this city: this one, shaped like an S, and a hotel, shaped like a V, these two letters, his initials, stamped forever on this place.

There are two clanky lifts with worn vinyl floors and I’ve never once been in them alone. There are women so old that they’re curled to two-thirds of my height, a schoolgirl who meticulously folds the red Party scarf that she wears around her neck. A man carrying a plastic bag filled with loose eggs from a market, another with two huge baskets of white flowers and a white bichon frise on a lead. Some days I step out of the lift and the women from my neighbouring apartments are arguing, pointing their fingers at each other’s chests, while one of their husbands silently waters his plants with a spray bottle. Some days I step out of the lift and there are men snoring on rickety sun lounges half-in, half-out of their front doors. One afternoon a fish head is strung up beside my door to dry, dripping viscous liquid onto the floor.

Inside this building is a police station, a hairdresser, a food delivery service, an informal kind of homecare for the elderly. There are stray cats that skulk around the stairwells, and curl up to sleep on the engines of electric scooters, plugged in to sockets along the back courtyard walls. There are deliverymen with cardboard parcels bounding up and down the stairs. There are CCTV cameras in every corridor.

In the first week, I short out the power by turning on the kettle at the same time as the heater, and then do it again with the heater, the shower and the bathroom fan. I stand in the freezing corridor, wrapped in my towel and shivering, while I fix the safety switch. Two neighbours watch me, and do not say a word.

I never feel alone here. I feed the sparrows on my windowsill with crushed-up crackers and send text messages back home, where other lives are continuing without me.

My mother sends me a video of my three nieces, the baby wearing rabbit ears on a headband, the two older girls singing out, almost, but not quite, in unison, Happy Easter Aunty Fi! My housemates send me a video of my dog in the park, chasing a bright orange ball that they’re throwing, again and again, and yelping in delight. A friend sends a photo of an Easter brunch, with hot cross buns and chocolate eggs and champagne watered down with orange juice. Each of these things so simple, each of these gestures so silly and small. But my heart aches, each time, it pangs a little.

Down the escalators to the train station, a recorded voice repeats three short sentences, over and over again, and I hear them, over and over again, every day for five weeks, but still cannot distinguish properly the words. Aside, that is, from xiao xīn, little heart, which I also see written everywhere, although it takes me a month to realise that this must mean caution: take a little heed, take a little heart. (This was what I loved so keenly in this language – how poetically its abstract nouns are put together). Every day my laptop bag is run through a security scanner in front of the ticket gate. I don’t think the city workers would quite stand for that at home.

The character for heart (心) is startlingly anatomical – that curved organ, those arterial valves that branch out into the entirety of the body. The character for heart was being written like this hundreds of years before anyone in Europe ever dissected a human heart. The character for heart used to be part of the character for love (愛) – many characters are built by layering up other, simpler characters, which hint at how they sound or what they mean. But when the Communists simplified the written language, they removed the character for heart from the character for love, and replaced it with the character for friend (友) – because comradeship is more important than the heart, more reliable even in matters of the heart.

I know one poem in Chinese, from that year I learnt the language at university. One year is no time at all to learn a language, one year is enough to learn to talk about the weather or list basic facts about yourself, to ask for a wine or some tea or to use the toilet. One year is enough to learn how to say, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, and I only speak a little bit of Chinese. I can count, and I can swear.

I can’t remember why our teacher showed us the poem. Perhaps because by that stage we could read most of the words, perhaps because every Chinese child can recite this one by heart. Perhaps because in Sydney she was so far from her home:

床前明月光    Chuáng qián míngyuè guāng
疑是地上霜    Yí shì dìshang shuāng
舉頭望明月    Jutóu wàng míngyuè
低頭思故鄉    Dītóu sī gùxiāng

It’s a Tang dynasty poem, by Li Bai, sometimes known as Li Po, the poet who drowned one night while trying to catch the moon’s reflection in a pond. It’s a poem about homesickness, about nostalgia: a travelling scholar sees moonlight falling on the floor of his rented room, he looks up and out the window, and the moon he sees there makes him think of home – this is, after all, the same moon that his family, his friends, his neighbours, may well be seeing, lighting their fields so far away.

I can’t see the moon in Shanghai. The nights are too neon and the smog too thick. Across the river, one of the skyscrapers flashes white and red: I ❤ SH. Another glows purple and pink, and looks extra-terrestrial.

When I meet new people here they add me to their WeChat by scanning the screen of my phone: each person has a QR code, rather than a username, and this makes sense in a place of so many people and so few surnames (the Chinese use the term laobaixìng, 老百姓, old hundred surnames, to refer to the common people, at least in part because the 100 most popular surnames here are shared by eighty-five per cent of the population) but I can’t shake the discomfort that it causes me. I know it isn’t more invasive or data-hungry than any Western social media, I know that Western social media is far from apolitical. But the government here makes no secret of the fact that they are monitoring WeChat, rewarding people for calling their parents frequently, penalising them for playing too many video games. We know Facebook has been experimenting with engineering social and political behaviour: maybe the Party here is just more honest.

Whenever I tell people I’m uncomfortable with this they say, there’s 1.4 billion people in this country, they’re not going to worry about you or me.

It is hard to feel significant.

One afternoon, I walk in and out of half a dozen bakeries, just looking at the breads: matcha loaf, cream cheese and mulberry loaf, walnut and longan loaf, coconut bun, adzuki bean bun, sausage baguette. I walk in and out of half a dozen bakeries before I realise what I’m doing, that my body is trying to tell me something, that my body wants bread. Sucks to be you, body, I think, and then, oh, but it didn’t do anything to deserve this.

I buy a triangular bread roll (does triangular bread roll?) covered with pork floss like pale hair for the man camping out on the footbridge that crosses the creek next to my building because I can’t stand the thought that he might be hungry.

One of the bakeries on the Bund is run by a hatted chef whose signature dish is a caviar parfait, garnished with gold leaf and shaved black truffles. Another is famous for its little French cakes, its rows and rows of ingot-shaped financiers.

One Saturday I walk through People’s Square, the largest public garden here, because I’m craving green space, here amongst all of this concrete, all of this air so thick I sometimes think that I feel it in my pores. There are paved paths that wind around a lake, an artificial waterfall, rows and rows of cherry trees that are budding, but not yet in bloom. The paths near the lake are lined with middle-aged women and men, sitting behind open umbrellas, with posters bulldog-clipped to their top edges, the top-most character on each, on a line of its own, saying either woman (女) or man (男). Of the rest, all I can read are numbers – years of birth, heights, weights, salaries. These people are parents and grandparents, trying to find partners for their unmarried relatives. Some of them are also knitting, some of them are also selling snacks. They swap phone numbers, and eye me suspiciously. Most of the people they are match-making are younger than me. Often, I’m later told, these parents are acting without their children’s knowledge or permission.

Salaries, I read later, are important because there’s a concept here that partners should have ‘matching gates and matching doors’ (門當戶對). A matching outlook, that is, but I love how this is expressed through the structures of a house – because there’s little that speaks so eloquently, if often subtly, about class than a home.

My generation of women here are marrying late, or not at all, and it’s perplexing and alarming to their families and the media. Perhaps, they say, they are too educated, too ambitious. Perhaps they are too prosperous. Perhaps they have too much choice.

The unmarried women here are referred to as ‘leftover’ – the same leftover (剩) that gets used for unwanted food.

The legal marrying age in China is twenty. The age of consent is fourteen.

My friend who lives here says the white men in China are even more awful than the ones at home, because they get treated like they’re as special as they already assume themselves to be.

I keep meeting white men in China who tell me, it takes a certain kind of person, a special kind of person, to come to China. I hear this again and again, and when I finally lose patience and ask, does it, though? a tall, blond man from my hometown says, without missing a beat, well, it’s not Bali.

A Chinese friend I meet says that she’s taller and smarter than all of the men here and they don’t like it. A Canadian friend who lives here says she’s smarter and richer than all of the men so why would she bother. I say I’m very independent, and a little bit intimidating. At least, this is what I’ve been told.

Each time I talk to a group of students, one of them always asks, why did you write about your sickness? In China, they always say, nobody would do this.

In China, I always think, you literally air your laundry on the public street.

The students that I visit say, Miss Fiona, will you write about China? A writer who I visit says there is a maxim here: if you stay in China for a day, you can write a book, but if you stay in China for a year, you can write a sentence. My heart contracts, turns little in my chest.

It’s a small part of the city that I start to map out in my mind, connecting metro stops and main roads by walking between them, finding grocery stalls and the convenience stores that stock Diet Coke (they’re few and far between), the post office, the bank. I’m embarrassed that this corner is mostly in the old French Concession, the foreign part of the city, the unreal, ex-pat part of the city, but it’s where the coffee is (you Australians and your coffee, an American writer scoffs) and it’s beautiful too: the streets lined with old and gnarly oaks, bare and spectral when I arrived here, flush with leaves by the time I’m done. There are old, grand buildings with carved stone facades and cantilevered windows, as well as mad coils of electrical wiring noodling on their corners, pots of dusty geraniums by the doorsteps of the laneway houses tucked back from the streets. And it’s slower, just a little, calmer, just a little, and just a little more familiar some of the time.

I tell my friend who lives here – she’s my old housemate, who moved from Sydney to Shanghai for work three years ago, who loves it here, who plans to stay, at least for now – about this little orbit and she nods and says she used to worry about its limitations too, until she realised that in Sydney her regular turf was also small, just two or three suburbs, all in a row. She’s right, I think – it’s not much space we need to carve out for ourselves.

Still, I say, I sometimes feel less present here, less real, because I’m so aware, wherever I go, that there is so much of the city that I can’t touch. I can’t read much at all, and I hadn’t realised how unsettling it would be to not be able to read. I can’t ask questions about anything I see. I can’t know what life is like here, and I do not know the rules.

Perhaps this is all that home is: the place where we know the rules. Perhaps it’s just this that I am missing, to not have to work so hard just to get around, just to get by.

Some nights in Shanghai I can’t sleep, and I stand at the window of my apartment in my underwear, watching the creek curl southwards, listening to the traffic snarl and honk along the giant freeways. Or I lean out, and look straight down: how far away the concrete, how many small awnings spaced out all around me. The world feels immense, some nights. And it is hard to feel significant, or to take a little heart.

This is an extract from The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright, published this month by Giramondo. Details here.