I lay in bed at night and listen to an unidentified piano playing outside. An ancient, cataract-ridden golden retriever lives below our five-story walkup and meanders in the hallway. Senior citizens cluster around a table outside the building to play Mahjong tiles.
Welcome to my beautifully quirky piece of Shanghai.
When I thought about my future Shanghai apartment, I imagined waking up in my high-rise apartment building, sipping tea as I looked out onto a view of the downtown skyline. I’d walk out of my building in the morning onto a bustling city street, with mobs of people pushing past one another on their way to work, taxis whizzing by. I’d be right in the thick of the excitement.
Instead, my roommate and I live in a three-room apartment in a retirement community near the end of the subway line. Dozens of cats roam the neighborhood and sunbathe on cars. Apartments are piled on top of one another like Tetris, tiny boxes of life forming an odd-ball neighborhood, shielded from the city by stucco walls and rusty gates.
The streets are quiet when I leave for a run in the morning alongside old people out for power walks— I smile, they do not. I come back to find local shops selling baozi and pastries are open and people mill about in the street behind our complex. Toddlers take their first steps on one side of the street as fruit stand owners unload new produce on the other.
At night, my roommate and I buy vegetables from the fresh market that sits above the shops; one stall owner remembers me and points out green peppers and cilantro she thinks I’ll like. We eat dinner at “Funny Man’s,” the wispy-bearded restaurant owner who knows us by name. His first response when we walk into his eight-table place is always “beer?” As we leave, he says “See you tomorrow, maybe?”
In central Shanghai, the city feels like an ocean, with waves of people crashing onto metro cars and into intersections. My piece of the city, with its tree-lined streets and elderly neighbors, is a manageable tide pool, tucked away from the waves.
Our strange little neighborhood feels like it’s out of a storybook version of Shanghai. The man selling eggs on the sidewalk every morning, the half-stocked convenience store squished next to a two-chair barbershop. People ask me to describe what it’s like living in this massive, high-tech city, and I just think of my elderly neighbors sitting in wheelchairs, eating breakfast together by the entrance last weekend.
My corner of Shanghai looks nothing like I imagined. But it’s much more memorable this way.