February 17 – 19, 2012
A whiff of cold air slapped me with contemptuous familiarity as I stepped out of Pudong International Airport. Shanghai is within the cultural scope of southern China, but late February feels as nippy as the north. The average temperature hovers just above zero but, in truth, it dips below freezing considering the wind chill factor.
The frigid weather and loneliness of living in a foreign city were made bearable, even beautiful, by the warmth of friends who had become my surrogate family. This journey back to Shanghai in the winter of 2012 had become a homecoming trip of sorts when I was reunited with the people who had made the city a home away from home a decade back. Rekindling their friendships was heartwarming.
It was Gobi who sent me off at the airport when I left Shanghai for good nine years ago. It was him who welcomed me back in my first evening. We quickly bridged the decade between us with a tight hug. Time had folded back, it seemed. Despite our spotty correspondence over the years, we picked up where we left off as if it had only been a day.
Gobi shares his English name with a desert, but his character is more akin to a river – keen and deep. Even his speech is marked by smooth delicacy, unlike the staccato of Chinese intonation. Cultured and philosophical, he distilled the timelessness of kinship by quoting an ancient Chinese proverb, “The friendship between gentlemen is as pure as water.” He explained that “they have no need to eat and drink together frequently. No matter how long they haven’t met, the spiritual connection is still there. Like water, simple and clear.” We did turn out to be fine gentlemen.
He used to give me pro bono Mandarin lessons. A decade later, I had forgotten how to read Chinese characters, but I remembered how to understand the Chinese character.
Gobi and I met through Alpha, with whom we set a get-together at a teahouse the next evening. True to his English name, Alpha was the first and the beginning. I met him at his office in my first month on the job, hoping to get some business; I got more than I bargained for. He became my first Chinese friend in China. I had my guard up like any level-headed foreigner, but his uncomplicated sincerity and infectious laughter were utterly disarming. Childlike as ever, he had the temperament of perpetual springtime. He stood as an unwavering ray of light during the attendant dark days and cold nights in my life as a foreigner, taking me apartment-hunting on a bike and job-hunting after I had been fired from my overseas posting.
That beaming smile thawed my own, frozen and numb from sightseeing all day in subzero temperatures. I knew the years had been kind to my friend. Success and marriage had not diminished that giddy sense of joy. The running joke of the night was the fact that he could barely remember any of the acts of kindness I recounted that he had done. That was so like him – doing good deeds and not keeping score. After a night of laughs and lighthearted ribbing between cups of hot tea, Alpha finally waxed sentimental. “The years went by and we grew up,” he said. But “our friendship is everlasting no matter where we stay.” I concurred by tossing a crumpled table napkin at his face.
Both Gobi and Alpha could only claim Shanghai as their adoptive city, as I had. But I also got homegrown support in the person of Mumay, a Shanghainese girl with a Filipino-sounding nickname. I met Mumay at a bar, a fail-safe place to meet local people. My Filipino friends and I would hang out at the now defunct Star East Bar at the vortex of Shanghai nightlife called Xintiandi, where we became friends with Filipino performers. Mumay, a dead ringer for Gladys Reyes (a Philippine actress), would also tag along to their post-show nightcap at Bi Feng Tang Restaurant. They were responsible for giving her that distinctly Filipino name.
As it usually happens with bands, gigs don’t last forever. My friendship with Mumay, however, was not co-terminus with the band’s contract. After the band moved out of Shanghai, we became each other’s groupies. She welcomed me into her home. Bearing a bottle of soda or a bag of fruit, I would have dinner on certain days of the week with her and her amiable parents and dog, Friday.
Mumay hopped out of her car as soon as she saw me by the metro station and, just like in the movies, we ran toward each other with outstretched arms. Now happily married with two kids, the erstwhile party girl and acrobat had grown up without detriment to her chic and spunk. The sun had been up for the first time that gloomy winter; she took me to the picnic ground where her family was basking in the sunny cold. Later, it was tea time at her well-appointed apartment. After all the bar-hopping years before, it was inspiring to see her ease into domestic bliss with such flair.
Only Mumay calls me mahal (Tagalog for love). She had learned a smattering of Tagalog words from her musician friends, including the expression Hoy bakla! (literally, “Hey gay!”) which she used as a term of endearment to all Filipinos of both genders. But those days – and nights – of hanging out with Filipinos were long gone. Wistful, she disclosed, “I do love you guys, and I love you the most, mahal.”
In retrospect, I wondered how such people, who must have had their fair share of challenges living in the competitive capitalism of Shanghai, could have chosen to accommodate a foreigner and all his baggage into their lives. Such hassle just to practice oral English? I thought not. Whatever it was I had brought to the table, I could only wish they partook bountifully – as I did.
A home is not any particular house or city. It lies in love and acceptance – a sense of family. In the absence of any blood relations, I was embraced by my Chinese friends who had made Shanghai into my second home in the winter of my life. When spring came, I was ready and raring to start a new life. I left the city, but the city never left me. I scribbled down my gratitude, dated April 13, 2003, my last day in Shanghai:
As I look at the end of my life in China, I can say that it has been the most memorable time – not because of the modern trappings of Shanghai, but because of its people. Now I want to tell the world of how I’ve been enriched by their friendship and love. I may still have felt lonely a few times, but I was certainly held.
This is my paean to them. Now I feel the same way leaving Shanghai as I do the Philippines – like leaving home.