The Transcendental Tourist

Winter’s Warmth

Shanghai, China

February 17 – 19, 2012

A whiff of cold air slapped me with contemptuous familiarity as I stepped out of Pudong International Airport. Shanghai was within the cultural scope of southern China, but late February felt as nippy as the north. The average temperature hovered just above zero but, in truth, it dipped below freezing considering the wind chill factor.

Twiggy Trees on Huamu Road, Pudong, Shanghai

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 and Me

Gobi shared his English name with a desert, but his character was more akin to a river – keen and deep. Even his speech was 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.

With Gobi in Lujiazui, Pudong, Shanghai

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.

Alpha and Ajota at Bowangpo Dining Room, Xujiahui, Shanghai

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.

L-R: Vang, Me, Gobi, Alpha, Kelvin, Perfy

Both Gobi and Alpha could only claim Shanghai as their adoptive city, as I had. 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 happened with bands, gigs didn’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 and Me at Shanghai Min Restaurant, Kerry Hotel, Pudong
With Mumay and her Family

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 would call 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.”

Mumay, the Gladys Reyes Lookalike
Mommy Mumay and Son

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 was not any particular house or city. It lay 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.

18 thoughts on “Winter’s Warmth

    1. With due respect to Gladys Reyes (who is undeniably beautiful), Mumay does have softer features which account for her gentler appearance.

  1. Such great people you met along the way and with you until now – they’re already family for me ♥

    1. When I was growing up, my family would usually have some of my siblings’ friends with us in our family vacations or just on a daily basis in our house. My parents treated them like family members. I finally knew how they felt when I was on the receiving end of such graciousness in Shanghai. My parents’ good deeds were rewarded through me.

      Thanks Mishrav!

      1. I’m usually “adopted” by my friend’s parents/family when I’m over their house. I do the same when its my friends who are visiting me. You’re welcome! 🙂

  2. Awwww… AJ! I felt the love that was exuding from this shared story of yours.. and I was deeply moved with the friendship that has blossomed throughout the years despite the distance. Truly, you will meet those who will treasure you for you, when they really are meant to be your friends for life.

  3. First, I saw envy you for experiencing winter I know its not supposed to be envied at because as what my mom told me it is not the coolest thing ever but I still would love to experience the feeling myself.

    Second, great friends and a great place is just so awesome.

    Third, your friend Mumay really does look liked Gladys Reyes.

    1. I’d go with your mom. Yes, winter is not cool (in both senses of the word), just excruciatingly cold! Also, it hardly snows in Shanghai so it’s not the kind of winter that looks photogenic. Photos in the sunshine can’t really capture the numbing cold.

      You’ve captured SH in that one sentence – awesome on both counts.

      When Mumay was thinner (not that she’s fat now, just filled up a bit), the resemblance was more striking because of their sharp features.

  4. My grandfather’s homeland – China though I’ve never been to that place..You’ve got wonderful experiences and memories in China. Really something to treasure!

  5. What a lovely post to return to after a long time, Age. What better way to pay rich tributes to people who matter in our lives. I can imagine the joy and warmth that would have been shared by you and them.

    Interestingly, two words from your post caught my attention: Gobi and Mahal. In Hindi, “gobi” means cauliflower and “mahal” means palace. I wonder whether these words are semantically related.

    Great to be reading your posts. Loved the pictures, esp the one where you are closing your eyes to savour a moment of warmth 🙂

    Joy always,

    1. Long time no see, Mrs Sus! Glad to have you back here. Mahal has two meanings in Tagalog: 1) love and 2) expensive. I’m thinking it must be the second meaning that might be semantically related to the Hindi word. But then, Taj Mahal is a palace of love, so it could swing the other way too. As for gobi, I don’t quite associate my friend’s character with that of a vegetable. 🙂

      There’s a verse in the Bible that goes, “A friend loves at all times.” I certainly found it to be true with my Chinese friends. Their friendship is timeless.

      Joy at all times as well, Mrs Sus!

  6. This is a very nice post and tribute to your friends in China who have been once part of your adventurous life. I always believe that good friends will remain friends no matter what.

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