I would scan the steady stream of bodies on the ten people wide sidewalk from the fourth step of a bank’s entranceway for an hour. I would watch the foot traffic in a crowded mall from a 7th floor coffee shop’s balcony for an entire lunch time. I would search intently through the backseat window of a taxi on a 45 minute mid-city trek. Not once did I see anyone who was trying to stand out. In America, whether it’s with our boots, our belt buckles, our hair color or cut, our entire outfit, our bling or simply our swag, we feel encouraged…even obligated…to delineate ourselves…to make a personal statement…to express our individuality…constantly. Not so in Shanghai that I could see. Now let me be clear, people were no where near being uniform about their tastes or styles but nothing was ever stand outish. The observed protocol was, ‘Be yourself, sure, but keep a low profile.’ There was no purple hair, no mohawks, no chains connecting body piercings, no rainbow scarfs, full length furs, oversized or colorful eyeglasses, fancy hats or funky downtown struts. The odds were against this being something random or coincidental. There were parameters in place that were being observed/obeyed. Who or what did the enforcing was unclear. But no one seemed to be testing the boundaries. And no one seemed to mind. No one appeared deprived or held down. I did not sense that there was anything wrong or amiss with this state of affairs. Rather, I sensed it to be worthy of respect.
I wore my sunglasses whenever I went outside. They’re a ten dollar kind that I buy at a flea market. They have ‘reader’ lenses built into them. For those of you over fifty, you know what ‘reader’ glasses are and you can guess how handy it is to have sunglasses with ‘readers’ built in. I used to have to wear two sets of glasses at times outdoors. It looked as ridiculous as it felt. My children would laugh and poke good fun at me. Anyways, I wore my sunglasses, not because of the sun (the winter smog in Shanghai muted that well enough) but to make my gazings less obvious. I stared a lot. I watched a lot. My sunglasses made me feel less conspicuous. Ask any body guard. At a street side Starbucks, I sat with the smokers outside. Empty chairs not being allowed, I had various joiners at my table during the time I was there. One of them, with no real English but a friendly smile, asked me with gestures and motions to let him try on my sunglasses. I smiled, shrugged and passed them over. To this moment I still chuckle at the memory of the way he jumped back as soon as he had put them on, pulling them off…blinking, pointing and exclaiming at the lenses. I might just as well have given him Xray glasses by the measure of his reaction. “No, no, no” he said. He rubbed his eyes vigorously as if to get that bad mojo out.
Homeless people anywhere touch an ache in my humanity. They seem to wear our collective sadness in their faces, our hearts on the multi-layered sleeves. There’s no way to avoid it for me. I’ve often times told people that of all the seven deadly sins, gluttony has to be the worst because you have to wear it everyday for all to see. The homeless will always be with us and, so, this sadness lingers to be seen. There were only six such that I passed by in Shanghai. Each was poignant. Each I gave to. Each I ached for.
I know you understand and feel it too.