Just over a year ago, my husband, Tom, and I stepped foot in China for the first time, the start of what would be a three-year assignment in Shanghai for his company.
As we left the airport, we were stunned to see a truck, driving on the wrong side of the highway, barreling toward us at full speed.
In hindsight, it was the perfect introduction to how crazy and unpredictable life in Shanghai can be. I'm not talking about just the traffic and the complete absence of any rules of the road. Shanghai is a city operating in full-steam-ahead mode; progress, always progress, is the goal, the destination. The route, the regulations and any casualties along the way be they pedestrians or historic neighborhoods are incidental.
The landscape in our corner of the city has changed drastically in the past 12 months. The panoramic view from our rooftop patio has narrowed with each passing month, as new skyscrapers and apartment blocks have crowded the skyline. The scene out my home office window has transformed from industrial swath to bare field to construction site, day by day, before my very eyes. Seasons, our housing "compound," has changed with the passing seasons: new apartment towers last fall, new townhomes this spring. And fresh rubble litters the route to Tom's office, block after block of buildings all less than 10 years old demolished to make way for new highways, better interchanges, more attractive commerce. Progress.
Our personal landscape has changed as well. When we accepted this assignment, we viewed it in part as our own self-improvement project. Sure, it would advance Tom's career, but it would also open our eyes to a drastically different culture and way of life. Or at least, as I joked with Tom in one incredibly self-absorbed moment, we'd be intrinsically cooler people for having lived abroad.
Progress on that self-improvement project has been harder to quantify. On the language front, my Mandarin lessons have reawakened the overachieving student in me from a nine-year slumber. When I now speak Mandarin, I'm understood more often than not and can piece together relatively complex sentences, if not always in the correct grammatical order. (A mortal sin, I realize, for a writer. Forgive me, my Mizzou J-School profs.)
But in other areas, our performance is mediocre at best. Our sincere ambitions to get out and explore the city are usually superceded by the need for rest and relaxation on the weekend. My resolve to experience and witness life in real China, outside the comfortable expat bubble in which we live, usually dissolves when offered the chance to hang out in the comfort and familiarity of the city's Western hangouts. Yes, we have a few Chinese friends, but largely we socialize with other Midwesterners or at least others whose mother tongue is (roughly) the same as ours.
So no, I'm not progressing at the same blazing speed as Shanghai around me, or as that speeding truck that shocked us out of our jetlag upon our arrival. But I find comfort in the fact it was a Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who coined the popular phrase, "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step." (Actually, he said "from beneath one's feet." And considering miles were invented by the Romans, I'm sure that's a rewrite as well.) Tom and I had already traveled 8,000 miles when we first stepped foot here a year ago. Each day in our remaining two years here in Shanghai is just one more step along the way.
Kristin Baird Rattini is a freelance writer (zuojia) and editor (bianji) living in Shanghai, China.