A Public Kind of Life

I’m still processing a trip that I took to Shanghai, China a few weeks ago. I’m trying to understand what I saw and how I feel about it. There were all of the big things, the big touristy events, the poetry readings that I gave, that kind of thing, but I think what affects me the most were the small moments, like when we passed a grocery store that was closed for the night. The owners had left their cats there for the night to guard the open stands of fruit against the vermin that live anywhere food exists. I thought to myself when I saw those cats that they would never be left like that in the U.S. Instead, we would play that game where we pretend that we have no rats or mice and throw out the food gnawed by them when no one is looking.

I think the person who affected me the most was the caretaker of the longtang where my friends Dan and Charlotte live. He was someone from a poor province who had come to make a lot of money to send back to his family in a distant village. He was kind of permanently on call, so the place where he lived and slept twenty four hours a day was public. The residents of the longtang expected him to be available whenever they wanted him, so he was given a five foot by eight foot room at the entrance to the community with a large picture window that had no curtains. He was on display as he slept or ate or just waited for the next minor emergency. He had no expectation of privacy, and if he was awake, he smiled solicitously at everyone who entered.

I thought about this strange life that he led, and wondered how I would take it. He had a kind of intimacy with all of these people who normally would be strangers. He was from one of the smaller ethnic minorities of China and would have lived his life apart from all of these people, who were also from distant parts of the world for the most part. He had come here to take care of the small parts of their lives. If their toilets were broken, he was there to fix them. If a mouse scared them, he cornered it.

He lived in a small corner of the biggest city in the world. Shanghai is also one of the most cosmopolitan, so he had been thrust into the place of incredible diversity. It is ultra-modern because is has grown up in the last ten or twenty years, but it is over a thousand years old. The influence of colonial powers, French and English, are everywhere, and he has to find a way to see beyond whatever prejudices fill his life to take care of the people who pay him.

I found myself wanting to find out more about his life, but how could I interrupt a life like his. He’d be required to sit there smiling at me patiently as I asked my questions. A kind of exaggerated politeness was part of his position, but he could never escape if he were offended or even just bored by a conversation. It made me wonder what kind of dreams he had about the family he was working so hard for. Did he dream that his children would follow him to make big money in the city? Did he hope that they would pursue something better? There was no way to know. His life would always remain invisible to me as mine was to him.

I wish him well though. I hope his invisible dreams come beautifully true.