I just got back from China where I gave a couple of poetry readings and looked around the country for six days. Six days is too short a time to try to see and understand any country, let alone one the size of China, but I can’t imagine a length of time that would be sufficient for that kind of complex understanding. I lived in London once for four months and found that it wasn’t enough time to understand a city that rich. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nearly forty years and I have that same distance from my city.
I don’t think any amount of time is long enough to understand any particular place because these places are defined by their people, and we’re nomadic animals washing in and out places creating new meanings to old places. The creation of civilization is the most unconscious of art forms. We all try to create perfect places for ourselves and the people we love, and our visions of perfection work with each other to create a larger place.
Shanghai, the city where I stayed, is now the largest city in the world, and it is certainly Chinese, but it’s an up and coming city still changed by the American ex-patriots who live there not to mention the European, African, and South Americans. Walking across the town, I would emerge from a street of steaming pots straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel from the 1950s into a modern street that had its clone in Paris or Pittsburgh. Of course, China never was just one place, but a group of cultures brought together under a single leadership.
So how does one write about a place like this? In the same way that one writes about all places. Each place is defined by this shifting population of people trying to find whatever paradise they can find wherever they are for that minute. In the end, I think, when you write about place, what you’re really writing about are the people who are standing in front of you right at this moment.
The person I remember most clearly is a toddler in Yu Gardens. He had come to this landmark with his grandmother who had given him shoes that squeaked every time he walked, so people turned to look at him, and he came stumbling through the crowd. When they looked at him, his grandmother’s love was such that she picked him up, kissed him, and showed him off to the crowds that grew around him. For me, Shanghai will always be those two people and their obvious love for each other. That’s a beautiful kind of city.