He walked a few steps ahead of me on the Bund. In one gust, the air smelled of the briny Huangpu salt water. In the next, it smelled of dead pigs and chemicals.
“Martin, look. This is the old side of Shanghai.” He spoke out of obligation, like a tour guide, telling me about the history of the older architecture behind the trees and pointing across the river at the Oriental Pearl and the Jin Mao towers. I asked him how people got to the other side and he said that there were ferry boats and a shuttle tunnel with colorful lights and sound effects on the inside.
His voice was vague and apathetic. He wore Harry Potter-esque glasses, Adidas sweatpants with stripes on the side, and a grey hoodie, which he kept covered over his head. In his hand, the plastic grocery bag he carried swung with each stride, and I heard the contents shifting but couldn’t tell what was inside. The wind blew his hood off and he rushed to put it back on, as if he didn’t want me to see the back of his head. Unintentionally, I mimicked his reservedness, pressing my shirt down to stop it from showing the skin on my stomach.
He turned back to me sparingly, only looking to check if he hadn’t lost me in the crowds. When I did see his face, he was not unattractive; his facial features were not disproportionately large or small and his skin was neither perfect nor blemished. He walked cool, like an athlete. I tried to decide whether I had a crush on him or not.
In broken English, he asked me if I’d seen enough of the water, and I gleaned from the boredom in his posture that he was trying to tell me that he had. I told him that we could leave if he wanted to. He led me down the steps to the lower level platform by the street, away from the noisy crowds on the riverside. There, people wandered along a 12-foot wall of flowers. As I passed by, I brushed my fingers through the petals, which mixed into psychedelic waves of green, orange, and purple and stretched around the bend so that I couldn’t see the end.
“This is the Qingren de qiang. It means lover’s wall,” he told me in a mix of both languages as he walked towards a bench in the square. “It’s nothing special.” He sat and opened the plastic bag, revealing colorful packs of Chinese coconut candy and yogurt drinks inside. “My mom packed this for you.”
I reached my hand into the bag and pulled out one of the yogurts. The bottle was still fairly cold and dampened by condensation. The tart liquid rolled on my tongue just as I had remembered from my visits to China as a kid; I thought back on how my mom used to buy packs of the drink from the grocery store beneath our Chengdu apartment so we could have them with steamed buns or pastries for breakfast.
We took a cylindrical glass elevator up the Pearl Tower. Framed between thick cement pillars outside, the sky tried to be blue; the Shanghai smog ensured that it could not. His hoodie was black and he wore a bracelet, a braided one whose blue and white intertwined around his wrist. I caught a glimpse of it before he hid it in his sleeve.
At the top, with her hand gripped firmly around her father’s, a little girl touched one foot onto the glass floor as if the panel might loosen. As I watched tourists point their cameras downward to take photos of their feet floating way above the grass at the base of the structure, I wondered how many of them could stand on the glass until it would start to crack, and how many more you’d have to add for the floor to give way completely and cause them all to fall a thousand feet.
I asked if this was his first time up here and he told me no, that he’d been up here with his friends many times before because they knew that there would always be foreigners. He said that he didn’t get to see foreigners often. I saw some American students with University of Michigan sweaters by the elevator, and I knew I didn’t seem to be as interesting to my host as they were.
Again, he handed me snacks: rice crackers and lychee gummies. The river below circled halfway around us and moving through more city on either side, like the tortuous, wound up sensation of yearning for an attachment, with anything, but failing. Watching the crowd shuffle in front of us in silence, my inadequacy seemed as heavy as the Shanghai sky. I wasn’t hungry, but I accepted his food and the nostalgia that it brought me nonetheless.
Over the next few days, he took me to other touristy landmarks during the day and sequestered himself in his room when we returned home each night. On the night before I left, we visited Jing’an Temple, a single street block of sloping gold roofs and traditional architecture among a hundred blocks of metropolis; the surrounding towers of metal and glass seemed to stare pompously down upon the temple. I wondered whether the attraction was built as another tourist attraction in Shanghai or whether long ago, the city had been carefully built around the temple. I’d like to imagine that it was the latter.
He bought us a pack of incense sticks from a wooden stand in the courtyard. After my great-grandmother died, my mother had taught me that I was to light the yellow end and hold the stick from the red portion on the bottom, bow three times, and place them in the ash. After we’d both finished, we stood in front of the smoke for a while, watching the rows of tips glow.
That night, his parents cooked me a farewell dinner of red braised pork belly, sweet red bean soup, and other dishes usually reserved for special occasions. Against my host’s mother’s nudges and sighs, his father poured me a small shot glass’s worth of a strong Chinese alcohol and a cup of the same colorless liquid for himself. He encouraged me to drink, which I did. The bitter taste moved from the roof of mouth into my nostrils and burned all the way down my throat, where it remained for the next few minutes. After I’d helped them clean up, my host disappeared into his room as he’d done every other day this week.
Left by myself in their living room, I figured I’d do some homework, anticipating my return to America. I almost looked forward to the emptiness of my suburban neighborhood and the familiar sound of my garage door under the floor of my bedroom, and being alone, still, but at home. I carried my thick, hardcover, history textbook from my suitcase to their kitchen table and opened to pages filled with images of the conquest of the New World. From there, I moved through each line, word by word, feigning reading. I underlined a date or two and circled some names to convince myself that I was really doing anything productive.
I had gotten a quarter of the way through the chapter when I heard my host pad his slippered feet around the table and pull out the chair to my left. I looked up at him for a second and quickly turned my head towards the living room. In the dark window behind the couch, I saw our silhouettes on the same side of the table, a row of vacant chairs across from us. We were close enough that I could smell the fabric softener on his clothes. He had taken out his phone, and the tapping of his fingernails on the screen became background noise. We did not talk or look at each other. In the hallway, a key clicked inside a lock and a door closed; I presumed that the person across the hall had just returned home after a day of work or school. Behind our reflection in the window, the lives of other people played on the illuminated windows of neighboring buildings like programs on television screens. I couldn’t quite make out the characters but I could imagine them inside, wiping down kitchen tables, tucking children in, and getting ready for bed. My host remained at my side until I got through the whole chapter pretending to read and felt weary enough to excuse myself. As I collected my books, he told me goodnight.
The next morning, I left China early on a packed United flight no doubt full of tourists like me, heading home. Halfway, I opened the parting gifts my host’s parents had given me: egg custard tarts and purple sweet potato buns. They were nearly sickeningly sweet but I ate them all.
Justin Li is a rising senior at The Pingry School. He was born in New Jersey and has lived there his entire life. The recognition his writing has received include a regional American Voices Nomination and a national Gold Medal from Scholastics Art and Writing, as well as an Honorable Mention award from YoungArts. In addition, one of his pieces has been published in Issue 6.1 of the Maine Review. He also attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Workshop as a rising sophomore.