Life in Shanghai, Or How I Confused Lennon and Lenin

December 2016, Shanghai.

I’ve just left Phnom Penh and the emotional roller coaster of Cambodia. I also just decided to leave Remote Year, so I feel simultaneously anxious and relieved. There’s no time to stop and think about all of this because when I get to Shanghai, I have a ton of work to do, and it’s absurdly hard to find a good wifi connection.

After several failed attempts at cafes and a co-working space, I finally log in at a hipster health food restaurant. While I’m writing brand strategy, I’m also eating the most amazing pecan pie (following a bagel with lox!) and enjoying The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as it plays through the sound system.

In moments like these I lose track of where in the world I am. With a quick glance I could be in New York, Austin, Los Angeles — the cities I’ve called home. This is definitely a softer landing in China than I expected.

As I explore Shanghai — mostly on foot, sometimes on an awesome electric scooter — it feels more and more like home every minute.

It’s the diverse neighborhoods, dense population, overall Gotham-like qualities. In addition to my bagels, I eat extraordinary local cuisine and fall in love with the spicy, delicate flavors of every dish, meat or veggie. Since I grew up in New York City, though, none of this feels particularly foreign to me. Then there’s one place that really takes me home, and it has nothing to do with architecture or food.

When I first walk into the Propaganda Poster Art Centre — a sprawling and magnificent series of gallery rooms hidden away in the basement of a French Concession apartment complex — I’m stunned by this beautiful (terrifying and portentous) collection of Chinese posters from throughout the 20th century.

Not only am I reminded of my obsession with fascist art (it was the focus of my honors thesis and graduate work), but the faces of Mao, Marx, and Lenin make me feel like a child again (how many people do you know who can say that?).

My mother, the Revolutionary, talked about these three incessantly when I was young, so much so — and this is really embarrassing, so please don’t hold it against me — that when we heard on the radio in 1980 that John Lennon had been killed, I understood ‘Lenin’ and thought surely he died ages ago.

I spend hours at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre staring at the designs, watching the progression of a political belief system and its messaging, and feeling like a little kid running around in my Fonzie t-shirt carrying Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (there’s apparently documentation of this ensemble somewhere). I suspect such sentimentality is not a typical response here, certainly among Americans.

You’re not allowed to take pictures in the galleries, so I buy every postcard they have… not only because the art is stunning, but because it’s a unique reminder of what it was like to be my mother’s daughter before her illness changed our lives… before time together became too hard, and before I realized she wasn’t just “crazy.”

Buried somewhere deep, with years of hindsight and amidst a new awakening, I might actually have a sense of pride in aspects of my a-typical, potentially questionable, never boring, somewhat hilarious young life with her… all it took was a trip to a basement in China to make me realize it.