People following my blogs or my posts on Facebook or Wechat may have noticed that recently I was in a bit of a funk. First, the air quality has been abysmal the past few days, especially yesterday when the AQI crept up to the mid-200s, which is a rare occurrence in Shanghai (Nanjing was a shocking 400 on the AQI chart). It was also rainy and cold the past few days, and that tends to bum anybody out. And everyone in my family and many people I know are suffering from colds or flus (after all my travels abroad this year, I was sick for a month, and still recovering).
Shanghai doesn’t have terrible winters by any stretch. In fact, its winters are quite mild compared to some I’ve experienced, such as those of Hanover New Hampshire, home to my alma mater, Dartmouth College. As opposed to New England where I grew up, here in Shanghai it hardly ever snows. The temperature only dips down below freezing a few times in the year, usually in January or February (sometimes with catastrophic results, as when aging pipes burst). Yet the lack of sunshine over a long period of days or weeks, combined with the poor air quality, can definitely bring you down. Sometimes in the dead of winter, I even dream of the sun glinting off the waves on a Sydney beach, and wake up with tears in me eyes (we left Sydney ten years ago now, so those dreams are less frequent than before, but they still occur.)
So I was very happy to find that this morning, on New Years Day in 2018, the bright morning sun was shining through our curtains and windows once again. The air was down to a still bad yet somewhat more manageable 150, with visibility much higher than in the past few days. Around midday, I took our pet dog Peppy or Peipei for a walk in our neighborhood (the name was a sentimental choice—my grandmother used to have a pet poodle named Peppy when I was a wee lad).
As I wrote in a previous entry, the area around our neighborhood has been thoughtfully planned out by the Shanghai government with plenty of park spaces surrounding the otherwise monstrous nexus of the N-S and E-W elevated highways. I usually take our dog out for a stroll on Sundays. I call this our “Sunday walkathon.” I put a leash on him and we go ambling up and across the walking overpass on Yan’an Road and through some park areas off of Julu Road, where the new 158 sunken mall complex is located. This complex has been very successful lately in attracting a largely expat crowd to its bars, which includes the famous JZ jazz club among others, as we saw last night when we strolled home from a friend’s party at 2 am and encountered hundreds of revelers or revenants walking the streets looking for cabs.
After strolling through the park on this sunlight morning, which until the past week or so was resplendant with yellow gingko trees, I decided to walk back along Changle Road to Ruijin Er Road and back northward to our neighborhood. Then I noticed all the laundry hanging outside on the streets, put up by people desperate for that extra inch of sun in the height of midwinter. I followed some colorful clotheslines like flags, carrying me into an old lilong or alleyway neighborhood that I confess I’d never visited before, even though I can see it from the window of our apartment.
This alley runs north-south between Changle and Julu Roads just east of Ruijin Er Road. Unlike so many others, it appears to be in no immediate danger of being demolished. I was impressed by the sturdy shikumen gates and the old doors and also by some of the masonry work above the doors. This was clearly designed to be a rather posh-looking lanehouse neighborhood back in the old days. Now as with so many others, it has suffered from many decades of neglect, and yet it is full of life.
I stopped to say hello to some of the elderly residents who were out basking in the sun in their narrow alleyway. One old man was taking care of his lovely little garden of plants—people in these neighborhoods like to keep neat rows of flowering or potted plants outside the gates of their homes. It’s just one of many features that livens up these otherwise dingy old alleyways. I asked a women whose flowers these are that I photographed with my iPhone, and she replied in Shanghainese that they belonged to the next-door neighbors.
Walking further up into the alley, I met a lady who was hanging out outside her home with her own dog, also a teddy bear poodle. Her dog was strapped into what appeared to be a baby walker, and she was basking in the midday sun. I struck up a conversation with the lady, which is easy to do in this town if you have dogs. She asked about my dog, and then she told me she has two dogs, one whom she rescued from the streets, and who is a beautiful black poodle. He was resting inside, but she brought him out too, and then strapped him onto a soft platform so that he too could bask in the sun like his ‘sister.’ He and Peipei sniffed each other out as we chatted.
Over the course of a brief conversation with my friendly neighbor, I felt my spirits and my love for this city being restored moment by moment. Sometimes, all it takes is a little sunlight and a bit of casual, neighborly conversation to brighten up one’s day. I take it for a good omen, that no matter how challenging 2018 will be on so many fronts, there will be sunlit days ahead.