This past summer, I went home to China for the first time in eight years. The last time I visited was in fourth grade. This time, I was going as a high school graduate. There are camps over the summer in Shanghai and Fujian, China that are held as part of an initiative by the Chinese government. They want to help kids of Chinese heritage who are living abroad to find their “roots.”
The first photo I took in China was at the exit terminal. I landed in Shanghai after a 14-hour flight from Toronto, jet-lagged and nauseated from the unbearable heat and humidity. I would later tell people that my first impression of Shanghai was that “I felt like dying.”
I wish there was a term for loving the idea of traveling, but hating the actual physicality of it. Besides the momentary aesthetic bliss…
I got very homesick before I even left. Small things like the non–air conditioning in our hostel’s lobby in Shanghai would stress me out.
My parents are total homebodies, who literally never travel unless they have to. As I grow older, I see that behind my teenage angst is the reluctant acceptance that I’ll probably end up in the suburbs living in a comfortable bubble, just like them.
On my visit to the Shanghai Film Museum, I saw all the film stocks, older cameras, processing machines, and costumes that the filmmakers used throughout history. I saw images of Chinese faces on film sets and had to stare at them for a while, because they weren’t what I had associated with filmmaking. I felt so foreign to it, knowing that there was so much art I hadn’t seen, so much that I wasn’t even conscious of.
This past year I started getting into Asian and international cinema, and it feels my world has opened up. I watched the movie Chungking Express in February, and it made me really regret dismissing Chinese art and cinema for so long. It seems like every bit of discovery that leaves behind cathartic feelings also carries the sadness of a piece of forgotten history.
This photo came out looking like a film still from a Wong Kar-wai movie—a pause on a life in action. I don’t remember taking it.
Being in incredibly dense, crowded places all the time made me think about how people of different cultures live within certain spaces in entirely contrasting ways. It’s fascinating to think about how architecture and infrastructure shape our behavioral patterns in ways that we don’t even realize. There are so many ways to interact with the world, and it’s only when we get out of our routines that we notice.
Chloe and I went to buy breakfast before our train to Fujian, and ended up on the top level of the train station. We stopped and took pictures, shook just looking at the sheer amount of people in this one space, all united by the act of waiting to leave.
My roommate Olivia, in our hotel room in Fujian.
Chloe after lunch, waiting for bus to pick us up.
The view from Wuyishan (a famous mountain in Fujian).
Rafting in extreme heat.
Dave, Stephen, and Danielle.
We had to wear coordinating colored T-shirts on some days. We look like a really innocent cult of Asian teens.
My favorite couple, Stephen and Danielle. They’ve been together since high school, but never outwardly told people at camp they were together. I thought they were newly acquainted strangers, only realizing that they were a thing after he asked her to hold his selfie stick while we were at the top of the Shanghai Tower, as if it were a thing that happened on the regular.
On my last day in Shanghai, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai with my friend Anthony. I got thoroughly soaked in a torrential downpour and slipped before jumping on the subway. By the time I got to the museum, I joked that didn’t even care about the art anymore.
We spent the whole visit wondering where the artist statements had gone, not realizing until weeks later that they were in the free booklets for the Biennial. I don’t know if it was a one-time thing for that particular show, or that it’s just part of the art gallery practice in Asia, but I felt like a dumb foreigner.
I got some of my point-and-shoot pictures back with kitschy “Thank You!” and “♥ I LOVE YOU ♥” messages in place of the usual timecode stamp. All my childhood photos were taken with this camera, and I didn’t even know there was such a function. My mom has had the camera for over 20 years, yet it’s the first time I’ve seen messages appear. Some kind of strange magic occurred, almost as if to say “Yes! Treasure this. There’s a lot of feeling to be done. That’s a good thing.”
We spent a lot of time in this one multimedia installation room by an artist named Nathan Zhou. The description in the booklet read: “Nathan presents his attempts at large-scale paintings and has arranged the exhibition space to demonstrate his ideal work room, by consolidating the recording studio and game room into one.”
It was just a fun time. There were roll-y chairs and a children’s scooter, amongst the security mirrors, cryptic phrases, and messy paintings. The art was playful and humorous, which is often so rare to find in sterilized gallery spaces.
There was even an arcade machine with hundreds of games including the classic Street Fighter.
We spent the night walking with heaps of other tourists around People’s Square downtown. The building signs lit up the sky in wild colors that were beautiful to look at, but sobering knowing that it was an after-effect of the intense pollution.
Most of the close friends I made were from the U.K. Throughout high school, I had really wanted to study in London at Central St. Martins. For many reasons, I decided after university apps to go to school in the States, choosing another school over CSM. Meeting my camp friends made me feel so unsure about my decision that it threw me off. I could envision a “sliding doors” moment when all I could think about was where these friendships could have gone, had I chosen differently. That’s been difficult for me to let go, even though when I bring it up, everyone tries to tell me to just move on. They all attribute it to my eternal “the grass is greener on the other side” indecision.
I want to say that it felt like going through a breakup, so that I can relate it to an universal feeling, even though I’ve never actually experienced a breakup. When I met up with my parents after they flew in, they were reminders of regular life. I wanted to be selfish and shout at them: “I am a changed person! How can you act like everything is as it’s always been when really nothing is the same!” just so I could get someone to sympathize with me.
I learned from friends that there was fallout between people post-camp, and it was strangely comforting. We were getting over the initial sadness of losing the idea of something together. It’s like the part of real life that comes after the two-hour movie, when all the magic falls away and everyone returns home.
It’s really bittersweet because we all knew each other in such a limited context. Camp lasted two weeks, and we were in a group of 60 people, all traveling together. We stayed in hotels and went out at night together, sometimes crowding in a single hotel room. We only saw other people as a version of themselves: Away from home, out of school, outside our comfort zones, in the context of camp. And that’s how I’ll remember them, in a romanticized kind of way.