Mount Cangshan in Yunnan, China

The title of this blog post is apt because my life has been in upheaval since the beginning of March. Some has been good, some has been bad, but I can say for certain that I am looking forward to having my schedule settle down a little bit. So what has been happening? On the awesome spectrum of things, I have had a lot of family visiting and I traveled down to Yunnan to attend the Fulbright Mid-Year Orientation. On the other end of the spectrum, we recently lost a close family friend to suicide, which has just been an incredibly sorrowful thing to deal with and shed some light on some previously unexamined aspects of my life here in China. In this blog post, I will start positive move toward the negative, and then end somewhere in the middle because isn’t it true that all of life is in the middle?

What can I say about having family visit me here in Shanghai? In a broad sense, it has been an incredibly surreal experience. I have been doing a fair bit of traveling since I was a first year in high school, but have only really settled down in two places: Italy and China. As a generally self-reflective person, I have found the most fascinating part of these experiences was to monitor the changes happening within myself as I lived in these completely foreign places. I have created lives in these new homes: friend groups, people I count as family, homes, favorite grocery stores, habits. As close as I am to my family, I have always felt as though there were several sides to me that they just did not know, they knew me in the context of the island I grew up on and the college girl and glimpses of other versions from stories relayed. Over this past year I think they finally gained insight into the different sides of me, reading papers I have written and through this blog, as well as through new conversations we have had about my mental health and sexuality. This is a long winded way to share the importance that I attached to having my family finally see my life here in Shanghai, just to share the little joys that I find in every day life here.

That being said, I also felt a pressure I can only akin to the feeling of sharing your favorite movie or tv show with a friend, and instead of enjoying the film, instead watching the person for some sign of reaction on their face. Every bite of food I ate with my mother and brother in China, I felt had to be the best food China had to offer or what? They would think that Chinese food was gross? And so for the two weeks my mom and brother visited, and then again for the three weeks my dad and stepmother are spending here, I have been unable to focus, walking on eggshells, nervously watching faces for some sign of what they think. Partly to make sure they had a fantastic time, and party because I do not think I would be able to stand it if they did not love this place as much as I have come to love it.

On top of this, was the desire to prevent them from falling into potential pitfalls for tourists in China. And no, I do not mean potential scams. Instead I mean the pitfall of oversimplifying China (a large complicated place with innumerable simultaneously valid realities), the pitfall of buying appropriative clothing and then wearing it in the US (Yes, I had to get into the topic of cultural appropriation), and attempt to explain the complex political realities of the place. What this all amounted to was an annoying trend I noticed: I began nearly every sentence with “well.. it is complicated.” How to explain to my brother why so many Chinese people are still devoted to the Chinese “Communist” Party? Well.. it is complicated [insert brief history of China’s modern history, the cult of personality that Mao created, and the incredible achievements that the CCP has made happen within a lifespan]. What I will say, is that I feel so privileged and overjoyed to have parents and siblings willing to traverse the globe for me. Not to mention, I had the honor of sharing this magical country with people who I love (including the fact that it was Avery’s FIRST time out of the country!)

Now onto the sad end of this post [TW: Suicide]. My junior year of college, while studying abroad in China, a classmate of mine lost, in succession and within nearly a month, both her grandfather and her aunt. Since then, it has planted a seed of fear in me about the potential of a death in the family or among my friends while I am an ocean and land mass away. While I could never have expected this death, it hits my heart deeply. In this case, my pain is doublefold as I empathize for the pain and guilt that my father and his best friends feel in response to losing a best friend of decades to suicide while also mourning the loss of a person who has been in my life for nearly as long as I can remember and has always been there for me. But what has been unsettling for me has been the separation I have felt from the emotion of it all. Being so far away from people who knew this family friend is a blessing and a curse: it means that I get to choose who I want to share the information with and can selectively choose when I want to feel, but also is isolating. This stifled feeling is also familiar. As horrendous things happen in the USA, I feel very far away from it all. I think the experience of collective mourning, collective action, collective conversation serves not only to relieve feelings of grief but also to renew commitment to a cause and reaffirm the reality of the situation. How can I shake the feeling of my life in China as temporary, transitional, and somehow unreal? Just some food for thought.

To close this post, I want to share a memory of AJ: Fourth of July somewhere between ages 14-13, AJ was living in an apartment downtown close to where the action was going down. The action being the annual parade along with the general crush of tourists and locals all with children, sweating and yelling. AJ’s apartment was a realm of calm, it generally was, but the mood was especially clear that day, set in sharp comparison with the mayhem of outdoors. A man with what I am sure was undiagnosed OCD, everything around AJ was always freakishly ordered: the carpets vacuumed, bed made, and hundreds of records and albums carefully organized and stacked onto neat shelves. The two things I can see clearly in my mind’s eye when I think of AJ’s apartment were those records, because his music collection was his prize collection, and a dartboard, because when we visited it was always my prime focus and to a lesser extent because it suggested a laid back occupant, which AJ was not. I think his space spoke deeply to his personality, an incredibly tightly wound person who was somewhat of a child himself. This childlike characteristic is what endeared him so quickly to my siblings and I when we met him (although I cannot for the life of me remember when this was). In fact, AJ was something of a never ending uncle, both to the children of his brother and to the children of his friends. But back to that day. The entire day in my memory was arranged around these mythical and storied wings, a dish that AJ was known for. The day could be divided into two sections: pre-wings, during wings, and post-wings. Pre-wings was defined by the preparation and love that went into creating the seasoning. During wings consisted of my family our family friends and AJ all clustered on the tiny deck outside consuming massive amounts of crispy, flavorful, and seriously spicy chicken. I’m sure my memories of this day are incomplete, and reading over my own writing it all seems somewhat mundane. But I think of this memory and I can’t help but become emotional. I can’t place with certainty the last time I saw AJ, and I know for certain that I said nothing of any importance, but what can be done but to hold onto memories of a person. AJ was a truly fantastic person, and he will be missed.

In some ways, this post felt very hard to put together. I am simultaneously jubilant at the chance to have my family here with me while also devastated. But that is just the reality of life. Below I have included some pictures of AJ, some are old and some are new, and almost all of them are taken by Jon Ho!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Rebecca Leamon says:

    Nellie: what a graceful and reflective way to share some of the ongoing aspects of an examined life! Sending love and support from a finally-warming-up Ellsworth, Maine. Hugs.


    1. Thank you Ms. Leamon! So happy to have you reading 🙂


  2. rlevin2015 says:

    This is really beautiful, Nellie. It’s hard on all of us, near and far.


  3. Cammie Phalan says:

    Wow! You are so very insightful and articulate! Loved reading this remembrance of AJ. We are all feeling the loss here on the island, I can’t imagine being so far away. Hugs from MDI! ❤


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