“China slips through my fingers,” I wrote in my journal my first full morning in Shanghai. I had just wakened to the clatter of bulldozers outside my window, something that would become familiar in my subsequent trips to this city, which is ever undergoing almost constant growth and change. My work colleagues and I were staying at the Howard Johnson’s in Pudong, the high tech district of Shanghai, cluttered with dull grey office buildings built for work and business, far away from the bright lights and glamour of downtown and the Bund.
As odd as it seemed then to be staying at a Howard Johnson’s in China, it seems quite fitting in retrospect. After all, the American chain – which began as a soda fountain in a drugstore, then morphed into a large chain of restaurants before expanding into a constellation of roadside motels– is synonymous with 60’s-era travel and hospitality in the US. The iconic orange roofs, cupolas, and weather vanes a reminder of the promise of the open highway and the road. Finding myself now flung some 7,500 miles from home, I appreciated the comfort and familiarity of the place, and its nostalgia for a different time.
Over subsequent trips, I would grow more comfortable in Shanghai, it would eventually become my sister city of some 25 million souls. I would sample its food, discover its many ancient treasures, and come to feel tentatively at home in a place so utterly foreign to me. Much of this comfort would come from the welcome and hospitality of our work colleagues there – strangers, really, who welcomed us as family, sparing no effort or expense in sharing their city in so many different ways, most often over countless meals around a lazy Susan that built the bridges between our diverse cultures.
Chinese hospitality is legendary; the welcome of foreigners with food and drink a necessary element of any travel there. These meals we shared at table in Shanghai helped make China feel a bit more solid to me, a little less overwhelming and foreboding. But I never really lost that slippery feeling. No matter how familiar I might become, I would always be a foreigner here, a stranger. But through this hospitality, extended and received, we could lessen the strangeness just a bit. And in its place enjoy a bond of contradiction and connection, a welcome both warm and wary.