A few weeks ago Noel and I had dinner with our Chinese-American friends whose daughter, their only, in her late twenties, now has a job in Shanghai. Speaking no Chinese, and relatively sheltered—she has mostly lived at home-- she had been a bit nervous about going. Even at a distance we felt the drama of the countdown to departure. We felt for her parents as well as this is a very close family. The drama of the countdown registered even from a distance. And then she got off.
Some weeks after we had dinner with the parents to see how they were doing in their empty nest. Well it wasn’t so empty actually: in the middle of dinner their daughter called on WeChat as she does every morning and evening. It was early morning in China so she was talking to us from her bed on a tablet screen in the middle of our supper. Her parents were glad to have us there as extra chatters. She told us about the malls everywhere in Shanghai, filled with big brand stores, Burberry and Starbucks. Starbucks, she said, actually had a warehouse-sized establishment nearby always filled with Chinese.
A while ago Frank Bruni, the Times columnist, wrote a column fromShanghai,“Travelling without Seeing,” in which he described how, having brought their entertainment life with them, including a favorite series to binge on, his partner and he had had to prod themselves to get out into the city. (This was a courageous admission.) Yet to hear our young friend tell it, to go out into Shanghai was to step into a global space full of western brands. Of course an extra push would send you into a very Chinese world far from Starbucks. Still, my heart sank to hear our young friend describing the Shanghai Malls as the first thing to tell us about. Judgment set in. Was it possible to get away from your parents today much less have an adventure, be transformed by the shock of a foreign culture? Yet the infiltrative nature of our distanceless global bubble is a big part of the subject of “The Absent Hand.” The deep effort of the book is to break the hold of old ways of place-meaning—what it is to set off from home on a journey, for example--and begin to understand our new environment in a deeply imagined way. The pre-requisite for this, of course, is acceptance. And yet when I run into it unexpectedly I am thrown into rebellious confusion. At the heart of that reaction is loss first of all, but also a sense of entrapment within the enclosure, a sense that you can't escape. Can't“get away.”
So there I was, cluck clucking to myself as I sat at the table with the kid in bed on the other side of the world telling us about Starbucks in Shanghai in the midst of the crispy duck, and the marinated pork, cooked for us by her father—the problem of actual placement of the tablet in all this somewhat problematic--right on through the appearance of the strawberry shortcake from Citarella that Noel and I had brought. It was around the shortcake that our young friend mentioned very high quality knockoffs for little money at the mall, and in particular a French wallet she had recently bought. She showed it to us, and mentioned a low cost: would either of us like one? I could see that it was of very fine leather. A yen developed. I was IN.
A photo of my purchase came the next day.
NOTE: This post was supposed to run before “Paterson” and was mentioned in “Paterson” as if it had.