Tag Archives: Shanghai

Sacks and Boxes

Shanghai, China. April 2013.

Sacks and boxes have been on my mind.

It’s that time in the school year, the year of an international school I suppose, where there’s a lot of packing up and moving along. Some of us are just packing up our classrooms to keep things out of the way of the kind workers who fix everything over the summer. Some of us are moving offices or classrooms and need to truck our stuff from one place to another in the building, or to another building. Most of us, students and teachers, pack our sacks and boxes for vacation with equal parts glee and exhaustion.

And always in the life of an international school, there are those of us packing up for a bigger move. We are transient populations of global nomads and third culture kids. Like turtles, we carry our houses upon our backs, or at least it feels that way. For myself, this will be the first time I have lived in the same apartment for three consecutive years since I moved out of my parents’ house more than twenty years ago.

Sacks and boxes. The selling of furniture and appliances and the accumulated stuff of a life, stuff that’s nice, but not necessary, that doesn’t travel well or is easier to replace than to move. The shedding of material skins. And what’s left, the essentials, the sentimental, the milestones and markers of a journey still underway, these are tenderly wrapped in tissue and bubble plastic and cartoned and labeled for the move to Moscow, Sarasota, Bangkok, Tanzania, Kuwait.

For some friends, it’s the first move overseas in a decade. When they pack their things they will need to pack up their children too, who didn’t exist when they last packed their lives into a baggage allowance of two suitcases, fifty pounds or less. Another friend sent twenty years of worldly possessions in her sacks and boxes, on a ship that broke like an egg on the Indian Ocean. Her loved and collected sentimentals have scattered to the flatfish and the back-pocket mysteries of the sea. All she has left is a sack on her back and a box we will send her at summer’s end. By air mail.

But how do you pack up the non-things? How do you pack up a city of movement and light and technology and gales exhaled by the sea? How to pack away your connections to colleagues and friends and students and parents and the waiters and waitresses from your favourite restaurants? What will they think when at last, you do not return?

We visited Barcelona two years after we had lived there and walked the path of our old commute to school. We passed our daily bakery and peered in the window. The woman who worked there saw us and remembered and waved us in. We hugged, though we never had when we lived there.

And I am thinking of this as I pack a suitcase for Canada, of how when I open it next I will unpack familiar things like t-shirts and shorts, but there will also be connections to unpack, relationships to take up and dust off and climb back into. Daily bakers to hug.

Because in sacks and boxes, we bring it all with us where we go.

Impressions: Trees by the Tracks

Between Shanghai and Beijing, China. April 2013.

I like trees.

Apparently I am also allergic to them, but whatever.

I like the way light falls between them in streaks and patches and flickering shimmers and long shadows like roads to vanishing fairy-lands. How they cut light into shafts that transect the trodden paths and the spaces between. I like how strong trees are and how tall and how even old trees somehow smell new. I like the way they reach up and down at the same time. I like the way they move, bending, swaying without losing ground. I like the way they creak.
I like the way they change the way the air moves, the kind of stillness you feel walking into a stand of trees, like first steps into an invisible temple, the positive presence of negative space. I like their leaves in all the colours and shapes and sizes, the sound of the wind blowing through them just before they fall into fiery fall blankets underfoot. I like the way trees collect snow. I like the patience of trees.

It was a tree in Texas that taught me the value of the smallest patch of shade.

I like the connectedness of trees when they grow together in forests. I like their defiance when they grow by themselves. I like trees that grow, impossibly, through fences and from sheer faces of limestone and granite.
There’s something about a tree that feels sentient. Maybe it’s because they stand up, but it just feels like they know things. The witness trees at Auschwitz kept their silence but made me want to weep. I couldn’t look at them for too long lest I catch their eye and learn the whole story, and I, lacking tree-strength, had as much as I could bear with only the eyes of an hour.

These trees grew in the moments between dust patches on the journey from Shanghai to Beijing. I didn’t catch their story as we sped by, just a vertical impression, a thin stand against the speed of flight and the unsettling of dust.

Shanghai To Beijing From The Sightseeing Car

Between Shanghai and Beijing. April 2013.

The truth is, there’s not that much to see. We often take trains when we can as a way of seeing a cross-section of the country we’re traveling in. We booked passage on the train from Shanghai to Beijing and when we took our places, we found them at the end of the train, in a car with only four seats and big windows. The sightseeing car.

But in five and a half hours, the sights were remarkably homogenous. There were what felt like three minutes of rocky hills, and seven minutes of coastal wetlands, and the rest of the time, we sped through a dusty brown landscape of farmland only occasionally sewn with crops. But the oddest thing to my foreign eyes, was the construction. There were highrises that looked to be apartment blocks being built amid the wash of brown dust and yellow air, near no other building town or village on the flat horizon. Something about it felt like science fiction, like a premonition of Blade Runner or the ending of Mad Max where the lost children find their way home to the desolate skeleton of a once-great city.

“Those what had gone before had the knowin’ and the doin’ of things beyond our reckonin’. Even beyond our dreamin’.” – Savannah Nix

Confetti and Fairydust

Shanghai, China. April 2013.

I’m not really a gearhead. I like technology; I like the things it allows me to do, but I’m not one of those people who can recite a litany of brand names and model numbers. I don’t name my gear after women or think of it as my baby.
I used to be fastidious about my camera care. I’d clean it before every shoot with lens paper and fluid and a lens-pen and blower. And then I really started to travel and that’s a lot of stuff to carry around and it was always awkward to break out a cleaning routine in the middle of a temple somewhere just because I wanted to change lenses. So I stopped being so fastidious and as you might expect, my images got dirty.
But what I didn’t expect was that the mistakes I’d tried so hard to avoid for so many years–—things being out of focus, things being blurred by shaky hands, lens flares from pointing into the sun, having dust and dirt on the lens–—that these things would become what I find the most interesting in my photography.
I took these shots in the old town in Shanghai, near the old tea houses and the Yuyuan Gardens. It was a gorgeous day with gorgeous light, but mostly what I like about these shots is the overexposure, the lens flares and the light artifacts cast by the spots of dust on the lens. I like the texture, like confetti and fairydust. I like the feeling of squinting into the sun, the idea of something too brilliant to look at directly.