Katherine Qian Ruminates On Her “Dreamlike Summer” In 魔都

Sep 5, 2017

The freeway was awash in a golden late-evening glow as I drifted in and out of sleep on the airport shuttle into Shanghai. I remember looking out the window and seeing all the trees, the grass, the vines draped over every concrete pillar in sight, all flushed with a comfortable kind of green you could gaze at forever. The Chinese nickname for Shanghai is 魔都, the city of magic, and it’s true – from the sprawling subway stations packed with heat and sweat and people to the way the plants flourish in all the sun and humidity in the air, everything is infused with so much life, so much magic.

Walking by the river, listening to live music on a balmy evening
Bike ride to the old temple (城隍庙) on a rainy day

As other interns have written, being able to live and work in Shanghai gave us the opportunity to see what it might be like to really be part of the city, even if only for a summer, and I’m filled with gratitude for all that I was allowed to experience as a result. There are some things that can only come with familiarity: befriending the staff at the noodle place (which I did visit twice in one day), biking down tiny alleyways in the rain, finding/inventing spaces to hang our laundry (the balcony, doorknobs, the TV). I found myself grinning even at tiny things like swiping my subway card or feeding the cats at work, small reminders of my belonging in this city. My parents met here, but I hadn’t really visited until this summer. I guess I expected some sort of alienation in a city this big – 24 million people – how could you not feel a bit lonely surrounded by so much? Yet the sheer number of people itself was what allowed the city to swallow you up with ease, what allowed you to become part of the crowd, like you had been there all along.

Sitting on the balcony floor eating ice cream cones
KAWS art exhibit at Yuz Museum (by the river!)
Company lunch at the villa

It’s been a dreamlike summer, two months full of monsoon rain and dizzying heat and people and cats and streetlights and so, so, many things that made me glad, grateful, giddy, just for the chance to be alive in the midst of it all.

This blog post was written by Katherine Qian, Harvard College Class of 2020, and participant in the 2017 Harvard China Student Internship Program.