“Youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope.” ~ Aristotle
I had unintentionally trailed the two young girls for much of the block.
One walked with a swagger, the other with hesitation. Both had their heads buried in their mobiles, their fingers texting furiously. Without looking up, they weaved in and out of the Saturday afternoon crowd along Hefei Lu (合肥路).
They paused for a moment on the sidewalk to decide their next move. Swaddled in trendy winter wear, they chatted absently while continuing to play with their phones. The dialect was incomprehensible. Though their soft tones suggested Jiangsu, their attitudes spoke of enough time spent in the city.
Sometimes we forget that it is more than commerce that defines Shanghai’s pulsing vibe. Its fast pace rides on the depthless energy of countless youths that flood the city. Many of them moved around with their parents who sought better lives in Shanghai, others were bundled into buses and dispatched to work for distant relatives when crops failed in the countrysides.
Most finish high-school with no expectations of further studies. Instead, they arrive in Shanghai with stars in their eyes which are eventually dulled by their unglamorous lives as shampoo boys/girls, shop assistants, security guards, masseurs, waiters and waitresses.
But the fervour of youth is impossible to extenguish. After 12 hours attending to demanding (and often verbally abusive) customers, they shed their uniforms and plunge into crowded streets and bright lights. On their days off, boys and girls strolled along the Bund, window-shopped along Nanjing Lu, gossiped about budding romances and watched hours of Korean soap dramas. In a city with an extreme income disparity, Shanghai was theirs as much as the next person.
That was the thing about a large and mean metropolis. If it doesn’t care for you, it cannot judge you. Unlike tightknit communities back home, the city barely bats an eyelash if you have become a married man’s mistress, are being sexually harassed by bored housewives, joined an underground Christian prayer group or studying for the real estate exam after failing three times in a row (all true stories).
Shanghai carries the hopes and dreams of the wild-eyed youth, hoping to strike it big and live the modern life that his/her parents could never have imagined. Maintaining one’s dignity can be challenging in such circumstances.
Once, I watched a property agent, no more than 25 in his ill-fitting and shiny suit, stand outside a luxury estate distributing property listings. As only the help staff would walk out of that area, all other residents entered and exited in their flashy cars. The young agent would stuff the flyers eagerly into open car windows, much to the annoyance of the drivers. I watched a haughty woman in large sunglasses fling it right back out on the ground before speeding off in her BMW.
The young man picked up the flyer and smoothed it out for reuse. His hopes were not quite dashed but just a little shaken.