Nostalgic for My Shanghai

I’m going to be heading off to the U.S. on July 15 — and coming back in the fall — but I’m already nostalgic for the Shanghai of today.

I was down in the French Concession area this afternoon, one of the nicest parts of Shanghai.

After having a quick bite at Abbey Road with journalist friend Bill Marcus — of Marketplace fame — I walked up Dongping Lu to buy some bread on the way home.

I walked into Paul’s, a new French bakery chain in town. I love their Xintiandi location — small, but drowning in a sea of real crusty French breads. Not the typical Wonder white-bread-style bread you get here in Shanghai. During nice weather, you can sit outside, sidewalk-cafe style.

The location on Dongping Lu is a full-scale sit-down restaurant. So although I walked in for a loaf of crusty whole wheat bread, I immediately saw that they had one croissant amande left in the bakery display.

I first had one of these when visiting a friend in Paris. They’re sweet, filled with almond paste and sprinkled with sliced almonds and a light dusting of powdered sugar.

As I rode the taxi home, I was overcome with a wave of nostalgia. Shanghai will never again be the way it is today. The beautiful weather, the cafes popping up all over town. The laid-back lifestyle.

Bill says that the longer people stay in China, the less they work. Finally, they’re just coasting along, moving around from one wifi-equipped cafe to another, blogging and twittering, pretending that they’re doing something, until finally they’re living on no money at all.

You can do that in Shanghai.

Bill is not an example of this — he actually seems to be working pretty hard.

But I do know guys — and gals — who come to Shanghai with sky-high hopes and business plans then somehow get off the career track. Or never get on it in the first place.

Pretty soon, they’re doing a little teaching or copyediting or corporate copywriting for a few hours a week. Just enough to pay rent on their part of a bachelor pad, and to buy a few beers and coffees during the week.

Next thing you know, they’re in their mid-40s with potbellies, still coasting along on the coolness of being expats.

One mid-40s guy I know copyedits a couple of hours per week. The rest of the time, he told me, he spends dating. His dates are all hot young Chinese girls. He himself looks like the Big Lebowski, from the film of the same title. Well, a little dumpier.

Another guy — in his late 40s — somehow married and reproduced without leaving the Shanghai slacker mode. He teaches English some of the time. The rest of the time he spends working on his business plan. With each iteration the business plan becomes more grandiose, all-encompassing, and impossible to actually execute. If you want to hear about his idea, he’ll make you sign a non-disclosure agreement. Don’t be surprised if his idea seems familiar to you — I’ve seen it on House.

Then there’s a group of guys married to rich women. All in their mid-40s. Most pot-bellied. (To be fair, so am I.) Some seriously balding. (Not me. I’ve got tons of hair. Long. Blonde. Lustrous.) They tell people that they’re running online businesses. These are one-man operations, involving an occasional consulting gig. Maybe some search engine optimization. Or web design. Their wives do the heavy lifting, bringing-home-the-bacon wise, leaving the hubbies to the cafes and beer gardens. Have wifi, will drink.

If you think you recognize yourself in this description by the way — it’s not you. It’s somebody else. It’s that other guy — you know, that guy you hate.

I love these guys. They always have time to hang out. They’re cool and laid back. They’ll sit around and argue politics and solve all the world’s problems over a couple of slices of pizza and some beer. They never have to rush off for an appointment, and never seem to have any deadlines to meet.

I’ll miss them when I leave.

Once I move my family back to the States, I’ll be back in Shanghai only on business. I’ll probably pack my days here full of staff meetings, and interviews, and bureaucratic get-togethers with government officials. There will be stacks of papers to sign, new hires to interview and train, budgets to go through, cashflows to plan. I won’t have as much time to just hang out in cafes, enjoy the free wireless, and blog about life in Shanghai.

It’s too bad — it’s a beautiful life. Someone should make a movie about it.

Still in Shanghai,