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Shanghai Lily

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Follow our writer, Lele Chen, as she seizes an opportunity to work in Shanghai, China for six months. Lily’s a student at Duke University who has taken the semester off for an experience of a lifetime.

lilyworkMy life would make an ideal movie preview. This is how it would start: a view of the Shanghai skyline at sunset – a city twined by a winding river, infinite skyscrapers, and outlandish architecture suited for the avant-garde imagination. Zoom in on a young girl in her early twenties strolling briskly through the streets, high heels swinging jauntily, oversized gold purse and shopping bag in hand.
VOICEOVER: Lily Chen had it all. The perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect city. The perfect life.

Cut to scene of Lily racing to work in her chic business casual outfit, busily applying her lipstick in the elevator mirror going down from her 17th floor apartment. She quickly strides through downtown Shanghai before entering the modern high-rise where her office is. At the consulting firm where she is interning, she is laughing with her bright and free-thinking colleagues, the new generation of Chinese yuppies. She is busy helping to plan an international business conference, attended by top brass from all over the world.

And then the voiceover’s tone would transform, because every movie needs a plot, and there is no plot in perfection. The omniscient narrator would promise a tale of high intrigue and drama, pronouncing some foreboding statement such as, “And then everything changed…”

What would change? Perhaps the scene would be of me stumbling upon an enchanted pagoda, haunted by wrathful ancestors. Or maybe I would meet Mr. Right, only to find some impossible chick-flick obstacle to love.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is where the similarity between my life and a movie preview ends. In reality, I would most likely finish up the day at the office and stroll home from work wishing high heels just weren’t so painful sometimes.

This is not to imply that my life is indeed perfect. It seems so to many people here, to have all the natural advantages of youth and ambition combined with the indescribable advantage of having simply been handed this amazing opportunity to work in Shanghai for 6 months. Some of my colleagues in China will struggle for years before they can have the carefree lifestyle that I already have, generously provided by my parents to their dear daughter. To take a semester off from Duke to work in one of the most glamorous cities in the world? Lucky. To be able to experience reality a little bit, yet still without real consequences or responsibilities? Unbelievably privileged. I am only playing at real-life, and there are many who justifiably envy me for it.

lily1       But I am also only a young girl, alone in a big city with bright lights but no friends. It means loneliness on a level I have never known before. To have absolutely no one call your cell phone because you have no new friends to give your number to. To write diary entries that are thousands of words long because you have no one to confide your innumerable new experiences to. To fit into chic new outfits only because you are skipping meals to avoid eating alone. To wander around helplessly because you can’t completely understand the language. My life is dazzling in many ways, but it is not perfect. These last two weeks in Shanghai have been some of the most difficult of my life.

Perhaps this is what the voiceover would say, “Lily Chen was terribly lonely.”

Pan to me sitting alone in a restaurant, sipping tea as I glance enviously at laughing friends. I’m planning how my movie is going to unfold, and hoping that not everything, but some things, will change.

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0 0 547 09 August, 2007 Columns August 9, 2007

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