Episode 76 │ Like Seeing an Elephant in the Hood (SHANGHAI)
Updated: Feb 12, 2022
"Go do it. Go see it. You could have the best experience of your life, but you won't know that if you're sitting around worried about potential negative outcomes that you have no experience with... Life is finite, youth is physical. Might as well get busy using both." (Patrick, Episode 76)
(Note: Rest in peace to the 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women, who were murdered at Atlanta area spas last week. I started this episode by mentioning three names, then later found another resource to add:
Anti-Asian Violence Resources (Carrd)
I hope that these can be helpful starting points for people who are trying to process and contextualize what happened, as well as decide how they can help Stop Asian Hate.)
What do 'Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat', 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show', 'The Office', Al Gore's Current TV, and James Cameron's 'Avatar' have in common? They're all pop culture references that this week's guest Patrick Easley used to paint a portrait of his trajectory as a traveler, and of how he felt in each phase of the journey. Currently a graduate student in Berlin, Patrick spent over a year traveling the world before moving to Germany. And even before all of that, he studied in Shanghai twice in 2013. Although I've had guests talk about going to China before, when I found Patrick on Twitter I thought it would be interesting to have him on to speak about Shanghai specifically.
Patrick is from the West Side of "the darling city of Chicago", and his travel ambitions started when he was a teenager. At that time he would watch programming on Current TV that showed Americans having fun all over the globe, but he noticed that all the people featured in these vignettes where white. And so he told himself, "When I get good and grown, I'mma travel around the whole world, and I'mma see all this stuff too... They ain't no better than I am!". He started with a trip to Montauban, France with his high school French class, and then was able to study in China for free as an undergraduate student. Prior to studying Mandarin in high school, Patrick's only frame of reference for anything Chinese was limited to Chinese food and watching 'Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat' on PBS as a kid. Strategizing on how to differentiate himself in his college applications, Patrick began taking Mandarin classes in addition to French during his senior year of high school. As a result, he was accepted to Washington University in St. Louis on the condition that he participate in a brand new program that was eager to get WashU students to China, and especially to WashU's new campus in Shanghai.
Patrick majored in international area studies while continuing to study Mandarin in pursuit of a Chinese minor, and when WashU's Chinese department sought out student interest for an upcoming one-week trip to Shanghai, Patrick's response was, "I'll go if you pay for it." And the university did indeed pay for it! So he spent spring break of his freshman year in Shanghai, where he and a professor-led group of fellow students traveled around the city, studied some of the city's history, and even went on an excursion to Suzhou. The word "vast" kept coming up when Patrick described his impressions of Shanghai to me. It was exhilarating for him, and while his suburban and small town classmates looked to him as the "city kid" who could potentially help guide them through this experience, even Patrick had to tamp down how overwhelmed he felt at times: "I had to keep my swag about me." Being from Chicago and visiting New York paled in comparison to being in an urban area with approximately 25 million people, so many skyscrapers, so much infrastructure, and so many things happening. As he recalled to me, "It was unlike anything I'd ever seen in my entire life... I think nothing could have prepared me for the vastness of Shanghai."
Months later, Patrick returned to Shanghai to spend the first semester of his sophomore year there with a small cohort of five other students. Once again, Patrick had been offered the opportunity to go to China on his university's dime and he jumped on it, not fathoming why there would be any reason to decline. This program was based at WashU's recently-opened Shanghai campus (which Patrick described as being more like an office building) in connection with Fudan University. And especially since the cohort was so small, WashU gave Patrick and his classmates ample funding and resources in the interest of getting the program off to a promising start. Of course, Patrick was shrewd enough to realize that having a Black student like him present for photo ops would also bode well for promoting the supposed diversity of the program later on. Nonetheless, he didn't take strong offense to this; if he was going to be utilized in that way, then at least he was still getting to live in China for free.
This semester-long program had participants both taking classes (on subjects including Mandarin language, China's economy, etc.) and doing internships at local companies at the same time. As a paid intern, Patrick worked along with one other American at Panjiva, a shipping company whose headquarters are in the States. As much as the Shanghai location was modeled off of an American office, it was fascinating for Patrick to observe the various ways in which the work culture was still very Chinese. In terms of work ethic, how seriously his Chinese colleagues took their jobs, and how much time some employees spent working, he referenced 'The Office' when explaining, "There weren't many Stanleys... and it was a lot more Dwights."
In addition to school and work, Patrick spent his days building rapport with Chinese people at the various establishments he frequented, hanging out at expat bars, and occasionally flexing his Americanness to gain access to fancy places and events. In hindsight he acknowledges the passport privilege inherent in being able to enjoy such things, but that was also his first time feeling like he had cachet somewhere just by virtue of being Black American, and he decided to take advantage of it for the time that he could.
Patrick's previous one-week stay in Shanghai was such a curated experience that he felt like he was starting over this time around. With a semester's worth of time, he had a fresh chance to acclimate himself to the city with much less intimidation that before. Despite his parents' resistance to him going to China and his initial motivation of escaping to a different country for a while to avoid dealing with his sexuality, here Patrick was. Thriving, exploring, meeting new people, and embracing himself in unprecedented ways. He was so empowered by the feeling of "making it" in Shanghai that he felt like he was in his own version of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show': "I'm Black, I'm gay, I'm from the hood. I'm in Shanghai walking around like I live here... by the end of my time there, you couldn't tell me that I wasn't Mr. Shanghai. You couldn't."
The "Big Trip"
After returning from Shanghai and graduating from WashU, Patrick stayed in St. Louis working for Square, the company that owns CashApp. He hadn't realized that tech startups often pay their employees in equity to supplement salaries, and he also had no idea how stock options worked, so for a while he was earning more money than he was aware of. Once he eventually realized that that additional money was available and figured out what he wanted to do with it, Patrick cashed in his stocks and quit his job in preparation for what he now calls his "Big Trip". Beginning in late 2018, he spent over a year traveling around the world, and to date he has visited over 40 different countries.
Stops on this globe-trotting adventure included Dubai, where Patrick got his hair done by a new friend he'd made there, a fellow Black American man who was from Atlanta. Patrick also traveled throughout Asia, even returning to China to venture up Tianmen Mountain ("Heaven's Gate Mountain") and take in some other mountains that parts of the design for Pandora (from 'Avatar') was based on. When I asked him what country he's seen the most of, China was a no-brainer. Besides Shanghai, Patrick's been to to Beijing, Nanjing, Lanzhou, Kashgar, Guangdong, Anhui, and even the autonomous regions of Macau and Hong Kong, among others. As an introvert he learned to adjust to the stares he received, rationalizing that for many Chinese people, seeing a Black person in their country must be "kinda like seeing a elephant in the hood". But at the same time, he also has no problem rebuffing people who ask to touch his hair.
The coronavirus hit while Patrick was in Brazil, and by that time he'd grown fatigued with traveling anyway, so in early 2020 he moved back to Chicago to ride out the pandemic with his mom. However, months of lockdown had him feeling restless, so when a friend suggested that he apply for graduate school in Germany—emphasizing that there would be no tuition costs and that Patrick would likely be accepted—Patrick made that his next move. He arrived in Berlin in October 2020, and appreciates his new locale for how beautiful, affordable, and free it is: "It has an air of 'live and let live' but in a very confined German way."
Patrick is currently enrolled in a two-year master's program focusing on North American economics, and after completing his degree he's strongly considering returning to Chicago to give back to the community he grew up in. Having learned so much about himself as a Black man and about the the resources that the United States hoards even as millions of Americans struggle, he's firm in his belief that, "We shouldn't have to deal with these traumas. We just shouldn't." He wants to find a way to change some of the prevalent issues he's noticed, so that more people can have the quality of life they deserve. Patrick can be found on Twitter (@DoesItSoEasley) and Instagram (@DoesItSoEasley), and his writing can be found at patrickeasley.com.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Like Seeing an Elephant in the Hood (SHANGHAI)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Patrick's feature on Travel Noire (article)
Washington University in St. Louis International and Area Studies (homepage / undergraduate)
'Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat' (YouTube)
Park Hyatt Shanghai (The Points Guy review)
John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin (homepage / Twitter / M.A. link 1 / M.A. link 2)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.