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  • Edgar Mahaffey

Blog Post #9 Shanghai Barbarians

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

In Shanghai, China there is a fantastic restaurant where a group of eight people not only kicked off one hell of a weekend but where a name—the same name as the restaurant itself—became an identifying marker of each member. Sparked from conversation surrounded by hummus, steak, lamb, and bourbon whiskey, a major life decision took flame and, over several days, grew into a raging fire of determination. This is the story of how I realized I wanted to live in Shanghai. Of how I discovered people I wanted in my life.

This is the story of how I met...

The Barbarians.

As the picture above reflects, we started as eight—four (as you may recognize from other posts and links on my website) of us that live in Tianjin on the left, four of us that live in Shanghai on the right and not a single one of us that'd been born in this magnificent city.

We started a group on wechat called Shanghai Barbarians and by the end of the weekend we'd doubled to sixteen and I want to introduce as many as I can. They were such amazing people, though, that I'm honestly not sure if I'll be able to do them justice in one post (I could write fifteen blog posts about these fifteen amazing people I'm lucky enough to share a group chat with). Also, just a warning: this will be a picture-heavy post, so it may load a little slowly on mobile.

The girl that started it all, or, the original Barbarian:

Caitlin Lin is unbelievable. A person this good should not exist. She is wildly funny, talented, intelligent, and has a knack for finding the most amazing people.

Pengyun and I met her in our third week of dating when we took a spontaneous trip to Inner Mongolia. Caitlin—who was a student at the time—worked part time with a travel company and was our guide. That trip was unforgettable. From her smoothing out all those awkward group introductions to keeping our energy levels high regardless of what time it was or how tired anyone was, Caitlin was so much more than just a tour guide. So much more in fact, that less than a year later when PY and I got married, she came to our wedding and helped my mom translate the entire ceremony. I think that's maybe the best way to describe her to anyone who doesn't have the privilege to know her: regardless of her ability and obvious excellence, Caitlin Lin will help ANYONE. She's like a character from a feel-good book or movie in that she has the entire world at his fingertips but she still prefers to build up others. I realized after this weekend that there are so many pictures of moments I will treasure forever... that she isn't in. Because she's the one taking the picture. When the rest of us are enthralled by one of Zhengyu's stories (I'll get to him more later) or laughing too hard to notice anything else, she's snapping photos. Because even in the moment, she cares so deeply for people that she wants to capture the essence of a memory so that none of us will be able to forget.

Pictures like this:

Where Pengyun and I are just goofing off and enjoying The Bund. Caitlin takes the time to pull out her phone and snap a shot of PY and I taking a selfie. And I love this picture so much more than the selfie because it's so genuine. Look at PY's smile. Every time I do I swear I can hear her laughing. It's perfect. And I am so happy that PY did something similar with this picture:

Here, Caitlin and I are talking and PY happened to take a picture at the perfect moment where Caitlin and I are both processing what the other has just said. I love it for the same reason I love the prior photo: it's just so genuine. And I'll always look at this picture and remember that it was taken the Thursday before I began meeting the rest of our little group. I kicked off this trip with the original Barbarian. And I would have it no other way.

Next up: Zhengyu

It's interesting, wanting to describe Zhengyu I found that this picture—which doesn't even contain him—is the best way to truly convey who he his. Out of the four of us, the only one who noticed Caitlin was taking a picture was Lynn. The other three of us were absolutely transfixed as Zhengyu told us stories and things he'd learned. Before I continue, however, I'll add a picture of him so that whomever reads this can have a bit more context.

There he is taking a selfie just before Howee (who I'll also get to in a moment) led us in guided meditation. He is so quick with a joke, and I have always admired this particular style of humor where it's just so off-the-cuff. We'll all be talking about one thing and he'll make a comment that has us rolling with laughter. But that's not even close to his core attributes. Years of travel and experiences and relationships have taught him a humility that I think anyone would recognize instantly in him. Beyond that, he has deep wells of emotion and love that contains worlds of benefit for those around him. I asked him what his dream was...

And he said he wanted to help children.

I've thought about it so many times over the last few days and I don't think there's a more noble dream. And he replied with that answer so quickly it even surprised himself. It's funny, isn't it? Sometimes we just need to be asked a single question to unlock a new knowledge about ourselves. But even without the realization, Zhengyu has been helping people for a long time. From his nephew that's staying with him for the summer to the rabble of Barbarians he guides and comforts, Zhengyu is one of a kind.

That last paragraph ended like I was finished talking about him, but you know what? I'm not. Because Zhengyu did two things the first night I met him that really touched me.

First, with his 15 year old nephew (Liangchen) staying with him for the summer, Zhengyu created a golden opportunity to impact him. For those that don't know, English is a significant part of the college entrance exam in China and as he was surrounded by so many people that speak more than one language, he asked everyone at the table to give Liangchen some advice. All of us did and for Valon—who speaks German, Albanian, English, and some Spanish, but not yet quite conversational in Chinese—Zhengyu translated to make sure Liangchen received the benefit of Valon's wisdom. Zhengyu isn't just someone who can encourage, he also creates opportunities to impact. That leads me to my second part...

While discussing my stances on divorce (I am emphatically "Pro" divorce, but I can talk about that in another blog post) Zhengyu began asking me a lot of questions. This led us down a beautiful rabbit hole that touched on several related topics. I explained that if PY wanted a divorce tomorrow that I wouldn't try to stop her and that I believe in her ability to decide for herself. If she believed she'd be happier away from me, I'd accept it and move on. In my view, fighting to keep some one is a form of control. I understand it's not a popular view, but it's one that I hold dear. I also think it's helpful that I have total confidence in mine and PY's ability to move on if we weren't with each other. I told Zhengyu that if I died tomorrow I have no doubt PY would be able to come to terms with her grief and continue on living.

Because Pengyun is a complete person.

And I'm a complete person.

That means we don't "need" each other. We rely on each other, sure, because our lives are connected. But if our lives weren't... we'd be fine. This allows to know—with absolute certainty—that we're together because we want to be.

This led to me explaining my belief that "like" is deeper than "love". You must have love in a romantic relationship, of course, but I also deeply, deeply like Pengyun. Living with her is a privilege because I like her so much. Yes, she makes me feel things and I am in love with her, but "love" is an emotion whereas "like" is a belief. Think about your closest friends for the last decade. You like them incredibly deeply. And sure, you love them, but even that kind of love is far more associated with a strong like than any romantic love ever is, right?

When I tell people that I like my wife, they find it strange. But if I were to say I like my friend Tank, who I've known for far longer, no one thinks it's strange... because we're supposed to like our friends. I just wish it were the cultural norm that we were supposed to like our spouses as well.

This then led me to explain that the only reason PY and I even got married was because it made it easier to stay together. If she were American, we wouldn't have gotten married. Because for me, marriage means nothing.

Marriage means nothing.

Marriage means nothing.

There is no paper in this world that, when signed, can truly guarantee a commitment. Contracts are broken all the time. Some of the most distorted and unhealthy relationships I've ever seen have been marriages and some of the most beautiful and flourishing relationships I've seen have had no documents stating they were together. PY and I got married because we wanted to be together and, with her being a Chinese citizen, it was so much easier for us to be together if we were married. If I make enough as a writer, I can get a spouse visa and stay in the country, likewise, her having an American visa opens doors to dozens of other countries.

I explain all this because I want to convey some of the things I told Zhengyu, and after he'd listened to it all, he told me this:

"You really should be a writer."

It was such a confirmation.

And I felt lighter after hearing it. It wasn't even the whole "a burden has been lifted" thing because I'm not burdened. No, instead of him untethering weight so that I may stand, it was like he'd tied balloons to me so that I could fly.

And that's the kind of person Zhengyu is.

Next up we have Howee.

Holy shit, Howee. How to even explain this ridiculously handsome guy?

Howee is an over-the-top, full-of-life, Taiwanese American from New Jersey (and when he says "sauce" or "Oh my gawd", you can REALLY hear the New Jersey in him haha). He leads Zumba groups, guided meditation, and is maybe the most active person I've ever met. Like the rest of the group, he craves laughter and is always a source of it. He has an incredible smile (as shown in the above picture where he looks like he's in an advertisement) and it only adds to his attractiveness.

Here is Howee leaded us to Changle road to get some drinks. I feel like this picture shows his personality a lot. It's also great because Caitlin is front and center in it and that makes me happy as well as PY and Lynn accidentally making wings haha. And, the funniest part, Valon in the back Mike Wazowski-ing his way into the picture. I just love everything about it. And then there's this picture:

See that open smile on Howee's face? That love of life and value of being with friends. I've seldom met anyone so gregarious as Howee. When he starts an activity, you know it's going to be fantastic. Literally everything this man touches succeeds and I'm so excited to know him just so I can watch what he does next. (Side note, welcome Valon! Welcome to the front of the picture, hahaha).

Another thing about Howee... he is a terrific dancer. And that was great, because the next two Barbarians to join our group were two fantastic dancers as well:

Betty Du and Flora Xue

Sorry for the blurry picture! It was Betty's birthday (front left) and we were all more than a little tipsy by this point. Evidence of tipsiness:

That's Betty with a lime wedge still in her mouth from the tequila shots. We all did two... except for Flora... that total badass did three and THEN danced with us for another hour.

Another blurry picture but I had to post it because damn, this girl could DANCE. So much fun. But they aren't true Barbarians just because they could dance, no, these two ladies were outstanding. I didn't get a chance to talk to Flora much, but I look forward to getting to know her next time I'm in Shanghai. Betty, however, is a simultaneous translator (I will be writing at length about another ST later) and if there is a more intellectually-demanding profession, I don't know it. ST's (no idea if they're shorthanded this way, but I don't want to write it out every time, so for this post just read ST as simultaneous translator) don't have the luxury of being an expert in one language. No, these rock stars are experts in two. Do you know what "Occultation" means? I'm a native speaker and have no idea. I literally just googled "Super difficult Astronomy terms" and found a glossary and kept searching before I found one I didn't know. Occultation is: When the Moon or a planet passes directly in front of a more distant planet or star. A grazing occultation occurs if the background body is never completely hidden from the observer. You probably didn't know that in one language, but an ST would be expected to know it in TWO languages if an astrophysicist client hired them. And they can be emailed about a translating gig just days before they're expected to know it. It's a fascinating job and I can't think of many that would be more difficult.

And Betty graduated from the best ST university in China. And (as I learned from browsing her wechat moments, haha) she did well enough to give a speech at her graduation. She's an A+ dancer but god damn her translating skills must be off the chart.

After this amazing start to a phenomenal weekend, we got to Saturday, where even more Barbarians were added to our group.

(L-R Valon, Lynn, Caitlin, Hecate, Zhengyu, Amy, Edgar, Pengyun)

The two new faces in this picture are Hecate (Red) and Amy (Green). I love that this picture only introduces two new people, because I had really unique reactions to both of them. Before I go into it, though, I'd like to post another picture.

I like this picture because Hecate looks even happier, Zhengyu is more prepared for a picture, and Valon's smirk is hilarious. I just wish you could see more than just Amy's knee haha. Either way, though, I love it.

The night started off as a pool party but we ended up staying in one hot spring until it was time for dinner. Man, we talked about everything (and laughed the entire time). After dinner, the conversation moved here:

The three of us are laughing so hard here and I can't even remember why, all I know is we were happy. Next I'm going to talk about Amy, but I want a clearer picture of her so I'm going to use two that were taken the following day at a picnic:

I will ALWAYS trust the opinion of dogs. And Caitlin's dog, Pipi, loves Amy.

Amy Ma is a beautiful girl with a gorgeous smile from Xinjiang, China, and from our first time talking we connected. We started calling each other Xinjiang sister and Xinjiang brother and there was such a comfort to those terms. I think to best describe Amy, though, I'd have to explain this about her:

Every time Amy speaks, it's either to make someone laugh, encourage someone, or speak well of someone. She never talked about herself and even when I asked she would give her reply before then asking something about me. She has an enormous ability to care for people and an acute ability to read them. She may only be in Shanghai another half a year before going back home to Xinjiang, and I am going to make it a focal point of my future trips over that time to get to know her as well as possible. And then, when she's back to Xinjiang, some of her Barbarian brethren are making a trip to visit her (we have five or six Barbarians already interested in going and that alone should tell you how valued Amy is).

Even beyond the characteristics one would use to describe her warmth and kindness, she is also a fantastically gifted poet. When writing a poem for Zhengyu, I asked her and a few others for help (I asked Pengyun first, and she helped me smooth things out). Caitlin replied and told me what she liked and that meant the world. Caitlin is so uplifting and has encouraged me with my English writing as well. Amy not only encouraged but helped me make changes to increase the quality of the poem itself. Poetry comes naturally to her, I think, but there's a very learned approach she takes as well. And there is an emotion I can't describe but that I feel every time someone takes something I make and improves it. Amy did that. And I know she will in the future, too. Even without a topic to write on in Chinese I find myself anticipating the next time I get the chance to send her a wechat message asking for her help on a poem or story.

I imagine in the future I'll write a blog post just on this Xinjiang sister of mine, because she's one of those people I believe the world needs to know more about. I'm tempted to write more now, but I think I'll wait for a future blog post to get into more specifics.

Amy, if you're reading this, I have two things to say:

  1. 你在什么地方和我在什么地方我们还永远是新疆brother and sister

  2. 不要忘了给我一些新疆音乐哈哈哈

Okay, so for this one, I cheated a little. This is a picture from her wechat moments and not from a time we hung out. But I don't care, I wanted to find one that showed off her freckles, because they are gorgeous. And that leads me to something I wish I could say about more people:

Hecate is beautiful, and that's the least interesting thing about her.

I enjoy saying that so much that I want to say it with more emphasis:

Hecate is incredibly beautiful, and that's the least interesting thing about her.

A few sentences into our first interaction were special. I'm not a spiritualist nor do I believe in the divine, but when I met her I felt like something inside of me recognized her. Whether you want to call it my spirit or soul recognized her from a past life, or our energies connected even before our minds could, or whatever terms you feel comfortable, something deep, deep inside of me saw her and felt seen by her. And, just through seating arrangements and schedule alignments, she's the member of the Barbarians I had the most opportunity to speak with. And I maximized that opportunity.

Hecate Hou is an ST (I mentioned earlier I'd be getting to her) and has translated for some incredibly powerful and famous people. I won't name them here, though, because I feel like the names would be a distraction from who Hecate is. She may do simultaneous translation for a living... but she is so much more.

Hecate's core attribute, in my weekend getting to know her, is the same as what I'd consider mine:


Hecate and I both never do things halfway. If we decide to do something, it becomes a piece of us. So when I started to write, I jumped all in and wrote obsessively. Likewise, Hecate doesn't just enjoy dancing, she takes classes. Hecate doesn't dabble in astrology, she studies it and looks for new perspectives on the craft. Hecate doesn't practice translation... she masters it.

She and I don't just gaze at the world, we jump in and explore it.

Also similar to me, Hecate is very outgoing but also incredibly introverted. She and I talked about our phases and how sometimes we can go weeks without much human contact—and be completely fine with it. Likewise, she and I share a value for books. It was crazy how many of the same books we'd read. And, again in similarity, we both grew up wishing our parents would separate. Hers did, actually. And it seems to have led to a much closer family in the end (though there were new and different obstacles as a result). Mine didn't, and I've touched on that in the past.

Hecate is like a vast ocean with unending caves and crevasses to be explored, and mountainous glaciers to stand awestruck in front of. But even with a thousand years she'd still hold her mysteries. Even after an eternity, there'd still be atolls protecting her memories of love and loss; there'd be eddies (the water current... not the author of his blog post) flowing to and from the recesses of her spirit that had yet to be traversed. Hecate, like the goddess from whom she'd chosen her name, is magical.

Though I met Hecate on Saturday and spent time with her from then until Monday, during Sunday's picnic I met a few other Barbarians, so I'm going to go back to then and show a few pictures to both share my experience and introduce a couple new faces:

I love this picture, because it looks like three young ladies talking (Pipi is a girl)


And here is their faces when they've been discovered.

I'm posting this picture even though I think it is a very unflattering picture of myself, haha. It was an amazing picnic/zumba/guided meditation in the park and it was where I met the American girl in the black tank top, Hannah. She's also a writer and after I finish this blog post I'm super excited to get into her stuff that you can also check out here.

Hannah Lund shares my love of writing, traveling, and... Thai food. I got a chance to speak with her some and we mainly talked about our experiences with publication and living off of writing (she is actually an editor and major contributor to Sixth Tone!) Even though I enjoy talking about her success as a writer, I feel like it may be an injustice to only speak on that, as she is so, so much more.

Hannah was connected to our group through Howee and I could tell that the two of them had a fun relationship and, even with the varied sense of humor our group already had, she brought in even more. Not only that—though laughter may be the quintessence of life—when I wasn't sure if I wanted to participate in the Howee-led Zumba session, Hannah was the one to convince me. That showed me that she was someone who knew how to say "yes" to life and, after learning more about her time in China, I grew only more convinced that she was someone who'd figured out early on that to live meant to leave.

I don't know her well enough yet, but I get the feeling she's made difficult decisions in the past regarding people. Maybe it's because I'm also an American who left everything I knew to come to a far away place, that I'm imprinting that on her—I'm not sure, but I will say this: I can't wait to find out. We've already got plans for a next hangout when I head back to Shanghai and when I see an opportunity to learn more about her, I'm going to take it. I believe she's going scrawl an even larger name for herself in the sky of the writing world and I'm excited to have met her so soon after her launch.

The next Barbarian came after the group photo above but I'd actually met him the night prior at the pool party:

Jared (American guy on the right) is from Buffalo NY and first came to China in '08 to study medicine. He spent five years at Zhejiang university and graduated before making the decision that he didn't actually want to work in the medical field. He told me he came to this conclusion early on his study but that he continued anyway. From his perspective it was an act of stupidity, but from mine, it was anything but stupid.

Perhaps it's my views on corporate culture in America influencing me, or perhaps my belief that we only have this one life (I don't subscribe to beliefs of reincarnation or heaven hell), but when someone makes a decision to change their life because they don't like something: I never think it's stupid.

I don't care if you're ten years from retirement after thirty years in the field, today—this day—matters as much as any other. In some respects, today matters more. Yesterday can't be changed, tomorrow may never come. If your job, your city, your habits, your spouse, or anything else is making you miserable... change it. With change, things could get better. Of course, with change, things could get worse... but that's the beauty of change. If things do get worse:

Change again.

And again.

And again.

Keep changing until life is what you want it to be. And if after fifteen changes, it still isn't and if after fifty changes it still isn't, at least you tried. My father died three months ago and he was full of regrets.

All of his regrets stemmed from that which he did not do.

So fucking do it.

Do anything.

Be like Jared when he finished his medicine degree and change. Most of our cages are placed upon us by our own actions and we can only escape these self-made prisons through our own actions.

So act.

Okay, so to refocus this part. Jared isn't just a guy living in China that made a right decision to change his life course. Jared is also a guy who loves and craves community. When I asked him on Sunday at the picnic what made him happy, here was his reply:

He raised his arms towards our group of Barbarians and simply said, "This."

That is a guy who understands one major piece of life and it provides the PERFECT transition for my path towards ending this long blog post.

I, like Jared, want "This." So from today I will start looking for jobs in Shanghai. It may take a month, it may take a year... but I am moving to Shanghai. And it has nothing to do with The Bund or the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, or Yu Garden. It's because there's a couple dozen Barbarians that are living there now that I am desperate to be around again. It's because of community. I can't sacrifice my passion; I can't accept a job that has me working so many hours that I can't write every day. And that's difficult. But I believe that if I keep searching, I'll find something that pays enough for PY and I to afford a place and has good enough hours that I can write as much as I do now.

There was something too special there in Shanghai. A community of people I want to be around. A community I want to be a small part of. And, as someone who's traveled quite a lot I came to a beautiful realization last night as I failed to fall asleep:

I've always been excited by the places I want to go... but Shanghai may be the place I'm excited to stay.

*Note* The actual "thrust" of this blog post has been completed, but I also took the time to share what I did on Thursday before meeting up with Caitlin. It won't carry the same tone as the above, but it does contain another special person that I was thrilled to see again while in Shanghai.

Thursday, July 15th 2021

The girl in the middle is Judy Zhu (super cute name, right?).

Judy is quick to smile and can take a joke better than almost anyone I know. When we're together, anything is within bounds and she has made PY and I laugh so hard over the years.

She was actually my student four years ago during my first year as Director of Studies at Tianjin University of Science and Technology. She quickly became not only one of my favorite students from that year, but one of my favorite people in the world. She was in Shanghai doing an internship and we decided to meet up for coffee and lunch. We talked about everything from her time studying in Hong Kong to her recent relationships to her future goals.

After lunch, PY and I checked out a really cool bookstore (not THE coolest in Shanghai, though, and I'm afraid I've been sworn to secrecy not to reveal the actual location of the best bookstore—I will die with this secret, Hecate!). It had a nice view and PY practiced drawing while I did some writing. Not much to tell, I just like that picture.


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