I’ve come a long way in my short time in (and out) of China.

A year ago on my first trip I stepped out of the security of the hotel and across the street to walk in the park. I recall being very worried about taking my camera and every shot I took was with flash off and from the palm of my hand. I didn’t want to attract attention. The exercising people, particularly the “yellers” made me very tense and my greatest fear was that I would somehow offend someone and end up in a situation with them and the local policeman yelling at me in a language that I barely understood.

A few days later after grossly overpaying for a pair of binoculars at the knock-off market, I practiced the words to tell the policeman that I was going to watch birds. I asked the concierge about watching birds over there and he told me it wasn’t a good idea. Ignoring that, I proudly walked up to to the guard in the park and rattled off my plans in Chinese. He waved me off as just another member of the class of the mentally infirm.

From there it was the subway, more morning walks and attempts to communicate in this challenging tongue. My immersion took a big step with my trip last fall to Chongming on a rusty ferry and a day spent in a speeding minivan coursing the rice fields with a man who spoke no English yet was intent on satisfying my desire to see some birds.

More trips and more experiences. This time over, I’ve taken some treks into the working class and industrial sections away from the sanitized tourist and business districts. That is if you can call anything in Shanghai, “sanitized.”

Most of this will perhaps be judged as trivial by those that have taken deeper dives into foreign cultures. It might even seem quaint when we joke about “going off the grid” but for me, these are big steps in my personal journey. Before this, I was pretty proud of my ability to jump in the car and drive 5 hours into Mexico getting by on my rusty 12th grade Spanish. Getting to that point was accomplished by other baby steps that finally led to a comfort and ease with getting by in an alien land.

People spend time here for many reasons. Some are here as tourists, wanting mostly to absorb the sights and the sounds. Many are here for business and career motives, seeing a way to make a buck and to advance themselves. Some are here to party hard and Shanghai provides ample opportunities to satisfy that desire in myriad ways. Others are attracted by the “colonial” lifestyle, living at a class level far above what they could have and afford in the US.

I come for the moments but I’m not kidding myself that I can ever do anything more than scratch the surface, or that there is any chance I will ever be part of the fabric. But if I can get a few truly genuine experiences, well then all the annoyance of getting here is certainly worth it.

Over the course of my recent entries, I’ve mentioned The Man in Black a couple of times. He’s one of the caged bird keepers in the park and he spends his mornings with his peers drinking tea and visiting. We’ve sort of chatted – he says things, I nod and smile – and I’ve gone on feeling good. But I decided to try and take it to the next step and see if he would consent to posing for a photograph with his birds.

The morning was truly glorious, yesterday’s downpours cleaned the air, the sun was out and I could see my breath as I ambled through the misty bamboo. I approached the bird keepers, found my friend and smiled and nodded. He recognized me and came over when I stopped to look at his bird. In my best broken Chinese I asked permission to take a photo with him and his bird and he just beamed. Stepping off the path and onto the grass, he gently lifted the cage and looking at his friends he said something, I imagine on the order of “check this out, the lao wei is taking my picture.” And then, with him bearing an incredible look of pride for his bird, I counted to three in Chinese and snapped the shot.

I thanked him and went on my way with a feeling of satisfaction that can only come with one of life’s special minutes.

I’ve often said here that you have to be open to things to have them happen – we go through our lives never seeing what’s going on around us. Getting juxtaposed into a place where the daily routine is disrupted has one of two effects – you put on the blinders and try to regain control through embracing your routines or you open up and see what every day brings. I hope I will always try to do the latter.