Shanghai Reopening Diary: Why Don’t We Always Let the Weeds Grow

Shanghai Reopening Diary: Why Don’t We Always Let the Weeds Grow



After almost two months of total lockdown, Shanghai is gradually reopening. On this page, Sixth Tone will bring you regular updates on the city as we're seeing it.

May 30, 2022

Why Don’t We Always Let the Weeds Grow?

I live in the New Jiangwan neighborhood of Yangpu District. Today, after almost two months of lockdowns and quarantines, I finally had the opportunity to step out of my residential community gate. Other neighborhoods in the city are allowing residents to make shopping trips, but where I live, the only stores open are a handful of pharmacies. Still, no one wanted to miss their chance to step back out into the wide world.

Since the end of April, we were able to go downstairs for two hours every day. Yangpu has been the most locked-down district in the city since mid-May, so we felt lucky that we were even allowed to spend time in the courtyard most days. Our compound was divided into four groups, given two hours each for exercise.

Even so, we’ve seen winter turn to spring, and spring to summer. The birds grow louder and louder, and wild grass and flowers spring up. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen children trying to catch butterflies in the tall grass.

A permit issued by the author’s residential committee. Courtesy of Feng Jing

New Jiangwan was the first neighborhood in Yangpu to be allowed on the street. Thursday, shortly after 10 p.m., the neighborhood committee sent a message to the chat group with the new rules: Residents could leave the compound once every two days, for a maximum of two hours at a time. I set a goal for myself: No matter what, I was going out the next day. The past two months have taught me never to wait on these things; opportunities like this often only come once.

At 7 a.m., I woke up and welcomed my new beginning with an at-home COVID-19 test followed by a nucleic acid test. I got my entry-exit pass with my nucleic acid test. At that moment, my emotions were all over the place. I went home to get ready, even though the passes wouldn’t take effect until 3 p.m.

First, I had to pick an outfit. I’d spent the past two months wearing pajamas, only tossing on a jacket and some pants when I went downstairs. I skipped right over my spring wardrobe. I was finally going to wear the summer clothes I’d pulled out over the past two weeks.

Then I packed my bag. During the lockdown, I’d pretty much only gone outside for COVID tests. It was enough to stuff my keys and phone into my pocket before heading downstairs. While I only had a walk ahead of me, I crammed my bag with a water bottle, an umbrella, a backup face mask, some disinfectant wipes, a shopping tote — what if I found a shop open? — and some snacks. I’d barely exercised while at home, and on the off-chance I got tired and couldn’t go on, I’d have a way to replenish my energy.

Weeds grow in a road median in Shanghai, May 2022. Courtesy of Feng Jing

My final preparation was psychological: I had to shift my mindset from listless to engaged. I slid my pass into a plastic sleeve and carefully placed it in my bag. Just looking at it lifted my spirits.

The moment I stepped outside the community gate, it was as though I could see the sun for the first time in months. As I filmed the moment with my phone, I sighed: “At last, I’m out.” The security guard at the gate jokingly asked why I would say that on a livestream, but I wasn’t livestreaming; I didn’t even plan to post the video to social media. I just wanted a record of this important moment in my life.

The world outside was at once strange and familiar. All the shops were fenced off. I checked the dates on the fences and saw they were put up in May. The stores had been closed a long time by that point, so I’m not sure what the point of the fences was.

I left my community with a new friend from lockdown. Like me, she lives alone. We planned to walk to the nearest metro station, two and a half kilometers away. There’s a shopping center there, though we knew it would still be closed. The road there had always been a pleasant green corridor. But after two months without cars or people, the medians had become veritable forests. The plants were showing off new blossoms with the exuberance of a ballroom of debutantes, each one more colorful than the next.

As we walked, we came across weeds and wildflowers sprouting from every crack in the city’s surface — even the benches were shot through with sprouts. Lawns were a tangle of wild grass, dotted with flowers. When the wind rushed through them, they sounded like fields of grain. From a distance, the sight reminded me of the grasslands in my hometown in Xinjiang.

Grass grows outside a shopping mall in Shanghai, May 2022. Gao Zheng for Sixth Tone

I guess they were weeds, but I couldn’t stop looking at them. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed living things. If people just leave them alone, plants and animals thrive. That’s not to say we should lock everyone up for the sake of other species, but maybe we should change the ways we interact with nature.

The hedges along the road had grown to almost my height. More remarkably, they were flowering for the first time I could remember. Normally, they’re kept tightly cropped and trimmed. They’d never had an opportunity to bloom, and were seemingly intent on seizing their chance. The cherry trees, too, were sporting fruit. How had I never seen that before?

In a small park along the riverside, the seeds of wildflowers had mixed with their cultivated cousins to make beautiful matches. Some passersby plucked flowers for themselves; others harvested mugwort to hang during the coming Dragon Boat Festival. When we stopped to chat with an older woman, she shared some of her harvest with us — an unexpected windfall.

Elsewhere along the riverbank, we passed a small community vegetable garden. In it, an older gentleman was digging for potatoes. He told us that the rest of his vegetables had been stolen; the potatoes were all that was left. The garden had once been neatly manicured by area retirees. Now, it was overgrown with weeds, with hardly a vegetable in sight.

We walked, snapping photos all the while, for an hour before we reached the metro. The number of other people on the street began to rise, and traffic police were everywhere. The shopping mall was completely fenced off. Outside the barriers, people stood and snapped photos, probably thinking to themselves of the food and shops within, or perhaps of their life over the previous two months.

Like us, this was probably their first time outside their apartment compound in two months. There wasn’t anything to do but walk around, but their excitement was palpable. As they took in the wild growth around them, taking photos all the while, they, like us, marveled at nature’s magic.

My neighbor and I agreed that these scenes of unchecked growth were beautiful. Why should plants be pruned and trimmed to suit human plans? Why should anything be?

— Feng Jing; translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editor: David Cohen.

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