Sunday, August 04, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Noodle Boy

At four o'clock in the morning in Shanghai, I was still wide-eyed. All three of us were. I gave up on sleep, and pulled two mugs from the cabinet. Instead of coffee, I filled them with red wine. When it comes to jet-lag, I'll do pretty much anything to get over it as quickly as possible. End to end, we sat on the sofa in our Airbnb apartment in the French Concession, sipping mugs of red wine.

Jet-lagged in Shanghai
"We did it. Can you believe it? We did it," I said, still kind of disbelieving the whole thing myself.

We were gone. We'd left our New York home, my home anyway, we'd left our jobs, we'd left our friends. We'd left behind a life, a livelihood.

My husband smiled and nodded in agreement. He'd wanted to do this for so long. I hadn't been so sure. What would come of all this?

The French Concession is a jungle of low-lying buildings, a warren of tiny streets nestled into more and tinier streets. Restaurants are tucked into basements; kitchen sinks are outside on the alleyways and shared by neighbors. It's a place where dawn creeps up on you. My husband and the baby went back to bed. The wine had worked for him, not for me. I stood at the open window, inhaling the smell of a city summer morning, and watched as Shanghai came to life.

Our apartment was on the second floor, and in between our building and the neighbor's were just a few feet and an alley. You could almost stretch your arms wide and touch both buildings with your fingertips. Across this little alley, I could see directly into my neighbor's apartment, a window into her morning routine. Rubbing her eyes, tousling her hair, she stretched and put the kettle on, and then stirred something in a pot. When she raised her arms to stretch, I noticed her t-shirt read, in all capitals: "New York City."

Dawn in the French Concession
The sun rose, peeking in only at angles that the neighboring buildings would allow. Outside, it grew noisy. Cyclists maneuvered through the warren of streets, jingling their bike bells as they went. A boy brushed his teeth in one of the outdoor sinks; a chatty pair of women prepared breakfast in another. Cutlery clinked, and old men spit vociferously. It was time to get up.

Later that day, we met The Noodle Boy. The Noodle Boy, whose name I never got, couldn't write his name for me because he couldn't write, at least that's what I gathered from our conversation of limited Mandarin and excessive gesturing. But what I did manage to discover about Noodle Boy is that he's Uyghur, one of a small minority of central Asians who's come to the big city of Shanghai to follow, possibly, a dream. Whether his path was born of necessity or dreams, I don't know and probably never will. But what I did learn was that Noodle Boy was very young to be running a noodle restaurant, yet very talented at just that.

"I am Muslim!" Noodle Boy said in English, by way of introducing himself in a word common to both of us. Relieved that we finally understood each other, he hugged me and asked me in Mandarin what I wanted to eat.

"Noodles," I said. "Your best noodles."

And Noodle Boy went straight to work.

Noodle shop in the French Concession

He mixed, kneaded, tossed, twirled, and spun, finally stripping out long strands of homemade spaghetti to throw into an outdoor pot of boiling water. In the back, an old woman, maybe his mother, fried an egg and sauteed fresh tomatoes. Into the pot all of it went. Out of the pot came "tomato egg noodle," which Noodle Boy assured me was his best. It was.

It's often said that everyone you meet, you meet for a reason. Who knows why we bump into someone, or why they become memorable to us. Who knows what chance meeting will forever change the course of our lives. Some forks in the road will lead to love, others to loss. Some to farewells, others to new beginnings. For the simple reason of pursuit, Noodle Boy is memorable to me. Just a teenager (so I'd gathered), he'd come a long way to pursue something. And I presume he'd left behind quite a lot to do just that.

-Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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