Shanghai is a Liminal Space

Micol Striuli
December 21, 2019

I’ll always remember my professor’s words when we asked for his opinion on being an expat in Shanghai: He told us being here is being in a liminal space.

Does anyone know what liminal means? He asked the class.

All of us shook our heads.

He proceeded: liminal comes from the Latin word limen meaning threshold. The liminal space thus occupies both sides of a boundary, of a threshold. And apparently there is a whole self-help organization based around the idea of liminality. According to its website, a liminal space “is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.” Basically, it’s kind of like being in limbo. Except, it doesn’t quite feel like you’re between heaven and hell, but rather between two states of uncertainty (which in itself, feels just like hell) – at least that’s how I feel liminality in Shanghai.

I’ve spent basically every weekend in Shanghai going out with friends. When you have that dissociative moment on the 92nd floor of a swanky hotel bar, it feels like you’re on the edge of an abyss. It’s like staring into a void, but really you’re looking at your horrible, drunken reflection on a dark window overlooking the city far below you. Everything is suddenly small and you don’t know what you’re doing with your life, you think about the four assignments you told yourself you would do before you went out, about that phone call you would make to your mom, about the clothes you left in the washing machine and forgot to hang up. The worst is when you take yourself out of your thoughts and look around you. It’s that feeling when you realize the blasting music isn’t even good, it’s just bad EDM; you realize the alcohol you’ve been served doesn’t quite taste right; and you notice the poor, old aiyis. That’s the worst part about going out. I’m going to try not to talk about politics too much in this post, but what I will say is, don’t forget the people who are cleaning up after you and your vomiting friends on a night out. When your drunk glass knocks over a tray of drinks onto the dancefloor – someone is cleaning it up and working long hours into the night, and it’s not you.

So, yeah, what was I talking about? Liminality? The moment like this in the club feels surreal, it’s like being stuck in a dream state. That how a lot of my time in Shanghai has felt – trancelike. And the illusion of being in the dream state comes from this feeling of liminality. It’s like the in between stage between falling asleep and waking up. All the fun that comes with dreaming ends with waking up, the experience ends when you hop off the plane and are back home.

I’m back from Shanghai now. I’m taking time to unpack my several month sojourn in Shanghai. I feel sad thinking about how I won’t relive the same memories with the same people, and I can only hang on to the memory of them. There are some feelings I wish I could live in forever. I talked with my doctor the other day and she told me that a part of growing is embracing when certain experiences have an end. The other sadness I cling to in Shanghai is the constant coming and going of people. Shanghai is a liminal space for many people, including basically all of its expat community. People have been moved there for work or only studying, not many people stay more than a couple years. It’s a city that thrives off this intensity – since no one is there forever, they live each day like it’s their last. I have a lot of lessons to learn from being in this liminal space. The most it has taught me is patience, being stuck in the in-between isn’t a bad thing, and people come and go out of your life and it’s up to you to keep in touch with them. I hope one day to return to Shanghai, but for now the door is closed, I hold on to my memories until it opens for me again someday.

IES Abroad does not encourage the use of or condone any drinking patterns or behaviors that are detrimental to the health and welfare of the individual. 

More Blogs From This Author

View All Blogs

Micol Striuli

<p>I'm Micol and I'm a fourth year student at Providence College studying Political Science and East Asian Studies. I am fascinated with Chinese culture and politics, which has led me to come back for a second semester in Shanghai. My favorite things to do in Shanghai are going to art galleries, eating at one of the million cute dessert shops, going to karaoke, reading about Chinese Marxism, and waking up to a day with blue sky.</p>

2019 Fall
Home University:
Providence College
Barrington, RI
Political Science
Explore Blogs