To Sleep, Perchance To Dream

IMG_4855To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished!

All Shanghai expats have a favorite (and a less-than-favorite) cultural practice they can endlessly discuss – public pajama wearing, street food stalls, and bustling wet markets are right up at the top of my list. Chest-deep hawking, airport shoving, and public arguments round out the bottom. But of all the common sights to see in Shanghai, public napping is my hands-down favorite. The cat nap and the power nap are woven directly into the fabric of street life as expertly as bicycle riders wending their way through traffic.

The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures . . .

Midday napping on public sidewalks would be grounds for moral disapproval in the U.S. The napper is clearly not working hard enough. Philosophically speaking, napping may be gaining popularity in the States, but it is largely an activity reserved for the private sphere. Public napping will never coexist peacefully with the Protestant work ethic (even if you aren’t Protestant). Americans are more in tune with Brutus on this subject: “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly.”

Public napping in much of the world is a commonplace activity. A friend of mine pointed out that there is something poignant about photos of people napping, especially in a city as boisterous and busy as Shanghai. Her observation encouraged me to look closely at the people in my photos. I couldn’t get that word out of my mind.

Yes, there is something poignant about watching a sleeping human – at moments it feels jarring. As an observer, you can’t help but notice the vulnerability of the person in front of you, and in truth, you are encroaching upon it by trying to capture with your camera the essence of the nap – an essence Romeo refers to as “the flattering truth of sleep.” (Well, perhaps not always flattering if you aren’t in love).

IMG_4862In China, it’s the flip side of vulnerability that seems to better encapsulate the spirit of the sidewalk nap. There is a deep sense of security in play for Shanghai’s public nappers. You must trust your surroundings to surrender to sleep, and it speaks volumes about the safety of the world’s most populous city that so many feel so free to give up so much security, so often. Chinese nappers are rarely curled in a protective ball like beggars or the homeless. They are not expecting to be kicked or thumped. Many are sprawling. Some look as if they will tip over. There is a kind of physical security in the city of Shanghai that no U.S. city could ever provide. These nappers are comfortable.


They are also exhausted. It’s not long before you notice that most of the city’s public nappers aren’t wearing suits and ties. That’s not to say the suits aren’t napping, too. Behind their office doors, I’d wager they are. But sidewalk nappers (or bathroom nappers) are almost always laborers – it’s hot out there, (heat index 110 in mid-May), and the Chinese work hard.

Photo credit: Diane Breen, taken during an Anji County trip

Sleep is a great equalizer. Shakespeare thought it was the gauge of a clear conscience. For any sleep-deprived new parent or middle-aged night wanderer, its absence can be the harbinger of a foggy memory or impaired judgment. Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s foremost sleep experts, makes clear the significance of sleep throughout the eponymous play. Of all his musings about sleep, none is as poetic or as applicable to the Chinese napper as this:

Sleep, that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

A good nap offers an escape from worry as well as rest—a moment of peace in a chaotic world. It’s the privilege of an unburdened mind, and as such, Friar Lawrence suggests of a youthful one as well:

Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie.

Shanghai’s nappers are rarely youthful. Perhaps The Bard was an insomniac in middle age, as am I. Hopefully we each are in possession of a clear conscience. I like to assume these Shanghai nappers are all good people of good conscience, too. I’m grateful to have shared their moment of truth.


Nap on the Sunporch (a villanelle)
by Marcel Gauthier

I’m wondering now how long it will last,
this feeling like standing water, mere shine.
I wouldn’t wonder if it hadn’t passed.

I can hear a bumblebee circling fast
in the maroon heart of a Rose of Sharon.
I’m wondering now how long it will last,

this being moved by a breeze, this full mast
of half-sleep, half-waking seeming one.
I wouldn’t wonder if it hadn’t passed

like these clouds the sun, turning the cast
of closed eyes from orange to pine green.
I’m wondering now how long it will last,

the catbird mocking the mockingbird, the vast
absence (since I’m dreaming) of blood and bone.
I wouldn’t wonder if it hadn’t passed.

Like voices on the sidewalk floating past
that grow—they seem right there—clear as a ghost,
I’m wondering now how long it will last.
I wouldn’t wonder if it hadn’t passed.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Nancy Huntsman says:

    A beautiful, tender piece. Well done once again. I’m home on the 17th. Are you already there? Below are a couple of highlight photos of our adventure:


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