Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part I

Written at 6 PM Tokyo time, 22 January 2009

I arrived in Shanghai in the early afternoon on 2 January, to stay with my friend Becky, who graduated the same year I did from ASMS. She's been living in China for the past two years, improving her Chinese and teaching English. Out of all the big cities I visited during my trip, Shanghai is my favorite, probably because it managed to feel comfortably familiar while at the same time offering lots of new experiences – it was a good way to ease out of my Riyadh mindset and to start myself on the road to remembering who I am. 

A caveat: for all of the places I'll be describing to you, my impressions are based on the briefest of visits in combination with the historical and cultural context I gleaned from my hosts, all of whom have lived in these cities for at least a year and have impressive commands of the local languages. I don't pretend that I'm an authority, but I do think that my observations aren't far off base. 

Shanghai has been one of the traditional entry points for foreign traders into China, and as such it has a much more international character than one of its two rivals, Beijing. (I didn't visit its other competitor, Hong Kong, so I can't evaluate how they compare.) It's bigger than Beijing, and it is a major financial hub, drawing expats by the thousands from all around the world to work in a very lucrative market. The street scene feels very westernized, and I don't just mean the endless blocks of Western clothing stores and the locals wearing the latest fashions from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. The cityscape itself feels Western – the skyscrapers look like anything you could see in the big cities of the US or Europe, the old buildings that survived revolutions and wars were built by European powers a hundred years ago or more, and the subway feels like the New York system to me (efficiency barely covering a seedy underbelly). Open spaces are green and filled with parents strolling with their children, old men flying kites, and students flirting with each other after classes end.

However, just when I would get used to the sights, something jarring would happen to remind me that I was in the People's Republic of China. As Becky said, you can go for days thinking that you're in the first world, and then you come across something that reminds you that you're still in the developing world, such as the smell of raw sewage being carried away from an apartment building in a bucket strapped to a bicycle because there's no building connection to public sanitation systems. Other jarring things included the large exhibition hall built as a gift from the Russian government in the mid-1990s (one wonders if the money might have been of more use at home) that looks for all the world like something the Soviet Union would build, down to the shiny red star on top – although perhaps the USSR wouldn't have built it next to a huge mall. One evening when my host was busy, I wandered through Shanghai's heart, a pedestrians-only street that seems to be the place to shop, to eat ice cream and to drink bone-achingly sweet tea, to see and to be seen until the early hours of the morning. There were still holiday decorations up on this street, and let me tell you, there is little that compares to seeing a huge, fake Christmas tree flanked by a set of PRC flags.

One of the most amusing things to me about Shanghai is that it is so brazenly a consumerist, capitalist city. I have a photo of a sign for People's Square, the large park in the center of town, flanked by Christmas trees and signs advertising end-of-the-season sales on clothing at the mall across the street. Obviously, there's only one show in town with real power, and it's not Adam Smith's invisible hand. As I write this, I recall reading a story about China censoring parts of Obama's inauguration speech, editing out the part about Americans of prior generations fighting fascism and communism with our ideals. However, the ideals of communism seem to be getting only lip service in the glitzy, fast-paced Shanghai that I experienced. 

To be continued in a few days...

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