People from all over China flock there to find work, perhaps as many as a thousand new immigrants a day (!). I tend to believe that number, if only because of the sheer variety of restaurants I saw and the many accents our cab drivers had – distinct enough that even I, who only knows four words in Chinese, could tell the differences. I got to try Xinjiang food when I was there; it was the only time in my trip where I was more of an expert on the food we were eating than my hosts. It warmed my heart to see familiar Central Asian food in the middle of Shanghai! My friend, knowing that I was spending almost all of my China time in Shanghai, took me to a restaurant with a different regional specialty every day, which was as fascinating as it was delicious. At other times we just grabbed a snack off of one of the portable grills which seems to pop up at dusk on every street corner, selling skewers of grilled meat, vegetables, or tofu in whatever style the entrepreneur was most comfortable cooking. Really, culinary tourism is the only way to go when you travel, and I maintain that calories consumed as part of a cultural experience do not count.
Becky had another friend visiting her at the same time, a friend from college who is currently working on a PhD in art history, specializing in cityscapes and urban visual language. I spent a day wandering the city with Fredo while Becky was at work, and discussing our observations of the city through the lens of his studies was as refreshing as it was eye-opening. My coworkers in Riyadh are all very intelligent, but we simply do not have time for the kind of academic, meandering conversations I enjoyed with many of my college friends – when you work fifteen hours a day doing paperwork, your brain gets a little fried, and the last thing you want to do is talk to the same people you see all day long about more serious things. I realized after Shanghai and Taiwan how starved I've been for that kind of intellectual stimulation.
Fredo, who'd been in China for a few weeks before I got there and who'd travelled to several other cities during his stay, pointed out the differences I would notice between Shanghai and Beijing (more on that later). In Shanghai, like many cities in China, there is a rapid push to modernize the city. The city is planning on adding two entire subway lines in 18 months – work zones for them are everywhere, shouldering aside the plebes who might complain about lost homes and detour-choked streets. The construction schedule for these lines is ruthlessly efficient. Shanghai has the world's only commercially operating maglev train, connecting the main international airport to the city's subway system. Is it necessary? Probably not; it's not so far to Pudong Airport that a regular commuter train couldn't do the job just as well. However, it's an exciting bit of prestige for a city that seems to crave recognition as modern. The financial district's skyline, along the river that bisects the city, is breathtaking – if you can see it clearly through all of the smog. People's Park, in the center of the city, is home to a phenomenal museum showcasing archaeological and cultural treasures of China dating back centuries, such as the development of bronze tools and art across millennia, or the changing uses of jade in Chinese culture since the year 2000 BCE. To complement this history, there is a museum next door dedicated to the future of Shanghai – an urban planning museum laying out the goals and potential results of the current modernization projects. The park itself is ringed by pointy towers of office buildings, covered in the logos of big electronics firms and international banks, but these compete for attention with the cranes that can be seen in every direction, building more towers even as the construction economy in the US skids to a halt.
Many of the ongoing projects we saw in Shanghai are unimaginable in the US, either as a matter of course (is any US city expanding its subway system?) or just right now, during the economic crisis. Yet Shanghai builds on, and damn the consequences of pollution, crowding, illegal immigration, and land expropriation. Fredo came up with a phrase that I think describes Shanghai perfectly – “The future is right here. It's dirty and a little scary.” It would be interesting to return in ten years to see if there's anything left I recognize.