May 4, 2008

Shanghai: First Impressions of the Middle Kingdom

For Japan's spring holidays, Kori and I went to China. I'm still in China as I write this, actually, at a hostel in Xian. This is just my first post about the trip.

The street near our hostel was a well-used one. It seemed to be near a residential district and a local shopping area. The initial impression that I got was one that was in accord with my preconceived notions about what China would be like: Old motorbikes with bits and things tied to the back, vendors of street food with their stalls awash in smoke. A grey sense of smog, myriad smells mixing. And everywhere, the sound of car horns punctuating itself through a wall of ambient noise.

This was the China that I (I'm reluctant to admit) imagined. I imagined poverty, disorder, and an assault of sounds and smells. I imagined crumbling, Maoist era apartments and faceless bits of Communist style architecture. I knew, of course, that this was not all that China had to offer. I knew that the decimation of the Cultural Revolution was something of the past, that China is rapidly climbing out of poverty, that it is "Communist" now mostly in a nominal sense. But nevertheless, my expectations persisted, a bit. And, walking out on that first Shanghai morning, they were confirmed, a bit.

China is still, it seems, full of poverty and smoke. There are indeed crumbling apartments and Communist monuments. But I'd find far more than just that.

We made our way to the downtown area and began to stroll around a bit. Here, my preconceived notions began to fall apart. Of course, I knew that Shanghai was a rapidly developing city and filled with all kinds of consumerism. The main boulevard from People's Square was lined with all manner of stores and buyables, the trappings of capitalism extending outward from a park with an obviously Communist moniker.

Walking about, I was impressed by the number of hawkers and scammers who approached us. I'm going to talk about the hawkers specifically in my next post. The scammers, though, I was sort of surprised by. Not because they existed (Kori and I had done a bit of research beforehand on common scams in China), but because they were all running the same scam. Groups of young people would approach us and, in English, say hello, ask where we were from, and then announced that they were art students.

To the best of my knowledge, here's how the scam works: Seemingly friendly young people walk up to tourists, tell them that they're art students and are having an "exhibition." If you go along with them, they take you to a room where they show you some cheap reproductions, and then essentially hold you captive while they force you to buy a reproduction for some ridiculous amount of money.

This sounds like a viable scam, really. A few of the "students" really did seem like they were just being friendly, and had I not been acquainted with the scam ahead of time, I may very well have wound up in a dicey situation. One instance really surprised me: We'd gone into a department store to use the bathrooms. I was waiting on a bench for Kori when this girl started talking to me and about a minute later metioned that "art student" thing. I was surprised that even at department store bathrooms, these people are at work. I guess it makes sense- bathrooms are a high-traffic area. But again, I was seriously surprised that they all seemed to be running the same game. Surely enterprising scammers could think up something else.

We walked about, made our way to the Bund and back to People's Square, and I had bubble tea for the second time in my life and decided that, this time, I liked it. Inevitably, we couldn't help but compare the place to Tokyo. Shanghai is another large Asian city, and seeing the familiar, semi-readable Chinese characters on everything made the signage and labels of the place seem a bit less foreign. The city, though, seemed far more relaxed than Tokyo. Few places, can hope to match the hectic spirit of Japan's capital, and that's probably a good thing. The whole place was louder, dirtier, and for those odd reasons, seemingly calmer than Tokyo.

I can understand (sort of) why some Japanese claim that they dislike China. I don't want to give their ethnocentricism, however mild a form it might take, any credence, but Shanghai seemed like precisely that place that would intimidate and muddle many of the people I've met back in Japan. Kori told me that one of her friends called it the "home-schooled country," and I think that's amusingly accurate. Japanese seem very comfortable and safe inside Japan, where their own rules and language rule the day. The outside, though, is often referred to as dangerous or intimidating. And, it is. Shanghai did seem dangerous, and did intimidate me. But I liked that. Living in Narita is very comfortable, and sometimes I feel like I'm going a little soft. Being in Shanghai jolted me out of that, and I liked it. Stepping among dirt and noise and contradictions reminded me that I'm not soft, that I don't need or want to be coddled.

One of my favorite quotes (if you'll permit me a geeky moment) is from Star Trek. Q says at one point, "It's not safe out there, Jean-Luc. It's wondrous." Being away from the hyperconvenient, sometimes mechanistically orderly world of Japan, I was reminded how much I value that sentiment.

I'm not able to upload pictures right now, but those will be forthcoming, as will more about the trip.


Sydney said...

I have a totally irrational fear of traveling to China. Well, "fear" might be overstating my case a bit. But it's just not on my list of places I really want to visit. I can't tell if this is a form of racism or not. I'm not comfortable with the idea of traveling somewhere where I can't read the signs. Even though I don't speak Polish, I could learn the spelling for words like "hotel" and "restaurant" and easily recognize them even if I couldn't pronounce them. Same for any language written in the Cyrillic or Greek alphabets. But Chinese... I'm sure I could learn some basic characters, but I don't understand how they're put together or pronounced. And the phonetic system is filled with non-Western sounds: retroflex fricatives and diphthongs, strange alveolo-palatals, syllable-level tonal inflection. I don't know why this bothers me so much. Well, theoretically bothers me, as I've never put it to the test. It's so cool to hear about China from your perspective! I love that the recognizable characters make it feel more familiar. Can you believe how much your experience of the world has changed in just 19 months?

Joseph said...

So does this mean I'm not going to get that replica Van Gogh you promised me?