Apr. 5-13Beijing & Shanghai
Nighttime view of Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV tower, the third highest building in the world.
After about a week in mainland China, I am finally accepting the fact that I am actually here! When I was in Beijing, every other reflective moment, I would think, "I can’t believe I’m here in Beijing!" It took me about three full days to accept the fact. And on the morning of the fourth, I woke up and realized that I was indeed actually here.
The first thing that struck me in Beijing, was how different it was from my preconceived notion of what Beijing would be like. It could have been the time of day, but flying into Beijing was a little eerie. Hardly any vehicles (hardly any = 1 or 2 at a time; vehicles = small cars and more likely bicycles/push carts) were on the roads, and the airport was deserted.
I expected to see a sea of people everywhere. But what was so strange was that the city was nothing like that at all. Beijing is so spread out that its 12 million people (NYC is about 8 million I think) don’t really feel like 12 million. Each city “block” was more like 10 to 15 NYC city blocks, and so a few blocks on the map could end up taking hours to walk! And although this was a big city, it felt somewhat surprisingly more safe and ordered than most of the Western cities I know.
Another sense that jarred my mind a little was the fact that there seemed to be much more of a class-based sense of societal structure than I was prepared for.
In America, we are used to immigrants who often fill the ranks of the most undesired jobs. However, it is always seemingly with the proviso that one day, or at least in the next generation, those same immigrants will rise to whatever station they are able and willing to work toward.
In Beijing, as everyone was Chinese (and admittedly ethnically and regionally indiscernible to me), I was struck by the sense that there was here indeed a sense of class structure. And impeccable-white gloved service was quite a juxtaposition to the disheveled, dirty, and weather-beaten workers who were pushing hand-carts laden with everything from refuse to other people. If this was communism, what were things like before communism had arrived? I started to think: in a more class-based society, what rationale would stop some from acting on their envious thoughts of not having what others, whom they saw every day, did enjoy? And was this not just a rotation of power-elites as described by sociologists like Peter Berger and others, albeit after a certain more widely based redistribution of property?
While I viewed China as a tightly controlled society, I was also struck by the seeming fact that even this government could not control everyone. Not every business deal and not every hustler could be tracked by a central government. So over 10-20 years after the cultural revolution, these first business dealers, and next the progeny of those in governmental control, would be able to benefit and accumulate enormous wealth.
Although I did try to go out and see the “real” city myself, as I was staying with expat friends most of what I saw of Beijing life was really the expat life, which had it’s own interesting reality: the controlled Lao-Wei communities, MNC (multi-national corporation) luxury apartments, cars, and private drivers.
At night we went to expat bars and more funky/cool scenes of the more privileged a mix of expat & Chinese nationals. I did see a number of monuments and pretty city sights, but I really liked being able to have this glimpse of an “actual” life in Beijing (albeit the expat life). That was more interesting for me than all the monuments and the great wall (e.g. I never did go back to the Forbidden City after I got there, just before it closed.).
Two things that I would think about constantly were (1) what would it be like to work and to live here now if I moved from NYC, and (2) what would my life be like now if I were born here, rather than a world apart in Manhattan and Westchester? Would I have been rich or poor? A street-sweeper? Or in the army?
Being in a tightly controlled foreign country presented an interesting dichotomy among expats. Here were a host of some of the most interesting and cultured people we would have known from school, who might have studied east Asian and Chinese studies, yet quite a few people would remark that others here seemingly were here because they couldn’t make it back home, and upon somehow ending up on this side of the world, stayed here, aided by a sense of privilege as only a Western income in a non-Western economic country could offer.
Given that, the expat bars were almost exclusively what I would think of as NYC upper-east side jock and dive bars, with a few minimalist and uber-hip establishments as an exception. But how was that really different from New York, except in number? Really I was impressed with the existence of a relatively cool scene with some of the latest music.
The one thing that disappointed me in Beijing was the food, and although I cannot say from being there for only four days, even the Beijing duck, which was definitely the best food I had while in Beijing, was not that much better from the best of what I was used to in NYC, although thankfully it was much cheaper. (Admittedly, I am always looking to be blown away, and that is probably a little unrealistic.) Yet, there were also very pleasant surprises, like the lasagna and the outdoor afternoon brunch at The Den, the current center of the late-night scene.
In contrast, Shanghai, although seemingly similar in the basic underpinnings of Chinese society, has been so different. While Beijing felt so permanent, so much more controlled, and as deterministically drawn out as its avenues (as an extension of a several-thousand year dynastic tradition would warrant), Shanghai seems to be so much more about the impermanence of life, and thus the need to live life for all it is worth before it ends suddenly almost more close to a sense of living each day as if it were your last.
Even driving into the city from the airport, I was struck by the sense that Shanghai was so much more a modern, Western-styled city, and so much more capitalist in a Western sense. Here were so many more high-rise buildings, fewer bikes and more cars, a sea of neon as well as a host of more subtle commercial signs of popular “consumerism”, and a skyline of construction cranes and a perma-haze of gritty construction dust and debris (as opposed to, I think, outright exhaust pollution as in Bali, and the ultra-dry air in Beijing).
Surprisingly, as Shanghai is so much more developed, there is less contrast to the haves and the have-nots in this city. I was also struck by the fact that people always seemed to be working in Shanghai. It was normal for all stores to be open until 10pm. Street stands seemed to be open into the wee hours of the morning, just as the next shift of workers were getting ready to start their early morning days. And work crews were ubiquitously working around the clock. It would be like leaving your apartment at 3:30 in the morning darkness, and finding hot dog and street art venders on every other block, and work crews planting trees, repairing underground water pipes, and resurfacing your sidewalks. It seemed immediately apparent that no one could fault Shanghai for not being industrious.
From my short four days in each city, Shanghai has also had much better food, even in dives and on the street. There was what one Boston native labeled “guotie” or fried “jiaozi” as “Peking Ravioli”? (i.e. those pot-sticker dumplings that I subsisted on in school and which I still crave! I hear that the local American appellation might have been due to restaurateur Joyce Chen). Guotie are a Shanghai tradition. And dumplings in the restaurants and on the street (their equivalent to hot dog stands) were the best I have ever had really dumpling heaven for me!! (I also recently found a Shanghai stall in Hong Kong on Caine Road across from Mannings.)
Living in Shanghai seems like living in any other cosmopolitan city like New York or Paris, however with several added accoutrements. I could definitely see myself living here for a while.
As an example, staying at the Grand Hyatt in the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong (meaning “east of the river” and the new center of finance and development in Shanghai) was quite an experience and easily the nicest hotel I have ever stayed in. Besides the amazing views of the Bund and the CCTV tower from the 3rd highest building in the world, service and details were impeccable. No wonder why a good friend was living here as a permanent guest.
Entering the hotel you floated quietly, surrounded by a host of service a different person each to open your taxi door, the doors to the hotel, several foyer greetings and the direction to the elevators, the elevator doors and the elevator button even, several more greetings arriving at the lobby on the 54th floor, etc. In short, if you wanted anonymity and the ability to do anything yourself, this hotel might not be for you.
Unfortunately the nightlife/club scene in Shanghai seemed strictly for the weekends, so as I was in Shanghai only during the week, I didn’t get to see many places fill up with too many people. However, what I did see was very promising and revealed a city as close to being hip as one would think of New York and Paris: a host of modern minimalist restaurants and cafes with the latest cuisine, and all the most fashionable boutiques from Paris, Italy and New York.
Some of my more memorable moments were from contrasts in culture: Arnold Schwartzeneggar saying “zaijian” in a dubbed version of the movie “The Sixth Day”; a man belching loudly in a crowded elevator without anyone (not even the women) batting an eye; as well as a family forced to leave their gritty three-room Nungtang alley-house, surrounded by the rubble of imminent development and surrounded by a sea of shiny new buildings.
One warning about Shanghai: if you a male, Western, or have any sense of an Asian fetish, Shanghai could be dangerous for you. Almost everywhere you look, Shanghai has much more than its fair share of beautifully tall and skinny Chinese girls with long silky hair. I think I better start learning to speak Shanghainese… nung hao vela!
Arriving in Hong Kong yesterday, it took me all evening to reorganize myself and resupply and repack my bags. I am from time to time physically and mentally exhausted. And I was definitely exhausted yesterday. Yet, the thrill of learning and experiencing new things also keeps me wanting more. Almost finished my taxes too, but I need to find a FedEx place to safely get them back to the US.
Hanging out with my Western friends, I have been spending too much money. Hopefully, I expect, I will spend considerably less on the next leg of my journey. And for those asking if I brought enough film, I shot about 60 rolls in Bali in a week, and 85 in Beijing and Shanghai. So I am actually going over my ration allotment!
On to Saigon and my first two-and-half-week planned tour! The planning has already been laid out by the tour operators, which will relieve some of the strain. However, being in a different city almost every day will also add considerable fatigue…
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