Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shanghailights: Part III


“It’s like a farmers’ market!” My mother yelled ecstatically as she sank into a quicksand-like crowd. Grabbing for her hand, I pulled her out of the baked goods section of Shanghai Foods and navigated away from the throng.

Shanghai Foods, the giant expo center of treats set a few hundred yards from where my mother and I stayed in the city, is set up much like a department store, but without room to try out the goods. Apart from mounds of ‘by the kilogram’ goodies, schools of ‘has been’ fish and items marked International Goods (an aside: if Chinese grocery stores were the main authority on the international community, one would think that the only foods available outside of China are coffee and chocolate. Amazingly, the world subsists), Shanghai Foods plays host to a bustling cafeteria set apart from the grocery foods. After perusing a selection of meat buns varying enough to rival Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., we found a dumpling restaurant in the cafeteria and I ordered my mother a plate of them. I am yet to become a connoisseur of Chinese food, but I figure that if the girls working at Pizza Hut came to eat lunch there openly, the dumplings must have been comparatively good. We sat with an ABC Chinese, finished our meal, and went to explore The Bund.

Foreign influence in China is best expressed by The Bund’s skyline. A fascinating stretch of embassies and economic edifices, The Bund follows alongside the RIVER as a symbol of international intellectual colonialism. Over the past few hundred years, foreigners have taken over Shanghai and then been ‘beaten at their own game.’ In an effort to take back their pride, the Shanghai government funded various projects allowing the Chinese to technologically advance further in fields created by foreigners, as with skyscrapers. In sincerely hope that the purpose of the skyline is to attract foreign capital to the city as it is prestigious in the public eye, rather than to simply create reason for pride—the Chinese might be winning at a foreign-created game, but they’re letting foreigners dictate the rules of the game by agreeing to play it. In my opinion, Shanghai is like a beautiful celebrity who’s gotten significant plastic surgery—she’s still pretty, but there’s something off and unnatural about her. How could China modernize without Westernizing? In China’s eyes, according to the books we’ve read, China modernizing is a means to soft power, which is a means to hard power. If China has what the international community wants, then it will command respect, and only then will it be able to dictate rules to a new game that plays by China’s rules. In the book What Does China Think?, the author sets up an analogy called ‘The Village of Zebras’ which further explains this style of thinking, whereby a rising power masques something new with something old and gradually replaces what’s old with what’s new as people get used to it. Although the analogy relates mainly to styles of economic development rather than urban and cultural development, it seems like it would be a good way to gain the respect of the international community. You have to play the game before you can rewrite it. ANYWAYS, my mother and I traveled along The Bund as tourists principally, appreciating rather than assessing the ‘authenticity’ of the view.

That night, we found dinner at Xintiandi, a renovated beauty of a shopping district made out of the dilapidated remains of sikumen houses. Rather than demolish the relics of the past, Shanghaiese contractors salvaged the sikumen and gave them new life. In an essay I wrote for class, I expressed how it was sad that the sikumen were only deemed worthwhile if they could be made utilitarian, but in a land where land itself is scarce, things really do need to have utility to remain.

The next day, we strapped on our fanny packs and set off on foot to find the Copy Market, Shanghai’s ‘secret’ five-story celebration of copyright infringement. The bazaar, hidden in a building marked ‘Korea Market,’ plays host to kiosk after kiosk of scarves emblazoned with Hermess, Yevs Sante Lawrent Type purses, and native Shanghaiese who, speaking broken English, drag you up all four floors to their hidden rooms of belts and then accost you for wasting their time and making them vulnerable to police and they need you, pretty lady, to survive (guilt tripping tactics times a million) when you tell them you’ll ‘come back later.’ After a billion hours, my mother and I came away with various scarves, bags, backpacks, belts, wallets, new Chinese vocab words (courtesy of one seller who, seeing that I was actually trying to learn her language, helped me learn obscure colors), and tougher skin—appealing to emotions is part of the transaction, and you can’t let that affect you if you want to get a good price. We finished the day with a stroll around Beijing and a trip to the Good Fragrance Restaurant, a ‘Florida Gothic’ style establishment reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The food was awesome, a wedding was going on, and a bellboy watched me attempt to eat a crab for about an hour. I was definitely getting used to eating outside of the cafeteria.

Our last day in Shanghai, we took in a leisurely breakfast, took another walk (this time knowing the city well enough not to inadvertently walk into an apartment complex), visited The Gap and picked up PANTS because it’s COLD in Shanghai, and then decided that we ought to take in a bit of culture via a trip to an exposition center. The SUPEC, or 上海城市规划展示馆 would give anyone a reason to like Shanghai. Decorated with giant sculptures and accolades, the brick ode to cityscape expansion and renovation soars skywards from its post in 人民公园 (People’s Park), celebrating the most efficient urbanization process in all of history. As I wandered its multiple floors of pristine halls, I wondered if it is too celebratory. The lack of critical exhibitions, paired with unfailing praise of the city’s efforts, give it a commercial edge rather than a purely historical one, and so I am questioning of my sources as objectively historical. Regardless of the promotional nature of the place, Ever since reading the book The Concrete Dragon by Thomas Campanella, a UNC Professor, I’ve been skeptical of Shanghai’s modern resplendence. Campanella calls the SUPEC “a symbol of triumph over the past and its humiliations” in a “reclaim[ed] city” but the city’s new architecture continues to be built in foreign fashion albeit sinofied; a style that requires using Western technology and Western design to promote a desired image, because what is Western seems to represent what is prosperous (as Mark Leonard writes in What Does China Think?, ‘the cult of the United States of America’ ). Like I wrote earlier, by insisting on ‘doing the West one better,’ I believe that China is foregoing its own ways of doing things and letting the West dictate what the game is. When I walked into the third floor of the center to see the Gastone Biggi exhibit—an exhibition of an Italian modern artist whose work, while impressive, had nothing to do with Shanghai or urban planning– I not only felt the idea that having Western accents was a plus in China, but truly understood the commonly held sentiment that Shanghai could have been built anywhere—anyone can show an international artist’s work, anywhere. Apart from an obscure modern art exhibit and pro-business jargon, the expo center has a floor celebrating Maoist society, a 1:120 replica of Shanghai that takes up an entire floor and uses about as much electricity to light up as a small American town, a 30 minute highly-advanced (read: green screen) film detailing the glorious history of Shanghai (with foreign actors and English subtitles! I’m pretty sure they want foreigners to read only the really simple stuff discussing how Shanghai has become awesome, because the stuff I actually wanted to read about was the stuff that wasn’t translated—I wonder what they’re keeping from me, with my lack of knowledge!), and, MOST surprisingly, an interactive children’s center encouraging people to design their own cities. One thing I’ve noticed about China is that people aren’t encouraged to debate, or create; they’re encouraged to memorize and further existing concepts. In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve technologically, however, maybe the government is pushing people to experiment and innovate, even if only in the context of a simple children’s digital game.

That evening, we returned to Xintiandi, packed up our bags, and readied ourselves to return home— er, to Xiamen.

I haven’t been writing much as I’m getting ready for midterms and presentations as well as partying with giant Montenegrins and a sizable delegation of other Eastern Europeans. I’ll try to write more soon, though!


Shanghailights: Part II


We woke up the next morning refreshed and with expectations of epic proportions for the day. However, it was the hordes of Chinese tourists that conveyed ‘epicness’ rather than our touristy conquests. An hour after leaving the hotel, we found ourselves taking refuge in the quiet and hallowed halls of a four-story Starbucks (星吧克), an Eastern shrine to Western prosperity. Just outside, half of the Chinese population grappled for space on a ferry for which space was limited and becoming flotsam was imminent. I had anticipated taking my mother ashore Gulangyu (鼓浪屿),but decided that my other family members would not look fondly upon my mother and I being asphyxiated against the flimsy walls of a Chinese ferry, and so grudgingly began brainstorming a Plan B. The building with the Starbucks, as a result of it being less of a tourist attraction than Gulangyu, was devoid of life.

While wandering a building quieter than a Chinese college library, we came across a wall-sized infographic discussing the history of tea in China. As I blatantly showed off my reading skills to my mother, a man in an apron descended upon our duo from the direction of an equally dead café. To my surprise, after introducing myself to him in Chinese, he began a conversation with my mother and I in fluent English. The man, whose name I am embarrassed to have forgotten, told us that the café had opened two weeks ago, and he had just come back to China after living in Miami for five years. Currently, the café employed three people—more people than would be dining there, including my mother and I. This realization brought with it a respite for me from ordering in Chinese and an opportunity for the both of us to monopolize an entire café staff’s attention.
While eating, my mother looked out the window with a look of amusement and disbelief.

“What’s up, Mom?”
“China is surreal.”
“How so?”
“I get a feeling here that I haven’t felt since visiting my grandparents in Florida when I was a little girl. It’s a sense of community and openness, I believe, that can only exist in places of homogeneous ethnic background. When everyone is old and Jewish, you know how to interact with people, and there’s a sense of trust and family. In China, because the people themselves are of the same lineage, everyone interacts with there guards down— there’s one way of life. Not only that, but China itself is surreally industrially and culturally reflective of America in the 1970’s—it physically looks like Florida and the people live like they do there, too.” Kinda Twilight Zone. “It doesn’t just remind me of what a homogeneous society acts like.” The afternoon was surprisingly productive, just not in the sense I thought it would be.

We went back to school by way of the beach, where my mother and I became the subject of a group of Chinese girls’ interest. While my mother expressed surprised delight at how giddy the girls were and how much they wanted to speak with us, I was jaded. I’d been in China long enough to know that it had nothing to do with me, but the fact that I was foreign; I’d been desensitized to people being surprised at my existence.

“I used to like getting my picture taken and feeling like a celebrity but it’s kind of unsettling now. I feel bad because it’s not even like I earned the attention. I want to just be left alone. And they’re always staring at me; I have nowhere to just be. I feel like they’re judging me.”
“Hannah, it might not be a big deal for you anymore to be here, but think about what we talked about earlier. What if you’d grown up in a society where everyone acted one way and looked one way, and one day, you saw a girl wearing different clothing and looking drastically different than yourself. You happen to have some skill in a language that would allow you to speak with her, but you don’t even know where to begin—how do you interact with something you don’t understand? Each time you meet someone here, there’s a chance that you as a foreigner are a rarity to them.
You’ve grown up in America, though, where political correctness exists to allow for different ways of life, and you’re used to living with people who don’t look and act like you. While being the only one who’s different a lot of the time was at one point reason for culture shock here, you’re even used to that now. Re-orient yourself to see just how amazing what you’re doing is! In the end, just because someone wants to approach you isn’t just about you doesn’t mean interaction can’t be interesting for you, and you’re not necessarily being judged. Just humor them.”

It really isn’t about me—it’s about differences between groups of people. I am an ambassador of culture—American, and Jewish. It is in the best interest of other members of my cultures to present myself as likeable and understanding. Moreover, a Chinese person looking at me is about curiosity, not necessarily judgment. Anyways, how can you judge something accurately or even know how to approach comprehending something if your judgment system might not even account for what you’re judging?

In the end, even if I’m feeling overwhelmed and jaded by other people’s shock, I have to remember that there’s a reason for that shock: it is somewhat about me. Not only am I different, but I’m doing something extraordinary all the time. I’m voluntarily living outside my comfort zone and expanding the comfort zones of others, just by being near them. I’m the foreigner doing that. I’m the foreigner who made the choice to study abroad. Simply by being brave enough (or crazy enough) to do that, to challenge myself to live like someone else, I’m a curiosity, as an individual. I did earn the attention.

Maybe getting my picture taken isn’t so bad.

Shanghailights: Part One

On October 7th, 2011, I officially boogied my two left feet into the realm of adulthood, earning my rights to both imbibe a half-glass of wine before ‘feelin’ it’ and tell children to do as I say, not as I do. My mother braved the wild world of Chinese air travel to mark the occasion, flying across the Pacific to spend a week with me. Unbeknownst to her, the reason that I happened to have time off on my birthday was not because the entire country was celebrating my milestone, but rather because it occurred within the timeframe of when the Communist Party likes to celebrate its own birth. Once a year, the Chinese are encouraged to take time out of snapping pictures of themselves wearing cowboy hats to do so in other areas of China during an event humorously titled National Day Holiday Week. The week long vacation is meant to encourage national tourism, thereby increasing both national pride and the profits of national businesses. More importantly for my mother and I, that meant that we would be fighting for foot space in Xiamen and Shanghai with the most ardent tourists China has to offer. Fanny packs packed and tourist maps at the ready, we accepted our challenge and embarked on a seven-day epic.
             We started simply; culture shock can hinder agreeable passing of vacation time. After waking up from my first full night’s sleep since coming to China, my mother and I left the hotel for a self-guided tour of my university. We survived our taxi ride (something you never, EVER take for granted), and began a walk that would end up being my mother’s introduction to my roommate and room (she brought us both vitamins), Chinese cafeterias (she made the wise decision to postpone {forever} eating there), and Chinese travel laws, or the lack thereof (I think she reprimanded herself internally for ever allowing me to cross the street by myself here, and made me promise never to walk into any street occupied by a bus- ambulating has become circuitous since). I ordered lunch for us in a family-run restaurant, which had the effect of turning my mother off of family-run restaurants. It should be noted that, while a menu’s language is translatable, its recipes and cooking styles might not be between cultures. After lunch, I attempted to redeem the laymen’s Chinese cuisine with a trip to see Zhongshanlu, or ‘Middle Mountain Road.’ Zhongshanlu is famous for it’s smorgasbord of live shellfish in tubs, dead shellfish in pans, and veritable harvest of exotic fruits. While we didn’t partake of street food (it’s not advisable to eat anything in China unless you’ve watched it be prepared), I did get a chance to exercise my Chinese abilities while shopping in the mall! We detoured at the hotel before trying out a famous Xiamen restaurant called Good Taste Restaurant, a locale we later learned traditionally caters to parties larger than your average football team. While full flocks of ducks were being devoured around us, we were having our purses awkwardly stowed underneath seat cushions and picking at our tamer Western portioned meals for our Western sized stomachs. We retired to our hotel with significantly more knowledge and, surprisingly, not significantly less cash—the exchange rate in China definitely suits the American pocketbook.

Kickin’ it Freestyle, Chica