Archive for July 2008

I’ve been Shanghaied … By Diane

July 22, 2008

In mid-June I visited my Chinese colleagues to help their business-in-infancy.  I arrived and followed greeting guards to the longest line I have ever stood in in my life.  No less than 500 people, all of whom needed to pass through one metal detector.  My first thought, thank God I have a muffin and something to read!  My second thought: how weird that they have all these “tell us how we’re doing” signs and rating cards all over the place.  Like you’re going to tell them, on arrival, their system needs an overhaul?  In a country that hangs almost as many people as Singapore?  Never mind.  Read, snack and wait.  Exiting the airport I was amused by the pile of cigarette lighters with the “one per person” sign.  Seems China is doing their best to give back to travelers.  If I was a smoker, after 1.5 hrs in line, I’d have grabbed two. 


The airport was sparkling clean and clearly getting ready for BIG things to come.  No less than 2 city blocks length of waiting drivers were outside the gate, (just think massive proportions in all things China)  but none holding a card with my name.  My guy apparently had his phone turned off and spaced it out.  That’s ok, because the taxi ride to the city will live in infamy and shame in my mind forever.  There was smog, haze, rain and cars looking like they’d spent the last 30 years in a dirty snow cave.  No joke, it was a white-out, with outside temps a balmy 75 degrees!  (How will I breathe?  Are shallow polluted breaths better than deep ones?) But breathing didn’t matter because I spent half the ride hiding in the back of the taxi, as my driver honked his way into Shanghai.  We pushed our way through the traffic and almost knocked a helmet-less couple with an infant squeezed between them on a motorbike into a ditch. They glared, I groaned.  We came so close to people I could read the labels on the t-shirts they had wrapped around their smoggy faces.  And then I realized we were driving on the right side of the road.  Had the colonists just given up on China all those years ago?  I would soon find out why. 


I stayed in a Japanese hotel in the French Concession area of Shanghai, just off THE main shopping avenue.  I’m tempted to say it looked like any modern Asian city but there were clear differences.  It’s a city FULL of bicycles.  Suits riding bikes.  Dresses riding bikes.  Businesses on two wheels:  noodle men, laundry ladies, water bottle delivery guys.  Bikes full of hoses.  Bikes with four people.  Bikes with cans of cooking oil obscuring the riders.  And just wait till you get to the intersection.  Traffic lights mean nothing and cars plow into groups of pedestrians trying to cross with the aid of the blinking green man.  I saw so many Chinese business men trying to safeguard their ex-pat colleagues across the street.  “Oh just ignore those cars, they’ll hit me before they knock you down, usually they just nudge you.”  My colleagues thought this observation most astute…


Speaking of observations, I was sure noticing an awful lot of men in Shanghai.  Where have all the women gone?  I soon realized it was best not to ask that question too loudly, because foot-binding was not the darkest chapter in Chinese history.  Girls from the outside the cities are in high demand, just to even out the marketplace and show that China is a modern business climate.  But there’s another even more fascinating sociological phenomenon going on.  The one-child policy (1979) has resulted in a society without siblings.  They lack the language of families and their lives are predicted and planned at birth.  They are called the Little Emperor generation – 2 parents, 4 grandparents and a whole lot of hope resting on one head of black hair.  They’re spoiled, wealthy (if they’re city-born) and breaking under the strain of trying to be the best, among peers doing the same.  Suicide rates are highest among people under 30.  And the one common thread they all have is the need to get married and have one child, preferably a boy.  Uh-oh. 


The architecture was marvelous and modern and ancient and mysterious.  Western choices abound in Shanghai, great wines and food are available everywhere, as is the cheapest, scariest looking morsels of who knows what.  They’re fashion freaks and it shows.  My guess is that I was there during “dressing blind” week.  I’ve never seen such clothes put together on one person and worn on days OTHER than Halloween.  And what’s with all the spitting?  I actually ducked once or twice, to avoid whatever was airborne.  I wondered if it was required to spit once a block?  Or maybe people were just getting rid of the solids they were breathing? I’m told the Chinese are famously filthy and that a trip to the countryside is beyond the imagination of most civilized folks.  Oh, now that’s something to look forward to.  The government is waging a “clean ourselves up” campaign to try to get people to put their best face forward during the Olympics.  They’re temporarily taking dog off the menu, attempting smoking “sections” and giving out free tissues to pedestrians.  Okey-dokey.


In short, though this wasn’t short enough, I was fascinated with the visit.  I have never wanted to visit China and now I am intrigued enough to go back.  My hotel alone was an oasis of comfort:  lemongrass-infused towels, peeled apples floating in ginger water, a heated toilet seat with built-in bidet and pressure washer (ok – that was fun AND funny) and the most exotic breakfast buffet I have ever witnessed.  But outside that marble palace people were living VERY differently.  A colleague’s friend told me he moved three times in the first year, to different apartments in Shanghai, before he figured out that the water goes brown and cloudy several times a week all over the city. 


Brown and cloudy water is rarely a good sign.