China -- Beijing & Shanghai
April 5-13, 2001

-- A Class Based Society?
-- The Expat Life
-- A Modern Western City
-- The Shanghai Life

[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 eiry. 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 it's 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.

-- A Class Based Society?

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. here, as everyone was chinese (and admittedly ethnically and regionally undiscernable 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 weatherbeaten 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. and 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.

-- The Expat Life

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 corp.) luxury apartments, cars, and private drivers. at night we went to expat bars and more funky/cool scenes of the more priviledged -- 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 streetsweeper 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, and yet quite a few people would remark that there were also others that were here seemingly 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 priviledge 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 really 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.

-- A Modern Western Styled City

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).

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 close at 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 3:30am in the morning darkness and finding hot dog and street art venders on every other block, and work crews planting trees, repairing the 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. and what 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 appelation 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!! [also recently found a shanghai stall in Hong Kong on Caine Road across from Mannings.]

-- The Shanghai Life

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 my ex-girlfriend 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.

Although the nightlife/club scene in Shanghai seemed strictly for the weekends, and unfortunately 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 cuisines, 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 sense"; 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, as it has much more than its fair share of beautifully tall and skinny chinese girls with long silky hair almost everywhere you look. i think i better start learning to speak shanghainese... nung hao vela!

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