“THIS PLACE IS MORE AMERICAN than America,” I observe candidly to my student minder on the taxi ride toward downtown Shanghai, sorely sleep-deprived following my 13-hour flight from New York. “It makes Manhattan look provincial.” One’s first sighting of Shanghai is unforgettable. Perhaps nowhere else in the world today does one find such a massive concentration of concrete high-rise structures, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of these distinctly unsightly edifices have been built over the last 20 years. With its 20 million-plus inhabitants, Shanghai is the metropolis of the future — and it is already here. Along with it come all the joys of the 21st-century urban experience: smog, pollution, overcrowding, and epic traffic jams. Whatever one’s destination, one always needs to depart an hour early to account for traffic.
As it turns out, my unscripted initial words would return to haunt me. Two days later, I unthinkingly repeat them in the course of an interview with a journalist from the Oriental Morning Post. To my chagrin, he and his editor decide to use them as the interview’s headline.
China and the Chinese display a profound ambivalence toward modernity and all that it entails. On the one hand, they are extraordinarily proud of all that their nation has accomplished over the last 30 years. At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China was still a predominantly rural-agrarian society. The post-Maoist leadership is credited with lifting 400 million peasants out of poverty. By the same token, most Chinese I spoke with had strong reservations about the accelerated pace of modernization, which allows little time to savor the virtues of traditional of Chinese life: family, community, and nature.
In preparation for the 2010 World Expo (a massive international trade show; in its waning days, prospective visitors waited up to five hours to be admitted), Shanghai underwent a major facelift. The subway line was extended, roadways improved, and taxi drivers encouraged to learn a smattering of English. (Or so I am told. I see no first-hand evidence of this during my four-day stay in the city.) According to my student guide, Jing-jing, one of the most welcome repercussions of the civic renewal campaign is having dissuaded Shanghai’s less affluent denizens from making their daily rounds in their pajamas — a traditional Chinese habitude that, in major cities, is rapidly disappearing.
I ask Jing-jing how the remarkable Shanghai construction boom was accomplished. The crews work 12-hour days, she informs me, weekends included. I then ask how she spends her weekends. “We don’t have any weekends,” she responds matter-of-factly. I don’t doubt her for a minute, so keen is the national will to modernize, to catch up with and surpass the West.
In Shanghai, I reside at East China Normal University, just south of downtown. The campus is a miniature Shangri-La. The grounds...read more