Day I – March 25, 2018
I arrived in Shanghai, China on a grey afternoon. To my dismay, the city that greeted me was very grey and humid. There were no fluffy clouds or a blue sky. In fact, I could not make out a single cloud formation.
I wondered why at least 40% of women I saw sported a mask. And I knew what my friends in China and dozens of journalists meant when they described China’s pollution. It is a disease that plagues every major city, and Shanghai, being one of the wealthiest cities in China is not exempt from the battle with smog. Being a brave soul, I did not think the pollution would bother me quite as much, and I secretly thought people looked ridiculous wearing a mask. The only people who should ever don a mask are nurses and doctors.
The signs of congestion were already on display at PVG or Pudong Airport (an airport built in Pudong, a newly developed area outside of Shanghai’s core. This airport did not exist on my last trip to China when I was very young. And Pudong was just farmland). There was little parking space, and any moment, I thought our car was going to be scratched. It was competition for the very limited space in a tiny parking lot. Are the Chinese aware that the bigger the airport is, the more parking is required?
Surprisingly, Chinese people, as I later learned, love driving large cars – the kind reserved for families of 2.5 kids and a dog in North America. And that also answered my question of why almost every Audi sedan that passed by me on the highway was an “L” version, whether Audi A5 or Audi A6. I don’t think I ever saw an “L” version in Canada. And there are lots and lots of Audis. Everyone and their mother drives an Audi. Two of my cousins drive an Audi.
I was very exhausted by the end of the day but I had to look my best to meet with my Chinese relatives, including first and second cousins. The hotel I stayed at is supposed to be among the 5-star hotels but Wi-fi was spotty and was generally unreliable so I switched to my data plan. Seriously, I am on China Mobile 4G and I have never ever owned a data plan in Canada. I thought having a GPS in real-time was quite cool, and I vowed that I would go home and get a data plan.
Day II – Monday, March 26, 2018
Shanghai is literally an international city. On any major street, the pedestrians are a rich ethnic mix – Chinese, Japanese, Caucasians, Middle Easterners, Africans and Indians. Isn’t this the type of mix you’d expect in Toronto?
Although non-Chinese are still a visible minority, there is an increasing international presence. The city of Shanghai in 2018 is a cosmopolitan city that attracts millions to come study and work. My hotel is a microcosm of the diversity of Shanghai. There are students, professors and business people from all over the world. One moment, I was dining with Japanese business people and next minute, I found myself at a buffet table with Harvard art history students. And English is the lingua franca among the non-Asians. I’ve always wondered how we have all found our way to this city. What makes Shanghai so fascinating? Is it because of the abundance of entrepreneurial opportunities? And other goodies waiting for career-oriented young people to explore? I think it’s a mix of factors. One thing for sure is that smart entrepreneurs have staked out their claims in this formidable consumer market.
My morning was spent exploring the parts of the city near my hotel. What struck me was how clean the city looks despite the grey layer of smog hovering above the city. And it is only March, when people in Toronto are still bundled up in their Canada Goose parkas. And the city works hard at maintaining this image by the sheer number of maintenance workers it employs to clean the streets. Maintenance workers are easily identified by their blue uniform with green stripes. They have become an integral part of Shanghai. Shanghai owes its cleanliness to these workers.
By mid-day, I was on my way to pay respects to my two deceased grandmothers on the outskirts of Shanghai. Their ashes are buried in a garden which has been divided into sub-gardens, each named after a tree. The entrepreneurialism of Shanghai does not end where the rural area begins. On my way into the garden, there were men and women standing close to the entrance, not to protect the souls of the dead, but to hawk their floral creations to families of the deceased. I was not sure whom to do business with since the flowers were indistinguishable between vendors. My journey to locate my two grandmothers’ grave stones was a challenge. On my attempt to locate the first grandmother, I searched rows and rows of grave stones but to no avail, and next thing I knew I was left standing alone in the middle of a grave yard with the sun beating down on me. It felt like 30C in late March. I became anxious as I read the markings on the grave stone of a stranger for the millionth time – a man who died way too young, but I couldn’t find my grandmother. I was nervous but also sad that one day, all of us will end up in one of these places whether in China or somewhere else. The thought of being all alone in a grave yard in an unfamiliar country sent chills through my spine. It was also at this time that I realized that China was running out of space for its dead, so much that they have to pack them up like sardines. What a way to memorialize the dead when even your grandmother’s remains have to fight with other grandmothers’ for precious space. By the way, the second grandmother was a breeze to locate. At least I was not left alone in the grave yard.
I also had the opportunity to visit a small city called Jiaxing about 1 hour southwest of Shanghai. Like Shanghai, traffic is also a bottleneck. The motor scooter is also popular means of transportation. The city has had a makeover since my last visit. It has become a hot manufacturing center in Zhejiang province. As I got deeper into the city ready to have lunch, I found myself dealing with a problem. Shall I say, a first world problem. I had never thought of myself as a spoiled brat until I realized that there are only squat toilets in Jiaxing. Plus, customers were expected to bring their own toilet paper in some cases. The women’s washroom attached to Wal-Mart (seriously, a Wal-Mart except all signs are in Chinese) was unlike anything I had encountered even in the most unsanitary of all washrooms in Canada. A family friend confirmed that this was not the worst of sanitation problems in China. Sometimes, you can tell a lot about a society’s progress by the cleanliness of the washrooms. Let’s say amidst the soaring economic growth, China left behind its washrooms … in the Mao era or perhaps even in the Qing dynasty. The sanitary condition in some of these washrooms is better left to the imagination of the reader. What does it say about China’s progress in the last 20 years? Regardless, I found the people of Jiaxing to be very down-to-earth, a small-town type of kindness. But please, do something about your washrooms! Not every trip to Jiaxing has to end with a North American tourist choosing between bursting their bladder or battling the terror of 19th century sanitary conditions.
Day III – Tuesday, March 27, 2018
If you had asked me 20 years ago about Pudong, I would have looked at you blankly in the eye. What is Pudong? I would have thought. It’s just another piece of farmland in the middle of nowhere; it’s part of Shanghai but not really part of Shanghai. Fast forward to 2018, Shanghai’s main international airport is situated in Pudong. Pudong has become a healthcare hub where multinational companies have found their home. Condo development has also turned Pudong into one of the most livable and lucrative areas in Shanghai. One will find plenty of greenspace. There is a waterfront park where residents walk their dogs and teenagers compete in basketball. By the way, basketball is huge in Shanghai. In one park, there are two basketball courts, where teenage boys gather to take a break from their stressful academics. And when I turn on the TV in the morning, the sports channel is airing Cleveland Cavaliers game and of course the camera was focused on Lebron James.
Elsewhere in Pudong are plenty of shopping centers, restaurants, hotels and office buildings. One of my grad school friends is currently working in the Citi Bank building for a management consulting firm. William, being originally from Taipei, has found his new home in Shanghai where he has had first hand experience with the opportunities available in the fast-growing city.
The day spent in Pudong was hot and humid. My family did a 4km trek around the waterfront taking in the view of Shanghai from the other side of Huangpu Jiang. It was not long before it was dinner time. We chose a restaurant in one of the biggest shopping centers in Pudong. It was a time to catch up with family. It was also in that restaurant that I learned that many Chinese places do not accept credit cards such as Master Card or American Express. I was told that I had to either pay with cash or swipe with AliPay or WeChat. A lesson well learned. When in China, you have to be as technologically advanced as the Chinese. Needless to say, the Chinese are leaps and bounds ahead of us in their technology savvy. Cash is nearly obsolete in China.
Day IV – Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Another long day on my feet. The day was spent with cousin #4, one of few cousins remaining in China. The girl has grown into an articulate young woman. Working in fashion branding has turned her into a de facto model for her brand. I am still not entirely sure what she does but it involves attending fashion shows and mingling with people who want to explore the Chinese market. The day started with a tour of a quaint little shopping district in Shanghai (Tianzifang), spanning about 6 laneways consisting of shops selling everything from traditional Chinese trinkets to all sorts of fancy Chinese snacks. My mom’s first impression is: “Karen, does this remind you of Motomachi in Japan”? I barely remembered Motomatchi but it’s also a little secluded shopping district that attracts tourists and natives alike in the middle of Tokyo. Tianzifang can be traditional but also modern. It has plenty of traditional Chinese teas, scarves, cosmetics worn by women at the turn of 20th century. Modern in the sense that it has plenty of coffee shops, and restaurants catering to every taste. Tianzifang also brings memories of Rue du Petit Champlain, a European-style shopping strip in the heart of Quebec City surrounding the majestic Chateau Frontenac. It was also here in Tianzifang that I also learned of the chummy relations between China and Russia. This political statement appeared at none other than an innocent ice cream shop. The entrance to the ice cream shop was adorned with a poster of Vladimir Putin tasting a Russian-style ice cream. For some reason, I shelled out 30RMB for a Russian strawberry cone. My cousin explained that it’s because of China’s frosty relations with US right now that Putin is being glorified in China, even if it’s only in an ice cream poster.
The shopping expedition ended with drinking soya milk with my cousin, just relaxing our feet after a long day in the heat. Can you believe it’s almost 30C in March? She was very keen on practicing her English with me. We later took the train to where our grandparents used to live and spent the entire afternoon exploring old neighborhoods, the type that represents Old Shanghai.
This was also the day I got a chance to ride Shanghai’s subway. To my pleasant surprise, the subway is very clean, and generally very quiet since most people are plugged into their smartphones anyway. I did notice that women in Shanghai are very trendy, and way dressier than their North American counterparts. For me, a shopping trip to the mall consisted of donning a baggy sweater and a pair of jeans. Mind you, I’ve never taken care of my appearance to the extent that these Shanghainese girls do. But some girls look like they are ready for the night club anytime of the day.
I thought today was among the most tiring. At night, we were again invited to dinner with relatives. This time near the Shanghai Bund. The restaurant is located on a rather shabby street; in terms of cosmetics, it’s a world away from the glamorous Shanghai a few streets away. The glamor of Shanghai took my breath away at night. But I looked around me and saw a sea of people. China is known for its 1.3 billion population but it seems like Shanghai has absorbed the majority. It is a city that never sleeps. It seems like there are more people at night than during day time. The Chinese work long hours by the way.
Day V – Thursday, March 29, 2018
Expat and Expat
I had never in my wildest imagination thought I would meet up with a high school classmate of mine, whom I had not seen since at least since the dawn of the century. Nicole, one of the most outgoing girls who didn’t travel in the same social circles as I did, has always been somebody I look up for her vivaciousness, and her ability to make friends wherever she goes. She was on the student council and was a host of morning announcements. Is there any wonder she went into broadcasting? She came to pick me up in the morning; and her chauffeur drove us to Ferguson Lane, a well frequented area known for its coffee shops and a patio. I thought I could talk forever with her to reminisce the high school years and the people who came and left our lives – people whom we thought were friends are no longer friends and teachers who have left teaching or passed away. She also spoke of the challenges she has had being a kid of mixed-race and giving up her career to follow her husband overseas. Through Nicole, I really learned that everyone has a story; behind every smile is a long story, a period of struggle.
Oh how time flies. She is happily married with two kids, living the expat life. As an expat and the wife of an employee in a major multinational company, life has treated her well. The company pays for housing, children’s tuition fees and a personal driver, and life in general is pleasant. I thought I would like to give this kind of life a try. I speak the language. Trust me, my Chinese has served me well in China. I understand the culture, so why not? In the 5 years she has lived here, she has become more Chinese than some of the locals. Nicole has a natural affinity for people and I am not surprised she is so well adjusted in Shanghai. It was such a pleasure to see her again, in the most unlikely of places on Earth. We both went to school together and did not live that far from each other geographically. Why didn’t our paths cross again in Toronto but we ended up meeting in People’s Republic of China like over a decade later? I don’t know. It is one of those mysteries of life.
Nicole dropped me off at the Shanghai Propaganda museum. I took a tour of the display of posters, slogans and Communist literature from the Mao days. Why is this museum buried in a residential basement? I have no idea since it is a pro-Communist organization. If anything, it should be proud of its message, right? Lenin would be very happy to be exposed to daylight. If Nicole had not told me, I would have totally missed this gem of a tourist attraction. I did notice that the tourists were 100% Caucasian speaking different European languages. I counted myself as a foreigner anyway since China’s obsession with propaganda is very new to me. Although I was born in China, I was too young to remember all the government propaganda, which I hear has increased in intensity under President Xi, China’s new President for Life. Still, the same type of slogans that defined the Cultural Revolution can still be found on city streets, but adapted for the 21st century. There is something called “China’s Dream” that proliferates the streets of Shanghai. Essentially, it’s a message from Xi Jinping to stand up for China; the common thread that binds all Chinese citizens is China’s dream. As somebody who grew up in the West, I cannot comprehend how one party can hold such a strong grip on a nation without consequences. But then, what consequences? What opposition parties are there in a place like China?
The day ended with a tour of Zhujiajiao – a beautiful water town on the outskirts of Shanghai. It is a village known for its stone bridges and rivers. There are many shops along the river banks. Restaurants, snack stands, and vendors displaying a diverse array of Chinese snacks from Haw Flakes, soft sesame biscuits to pork jerky and a huge variety that is available only in China. For about an hour, I could not believe there were actually people living in this village. The housing looks even more dilapidated than what I saw in older parts of Shanghai. But surprisingly, there are families and kids being raised in this pretty water town. Life goes on. They make their living by selling snacks, beers and arts and crafts to tourists from all over the world. We meet people in the most mysterious ways.
Day VI – Friday, March 30, 2018
On the highway leading from Shanghai City into Zhejiang province, I realized that China is not just a large auto market, but a diverse auto market. While German cars are still leading (Audi, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and there are lots of them) the way, there are also a number of car models built in China. Names such as Geely, Biyadi, and Trumpchi are not household names, but they are symbols of Chinese pride. Other foreign models, which I have not heard of up until now, are Rowe of the UK, and Skoda Octavia of Slovakia etc. Of course, there are a number of new Maserati and Tesla owners. Driving on the highway felt like being a part of international auto show. Cars are status symbols in China! Sometimes, people even drive their Porsche Panameras on the sidewalk to take a shortcut. In summary, the Chinese have become sophisticated consumers, and being the second largest economy in the world has exposed the Chinese to forces of capitalism beyond their wildest imagination. But as my photos show, it is capitalism mixed with state intervention. President Xi’s Soviet-Style sloganeering perhaps has had a lot to do with improving people’s attitude and confidence as citizens of China; they now have a place in the world from an emerging economy to the second biggest in the world.
I once again returned to Jiaxing to visit my grandfather in the hospital. After bidding farewell, I was on my way to one of the most beautiful places in China – Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. The city is known as the “garden city”. The city is remarkably clean. And of course, no trip to Hangzhou is complete without a visit to West Lake, a region that goes back centuries to Ancient China. A walk along the lake has a way to de-stress you. The past few months at work have been the most stressful yet, and I thought a trip to China would be a stress-reliever, and I came to the right place. Although physically I was tired from walking so much, mentally I was at my most calm. The trek around West Lake transported me back to Ancient China. And interestingly, there is a costume service at West Lake that allows tourists to try on ancient Chinese costumes to take pictures at West Lake. I didn’t have the time or interest but it is an interesting service. West Lake will forever be associate with Ancient China. It makes me want to explore the history of Ancient China more every day. It is unfortunate that I am leaving China tomorrow. But the memories of these 5.5 days will last forever. I will miss the car rides that put my life in danger. I will miss the scooter drivers who nearly run me over. The WeChat conversations and messages I have sent to my relatives. The high school classmate I met up with in Shanghai, who is now on her way to Manchester, England to start another expat life. I will miss the convenience of choosing from a variety of delicious Chinese eats, and of course the soupy xiaolongbao. I will miss my Chinese cousins. Despite my short stay, we renewed our affection and respect for each other and how much we will mean to each other for the rest of our lives. The pleasant little surprises that China brought me each day.
Whenever or wherever I return in China, China has opened my eyes to a different world from my sheltered existence in Canada. I have a newfound appreciation for China and how far it has come since the Mao days. In Canada, we hear only one side of the story about China but China is a very complex society that takes time for people to absorb. It is far from ideal, or at least what we in the West believe is the ideal path forward for China. But China is to be judged in its own right because it has chosen a different path that not every Western country will find palatable. It is also a country with a unique history.