1. On the flight over I learned that ~80% of new elevators are going into China at the moment. The man to my right was a career Otis Elevator guy. He described supply chains that seamlessly meld the formal and informal economy. While their primary suppliers operate out of factories that would conform to any international norm, following the supply chain back just a few more steps has taken him to some interesting places. Small shops that, judging by his description, would fit right in with the metal-workers on the side of the street in Uganda. Also learned that shortest distance between Chicago and Shanghai traverses Alaska.
2. I was prepared to be immediately overwhelmed. While hardly a let down, I have been shocked by the lack of crowds. There’s been nothing that feels like the rush of New York, the traffic of Nairobi, the crowds of Rome, the energy of Istanbul, or the madness of Kampala. Multiple times I’ve looked at our guide and said, “soooo, where are all the people?” She promised that to see The Bund (river front) on a national holiday is to know what a million people really feels like. But even walking East Nanjing road (think of every bright-light post-card of Shanghai) on a Saturday night just didn’t feel that crowded.
3. I know nothing about tea. We haven’t done a proper sit-down in a tea house yet (the few we’ve seen looked like tourist traps), but a brief stop in a small shop made me realize that my tea habits fly in the face of most of the Chinese tea traditions. More on this later – definitely something I intend to explore in greater detail.
4. Ok, I also know nothing about China in general. I’ve realized that I might have known more about Kenya heading into my semester abroad than I did about China flying here a few days ago. Not sure which course in high-school was supposed to cover the Opium Wars and 20th century Chinese history, but I seem to have missed these chapters entirely. Shanghai was occupied by the British, French and US for 99 years? I feel like I should have known that. I’m slowly starting to piece together the narrative, and it’s fascinating in that in some ways it makes communism seem like a natural next step circa 1950.
5. Match making in People’s Square. There’s a photo that should be posted here, but that’s difficult at the moment, so just google it. Over-eager parents show up every weekend with one-page spec sheets of their child and look for appropriate matches. Apparently this just leads to first dates. It’s like Tinder sans photos, and your parents doing the swiping. According to Jean (our guide), if you lie about the looks of your offspring you’ll lose your reputation in the square.
6. We stayed at the Marriott and I was surprised to discover that a number of expats live in their “Executive Apartments” on a long-term basis. Super comfortable accommodations, and in a nice neighborhood (next to the Ferrari dealership, across from People’s Square) but the guy from Boeing has to leave the country every 90 days to renew his visa, and he’s been there for three years.
7. Real estate is unlike anything we’ve dreamt of in Boston. High-rises are getting thrown up at an incredible rate, and everything is sold-out before construction is complete. We have since learned that most places are purchased as investments and remain empty for some time – which is why cities like Shanghai have limited the number of apartments any one individual can buy. Regardless, a 900 square foot apartment in central Shanghai was listed at $1.5M.
8. The proud use of “People’s”. It’s bizarre to be in one of the world’s finance capitals of the world – watching sky scrapers get thrown up left and right – and be staying in “People’s Square,” read about the “People’s Supreme Court,” and the “People’s Liberation Army”. I guess I had just assumed that with the moderation and opening of the economy there would have been an underlying acknowledgement that communism writ large had failed in China. And as an extension that the red banners, the talk of “People’s” this and that, the explicit benefits of being a member of the Party, etc. would have fallen away. Doesn’t seem to be the case.
9. The fact that WordPress blogs are blocked here. I had heard rumors of the “Great Chinese Firewall” but I guess I assumed it was a more fine-tuned instrument. SkyWord, the platform my brother writes on, is blocked. So is WordPress, Facebook, YouTube, and many more. Better still, our guide openly discussed how easy it is to get a VPN to skirt the system. Services like https://www.securitales.com
make it easy and brag about it openly on their sites. Perhaps officials use it as well? Unclear why else they wouldn’t be blocked.
10. Similarly, I’m still trying to gauge the political / personal perspectives of the young educated population here. Jean, a Shanghai born, university educated, very sharp young woman seemed completely sincere when trying to explain that she and most Chinese believe that what the party decides truly is in the best interest of everyone. And, as best as I could tell, she really believes that the four other parties are legitimate, and that this reflects the moderation of the government. Again, still a long ways from understanding this situation.
PS: since starting this piece, we left Shanghai, spent a day in transit visiting Hangzhou, and arrived in Nanjing last night.
– Hangzhou was a beautifully scenic zoo – thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists (Google “west lake hangzhou crowds”)
– Today, in a full day of touring a city of 8 million, I saw two other foreigners – pretty clear that any catering to foreign tourists is reserved for the major destinations.
– Thanks to a great recommendation by Claire Luby I’m most of the way through Oracle Bones, a piece of non-fiction full of lively characters and anecdotes that is helping me tie together regions, dynasties and themes.
– I am using my camera, but posting is a bit of a pain, will try to do soon.