25 thoughts on Shanghai

I’ve written a few posts about my time in Shanghai, but there are thoughts I haven’t shared, little observations that crept into my mind and kind of stayed there.

Since I’m visiting Shanghai in December – for the first time since June – I wanted to put those observations into words and reflect during my December trip on what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.

So in no order, here they are:

1. Hustle and bustle

Mom likes to say that the Chinese love “re nao”, which means something like “hustle and bustle.” When people start to argue heatedly in public (which happens a lot in this country), you can bet a crowd will build as bystanders stop to watch and even discuss the goings on.

When a Chinese crowd builds, it takes on a life of its own. Even when the argument is over, and the dispute settled, people often linger around, continuing their ad hoc conversations and secretly hoping something else occurs to distract from their workaday routines.

2. Frogger

Everyone who’s crossed streets in China has played real-life frogger. Like frogger, the goal is to cross the street. Sometimes you move forward, and sometimes you move back. Like frogger, you want to avoid big trucks. And like frogger, sometimes you take a step forward only to take three steps back because a motorcyclist cuts you off, opening a gap for an ambitious car to squeeze through, and then another, and before you know it you’re back at the median.

3. Wheat bread

I eat at Subway at least once a week, since it’s difficult to find fast healthy food. Half of those times, they have no wheat bread. It’s on the menu, but its unavailable. I asked the server once, why do you run out of the wheat bread so often? His response: People don’t eat it. What a great metaphor for China’s social progress – what you want may be on the menu, but good luck ordering it.

5. Cats on a leash

Walking through an alley, I saw a man was walking his cat on a leash. More accurately, the cat was walking the man. It had a calico coat, and it would stop every few paces, lie down, and roll leisurely on its back.

I don’t like cats – they do what they want. What they want isn’t clear to me, either. Dogs do what they want, but they seem to want only two things: food and your attention.

6. Chinese subways and your luggage

In the Shanghai subway system – which is mostly on-time and clean (if you’re not looking closely) – each station has a baggage scanner manned by several unarmed guards.

Here’s the scanning process if you obey the rules, which I did the first half-dozen times:

1. You walk to the scanner entrance. A guard stands there in a puffy, oversized, dark navy jacket. A second guard sits at the scanner (which is a dusty, squat, older version of the one you see in airports)
2. If you’re carrying a backpack or a suitcase or a bag large enough to fit a baby – the standing guard will wave his right hand toward the scanner. Just put your bag on the scanner, his face and movements say
3. You put your bag on the scanner and wait 10 seconds for it to re-appear on the other side. The scanner is short but slow
4. You grab your bombs and drugs-free bag and walk to the entrance turnstiles

Here’s the process if you don’t obey the rules, which is what I started doing after observing the locals:

1. You walk towards the subway entrance. You do not see guards because you are looking straight ahead and ignoring them
2. As you near the entrance, you continue to look straight ahead and ignore the guards. He or she may say something inaudible in Chinese, or place his hand in your way
3. You ignore his or her voice and hand, and continue walking towards the entrance turnstiles
4. You swipe your subway card and pass through the turnstiles. Congratulations. You’ve saved 15 seconds and defied local authority

7. The trust deficit

Chinese society has a trust deficit. Beyond your extended family, trust decreases rapidly. Everyone in China has been cheated in some way. An excessive taxi fare…overpriced knockoff shoes…shady karaoke lounges…diluted whiskey and vodka.

8. Bad air

The air is bad, but it’s hard to say how bad. When I run outside, I feel my lungs burn, but maybe that’s because I’m out of shape from the nutrition-less rice and noodles and other white carbs. Looking at pictures of unpolluted cities, I’m shocked to see that silky, uniform shade of blue. But no matter how bad Shanghai gets, it still gives me some satisfaction to know that Beijing is worse.

9. Prisoner’s dilemma

A friend told me there are 3 things the Chinese care about.

They are:

1. 脸 (“face”)
2. 占便宜 (“find the cheapest deal for yourself, usually at the expense of someone else”)
3. 不吃亏 (“don’t suffer losses” or “don’t get the short end of the stick”)

10. Luxury with Chinese characteristics

Xintiandi in Shanghai is like Beverly Hills in LA or Roppongi in Tokyo. A place where the rich and delicate like to see and be seen. Yet even in Xintiandi, construction continues without pause, day and night, often without concern for pedestrians or vehicles. Lost in thought, I once walked within 2 feet of a construction guy working an active jackhammer. Still jackhammering, he takes off his face mask, yells at me, and resumes his work.

11. Where the casual drinkers at?

The Japanese have their beers at izakayas and their sake at sushi bars. The Koreans have their green bottles of soju with BBQ. Yet I don’t see a liquor for casual Chinese drinkers. I don’t see much casual drinking, period.

Is it because the Chinese were poor for many generations and alcohol is expensive? Will we see the rise of a casual drinking culture among rich Chinese? In nightclubs, they drink as aggressively as anyone – shots of whiskey followed by chasers of whiskey-and-green-tea. But casual drinking – the sort usually done over dinner, or on weekend picnics, or while entertaining guests at home – is rare. And I can’t think of a “casual drinking liquor” that is Chinese in identity.

Sure, they have the infamous baijiu. But that’s for government officials and wedding banquets and the older generations.

12. Maids for $5 an hour

I could get one for cheaper, but I’m fine paying 30rmb, or $5 USD, an hour. She sweeps, vacuums, and wipes. She washes and folds my laundry. She removes street grime from my running sneakers. She even buys, peels, and cuts fruit for me. One time, I asked her if she’d cook me some veggie dishes, but she said I wouldn’t like her cooking.

13. James Fallows is right

Indeed, I am regularly surprised to find that people stroll rather than stride along the sidewalks of Shanghai: It’s a busy city with slow pedestrians.

14. French Shanghai

France seems to have the greatest foreign influence on Shanghai. Many residents wear localized versions of French fashion. There’s a large French expat population, which lives in a neighborhood called the French Concession filled with tree-lined avenues, small cafes, indoor smoking, narrow alleyways.

15. Mirror neurons

Your brain uses mirror neurons to recognize and replicate peoples’ emotions, to express empathy. If you were looking at your identical twin, would your mirror neurons work harder?

On a Chinese-language version of American Idol, I saw a contestant that looked like my mom. She started to cry. Then I started to cry. I was crying for an unknown old Chinese lady on American Idol. It was very confusing.

16. Crappy Dad

Learning Chinese is not for the impatient. The learning process builds the same qualities that the Chinese people admire – hard work, determination, and most importantly, lots of suffering. Take the tones, for example. “Ba Ba” in the 4th tone means dad. “Ba Ba” in the 3rd tone is slang for poop. So when meeting your Chinese father-in-law, make sure you can hear the difference

17. Pudong, 1990 and 2010

Pudong, 1990 to 2010

18. Queue up

When I compare my Shanghai visits today to those from a decade ago, two changes stick out:

10 years ago, I boarded trains, planes, and buses in a process that felt like sheep being herded through a gate. Imagine my surprise using the Shanghai subway, today, to see passengers standing in straight if fidgety lines as the subway cars pulled up, then entering in reluctant single-file.

10 years ago, walking in public required concentration, due to the saliva bombs people launched at all angles and without warning. In the past few months, I can count on two hands the number of times that’s happened, and the source was typically an older resident or a construction worker.

19. Oh, Japan

In Shanghai, there is a tourist attraction called Tianzifang – a dense network of narrow alleys lined with craft shops, souvenir stands, outdoor cafes, and art galleries. In Tianzifang, you forget the dust and heat and odors of the city, yet amidst the comfort and colors and prettiness, I can’t stop thinking about how Tokyo would do this better. It’s not a popular opinion in China to think Japan does anything better, but the Japanese attention to detail, dedication to customer service, and love of serene environments would turn Tianzifang into a bourgeois heaven.

20. Human capital

China has plenty of cheap manual labor, yet customer service sucks. If it’s easy to hire to a waiter, and easy to fire a rude one, then shouldn’t waiters be nicer to their customers? I’m missing something.

21. Snoopy

Chinese girls pick the oddest English names. Chinese boys, for the most part, stick to a simpler menu of video-game characters (Fox, Link) and TV shows (Joey, George). But the menu for Chinese girls is longer and more eccentric: Snoopy. Seven. Panda. Yes, Panda, an actual friend of a friend.

22. Over-protective moms

I don’t have an opinion worth sharing on the tiger mom debate. But as a matriarchal, one-child society, you can bet Chinese mothers are protective of their children. Here’s a violent example.

23. ABC guys

In China, the ABC’s inner adolescent comes out. Most of us hide the same awkward, pimply teen: it wants to be popular, good-looking, and get hot girls.

In China, the ABC gets a shallow version of that opportunity: he parties with the popular crowd, is complimented on his looks (and even sometimes his accent), has mainland girls chasing him, and generally acts like a big deal. And you wonder why he goes to China for an internship, and stays for years.

24. Make-up holidays

Chinese companies “make up” for their holidays by working on the weekend. Yes, you heard right. For the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, many Chinese employees didn’t work on Monday and Tuesday, but were required to work the following Saturday and Sunday.

25. Broadcast TV

In America in the 1960s and 70s, there were only a handful of TV channels and as a result, some shows were watched by upwards of 80% of TV households. That’s why, among the post-War generation, Walter Cronkite is such a familiar, beloved and trusted broadcaster – almost everybody watched him, almost every day.

In China today, due to the poor quality of programming and the limited number of channels, a large percentage of households watch the same thing at the same time. For example, when the Chinese space shuttle launched, several of the main CCTV channels – China’s state-run equivalent of our broadcast networks – had nonstop coverage of the ceremonies and preparations and actual launch.

Chinese people are very proud of their country’s achievements – both past and present – and this sort of TV saturation amplifies and synchronizes their feelings.

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That’s it, folks. I love China and can’t wait to head back. As part of my habits, I try to visit one new city each month.

Click here to read about the daily habits that I track and why.