Happy, Happy Shanghai

China, a land of Friendly, Friendly, Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy people. In many ways Chinese culture is a mixture of paradoxes, repeating familiar patterns in unfamiliar ways.  Repeating words would not be the common vernacular for an American, but in China speech, words are used differently. China, a land that shifts your paradigms, as you are enveloped in its culture.

Shanghai, all around me, the smells, sounds, and visual images, it fills my brain, like a computer overheating and ready to freeze up. These new first experiences seemed almost dreamlike, as moved through a different world using only my senses to input all that I experienced. I had done a lot of reading and anticipating this new adventure, but being exposed for the first time to this new culture filled me with childlike wonder. My head continued to turn from side to side, as if I were a bobble toy. I looked like a real foreigner for sure, since westerners were truly an anomaly here in Shanghai. I’ve traveled outside of the United States quite a few times over the years, but China ‘s culture was outside of my personal experiences, and held curious similarities and differences. The western culture I have been immersed in from birth had left many stereotypical images embedded since early childhood.

Even though my brain told me China was not what I’ve seen in older movies and pictures, these unfamiliar imagines challenged my old unconscious paradigms. For one thing, I had expected Chinese culture in Shanghai, to be worlds apart from anything I was familiar with, yet I was finding that through my first impressions of architecture and clothing styles, I was seeing Shanghai as a fusion of east and west, driven by the same market economy that I experience at home. We all love, and want love; forever wanting the best life has to offer… China, China, Love, Love. How deep did my first impressions go?

Walking the streets of Shanghai is an experience, on and on through stores I went comparing products and prices. I found that Shanghai businesses carried many of the same products manufactured by familiar western companies. It really shouldn’t have been surprising to me, since these products are very often manufactured in China. Did Shanghai businesses cater to the tourists trade? In some of the businesses, English was understood, but not the majority, which meant that in many all stores, I visited clerks looked at me helplessly, not able to communicate. At those times, hand signals seemed to work best, as the patient clerks attempted to be polite and as helpful as they can.

On one level, there was no question where I was. It was steamy, smoggy, tropical, and I was sweating like I had never done before. I got so hot so quickly that I looked for stores escape the heat and humidity. And then there were the sound of Shanghai. The loud screeching of unseen insect, I assume were in trees filled the air with a sound that resembled a high-powered motor. The Chinese speech seemed to scream out in an abrasive way, with a written language that was unintelligible to a foreigner. When the Chinese talked to each other they appeared to shouting and screaming. The smells of the city would vary with location on this sweltering afternoon. In the open wide-open boulevards the city smelled like any other city, but there were pedestrian walking tunnels that went down to the subways that smelled of unidentifiable odors. One point with jet lag still in my system, I felt like I might be getting a little faint in these underground corridors. Still the fascination of everything that was Shanghai consumed me.

In China, often words might be repeated to emphasis. So happy, happy or love, love could be common slogans of the Chinese people to make a point. There was a hedonistic appeal of Shanghai, like most cultures if you have the money, then you can name your pleasure. Imported wine and alcohol can be quite costly in China, since those with money are generally willing to pay. Just like in the western world, being willing to pay for luxuries is a sign of affluence and status.  In China, getting a massage is very common for both men and women and a sign that you can afford some of the simple pleasures. In fact it seemed that all of Matthew’s friends how were in there twenties went to these places from time to time. For me, massage parlor’s for men hold no appeal, regardless of their popularity in China or America.  Catering to other pleasures were not at all unusual, whether it be cigarettes, manicures, pedicures or massages, if it could make you feel good, the Chinese are willing to indulge. For those who could afford simple pleasures, pleasures abound.

For an older American teacher, this prevalent attitude in China articulated the differences from the attitudes of conservative American Christian values about personal pleasures. Though there is no question in my mind that both cultures at their core are conservative in nature, the Chinese in Shanghai just seemed more open. As if the say there we here in Shanghai are the Paris of the East, as cosmopolitan as any otherworld class city.

In the afternoon Matt and I traveled down Nanjing Street, a major upscale shopping district of Shanghai. On Nanjing Street there were many designer label store. In fact Nanjing Street had a feel like the Avenue des Champs-Elysee of Paris. The Chinese differences were striking. More than once young girls came up to me speaking English and asking if I wanted an escort to show me the city. At first I was confused, why would people be so friendly? These girls didn’t dress provocatively, and for a moment, I needed to think about what they were asking me. Where these girls just trying to pick up a little money showing a westerner around Shanghai? Obviously that were not interested in just hanging around with an older man, and his twenty something son, unless money was involved. Regardless of their intentions, on occasions like these, I politely smiled and thanked them for their interest, and bid them good day.

What was so surprising was not only the openness, and a matter of fact attitude, of these young girls in their early twenties, but also the locations they were located in. These girls were be hanging outside of stores or curio shops in a major shopping district. Where were the shop owners asking them to leave? These girls looked like typical kids, the kind your daughter might hang out with, not dressed suggestively or particularly attempting to be alluring or enticing.

What motivates these young girls to hang out with old codgers like me… well okay money, but what brings these girls into this line of work, fishing wealthy westerners? Money makes the world go round, and universally people want more. Shanghai looks to be the jewel of the orient on the surface, but there are pressures, as the Chinese chase the dream of a better life, the dream drives the Chinese find money anywhere they can. These girls could have been college students just out hustling on a weekend to help make ends meet. The Chinese society strives for what we from the USA euphemistically call the “American Dream”.

If I was alone and had the time, I would have liked to talk with these young girls, asking them about their job, but Matt and I left the shopping district. and headed back toward the subway at People’s Square.

As Matt and I stopped at a corner near People’s Square in Shanghai trying to figure out where we were going next, there at the intersection, was a cute young girl about twenty something. She standing next to Matt and me waiting for the light to change, looking our way and she smiled. Then she started talking in English.  I am not used to female strangers starting unsolicited conversations, and this was my second encounter in the same day.

The young girl smiled and asked, “Where are you from?”

“California, well America,” I said. Flashing a smile at someone who spoke English.

She returned the smile, and a sincere expression crossed her face. “It must be wonderful to live in America.”

“Yes I love America, but China is wonderful too,” I continued to smile and said. There was an unexpected sincerity in her eyes that surprised me coming from a stranger in a crowded city, as if she were yearning to understand what was as unfamiliar to her, as China was to me.

“How many children do you have?” she asked staring into my eyes, as she quickly continued the conversation at the intersection.

I was surprised at the question, not so much because it was invasive, but rather it seemed to be an odd conversation for a random street corner meeting. “I continued the conversation saying, “I have two sons, and my wife has four sons.”

Her young eyes were very large, and she carried on her face an expression of uncomprehending wonder, surprising me. Then she asked, “Do you have a car in America?”

Again smiling without hesitating I said, “Our family has two cars, and each of our children in America have their own car.”

“You must be very rich!” the young woman she gasped.

Smiling I said, “No, that’s how people live in America.”

The light changed at the intersection, smiling, I said, “Goodbye,” and our all too brief encounter was over.

Matt and I left to meet some of Matt’s American friends downtown, but the image of the young woman’s surprise, and her motivation in asking those questions, gave me pause. I knew there was a greater reality behind her questioning smiling eyes.  She wanted more, much more, and the desire and wish for a better life had over the years become a dream.

Shanghai is a huge world-class city, with a population of over twenty-three million people. In 2010, Shanghai held a world Expo, whose theme was officially, Better City, Better Life, representing the common wish of us all.  The Expo attempted to show Shanghai, as an example of harmonious, sustainable urban living. Of the millions who visited the Expo, the vast majority being Chinese nationals, came to see some of what the world has to offer, a dream for many, a dream of a better future, a future leading to China’s version of the “American Dream.”

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2 thoughts on “Happy, Happy Shanghai

  1. So glad I found your fascinating blog. I love travel and now that my three sons are out of the house, I’ve considered teaching English in China, Vietnam or anywhere fascinating. You make China sound as westernized as Paris, etc., which surprises me, due to their government. Thanks so much for your story about life there.

  2. As the author of this article, I may need to revise it slightly to reflect that Shanghai’s life is quite different from Paris. For one thing the general population is much less affluent by western standards, and also the cultural differences are striking. It’s the appearance of an oriental Paris that creates a sense of contrast that makes Shanghai so appealing. Shanghai to be certain, has it’s own blend of east west ambiance that makes it unique.

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