Shanghai: The Queen of the Orient

Jet lag often gives me the opportunity to see Shanghai bright and early at 5:30 a.m. Urban living consists of scattered family members still dressed in cartoon animal pajamas sitting on small plastic chairs, slurping their breakfast noodles over worn wooden tables, as well as people emptying their chamber pots into public toilets. Ever since my mother moved to Shanghai five years ago, I’ve made an effort to take these morning strolls each time I come to visit. Since then, the line between public and private space still hasn’t been drawn. It isn’t uncommon to see pajamas used as outside attire, nor is it rare to see children parked alongside the street doing their homework next to their parents’ beverage stands. These morning walks are like taking strolls through the living rooms of families, leaving nothing hidden and lifestyles transparent. I never take these morning walks for granted.
From the numerous European-brand shops set along the ubiquitous Nanjing Xi Road to ever emerging pieces of unique architecture that crop up around the city, one need not look far to realize how quickly and how advanced Shanghai has grown. The intimate scenes of everyday life shown in the mornings are a true testament to an unchanged and deeply rooted Chinese lifestyle taking place in a transformed city. I once suggested to a friend that if there was a good time for her to come to China, she might as well come now. Rundown areas are giving way to new skyscrapers, while old alleys have been repainted. Recently, I walked to the bus stop expecting to be whapped in the stomach by the same old lady with a cane (used purely as weaponry, I tell you) and to my amazement, they stood there in a line! They even boarded the bus without the usual pushing and shoving. Also more notable this year is the decreased incidents of men spitting on the streets.
The changes in Shanghai haven’t been quite as extensive as those in Beijing. Despite the Sichuan earthquake dimming the excitement felt for the Olympics, both events are so far away that life here continues normally. The only exceptions are the heart-grabbing commercials calling for donations to earthquake victims and the attracting attention for the Olympics. However, as phony as these commercials appear, they promote qualities important to the people here, such as community and the appearance they maintain as a nation. This is a sure sign that the government is scrambling and that they are nervous. The Olympics is a big opportunity for China to present its best face to the international community.
Sharon Stone’s recent comment saying that the earthquake that struck China was “bad karma” for its treatment of Tibet is quite ignorant, but the extent to which people are cynical and even disdainful about China is not surprising. China, in its grand progressive history, has made many passionate enemies. Many onlookers have been waiting for this moment to speak about China and make their move. It is easy to be critical of China, but it’s even harder to hope.
Don’t let the early morning PJs fool you. The Shanghainese really know how to have mian zi (face). Their ostentatious and often tacky architecture, fashion and lifestyle are all a part of showing the best aspects of themselves. Each year, they find new ways to live up to their reputation as being the “Paris of the Orient,” continuing to draw many visitors to China.
The Olympics played no role in my returning to Shanghai this year. Yet, as I walk past the newly refurbished streets and see the push in local markets to “live green,” I have hope for China. They are comfortable with their chaos, but the government is trying to be more advanced and progressive than they’ve once been and I see these changes. I also see the ways in which they are struggling with Tibet, the recent natural disasters and the rise in protests alongside the Olympics. There are many who want the Chinese to slip up or cave into protests for the sake of saving face. It is not my place to defend China for its role in politics, potential shortcomings or successes. Nonetheless, I cannot help but preserve my investment and passion for a place I’ve come to respect and truly love; I do this as any other Chinese would, boldly and unapologetically.

*The Chinese characters, which read “Shanghai” together, are the characters “shàng” (up, on, or above) and “hǎi” (sea), respectively.