Location: Shanghai, Shanghai Municipality, China
Shanghai is a new city by Chinese standards, which means that it’s about a hundred years old. It only started its outlandish growth in the past 30 years, and is now the largest city in the world, second to Lagos, Nigeria. Al Gore’s fantastic nonfiction tome (but possibly secretly a dystopian fiction story) The Future depicts those two cities sprawling to the point that they outclass most small European countries in GDP, pollution, and population density. It’s been rigorously planned by the Party, to the point that they have a scale model of the entire metropolitan area despite a good portion of it not being built yet. You can see this at the Architecture Museum, a fantastic place to see the history of the city, but also the party rhetoric and its inevitable glorious, harmonious future. Never mind the smog.
Because Shanghai is so new, it’s frequently advertised as cosmopolitan. It’s not, really. There’s not really anything essential to the space. It just is a small world, unto itself. Despite that it’s so enormous, I felt that each aspect of our interaction with the city was prescribed: designed and tailored in such a way that it prevented me from actually experiencing it, if it existed. Our hotel was the standard, pleasantly minimalist space that one looks forward to on the road. The breakfast buffet was Chinese food-centric, but homogenized enough that it could be found in any other major city around the world. The people that you expected to rip you off, tried to rip you off. Luxury brands poured out of every shop window; the same pop music was on the radio that you might find in DC or LA. Despite being an international city, we were hard-pressed to find people outside of the hotel that spoke English. When we did, and we managed a casual interaction, they were as overjoyed to see us as we were them, prisoners in the same megalopolis.
Part of that feeling of ennui comes from being on tour in a foreign country with a tour guide. Of course your perception of the city and the culture are going to be restricted, based on the information they share with you. Maybe I had just had enough of it by the time we got to Shanghai, and maybe it was our excellent tour guides previous, but I felt as if the brief descriptions and historical summaries falling from our caretaker’s lips were the kind of things you would say to a questioning child to shut them up. Also, it didn’t help that we got shuttled along to establishments that exist exclusively for touristic consumption–silk factories where we got a ten-minute explanation of the process of making silk, and then 400rmb t-shirts.
But I’m not complaining about my vacation, because that would be absurd. I’m just not a big city guy, I suppose. Or it wasn’t what I was expecting. There were definitely some fantastic moments: on the days we ventured out on our own, we made it to People’s Square, got our caffeine fix, and then trembled our way about the city.
We saw an amazing exhibit at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art by the Japanese artist Kusama Yayoi. She did more with dots than I had ever seen possible. She used small circles and simple colors to play with perspective and consciousness. Using mirrors, water, and dim lighting, she produced an installation–a room that was probably ten feet square, but seemed to unfurl infinitely in each direction, looping in on itself and twinkling. I don’t think I had ever experienced anything that immersive outside of Pollock and Rothko, and those are two-dimensional. If you get a chance, this is a must-see.
When my mom wanted to buy some boots and a suitcase to schlep all of her gear home, we naturally went to the highest-pressure sales environment available. I discovered that when Chinese retailers are selling fake products, they ‘close’ their shop so the police can’t bust them for intellectual property theft. Mistaking their pushiness and generally disquieting demeanor for robbers-in-the-making, I freaked out and damn near kicked the door down on some shifty businessmen. Everybody deserves to feel like Bruce Willis at one moment in their lives, and that was mine. Glad I got it over with.
And, of course, my parents ended up giving me the best gift that they possibly could. Because they have no understanding of Chinese grammar or pronunciation, V and I had the opportunity to not only look like sages, but also to be near-professional translators. Suddenly, my pidgin Chinese, the five phrases that I could comfortably get by using in Jian’ou, were enough to convey all of the complexities of my mother’s thoughts about her shoes. I bargained with people, using polysyllabic sentences, and managed disagreements about price in two languages as effortlessly as I imagined in my dreams. My Chinese wasn’t mangled, it was proficient. I was an authority, not an embarrassment. It felt remarkable.
Of course, as soon as we got back, it all fell away. But I got over my fear of talking to strangers in their mother tongue.
See you all again soon with a new video project!
<3, K &V