Recap on Shanghai

I flew back in at around 1:00 AM, just after New Year’s. We were supposed to come in around 8:00 PM earlier that night, but a luggage mis-arrangement and snowstorm later, we were still on a plane as the year turned. At least we had a good view of the whole city’s firework.

The flights to China are always interesting. After a 2 1/2 hour jump to Chicago, it’s at least another 11 hours. My strategy is sleep: I don’t sleep the night before, then set my watch to the destination time zone and sleep appropriately on the plane. It’s a jump on jet lag.

Sleeping on a plane is itself something of a challenge. In the air, I never feel quite right. A minor stomachache, not helped by the unpalatable food, makes me slightly uncomfortable. And the butt fatigue from sitting too long builds as the flight goes on. Fortunately, I don’t need to sleep to reduce tiredness. I need to be unconscious.

The waking hours, however, aren’t always bad. I’ve learned strangers can be both nice and interesting when you prompt them. Flying to Shanghai, I met a grad student at Mizzou studying textile management. I found him fascinating, as he was a Chinese guy raised in China and now exposed to western culture. He found the opposite in me, a Chinese kid raised in western culture, but with a nagging ethnicity and only recent look seriously into it. How ironic that perhaps the best perspective I got on China was soaring miles high over the Pacific Ocean.

What I found most interesting was how uninvolved he seemed with China’s political situation, especially having been to the U.S. Nowadays, any discussion of modern-day China brings up the communism that westerners seem to disapprove of and ridicule. I found it ridiculous that I couldn’t access Wikipedia in China behind the “Great Firewall of China.” I couldn’t even read my own blog, or anything in the domain .blogspot.com (though I could reach blogger.com to write).

I guess it’s just what we know, what we’re raised with. I found it quite annoying that the water I drank or even brushed my teeth with had to be boiled first. Cold water at a restaurant was risky. Water machines, not water fountains in public places. Boy am I glad to be home.

More on Shanghai

Rocking out to one very awesome Christmas music playlist right now. There’s a surprising amount of history behind the various recordings of pieces, but I’ve managed to find most the “classic” recordings. Of the ones I’ve found, of course; there are a lot of great Christmas songs, and I’m only about half-way to getting a complete list.

Anyways, there have been some nice adventures these past 3 days. Two days ago was the Pearl Tower and Shanghai History Museum. Yesterday was largely the Yu Gardens, and today was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center and the Shanghai Museum.

While we were walking around Yu Gardens yesterday, my dad offhandedly said, “There are two big tourist traps in Shanghai. Number one is the Pearl Tower. Number two is Yu Gardens.” For a moment, it felt like a far-shoulder tap, since we had seen both. Every tourist sees him or herself (is that “him or herself” or “himself or herself?”) as the one tourist who knows the hot spots, who only surreptitiously takes pictures, who blends into the natives. But that can’t be everyone.

Tourist traps aren’t just popular sites; they’re the generic ones. They’re built up as modern wonders, yet the only wonder is in the visitors of where the time went. We travel the world to see something new, but not everything is new. Not every park is spectacular. Not every shopping center is new. Not every palace strikes awe.

The Pearl Tower was just another high point. I’ve been to the top of the Tokyo Tower, the Empire State Building, and Victoria Peak (thought not the CN Tower). Sure, the view can be pretty cool, especially at sunsets. Unfortunately, the tops of buildings usually aren’t well-decorated. And I think the postcard makers have ruined the charm of it. Algother, the Pearl Tower was just a trap.

Yu Gardens was only somewhat better. Filled with ponds, classic Chinese architecture, and much greenery, it was very nice. Throw in running water and electricity, it would be a great place to live. It, however, wasn’t new. Kind of a combination of the Huaqian Hot Springs and the Forbidden City.

They were traps, absolutely. Neither were the paramount example of their class, and certainly were well-within their classes. But I’ve still managed to convince myself that it was for the best that I saw them. Very well-made traps.

Today’s trip was somewhat different. It’s been somewhat yucky around Shanghai for the past couple days. Falling water tends to discourage outdoor activities. With all the rain today, we decided to make the museum run. The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center was added at the recommendation of a friend, and ended up being an interesting addition.

It is what it sounds like: a big show of what Shanghai is planning for city development. With the World Expo arriving in 2010, Shanghai is another place for China to show off its new face (Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics being the first). In their 9th five-year plan, Shanghai has many environmental, technological, and societal targets, such as 40% green coverage of land and increased area of internet infrastructure. A large model of the Shanghai-Pudong area almost covered a whole floor with detailed reproductions of the whole area, including future development.

The Shanghai Museum was largely what I expected: artifacts of Chinese culture, including pottery, sculptures, seals, coins, calligraphy, and paintings. What was unusual was an exhibit on Rembrandt and Dutch Humanist art. This, too, was probably blunted by the “Dali’s Dreams” exhibit in the Urban Planning Center on Salvador Dali’s work.

One goes to China and expects to see Chinese culture. Instead, parts of it are just like home. It’s fair for the exhibits to be there. Collections move around the world so everyonce can see them. I remember going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see an exhibit on Kremlin Gold and Russian treasures. That’s no different than Rembradt in Shanghai. (I would provide a good insightful comment here, but I’m drawing a blank. Is blogging different in this respect than normal writing (with no editing)?)

Be patient on pictures, too. I’d upload to Facebook, but internet is a little slow here. But don’t get too anxious. I have the feeling I’m just going to pick the ones that I have quips for you, and you know how much funnier I think I am than I actually am.

Things

Shanghai isn’t just like Houston. It isn’t just like San Francisco. It isn’t just like Toronto. But it is a big city, and it does have the feel of Western influence.

Yesterday, my family took a bus out to the Super Brand Mall, directly across from the Pearl Tower (which I think is our target for today. You’ll find out tomorrow, or tonight). Eight floors above and two below ground, the mall is big. I have the feeling its more for the tourists, as it’s very pricey and filled with foreign retailers, but it is what Shanghai is showing to the world.

The thing that triggered this blog topic were the models. The walls were plastered with them in the shops, just like in any clothing store in the U.S. Just like it, in that a lot of them weren’t Chinese models. Is that the spectre of the west? Maybe. The styles seem so influenced by western culture.

The incursion is more explicit in other ways. By suggestion from my airplane seat neighbor, I tried the McDonalds here, order a 6 RMB (just under 1 USD) cheeseburger. It was kind of pitiful looking, actually. The patty was kind of thin, and I think it went bun-patty-pickles-cheese-bun. On the other hand, I really don’t remember what a McDonalds burger in the U.S. tastes like, and the last burger I’ve had was an In-N-Out burger (read the last post). So I was a little disappointed. Even so, I didn’t feel it was much different. The menu was even familiar, with a “spicy chicken wrap” that hearkened to diet fads. The one oddity was that instead of fries, the other side was a cup of corn. Is that on the U.S. menu?

I guess the last significant stop (for me; the first 4 floors of clothes shopping are something of a blur to me) was the Chinese bookstore on the top floor. Of course, it had a wide variety of Chinese and non-Chinese books. The section that caught us, however, was the kids section book. Particularly, the Dr. Seuss books. How sad is it that after 10 weeks of Chinese at college, I can’t even read Dr. Seuss? Oh well. Looking around the kids books, it seemed like many of them were also from western sources, like Dr. Seuss. That’s even bigger, if kids are reaised on that culture.

Oh, and in the grocery store, we found Chinese twinkies: a synthetic cream surrounded by a maybe sponge cake-ish bread. Not bad.