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The CVT in China: First Impressions

October 9, 2009

So I’m here now: Shanghai. And I’ve been here almost exactly two days. Not very long at all, but just long enough to have some first impressions (with sufficient mental alertness post-jet-lag to articulate them).

My first comment will be about my flight over here, and not really concern China, itself. So I flew in on Asiana Airlines, which is a Korean airline (quite a good one, at that). And on my ticket, it very specifically stated that I was in "Zone A" for boarding. At my gate (in San Francisco), they carefully called out the various boarding "zones," and I had to wait until my "zone" was called to board. Of course. That’s how you board a plane, right?

Well . . .

My layover (12 hours later) came in Seoul. And in Seoul, things changed. My new boarding pass clearly stated that I was in "Zone A" again. And this time, the gate was very specifically labeled, with big clear signs, "Business" class and "Travel" class. Two different sides of the main counter where it seemed the two different classes would board. Except, once the boarding began, there was no mentioning of "zones." There was no mentioning of different "classes." Hell, there wasn’t even a mention of "pre-boarding" for those with young children or those needing assistance. Instead, all bets were off, and we all just massed together to get on the plane . . . I kind of loved it.

Welcome to the East.

So then I arrived in Shanghai, catching an evening cab-ride to my cousin’s apartment in the heart of the city. And on that ride, I was able to develop a few more first impressions. As we sped down the highway, zigging in and out of traffic, I looked out at the city, and its lit-up night. So many buildings with neon lights, or LEDs lighting them up. It reminded me of the future . . . That’s all I can really say. The future.

Because Shanghai is no Orientalist fantasy – it is modern to the Nth degree. For those who have visited New York City . . . think of that bastion of cosmopolitan America as a freaking backwater in comparison to Shanghai. The freeways, the building designs, the level of sophisticated technology and modern construction in this city is beyond what I had imagined on a large scale. This place really looks like the future.

And I mean that in the best and worst ways. The best is the innovative architecture. The brilliant use of glass and beautifully gaudy lights. The artistically sweeping highways and bridges. It’s some kind of beautiful. On the other hand, it’s a Western capitalist’s dream: store after store; branding and advertising galore. Walking down one street I saw LensCrafters, Papa John’s Pizza, and KFC. There’s a Starbucks (of course) in the neighborhood I’m staying at. Banks and ATMs. Nokia, Adidas. This is the metropolitan city of the future. A future where location means nothing, because the globalized economy is the ultimate nullifier. It kind of looks like the city in BladeRunner.

And that’s what hit me the most: the most shocking and surprising thing about this city is how little it has shocked me. How "normal" it feels here. Yes, there are tons of Chinese people all over. Yes, everything is in Chinese script. But no – it doesn’t feel that odd to me.

It’s just like a gigantic Chinatown to me (a real Chinatown, like in Oakland where my grandma lived – one where Chinese people actually live, and it’s not just for tourists). The sense of greatened height is nothing new to me. Sure, I stand out differently here, but it’s the same standing-out I’ve dealt with before.

Although I do wonder what people think of me here. What they think I am. Because they don’t really react to me in any special fashion. I’ve had more people just start speaking Chinese to me than trying any English. And yet, I obviously stand out. I don’t look like them. I dress very "American." But it’s not quite a flip on being the non-white guy in a white-dominated America (or Portland).

Because there’s one huge difference – here, I stand out, and I am obviously an outsider. And nobody really calls overt attention to that fact. That’s no different from the States.

However, here – nobody would say, if asked, that I didn’t stand out. Here, everyone would expect me to be very aware of my foreign-ness. Nobody would expect me to feel like I’m just one of the many. Because it’s just so obvious. In the States? The majority (the white folks) constantly act surprised that I feel separate. They act shocked that I don’t feel accepted or part of the many. It doesn’t even occur to them that I don’t quite fit in due to my appearance, and that that might make me a little bit uncomfortable.

And it’s exactly that difference that – so far (very early on, of course) – has me feeling perfectly normal here. Because my standing out is a given. Because nobody would deny that fact or be ignorant of it. That makes me feel like this is a place where I can be comfortable. Whereas, in the States where I’m actually from, people deny the obvious so much and expect me to ignore it so much that it makes me more uncomfortable.

So beautifully ironic, no?

So here I am. In a Chinese city so very obviously smashed together with the Western world. So very Western in its "modernity" and capitalist feel, but also so Chinese in so many ways. This collision of worlds has given this city such an interesting flavour, just as my combined blood and worlds has created me. And so I can’t imagine a place any more perfect for a mixed-Chinese-American like me to begin this journey.

So come join me on this next chapter, as I wade through the other half of my blood, trying it on and attempting to fully understand it for the first time in my life. From what only these first two days have shown me, it’s going to be an amazing journey, indeed.

shanghai night

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One comment

  1. Indeed!

    Glad to see you were able to post!



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