The melancholy drones of classic Chinese music fills my room with cries on a violin lost somewhere in China’s suppressed past. Something about the sound is peaceful, but leaves me restless still. Opportunities like this don’t come too often, and when they do they will pass you by if you aren’t careful. We dwell on a little blue planet; we share it and hoard it simultaneously. The events that lead me to be here at this moment are elusive and untraceable. Certain things in life are not planned for, they simply happen. As I lay in bed peering out the window at what is Shanghai, I am reminded of my small scale and short existence. I have found myself in a foreign land; one of bicycles and bustling and a remaining trace of old world gentility and mysticism. There is a perceptible tradition which I am immediately aware of.
This story doesn’t start here, in my wholly accommodating hotel room, but rather it begins on the other side of the largest ocean we claim as our own. I commence with only a passport and Visa to face men and women who seem as confused as myself. Good people they are; willing to keep me safe, but costing me my time and privacy. If you’ve ever wondered whether you are winning at the airport, all you need do is look down. If you are missing your belt or your shoes, well then, certainly you are losing.
Chicago International Airport: Terminal Five—and then it dawns on me—why do they choose such a word. Most don’t have particularly good connotations with the word terminal, and certainly not as it relates to air travel. They of course then announce that we may now get on the plane; thanks, but I think I’d rather get in the plane.
Now the voice of our captain—his voice booming over the intercom with trivial information about our speed and altitude—both of which are so high or so fast that they have no meaning to me. Thirty thousand feet at ten miles an hour sounds just as dangerous as six hundred miles an hour at ten feet.
In the belly of a whale hurdling above the clouds we are traversing the great Pacific. My view is limited from the middle of the jet. I have no window seat, but through the sliver of window I can see, I see the wing—no glorious view, but a good one to see. Over my right shoulder and out the window; there was the wing. It wasn’t much to look at, but I was glad to see it each time I looked.
It is really something to see China for the first time under the cover of darkness. Flying over its small glowing cities and towns gives the feeling of deviance as we descend upon a deserted airport. The feeling of foreignness is enhanced by the understanding of being truly lost, hoping simply to see a paper with your name on it when you land; the face of an unfamiliar driver whom you have no choice but to trust.
Shanghai, a city with a history of Opium dens, Chinese gangsters, exiled white Russians, sing-song girls and colonials climbing out of rickshaws pulled by pedaling Chinamen. That was the old Shanghai, the Shanghai of fifty years ago. The new Shanghai is a roaring dragon—a city with a space age skyline, neon lights and fast consumer lifestyle. Shanghai must see itself apart from the rest of China. The city has its own identity—a buzz and energy that is simply intoxicating. It has one eye on the past but is careening, with one foot on the accelerator towards the future.
Certainly we are creatures of habit, but more so, we are creatures of pattern. The sunrise this morning is soft through overcast haze. The pale yellow shine reveals Shanghai to me for the first time. But Shanghai, though its expanse seems indefinite, appears no different from my window than Chicago or New York. Buildings seem to have little coherence or order, yet their composition seems to be the most logical solution. Skyscrapers intertwined with small homes while trees and vegetation struggle to find a home.
Don’t drink the water
Perhaps it’s simply American to look for the simplest solution. But then doesn’t the simplest solution tend to make the most sense; perhaps that’s my cultural presets talking, but everything here seems to be a larger ordeal than it needs to be. The Chinese seem to embody an overly contemplative attitude towards everything but driving, which by the way, is comparable to the Andretti family riding the bumper cars at Six Flags.
Shanghai’s old city has narrow streets lined with buildings that, heavy in the shoulders, seem to be falling forward. Early in the mornings as we trek to work the streets are vibrant like that of the Italian hillsides. They are draped with colorful drying clothes and a bazaar of merchants who use concrete as their display table and dismal English as their advertisement. You can find anything given enough time to take it all in. The city is a flea market for the disposed. Yet people shop seriously, picking for food or a fan or needed bicycle parts.
I really don’t feel too much like a tourist, though it is certainly obvious that I do not readily fit in. Perhaps they have seen so many Westerner’s that there has developed a certain comfortable numbness. Nonetheless, never have I visited a foreign land and felt so accommodated. It seems I have stumbled into an entire city wishing to make my visit, my stay as peaceful as possible. Whether it is my money they want or my respect they desire—in either case they diligently earn both.
Thus far Shanghai has been as I suspected. This is surprising because my actual knowledge of Asia is certainly embarrassingly limited. The city is vast and modern, but has not lost its historical aura. I’ve found myself caught up looking at the high skyscrapers and modern architecture, and it is no wonder how visitors seem to miss the real Shanghai. If you stroll down an old alley or search behind the little shops; if you peer into the eyes on the faces of little children and beggars on the street, you may just find that twinge of old China hidden and lost beneath the tall and stylish buildings that are today’s Shanghai.
Josh Pabst (Live from Shanghai___Woking on 2010 World Exposition Convention Center with ECADI architectural firm.)