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Shame and Glory

Shanghai - January 14-16, 2008

32 °F
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

Having learned from the day before, I wore my pajama pants underneath my pants and three shirts under my jacket. Fudan University was the first stop for all of the participating students and staff. We attended a lecture by the school’s Dr. Liu Chunrong on the topic of “The Harmonious Society.” The characters for the word “harmony” translate as “rice” + “mouth,” meaning that “all are fed. The characters also include “speech” + “all,” implying that everyone has the right to speak. These are being touted as the goals for China’s approach to a democratic and prosperous society as propelled by Hu, Deng’s successor.

I had already noticed red banners and billboards promoting aspects or elements of this philosophy. “Harmony” is even the name of the new high speed trains connecting Beijing and Shanghai. The city is peppered with reminders of the cause. My favorite of all of them was the one that says something about how everyone must work together to “enhance [Shanghai’s] shame and glory” – obviously a bad translation in there.

Later that day we went to Daning Life Hub, a commercial live/work/retail space that is the first of its kind for Shanghai. The developer’s VP of Marketing, David Ng, very proudly informed us that the facility became profitable in four months time, which is an amazing achievement indeed. However, they skirted around the issue of displacement, given that this newly urbanizing area was formerly settled by a poverty-stricken populace unlikely to be participants in the economic bloom of this part of the city. Meanwhile Starbucks, Haagan-Daaz, and the like are anchor tenants and the four-star hotel that is the centerpiece of it all is beautiful. One student from our group asked if the developer has any plan to give back to the community in any direct way, but Ng reacted in a way that made me feel like it was a question that didn’t translate in any way, shape or form. I don’t remember the specific amount, but I believe that 33 percent of their profit goes directly to the government, and it’s the government which decides which, if any projects, will be developed. If that’s the case, one could argue the point that social responsibility is built-in.

The following day my Learning Circle – the Global Cultures and Social Change – visited a community center for the elderly, a day care center, and paid a visit to the home of a middle-class woman and her family. The community center certainly seemed wonderful. Located in a "neighborhood" of 98,000 people, it caters mostly to the elderly. They have a computer center, which costs the equivalent of one U.S. dollar per year for a membership. They offer all kinds of arts and crafts and host all kinds of events. There's a choir and a band. The facility is heavily utilized and is one of several in the area. Similarly, the day care center we went to was one of several and is attended by two- to six-year-olds. The kids did some performances for us, and I must admit they were pretty darn cute as well as talented. The home visit was awkward. I think it would have been awkward under any circumstances, but the situation was exacerbated by the fact that one woman in our group kept asking the stupidist questions and making very embarassing comments. The worst was that she asked the translator to tell the woman that "We are just like you. We work, have families, and eat and sleep just like you." It was horrifying. I also felt like the woman was probably coerced by the head of the neighborhood, i.e a Party member, to do this. She didn't seem particularly interested in us, though she was cordial. I think it was a unique opportunity but given the choice I wouldn't have sought it out. I think it's better to meet people out and about and get to know them that way instead of going into their homes as if going to the zoo. To erase the taste, I went out and got an hour-long foot massage during which I fell asleep. This was after an interesting sushi dinner with some TSS folk.

The sum of all these experiences for me was that I think that fear of China’s eminent world-takeover is exaggerated. It's so enormously vast as to be unimaginable. The eastern part of the country is very developed, but the western and central regions are still mired in third world traits - illiteracy, poverty, etc. At the same time a “harmonious society” is genuinely a wonderful thing to strive for; imagine such a thing in the U.S.

The next day was to be our last. I slept in, while others dashed madly around trying to soak up the last of China. Honestly, I just didn't care to be in the cold and would have been perfectly content not to see anything else, but one of the faculty members, Lowry, convinced me to go out with her, and I was glad that I did. We went to a supermarket, where I picked out a few things but I had accidently left the rest of my yuans in my other pants and they didn't accept Mastercard. It was close enough that I could have gone back to the ship, but the cold was bitter and I decided not to, so while all my friends are enjoying their little stash of goodies, I am stuck w/ ship food. Lowry wanted to go to a Starbucks she had seen earlier in the week, so we tried to retrace her steps and that was actually fun. We stumbled into and out of the craziest little nooks and crannies. Shanghai is booming with construction and modern high rises everywhere you go, and yet there are old and/or impoverished areas right next door. Kind of like Detroit in a way. We stumbled into an indoor farmer's market that had an amazing bounty of fresh produce, live chickens and eels, gigantic dried fish hanging from the ceiling... lots of little mom and pop moped and motor bike repair places... a news stand here... a tabacco stand there... and then we emerged into a totally westernized, urban thoroughfare near the Bund with Starbucks peeking at us from across the street. It was the first Starbucks I've been in that wasn't slammed with customers. We ordered our drinks and sat near a window to watch all the traffic - cars, bicycles, pedestrians. It was really nice, and I loathed having to re-enter the cold but it was worth it.

When I got back to the ship, Eric was going through customs again on the gangway. We'd talked about his joining us for a leg or two, but I didn't know if he'd really make it. He'd flown back to Beijing, taken his exams, and flown back, making it an hour before the gangway was retracted. So now the Lorna show - always mostly solitary - is the Lorna and Eric show. You'll forgive me for paraphrasing the Grateful Dead, but what a long and strange trip this is turning out to be.

Posted by mpho3 07:25 Archived in China

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