Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Welcome to Shanghai (Feb. 9)

My arrival to Shanghai has been a world of contrasts from New Zealand. I have been thrown into a massive urban environment, tons of people, crazy buildings, contrasting and mixing styles, freezing cold, and very little natural beauty. Yet, in its own right, Shanghai is offering quite a few surprises and has energized me a good bit. And it is cold. There are still very large piles of snow from their Storm of Century 10 days ago.

Upon arrival at the airport, I was a little surprised by how few people there were. I attributed this to it being 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday. After floundering around trying to figure out some basics about phone and money, I decided to take the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train into town. Upon entering the station, I was the ONLY person there (quite a contrast from I would quickly find on the subways). We only hit 300 km/h (190 mph), and quickly saw the land of contrasts, with the shacks and shanties in the foreground and the new housing developments in the background.

Leaving the Maglev station, I attempted to buy a ticket for the subway. Well, forget about even being generous or considerate when it comes to getting to and on your train. And people here are not afraid to blatently cut in line right in front of you. I had about 7 or 8 do it until I finally started muttering and getting physical. It was like the world was going to end if people couldn’t get their tickets in the next 5 seconds. And, it wasn’t like I didn’t stand out! Anyway, once I fought through and people saw that I was serious, someone helped me get to the English menu, and off I was.

Later in the day, I ended up at the People’s Square station, a major connection between three different lines That was a scene. There were a ton of people there waiting for the train, and when it arrived a ton of people were getting off. No one even waited for the people to get off, and I am thinking, “How rude!” until the doors suddenly closed before a third of the people waiting to get one even got on. People started yelling and all of a sudden the door police are there with there whistles, shoving people back and doing everything in their power to get every door shut so the train could leave. I don’t remember this intensity even in Japan. I quickly learned that underground is no place for consideration and selflessness: It is all about me getting on that train no matter what!

I wandered around a bit and quickly found a number of interesting buildings. Aside from the glitzy and fairly wacky skyline (all the tall buildings are doing really funky and formal stuff with their tops), Shanghai is a crazy mix of old and new, traditional Chinese and Western, and everything in between. What quickly caught my eye was the manner in which people were hanging their clothes out to dry. They have their horizontal rods that stick out perpendicularly from their balconies, totally entering into the public space. I guess I find this interesting because in the Western world, boundaries seem to be so clearly defined, or at least attempted to be. While there are many zones and areas where the public and private are not so clearly defined, city streets seem to be one of them, where the vertical space defined by the street is clearly delineated.

A number of apartments where people were hanging their clothes also had drastic alterations on their balconies. Most had fully enclosed theirs, almost all of them being done differently. One particular apartment was on the corner and had residential units above it. There was a large space directly on the corner where the residential portion was pulled back, thereby leaving some space in between. The residents of those apartments had constructed small “outbuildings” in that small space. It is clear that the space as it was did not serve their needs, and they did something about it, in the small amount of space in which they had control over. It is that small amount of space, the balcony, the roof of the floor below, the rods drying laundry, that seems to offer great potential and possibilities. To the eye, it may not look that attractive, but it is a very practical solution and allows people to solve some of their own problems within what little freedom they do have.

Later in the day, I went to the Shanghai Library and found a free wireless single where I tried to access my blog. No dice. I had heard lots of stories about the censorship of the media here, but experiencing it is something quite extraordinary. Such freedom of the press and expression is something I have taken for granted. My guess is that it will one of the most defining experiences of my time in China, much more so than any physical building or skyline that may look amazing. With the rise of Shanghai, and China, how deep and real is the transformation that is really going on?

Woah, I am watching the workers at my hostel unwrap large boxes of firecrackers, and getting ready to unleash them out in the street. It is Chinese New Year here, and not uncommon to hear firecrackers and fireworks. I don’t think I have ever seen so many in my life. Another nice aspect of the Chinese New Year is that everyone is on a holiday, and there is hardly any traffic. Yep, those were some serious firecrackers. I still feel like I might die from all the smoke…. And can I hear anything????? Oh yeah, ringing.

As I went to sleep that night, there was someone sleeping in my bed. He was sound asleep. All my stuff was on a ledge right above his head, toothbrush, books, headlamp, and of course, my ear plugs. When I arrived to the hostel, another traveler was actually in my bed, because he said that someone else was in his bed, etc. So, I thought nothing of it, until someone was in my bed. I found another bed and a blanket, and lied down listening to the barrage or firecrackers and fireworks. I have never been in a warzone, but it couldn’t sound much different. Of course, it wasn’t a war zone at all. I got my bed back the next day….

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