January 28, 2001
The Canadian woman sat in the corner incessantly
pouring her heart, and everything else, out to anyone nearby.
My friend Bruce and I sat at the only other table in the café
huddling over our coffees trying to get warm. The woman was obviously
ecstatic with being able to converse with people, there not being
an over-abundant amount of people who can speak fluent English
in China. Within a span of a few seconds the Canadian woman had
gone from the wonders of vinegar how it gets out wine stains
in seconds flat to showing pictures of her two "angles"
back home how they love to snowboard and are clearly the
most wonderful children on the planet.
There were no other chairs.
We had no choice. We listened.
"I think she's lonely."
I said, thinking she was probably out of her mind with joy at
the presence of this little Starbucks café in the center
of old Shanghai.
Bruce and I however, were not
lonely: we had each other to talk to, and because Bruce speaks
Mandarin we also had the 16 million Chinese that inhabit Shanghai.
And besides, we had just arrived in China a day earlier so that
tough level of culture shock/estrangement had not had the chance
to set in. So we were not looking for company when we turned
the corner of an old (or seemingly old) Chinese building with
sub-zero wind screaming through the walkway hitting us squarely
in the face and creeping in every seam and stitch of our clothing;
we were looking for warmth.
With the Big Mac and the latte,
the West has arrived in China. Driving from the airport you can
see all the major technology companies advertising on huge billboards;
new billboards stuck into rice paddies that overlook the new
expressway from the new airport.
Looking out my window on the
9th floor of one of the more smallish hotels, new and only 28
stories tall, Shanghai looks like a snap out of a futuristic
Schwarzenegger film rather than the view of a third world nation
over a billion strong fighting to feed itself. I count 25 skyscrapers
before stopping there are too many to count, stretching
as far as the eye can see. By all accounts, from my hotel window,
Shanghai kicks New York's ass. But when you descend from the
heavens and take a walk something feels a bit strange: there
are no people anywhere. Of course once I pulled the scarf I had
tied round my face my nose froze, but I could see a tiny trail
of people ambling slowly down the middle of the street. "What
are they doing?" I asked Bruce. And thought, And are
they insane choosing to be out here in this cold? And before
I could contemplate why I myself was out there freezing with
them he explained that it was a Saturday and that they were just
We followed this small crowd
to the ferry landing. It turns out that a popular "walk"
in Shanghai is to take the ferry across the city's river and
head over to the well-known Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai's
futuristic radio tower, equipped with a hotel and revolving restaurant,
and banded with elegant hot-pink windows. From there the walk
either returns back across the river by ferry or by a ride on
the new Tourist Tunnel, an under-water viaduct that shuttles
gondola-sized cars through a cascade of flashing neon. Bruce
and I started with the ferry. While on the ferry a very friendly
Chinese family from outside the city limits chatted with Bruce
and pulled my hair. In fact, one lady chatted with me even though
Bruce told her several times that I did not speak Chinese. "Why
do you answer for her?" she asked him after, for the third
time, asking me where we were going. As apparently Western influenced
as China is getting, dirty-blond hair is still an oddity here
in one of its biggest cities.
Aiming to walk along the most
famous commercial street in China, the NanjingDonglu, Bruce and
I wove our way through bare back streets and sparsely peopled
pathways. Jet lag woke us up at four AM that morning so the nine
AM we found ourselves in felt like late afternoon, and the fact
that there were very few people around felt like we were missing
out on a big joke, or a curfew Shortly we found the desired street
and headed west up the road gawking at the huge shopping malls
and department stores. Just for fun, at one point we ducked into
a supermarket to see what was available. Ten years ago when Bruce
was here milk was hard to come by, ice cream was non-existent.
Now yogurt, cheese and milk line the refrigerator section and
ice cream flows non-stop from McDonald's.
After stopping for a warm-up
and some hot chocolate (at France's Pierre Cardin's café)
we veered south a bit and found ourselves at the Shanghai Museum.
Three hours later, tired from barely taking the skin off the
top of China's cultural history, we left to be greeted by the
entire Chinese population just outside the main doors. Apparently,
and smartly, Shanghai slept-in through the freezing weekend morning.
Bruce and I were scooped up by the flood of people and dropped
off near where we began at the river. At every point along
the way these thousands of people were getting their picture
taken. (I'm sure I made it into a thousand photos that day all
with the same crazy look on my face: Where did all these people
come from?) Western commerce has made it to China, and on
a bone chilling weekend day the Chinese wanted to be sure that
they had proof they'd made it there to see it.
As global as the world is becoming,
or is trying to become, non-Western countries will always have
their own unique brand of modernization. While sitting there
warming ourselves on drinks in Starbucks that day, drinks that
cost more than the average weekly salary for the common Chinese
laborer, the slight wife of a Chinese fellow sitting opposite
the Canadian woman floated through the door. She came over and
introduced herself, ordered a drink and stood, clad in the latest
Western fashions. The Canadian woman, grabbing hold of the newcomer,
asked the Chinese woman where she worked and how she liked her
boots. The woman nodded and replied in perfect English, all the
while occasionally gnawing on a skewer of goat meat (a snack
grilled on little charcoal stoves in the street, made by the
Uygar people of far western China). And I wouldn't be surprised
if charcoal billy goat isn't more common as an accompaniment
with a Frappuccino than biscotti at Starbucks across China.
Money is becoming ever more
universal. In the struggle to claim some cash China's been caught
in a trap of its own making: the easy money of the West has shanghaied
-Sarah Reed Bargren