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Shanghaied, China

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 walking.

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 China.

-Sarah Reed Bargren

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