Chinese women’s fashion. This.
Heck yea I wanna shopping! Just not at the back alley places the people who ask me this question intend to take me. Fake Rolex watches are the new opium and I’ll admit that if I were in the market for a Louis Vuitton bag and could get away with paying for less than half of the MSRP, I would totally follow these bootleggers into their shops, but I’m just not, and frankly if I could avoid getting arrested on this trip I’d be quite glad for it.
But Shanghai has a character that suits these kinds of ventures. It’s a vehemently capitalist city where it’s clear that everyone is out to have the best be the best and buy the best —whatever that may be to each person. Even the so called historical sites and parks are studded by stores and vendors. Besides them, there are shopping malls galore. Along busy intersections it’s easy to spot huge video advertisements above the streets, billboards everywhere, stores opening in every neighborhood (many of them American chains like Forever 21 and Dunkin’ Donuts to accompany the already ubiquitous H&M, McDonalds, Starbucks, and DQ outlets). Despite the little bits of America everywhere, I find that my preferred imports are non-American. Costa (a British chain with great coffee, hot chocolate, carrot cake, and wifi) and Uniqlo (a Japanese clothing line) are some of my two favorites.
Otherwise, Shanghai is great for the museums and scenic walks. The skyline of Pudong (where the space-age financial buildings are located, including the world’s fourth tallest skyscraper) is a marvel to behold from the avenues lined by British colonial architecture on the other side of the riverfront. The metro connects the city quite well (though not as efficiently as in New York, of course) so all of these things are quite close, including to the French Concession and other sites. But perhaps the best part of Shanghai to my tired eyes was the inside of Carrefour, a French supermarket mega-chain not totally unlike Target. They had western imports galore at reasonable prices, two things that make my heart tremble with joy.
Nanjing also had these things, but I was more focused on battling pneumonia and making it to the War History Museum than shopping for food. Well, that’s not true: I did send myself two care packages from Nanjing, so I’d say I didn’t do so badly there either. While in Nanjing I stayed with a friend from Wellesley who’s now teaching English-language classes at Nanjing Normal University’s women’s college, Ginling. Her set-up is quite nice and she was a total angel during my illness, ushering me to the hospital, sitting with me through doctor visits, making sure that I took all of my medications, and showing me where to buy high-quality pirated DVDs.
Hangzhou was very different. There were less shopping malls and more vendors, artisans, and tea shops. The city is built around it’s main tourist attraction: West Lake. Xihu (西湖) is a beautiful fresh water lake in the south-center of Hangzhou surrounded by willows, tea plantations, an high-end restaurants. The rest of the city is made beautiful by the preservation of old Chinese homes (now largely converted to stores) and sprinkled bronze sculptures. Hangzhou is largely residential (gated communities) to the north, which within in a tourist center is quite rare, but it adds to the city’s quaintness. LiBin, one of the two Chinese fellows who teaches at the middle school in our town, lives in one such of Hangzhou’s gated communities and I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with him for dinner at the famous Louwailou restaurant.
In retrospect my vacation was quite mixed. At turns I was incredulous that I was actually there! In Asia, in Shanghai, in this part of the world so far away from New York and from anywhere either of my parents have ever been. There were stimulating sights to see and interesting things to do, not the least of which was listen to all the foreign languages spoken at my various hostels. But I was also at turns saddened. When one travels alone there is a freedom but also a loneliness. It happens when you realize that while no one else is there to dictate your plans, no one else is there to share in the beauty of a moment with you either. Or when you hear yourself utter “wow, just look at that,” and there is no response. I guess that’s what pictures are for, but I should like to spend my next holiday with more travel companions, with whom I can laugh about things like the train station announcer saying that the train is “leaving in no time” instead of “immediately.”
Beyond this there were some idiosyncrasies that popped up, revealing that even a place as “modern” as Shanghai is still developing —working out the “kinks” as it were. I urge you who are reading this to read a bit about Shanghai’s history, since it will explain the examples I am about to give. One such idiosyncrasy is that the Shanghai metro only displays subway maps once you have paid to get inside the station. The roads are lined by fences designed to keep pedestrians safe but that could actually cause accidents. The historical buildings have to their back sides small communities that in Spanish we would call a “barrio.” They are like “ghettos,” but in the more traditional sense of the word without negative (or positive) connotations, identifiable by the dangling clothing racks and grannies strolling in and out. Further, very few employees in shops speak good, if any, English.
On that note, it’s interesting to acknowledge that young people in Chinese big cities often do speak quite good English. Even little elementary-school aged children are really quite good. There was one day when two 3rd grade little boys entered the bus and began to giggle upon seeing me, my friend in Nanjing (who’s black) and an African man (there are a lot of exchange students from Africa at Chinese universities) on the bus. they proceeded to converse with the man in English and he with them in Chinese. It really amused me, but also made me a little sad because I could never do that with my own, similarly-aged students.
All in all it was a good break (with the exclusion of that last day’s financial and emotional FIASCOS that I don’t want to repeat here because the wounds are still fresh). I’m now in Kunming awaiting my next professional development conference and information about my trip to Hong Kong to collect my Z Visa. TFC is taking so long that I get the feeling that I won’t be going in this next week.
Until next time,
*edit: despite the dramatic nature of my description of the “last day’s” events, I am in fact okay now :) Sorry to have caused any worry!
Although nearly two weeks have passed since the Lantern Festival that officially marks the end of the 15-day holiday, cities across China are still facing a serious labor shortfall. In order to lure new workers and retain the old, some companies give employees sizable bonuses just for coming back to work, while others offer cash for every new employee they bring along with them. And in many areas, wage increases ranging from 10 to 30 percent have become the norm.
Despite all this, cities like Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are still short hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Shandong Province is missing a full third of its migrant work force, and Hubei Province reports a loss of more than 600,000 workers. Last week, the Chinese government released a report describing this year’s post-Spring Festival labor shortage as not only more pronounced than in years past, but also longer-lasting and wider in scope.
Numerous factors underlie China’s mounting labor woes. Until now the country has been able to achieve its stunning economic growth by shifting large numbers of farmers into nonagricultural jobs. Over the past several years economists have warned that China may be reaching the so-called Lewis Turning Point — the stage at which the rural surplus labor pool effectively runs dry and wages begin to rapidly increase.
But by and large China’s younger generation is no longer willing to endure hardship without clear expectations that it is a temporary means to a more comfortable end.
According to the government report, a full 70 percent of rural migrants are now under 30. That means they are members of the so-called after-’80s generation — a euphemistic Chinese term to describe those who grew up during the nation’s economic revival and have thus never experienced real deprivation or acquired a taste for the chiku (“eating bitterness”) work ethic championed by previous generations.
—Ha, as an aside: before we arrived at our school, a local teacher told Alden and I that we would be eating bitterness in our work here. How right they were!