I hadn’t been to China since 1995, so I wasn’t prepared for the explosive growth (and bundle of contradictions) in this sprawling mega-city on China’s east coast. For all I had read and heard about how “China has changed,” this is one of those cases where you truly have to see it to believe it.
Sitting on over 2,400 square miles, and with an estimated 23 million residents, making it one of the largest cities by population in the world, (almost as many as live in the entire state of Texas) Shanghai seems to go on forever in every direction.
And as I was reminded by long-time locals, a huge portion are immigrants from other parts of the country. A young woman who stayed with our family as an exchange student in Washington in the 1990s, told us whenever she gets into a taxi, or has a conversation with a stranger, she begins by speaking Mandarin, the national language, rather than the local dialect, “Shanghainese,” because so many in the city are from other parts of China.
A hotel employee volunteered that he doesn’t recognize his hometown in many ways because of the influx, but adds proudly, “they come because this is where the jobs are.”
The city someone labeled “the Paris of the East,” shouts prosperity, from glossy new skyscrapers to signs for European designer boutiques to luxury cars. To an American outsider used to reading about high-level political and trade tensions between China and the U.S., it’s still a little surprising to see Starbucks sprinkled around, next to traditional Chinese shops — and to learn that, in Shanghai at least, Pizza Hut is a high-end cafe where young men and women go to date.
But after all, this is the week Vice President Joe Biden was in China to tell his hosts and all else who will listen that: “A more prosperous China will mean more demand for American-made goods and services … We have a stake in one another’s success.”
I get another take from a businessperson who expresses doubts about how long prices can keep rising in China, while wages remain stable.
And there are the ever-present reminders, in uniform and out, that this is a country with authoritarian controls. Billboards with the image of a smiling couple and daughter, on the highway to and from the airport proclaim in so many words that living in harmony leads to a happy life. But the Shanghai buzz is noticeably pro-business. As one woman in her sixties, who doesn’t relish recalling the turbulent and disruptive Cultural Revolution, laments: “Young men today, all they care about is making money.”
A reminder that a three-day visit is only long enough for a taste — a batch of impressions that linger as we take off for our next destination: Vietnam.
File photo via Getty Images.