Day 4: Shanghai (for real this time)

Zen somewhat back in place, the meltdown finally subsided, I got out into Shanghai. While a smell that closely resembles rubber cement is still stuck in my nose, I do feel in many ways like I had just got magically sucked into a Discovery Channel special. I'm not sure I knew what I was expecting in Shanghai, other than I didn't expect to be moved by it the way I was.

I will say the light and the atmosphere wasn't the best in a photographic sense, though the light I did have seemed to reveal even more truth about Shanghai life than a perfect day ever could have. It's no secret that Shanghai is one of the most polluted cities on earth, and the more time I spent outside, the more I realized that the haze in the air wasn't weather based. Though, as often happens, I find that while I may not be catching the next stock photo of the Pudong District, I was capturing the real China.

Or should I say Chinas?

At the risk of making light of the situation here, I'm reminded of the way Seinfeld episodes often have two seemingly unrelated plots that come together in some brilliantly funny way at the end. Though here, there is no joke. No sarcastic low note ending the episode on the slap of a fretless bass. Simply two very different scenarios playing themselves out simultaneously everywhere you look. Though they seem as if they are disconnected, the two are inexorably linked.

On the surface is the China that people both applaud and fear. The most superficial look shows the booming economic power that has arisen out of the communism imposed dark ages. Practically overnight, skyscrapers were being built nearly as fast as they could be conceived. Prada and Chanel window displays grace the front of 5 star hotels with BMW's and Porsche's in parking lots being wiped down by valets. Young men and women clad in the latest fashions meet in chic cafes, and smoke cigarettes while chatting or texting on their iPhones and Blackberries. They take to the busy streets with designer bags and snap photos of each other with their cute little pocket digi-cams, flashing peace signs at us Americans. It looks, possibly by design, like there is no stopping China, and Shanghai is well on it's way to becoming New York City, only powerful. This is a proposition that shakes the existing world powers and the people who thrive in them to their very cores.

It doesn't take long to realize that this China is only half (and maybe not even that) of the story. For every skyscraper, there is at least one construction crane with a steel cage growing under it. At all times of the night you can see the light from metal working and welding tools lighting up a small part of the skyline, which seems to go very dark around midnight. Between all of the very modern looking glass and metal structures lie clumps of tiny, barely habitable housing with laundry strung between fire escapes. Designer knock-offs are being aggressively peddled at nearly every turn, and behind the big smile and Rolex offer is a cross between panic and desperation. The busy streets are a mess of dust and debris from construction sites, to the point where many wear protective masks, and one feels like they've been huffing glue after about an hour walking around. Someone has to build the city that the young, hip Chinese take advantage of, and at every corner are men hard at work, covered in dust and frantically tiling sidewalks, digging trenches and finishing masonry. The sites are active seemingly around the clock, almost being built with the same desperation that the street vendors push their wares. The streets are so jam packed with cars that it takes 20 minutes to go less than a mile. While so many seem to be thriving in this new, economically enhanced China, it can take several tries before you find a taxi driver who can even read. Finally, for all of the alleged progress that a city like Shanghai has made, they've either overlooked or simply ignored even the most basic environmental regulations, so the health risks associated with the very commonplace smoking habits are almost incidental. Some would say that this is the real China, that the success stories wrapped in western designer names are just a snow job for the dark underside of a society fighting to find it's place in the world; a world that seems to have gone on without it. While initially it seems that two unrelated plots are playing out on the street, the two are in fact siamese twins, sharing one heart, each quickly dying without the other. The "chuppies" need someone to build the this hot new megalopolis that they take full advantage of, and the men and women frantically putting it all together would perhaps lose their steam if it weren't for the endless parade of the haves, giving them hope that they too can be part of the other story.

During one of the walks about the city, I noted the use of bamboo for scaffolding on several of the construction sites. When I later saw a woman using bamboo for a broom, I commented that bamboo was kind of an amazing plant, as it seemed like it could be used for just about everything. This thought filled me with an odd sadness about China. I saw the Chinese as an innovative people, and it made me wonder why there seemed to be this intense desire to matter, when Chinese culture already has so much to offer. It struck me as backwards that a culture with a civilized history dating back to when Europeans were still nomadic is trying so hard to fit in this world that got defined without them. Perhaps there was a misstep on their part, leaving them to try to find a place in world that changed so drastically, without their consent.

Amidst all of it, I found what might as well be the mascot for this need to matter. Though he was really just a logo for the 2010 Expo, to me, he came to mean so much more. So much of the frantically built city is due to this Expo, so it's no surprise that this blue guy, in drawings, sculpture and blow-up form, accompanied so many of these hard working men, even though they didn't seem to share his enthusiasm.

Whatever the cost, Shanghai did achieve its apparent goal of being a force to be reckoned with, and whether you fear their growth or applaud it, you have no choice but to acknowledge it. Though it remains to be seen, the brown skies, dusty pavement and noxious air may just prove to undo everything that they are trying to accomplish. The brightest flames burn the quickest.