Dreaming in Chinese
on a recent trip to China.
“This place is more American than America,” I observe candidly to my student minder on the taxi ride toward downtown Shanghai, sorely sleep-deprived following my 13-hour flight from New York. “It makes Manhattan look provincial.” One’s first sighting of Shanghai is unforgettable. Perhaps nowhere else in the world today does one find such a massive concentration of concrete high-rise structures, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of these distinctly unsightly edifices have been built over the last 20 years. With its 20 million-plus inhabitants, Shanghai is the metropolis of the future — and it is already here. Along with it come all the joys of the 21st-century urban experience: smog, pollution, overcrowding, and epic traffic jams. Whatever one’s destination, one always needs to depart an hour early to account for traffic.
As it turns out, my unscripted initial words would return to haunt me. Two days later, I unthinkingly repeat them in the course of an interview with a journalist from the Oriental Morning Post. To my chagrin, he and his editor decide to use them as the interview’s headline.
China and the Chinese display a profound ambivalence toward modernity and all that it entails. On the one hand, they are extraordinarily proud of all that their nation has accomplished over the last 30 years. At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China was still a predominantly rural-agrarian society. The post-Maoist leadership is credited with lifting 400 million peasants out of poverty. By the same token, most Chinese I spoke with had strong reservations about the accelerated pace of modernization, which allows little time to savor the virtues of traditional of Chinese life: family, community, and nature.