Bostonista is Ambivalent About…Shanghai

1224266803 Bostonista was in China last week. Well, actually, just me, and just Shanghai. With over 21 million people, it’s now the largest city in the world, and its population is exploding, apparently through mitosis, given that the Chinese are only permitted one child per couple and must donate the rest to charity.

(To see Rachel Levitt’s photos from her trip, go here for a slideshow).

I traveled there for a few reasons but mainly to escape the press which has been hounding me lately for opinion, photo-ops, and gaffes. China looked so far away, I thought it might be the promised land for the paparazzi-exhausted, and as a communist country, it would reveal to me all the reasons why we shouldn’t nationalize our banks or health care.

If escaping the exceptionalism of my country was my goal, then mission accomplished. On the first day there, a Shanghai woman asked me where I came from and when I said the United States, she gave me an eerily blank stare.

I tried a few other names for this country, and then we settled on “America,” but I had a feeling she was going to Google it when she got home.

Very unlike traveling to Europe where if you admit you’re American, you get the pity eyes and end up staring your shoes. Another confirmation that I was far, far away was that the skyline was littered with construction cranes. There are more skyscrapers being built right now in Shanghai than exist in all of New York City.

Here’s an economy that says ‘yes’ when others say ‘no!’ (So tell me again why we’re so afraid of socialism?) And finally, I knew I was el beyondo when I discovered that no one, absolutely no one, in this city spoke English. So pundits can go to hell—a whole constituency that doesn’t get a lick of what you say.

It’s an understatement to say that Shanghai is big. The relentless buildingscape was exhilarating in a damn the torpedoes sort of way. Forty-five miles from the city center to the aiport, and the “city” only gave up in the last mile and a half before the runway. In New England terms, that means never having to leave Boston to get to Providence. Bonus: you could own a 36th floor penthouse condo in Marshfield. Tell me, ghost, is this the future yet to come?

This might be a good place to mention that the air was a haunting yellowish-brown. Then I got a rare bloody nose that first day, which caused a minor panic in the hotel room. Was my system so coddled that it couldn’t handle a few nefarious particulates?

Each morning, a city’s worth of lowly workers emerge from the undergrowth to begin the washing and sweeping required to prevent Shanghai’s streets and sidewalks from being buried under industrial dust. Forget rising water levels, here it’s all about fighting back the sands of commerce.

It’s certainly on people’s minds; the China Daily that morning had a cover article with the headline, “One Million Chinese Will Die of Lung Cancer,” a sweetly straightforward approach to a devastating fact. American papers would have said, “might die,” as in, “The effect of human activity on the air quality in Shanghai has yet to be determined, but scientists say at least one person may be involved.” See, that’s what it means to eliminate bias.

We stayed in a section of town that foreigners call the French Concession. The scale is low, and rows of sycamores line the streets. Then the neighborhood would stop abruptly stop at the foot of a huge, city block-wide hole waiting for the steel to be delivered to make another skyscraper. If we paused to contemplate the loss, a hoarde of bag and watch hawkers would vigorously pursue us with laminated cards showing pictures of “real” designer bags and Rolexes, ostensibly to lure us into white slavery with the promise of luxury goods at cheap prices.

Just kidding. They don’t need white slaves. That would be downright absurd in a robust economy like China’s. Only computers like white slaves.

I did meet a number of small business owners, enterprising individuals who worked quickly and efficiently to exchange goods and services for my yuan. In the fabric market, a three-story building housing hundreds of tiny textile stalls, I had the privilege to work with several fabled Shanghai tailors (those who didn’t escape to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution). Each small business owner ran a neat operation, took my money and my order, and delivered beautifully tailored custom clothes to our hotel within 36 hours. Did this ever happen here in the United States?

On our day of culture, we went to the Shanghai Museum, where there was nary an oil painting in sight. The museum did, however, have an entire exhibition hall dedicated to the history of hard currency, including the first examples of paper money in the world (made in China), and coins minted by Genghis Khan.

On our way back to the hotel, we passed a sidewalk dentist. He had a chair and a little table with fake teeth on it, and was working on an unfortunate soul with what looked like a rotary tool from Home Depot. Okay, I decided then and there, let’s not nationalize dentistry. I have enough trouble keeping those appointments.