If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.
I vaguely remember Shanghai as being busy with traffic and roads everywhere, and many, many street vendors and shop fronts cooking dumplings in front of you as you side-stepped running water and spit balls. Now it’s an international city with massive department stores selling Nike, Prada and Cartier and forcing you to hunt for the local shop front dumplings.
A sesame seed paste bun
Bicycles have been replaced with electric scooters making the challenge of crossing the road that little more dangerous. They weave through traffic, drive when they want to and mount the footpath wherever they deem necessary. As a pedestrian, you are not truly safe either crossing when the green man says you can, or even when you’re simply walking along on the footpath. You wouldn’t be in Shanghai if the sounds of car horns didn’t permeate through your thoughts.
A bicycle on the side of the path in the French Concession
The Chinese show no inhibitions as they go about their daily lives. Dancing, singing, playing music and wearing, what many may say, ridiculous combinations of colours, patterns and style in their attire, are commonplace. They don’t deem it at all rude by making comments on the size of your nose (sometimes I wish I hadn’t learnt Chinese!) and yet they are judged at restaurant service by their smile. They’re very welcoming and don’t find it intrusive if you peer into their homes or walk down their ‘driveways’ (this is in the traditional housing sector where driveways don’t really exist, they are roads off which doors to houses are positioned and washing is done in the wall mounted troughs outside).
Shoes drying in the sun on the window ledge of a home
13 years ago, as a young single backpacker, it was a rarity to find a local who could speak fluent English. They instead would follow you to have a conversation with you so that they could practice their English. Eyes would pierce the air and follow your every move as you were ‘different’. Nowadays, whilst speaking Chinese certainly helps as you explore the city, it is more commonplace to find English-speaking locals for the basic things such as numbers and if you need someone to help you take a photo. The art of waving one’s hands in gestures certainly helps whether you can speak the language or not. However, taxis, nannies (Ayi), hidden ‘local’ restaurants, and many older generations still do not know the basics when you get out of the big eateries and department stores. This is the same for their writing. Street signs and menus are in English, or pictorial, which has reduced the chance of ordering a random pork floss dish when you thought it’d be chicken. The ‘Chinglish’ (Chinese to English translation) can certainly give you a giggle.
Everyone uses mobile phones and takes photos here and there without relying on cameras. I was startled to see that when we went to a noodle, hot-pot restaurant (one that is very popular with the locals and I felt like Alice entering the rabbit hole as you had to go down an alley through steel doors, up an elevator before finding it without any signage), their ordering system was through an iPad. Each dish had a photographic display for you to choose from and could select quantities for. I’m sure if you travelled out of the major cities and into more regional area, the lack of English would be so much more prominent.
As with the Westernisation of facilities. Last time I travelled, I remember pit toilets being commonplace. As new buildings rise, so do the sanitary standards with flushing toilets. Carrying tissues is a still a must, which are disposed of in the bins on the side. I had forgotten the ‘stench’ of the sewage system until having to use a porcelain bowl set into the floor with serrated edges for you to steady your feet on. Wearing sandals when traveling through China is risky! Many young children (pre-school) are cared for by their Grandparents and move about with their bottoms showing through their bottomless pants. I can only imagine how cold they’d get through winter. More are taking up the disposable nappies option which poke out of the pants, making the scene look like a comedy prop.
Pollution and food safety has become a major cause for concern. During my stay in Shanghai, there was no blue sky and no stars at night. PM2.5 ratings (fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that are produced from combustible processes and can be lodged in the lungs) are monitored and if levels reach a certain point, time outside is deemed hazardous to your health. Food produced and packaged in China is questionable in relation to the amount that has been genetically modified, has been saturated with water that is undrinkable, or from crops that have been sprayed with pesticides. Whilst travellers and ex-pats can limit their ‘outside time’ and make use of internet deliveries from reliable food sources, I feel concerned for the locals who still need to work to live and eat what they can afford. The flow on effect could be less production within China and the effects on farmers. It will be interesting and sad to see the ramifications of man’s influence on the environment and within the human body in the future; deformed offspring, health issues, reduced life expectancy, increased poverty.
An Eastern view across Shanghai in the morning mid-week
My return to Shanghai reminded me of a book by Graeme Base ‘Uno’s Garden’. A man builds a house in a forest, the house turns into a village, a town and then a city, forcing the reduction of flora and fauna. The humans realise they are living in a concrete jungle and so go about resurrecting the flora and fauna so that they can all live in perfect balance.
In another 10-15 years, will China find a balance or will the industrialisation and commercialisation create an unliveable environment for all?