It was my first time in Shanghai and, despite visiting Beijing, the notorious capital, seven years before, I knew things would be different, especially in China’s international harbor, where nearly 32% of business comes from overseas clients. I had heard that Shanghai was like a New York City on steroids which is hard to imagine just how rapid-fast and crazy a city has to get to have New York City be their baseline for reference.
When I made my way to the bund, I looked out in awe at the city skyline. The sight was breathtaking, a combination of architectural genius and economic lavishness. One only rival to the likes of Hong Kong and the Big Apple itself. From this distance, it gave off quiet and powerful energy, one that was paradoxically boastful and reserved. The contrast of the calm waters to the unequivocal freneticism of the happenings within the city made the whole scene feel incredibly fragile as if either one would surely swallow the other in time.
After I arrived, I noticed the city streets were immaculate. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. I am so used to seeing trash everywhere in New York on my daily commute, that seeing empty sidewalks feels eerie. The roads I walked were lined with chic designer brand stores and silk shops each touting the western celebrities who buy and wear their three thousand dollar shirts. Most everyone spoke English.
I stepped into a shop to buy some water and was greeted by rows upon rows of electronics — power banks, earbuds, chargers, you name it. There were also a million and one mobile accessories, many of which were indecipherable as to their use. I could tell this was one of many stores like this. I walked to the cashier to purchase the drink and pulled cash out of my wallet. He looked at me like I was crazy. He took the first paper notes he had likely seen in over a year and shook his head in a “silly foreigner” kind of way as he tried to remember how to open the cashier to make change. Meanwhile, a kid next to me who was shorter than the counter itself raised his phone to a scanner and walked out with a can of soda. I couldn’t help but wonder if the cashier knew it wouldn’t be long until his job ceased to exist.
After riding the subway that was both high-tech and on time(a mythical concept in New York), I met up with a friend from college who had been living in China for the past six years. All her friends speak English and, in fact, most of them were foreigners. And, for her, those who didn’t speak English, weren’t interested in talking to her anyway. The local people aside from those in international business themselves didn’t particularly like to interact with foreigners.
The opposite used to be true. When I was first in China, I remember being affectionately referred to as “Lao Wai” and frequently invited to join families for dinner or ask to take pictures with us and how most people would try, with their limited English, to ask questions about our jobs and personal lives. But now it seemed that Chinese people didn’t want much to do with my friend and her tribe of expats. Now, it seemed as if they were saying “you’ve stayed long enough. We don’t want you here anymore.” With the way we talk about China in the news, can you blame them?
This was a new kind of China. A China who, in a short period, has gone from being the World’s Great Manufacturer to the World’s Great Consumer. And with that consumption, a new sense of individualism and self-importance. An empowerment fitting for the largest growing middle class and the second largest GDP in the world.
There is much speculation around China’s future, and some believe that their economy has been propped up by an unstable foundation and their growth slowdown is the beginning of the end. But, to use this as a platform to dismiss China’s current place as a world superpower would be diminishing the opportunity this burgeoning growth brings to the world.
And, after I traveled from city to city and discovered more about China’s transformation from a nation whose greatness was often attributed to the implementation of others’ successful inventions to establishing themselves as the leaders of cutting-edge innovation, I felt strongly that I was getting a glimpse of the future.
A China that I would much rather find common ground with. One that has already become wary of our brash and bullish need to put them in their place. And one with which I believe we are much better off sharing a table.
Only if, of course, after all is said and done, they’ll still want to.
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