Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tunnels


Enough people have asked me why a white girl from Eugene, Ore., ended up in Shanghai, China, that I've jotted down some rather cheesy thoughts. Here's a draft of a travel essay that won't be available online anytime soon. Enjoy the blabberrhea.

Sitting in my sandbox as a child, I began to dig a tunnel to China. From what I gathered in picture books, movies (this was the pre-Mulan era) and grown-up conversations, China was America’s foil. Chinese people looked different, spoke a strange language, didn’t write like Americans, drank green tea instead of coffee, lived under a different government system, ate different food and at the time seemed completely alien to me.
About two feet into my dig, I realized that as badly as I wanted to see this exotic land, my narrow burrow barely made a dent in the earth’s crust. Understanding China would take more than a plastic shovel.
Years later, I stand on a crowded street in Shanghai as bicycles, cars and speedy walkers whirl by me. It’s the end of Chinese New Year and pigs (this year’s animal) adorn every shop window, lamppost and dumpling cart. I’m blissfully confused.
What shocks and perplexes me about Shanghai isn’t how radically different life is on the opposite side of the tunnel, but by how similar it is to metropolises back in the U.S. Skyscrapers, most brand-new, shoot up into the sky, Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFCs line the streets and Chinese youth belt out Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” with vehemence.
“Modern” bursts out of local mouths enthusiastically. Everyone from executives to cab drivers to street vendors use it as a selling point. Shanghai is literally bursting at the seams and leading the pack of rapidly growing and Westernizing nations. It only takes one glance at a KFC advertisement with a traditional Chinese family eating fried chicken or a perusal of Ralph Lauren imitation polos to see that American culture, with a distinctly Chinese spin, is exploding like New Year’s fireworks and globalization is speeding faster than the famed Maglev train. Rickshaw drivers chat on a brand-new Nokias, traditional characters spell out different types of frappecinos and the latest gossip from Hollywood beams in on subway flat screens.
But the paradox of east and west, formal and informal persists. Chinese students try to shrug off their British English accents and “speak like Americans” while still speaking local dialects at home. The Chinese government engages in high-profile censorship of the Internet, blocking all or portions of such popular websites as Wikipedia, the BBC, Myspace and most recently, Live Journal, but is subverted by the web savvy of Chinese youth’s use of proxy servers (in less than a week, my enthusiastic language tutor had me surfing the web freely).
Contemplating China’s future is a new hobby for economists, journalists, sociologists and former tunnel-diggers like myself. What’s happening in China is not assimilation, nor is it straightforward assimilation. It is the development of the modern East, a term not used enough by Western observers, and prompting new generations, both west and east to go beyond sandbox excavations.