The first time I consciously thought about China was on the Nile. I was on a boat sailing to Aswan with a US expat who lived in Shanghai. He told stories that painted something into my sub-conscious, triggering a desire to travel to a land that in my mind, never warranted regard. He told of the war between ancient neighbourhoods and poor migrant families against the monolithic shopping centres, glass skyscrapers and neon lights. This was the Shanghai we flew into - one that yellowed as clouds turned to smog, smog burned with light, and that light became the blinding background to a country immersed in destroying it’s own roots.
There was never a time in Shanghai where I wasn’t surrounded by some glorious manifestation of a wealthy capitalist’s wet dream. Everything was big name, big structure, big money. It was alluring at first, how busy the streets were with the flourishing lives of people out and about. A metropolis capable of handing it’s citizens third wave coffee chains and busy patisseries, clothing them with expensive business suits and lives fulfilled by the gratification of paycheques and sweets. The disquiet that I normally have of places that boast so much was stilled, or perhaps blinded, by the six-story malls stretching what felt like miles into the distance, the neon glow buzzing above the chatter of shoppers.
And that’s what set Shanghai apart. It wasn’t an old city struggling with it’s heritage, or a young hip sibling trying to rise in the shadow of it’s older, wiser brother. It was a fresh graduate from musical theatre taking it’s first steps into New York; all confidence and dreams without the reality of rent or a ever-expanding population nagging in the background. Had I ever been to Times Square I surely would’ve had something to relate my first steps off the airport shuttle train to.
Mornings were different as the sun bleached the once blinding adverts into the conforming grey. The city felt late to rise, but I was sure that was only a function of our status as travellers apart; not obligated by the call to work, nor welcomed to the morning ritual of morning leftovers and tea. A pervasive fog clung to the daylit city, almost, it felt, as a penance for the hedonism of the nights. Small shops full of trinkets and handmade dumplings appeared in spaces between the monstrous designer stores, giving the city a humanity it lacked in it’s later hours. Red paper lanterns hung from store-tops, the only nod to the ancient culture that this greedy capitalist child suckled from.
Bikes carrying impossible loads bumbled by, unaware or uncaring of the danger held by trafficked cars. Pedestrians were unfazed by sidewalks blurred by bikes and mopeds, and this was the only preconception I had about China that Shanghai had proven true. As we explored the city, the skyline of Shanghai remained the only magnificent display of wealth and power in the city not bleached out by the muted sun, proud and unyielding even and it’s tallest peaks were swallowed by the smog.
Atop one of these such towers, we found ourselves standing in a room literally shoulder-to-shoulder for a chance at seeing the city from it’s heights. The Oriental Pearl is one of the largest TV-Towers in the world (after the CN tower, the Burj and several other more well-known architectural feats), and despite the fact that it’s innards comprise almost singularly of an elevator and a sight-seeing deck, thousands of domestic chinese tourists waited with us for three hours to get into that elevator that took us up 800 some-odd feet. The whole time I had blossomed unknowingly into a celebrity; sheepish giggles that refused to make eye contact with me brazenly took my photo from every pseudo-sneaky angle they could manage. I had babies walk into me and stare, mothers equally as fascinated by my white face and blue eyes. Trapped in a literal sea of people, I was the most exotic thing there, and it was a weird, isolating feeling. This wasn’t the last time china welcomed me with a curiousity that was both invasive and distant.