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Saturday, July 25, 2015

It's the end of the post as I know it...and I feel fine


That's how I would describe the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum 上海科技馆, which my daughter and I visited today on a last sightseeing hurrah in Shànghăi 上海. The design of the building is striking, but for the most part the exhibits within are uninspiring. Lonely Planet's writers inexplicably describe them as "fascinating", but I'm assuming the authors of the Shanghai guidebook haven't visited too many museums elsewhere in the world. There were some interesting displays, such as the one on spiders (though it would've benefited from having actual arachnids to look at instead of mere mockups), while the 4D movie we watched (a Finding Nemo-inspired look at life under the sea in the Jurassic period) was entertaining. But the sheer number of people visiting today made getting around the vast interior a draining experience. Fortunately for Amber, she had been to the museum back in the 2nd grade while on a school field trip and had a much more productive visit then. But all things considered, this was a rather anticlimactic end to what has been a mostly enjoyable stay in China's biggest city; it certainly hasn't helped that our plan to go out for dinner this evening at a local Sichuan restaurant has literally been washed out by heavy rain. 

And so tomorrow two years and twenty-two days in Shanghai come to an end. In many respects, I'll be glad to move out and move on to new and (hopefully) better things. One thing I'm not going to miss is the pollution. While not as bad as in, say, Bĕijīng 北京 (though the two times when we went to China's capital the weather was almost perfect) or Chéngdū 成都, the air quality index can still get dangerously high at times, and long-term exposure is definitely something an expat should consider when deciding whether to relocate here (and pity the poor local who has to spend a lifetime in this kind of environment). The state of Chinese driving leaves a lot to be desired, though it isn't that much worse than in Taiwan, and so wasn't a major adjustment for my wife and I to make. And, of course, there's the censorship that comes with residing in a country governed under an authoritarian political system. The Chinese government's fear of its citizens communicating online with people in other parts of the world necessitates having to use a VPN in order to access sites like Facebook, YouTube and even this blog. Not content with just blocking "rumor-spreading" sites, the authorities are constantly attempting to block access by VPN's, making getting online to do routine tasks like checking up on social media a major headache at times. The heavy-handedness even spreads to more traditional media at times; during last year's Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong, any time a story on BBC or CNN related to China was about to be aired, the TV screen would go black, and the picture would only return once the offending report was over, and a different story was being reported. And while Shanghai presents a prosperous face, there are pockets of poverty even in an upscale area like ours, with its large expat population, evidence that not all Chinese have benefited from "socialism with Chinese characteristics". 

On the other hand there have been a lot of positives. I was told when I first arrived here that I would be spoiled by having Shanghai as my first post, and that's proven itself to be the case. All of my colleagues during the two years I've been here, both American and Chinese, have been wonderful to work with, and morale in the office has been remarkably high. And Shanghai itself has been a great city to live in, with its numerous restaurants and shops complemented by a remarkably low crime rate for an urban area of 23 million people. Not once have I felt threatened here, even in the above-mentioned economically depressed neighborhoods. I'll be the first to admit that we've enjoyed life on an expat package, living in a house larger than most Chinese could enjoy, and with my daughter having the opportunity to attend a good international school that I wouldn't have been able to afford on my paycheck alone. I certainly wouldn't want to try to support a wife and child in Shanghai on an English teacher's salary, like I did in Taiwan, but it's easy to see why Shanghai is so attractive to the many single Westerners who come here to study or work.

In some respects, my worst fears about Shanghai have been realized, namely that it has most of the things that used to annoy me about living in Taiwan, only on a much larger scale. But Shanghai is without a doubt far more cosmopolitan than any Taiwanese metropolis (including even Taipei 台北), and I had far fewer encounters of the "Look! It's a foreigner!"-kind that are still sadly all too common in Taiwan. Probably the biggest effect Shanghai's had on me is in my perception of the Chinese as a people. Living in Taiwan, it's all too easy as a resident expat Westerner to think of Chinese as mindless automatons, marching in lockstep as they answer their government's call to realize the dream of "reunification" of Taiwan with the mainland. The deservedly poor reputation of some Chinese tourists overseas also makes it easy to assume that everyone in China is an extremely rude boor, pushing, spitting and urinating in public. In reality, most Chinese (at least those in Shanghai) seem to care little about Taiwan, the Senkakus, the South China Sea, the "revival of Japanese militarism" or any other hot button issue, preferring instead to get on with the mundane tasks of trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. And while examples of bad behavior are easy to find, for the most part my interactions with people outside of work were of the same normal variety that you would find elsewhere in the world (including acts of kindness). In short, the Chinese are no different than anyone else, and that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Even the government isn't as malevolent as I imagined it to be. Yes, there's the censorship, and rule of law is still lacking (as my visits to incarcerated Americans would at times attest). But the local media is far more open to critical reporting on political and social issues than I'd assumed (the government no doubt has learned it can be helpful to let people vent and to deflect attention away from other critical areas). And while the central government presents itself as omnipotent, it struggles to maintain control at the local level, where provincial interests (including the benefits accruing from corruption) can be much more important than the dictates coming out of Beijing. Like any vast bureaucracy (including the one I work for), there are competing interests and turf battles that make it hard to believe, for example, that every action taken by China vis-a-vis Taiwan is part of a grand conspiracy to draw the two countries closer together for eventual annexation "reunification". When it comes to dealing with Chinese officialdom, quite often their proverbial left hands have little clue what the proverbial other hands are doing, and quite often don't care to find out. That isn't to say I've turned into an apologist; far from it, as the U.S. is going to need to work even more closely with Japan and its other allies in the region to contain China (yes, I said it - see disclaimer at the bottom of this blog). But just as with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (those were the days!), we can't look at China while wearing a black-or-white, good vs. evil pair of spectacles. It's a complicated relationship that's going to have to be managed very carefully, and on numerous levels, by many rational, clear-thinking people.

I, for one, have little interest in being part of that management process, for in the end, I'm happy to get out and don't intend on coming back (though for obvious reasons Taiwan is a different matter). Having lived in Taiwan for too long, topped off with these past two years in China, I've had enough of life in the Mandarin-speaking world, and I'm looking forward to new and different challenges elsewhere, such as in Eastern Europe. I'm going to miss Asia, but mostly that relates to my relationship with Japan. However, I've enjoyed the time spent in Shanghai, and I wish the best to all my Chinese 同事们, past and present, at the consulate, as well as to my American colleagues. I may never return to China, but that doesn't mean I hope never to see them again.

Thanks for the memories, Shanghai, and 再见.

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