American Culture

China, Day One: Shanghai and smallness

First in a series

sm-hotelChina has a way of making me feel small.

It started the moment I stepped into the terminal at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai. It was about ten p.m. local time, but my body was telling me it was ten o’clock in the morning. I’d been traveling for twenty-four hours straight, but despite the extra leg room my seat afforded me on the trans-Pacific flight, I couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep.

Perhaps it might have been my state of mental wooziness that made me feel so small. Or, it could be the fact that I couldn’t see the far end of the terminal walkway. It felt like one of those bad dreams where you’re walking down a hallway and the farther you go, the farther ahead the hallway stretches.

In this case, Pudong International stretches on for almost a mile. In total, the airport’s website boasts, the facility covers some 280-thousand square meters. Twenty-five hours of air travel seem to magnify that by even more than the 6.8% exchange rate.

The interminable terminal walkway eventually led to a giant box of a room awash with florescent light. Everything looked so open and vast and clean. Think “Wal-Mart,” ten times bigger and empty except for a maze of retractable nylon barriers set up to herd me through quarantine.

From there, I passed into an even larger box of a room to go through customs, and beyond that, into an even larger room to retrieve my luggage. The Chinese airport felt like a Russian matryoshka doll—a small giant room leading to a larger giant room leading to another.

The luggage claim area led, of course, to an even larger room, where the other members of my group and I met up with our host from the Beijing Institute of Technology.

I had come to China as one of three St.Bonaventure faculty members chaperoning a group of graduate students on a class trip. I had never been overseas before, so this promised to be one of those “adventures of a lifetime” for me. Admittedly, China didn’t top my list of “must-see” places, but since the opportunity presented itself, I would’ve been foolish to say no.

I’ve been here only a day, and already, China has become “must-see.”

It has also made me feel very, very small.

The enormity of China is hard to imagine. It’s the third-largest country in the world in terms of size (behind Russia and Canada and just ahead of the United States) and the home of more than 1.3 billion people. That’s seven percent of the world’s land mass for twenty-two percent of the world’s population.

Shanghai, the largest city in the country, is home to more than 20 million people. Official government figures put the number somewhere around 18 million, but some two million immigrants live in the city as well.

That sheer volume of people creates logistics for housing. Apartment buildings, little more than stacks of cubicles, line the streets. Residents have so little space they have to hang their laundry to dry on pipes outside their high-rise windows. Many look like vertical slums. The resulting contrast between developing country and modern city is striking.

There’s construction everywhere. Everywhere! “The pace of growth is fast and furious,” one Shanghai resident told me.

Many rundown housing complexes are getting facelifts. Bamboo scaffolding and green mesh that resembles mosquito netting covers their exteriors as workers scramble around with paint and plaster.

Others tenements, which might stand three or four stories tall, are being torn down to make room for modern high-rise housing, displacing families that have lived in the ramshackle buildings for generations. Many are too poor to afford to live in the new buildings that take their place.

The bus ride from the airport into the city center takes us past one public works project after another. Between 2001 and 2010, Shanghai will sink more than $73 billion dollars into public works projects. Elevated highways are going up all over the city, as is a new subway extension. There’s even a maglev train.

Some of the money goes toward green spaces. The average per capita of green space in the city is about 11.5 square meters, totaling some 37.7% of the city’s area—an impressive amount of greenery for the densely packed city. Trees and shrubs are crammed into alleyways, between buildings, and into parks. Neatly manicured landscaping lines both sides of the major roads and fills the nooks and crannies around on- and off -ramps. Even the elevated highways have greenery planted in flowerbeds along the tops of their concrete walls.

Skyscrapers jockey for position with each other, although the Shanghai World Financial Center looms over all of them. At 1,614 feet tall, with 101 floors, it’s the tallest building in China. It looks like a giant bottle opener.

We cross the Huangpu River on the Nanpu Bridge, one of the world’s largest suspension bridges, and start a long spiral descent into the west-shore region of Shanghai known as Puxi. Coming off the bridge, the road makes three giant loops, dropping fifteen stories along the way, before spilling traffic out on ground level. The bridge and spiral ramp are engineering marvels.

It’s all so big.

The hotel sits only a few blocks away. As tired as I am, and as small as I feel, I’m glad to finally have a quiet place to unwind and, hopefully, catch a few hours of sleep.

China, I know, has big things in store for me in the days ahead.

9 replies »

  1. Thanks, Chris. I never heard China described that way before. Sort of the opposite of how I pictured it — space at a premium.

  2. I’ve never had China terribly high on my list of things to see, either, but whenever I see photos of some of its large cities at night I think maybe I am missing something. If you would, take some night shots of Shanghai for me.

  3. Don’t eat the local pizza, Chris, whatever you do. And i can’t see why you’d stop into a Pizza Hut when there are so many chances to point at a random menu item that you don’t understand and hope for the best. Think of all the new and exciting species you have the opportunity to sample.

  4. Nice piece Chris – the juxtaposition of ancient to modern is amazing in China. I loved your description of the airport as a Russian matryoshka doll. Enjoy.

  5. I went on one of the trips a while back with SBU, IMC class, and to this day I can’t fathom why the other people in my class would not want to go. I actually remember someone in class saying “Well I’d go if it was France or Italy”. Easily the best experience in my life that I got college credit for (Sorry Sam). China has always been on my list, of course my lists includes pretty much the entire world. The whole country moves at a medium non stop pace, and everyone is so respectful. I remember the ride from the airport to the hotel like it was yesterday, you are on an elevated highway that seems like it’s ten stories high, and your bus would circle around and around like a pinball or a roller coaster. FYI: you will not have any shortage of food, your guests will take care of you. However by day 3 or 4 you will actually start to miss cheese, becasue the Chinese never use it in their cooking. I went to a Pizza Hut and it was exactly the same, and it served my cheese craving well. I did a project on KFC in China and found that there KFC was actually a lot better, just watch out for the knock off KFC’s. I can’t wait to read the rest, this post brought back a lot of memories. The rest of the trip will be a blast. Make sure you check out a karaoke bar, they have a unique spin on it.

  6. International fast food franchises operate differently than their domestic counterparts…sometimes. Generally if the necessary ingredients are locally available and cheaper they’re used rather than having ingredients shipped in. MacDonald’s in Russia was actually pretty good in that it tasted like eating an actual hamburger. (the corporate taste must, of course, be maintained)

    I’m not sure where East Asians get their cheese from, but i have to wonder if there’s actually cows involved in the process. I assume that the US franchises have cheese shipped in.

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