The daylight never leaves us.
We race against the earth’s rotation, our speed varying anywhere from 495 miles per hour to 600, forty-thousand feet up. From Chicago we cut northwest across Canada, over Anchorage, parallel to the Aleutian peninsula and islands across the Bering Strait and on into tomorrow.
“Why do we fly up and over instead of in a straight line across the ocean,” one of my students has asked. There are thirteen of them in all, as well as my sixteen-year-old-daughter, Stephanie.
“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” I explained. “On a sphere—like a globe—that line becomes a curve. The shortest curve between two points isn’t always just straight around. In this case, the shortest curve is up and over.”
We come down from the top of the world across the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, although by then I’m too tried to walk over to the window to raise the shade and look. I’ve never seen Russia and, it seems, won’t see Russia today.
We left our homes in western New York at three a.m. for a flight out of Buffalo to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and from there, up and over, a fourteen-hour flight in perpetual daylight, to China.
The flight crosses more ocean, then the Japanese island of Hokkaido. From there, we hug the western coast of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, before making the final jump southwest to Shanghai.
We descend from the stratosphere through a cloudcover that, at some point, turns into smog. It’s indistinguishable from an overcast, drizzly day back home except there’s no drizzle.
The air is thick as soup, though. Shanghai’s climate is similar to Savannah, Georgia’s: hot and humid. Our luggage, tucked away in the plane’s sub-zero fuselage for so many hours, comes to us coated in a thin layer of condensation.
We had to pass through quarantine last year because of the N1H1 pandemic, but this year’s trip through customs runs quick and smooth, and soon we meet up with our contact, bustle onto a bus, and head toward the city and our hotel.
Along our route, every inch of land is accounted for. Small patchwork gardens abut warehouses with corrugated royal-blue metal roofs and shanty-town neighborhoods crowd the edges of industrial sites, all in a crowded crazyquilt of human habitat. Forests of high-tension towers cluster near the road and stretch off like spiderwebs into the haze. On the smog-choked edge of visibility, monolithic structures loom like ghostly sentinels.
Shanghai sits on the edge of a broad coastal plain, and water flows from the western mountains across that plain through a network of canals. They may have all been streams once, but the crush of human necessity has long since tamed the streams. Now they run, in long straight lines, following dependable routes that people can tap into for irrigation and, from the few small barges I see, transportation. The canals look dirty, though, and many have small bits of garbage floating in them.
The closer we get to Shanghai proper, the taller the buildings grow. Companies advertise their names in Chinese and English. The neighborhoods look more crowded and labyrinthine. Suddenly a Ferris wheel appears in a clearing carved out of the towers, with smaller rides scattered around its base, a disparate site amidst the other urban clutter.
The highway passes under the Pu River, which separates the newer, eastern section of the city from the older western side. We also pass through tunnels with names like Hongquai, Xianxia, and Jin Sin Jang. Our route takes us to the west of downtown, to a hotel on Wuning Road, where finally we settle in on the twenty-second floor.
Steph, of course, wants to explore—but first things first. She plugs in the computer, jumps on the internet, and checks her e-mail. She tries to update her Facebook status, too, but the site is blocked. One of my students later tells me he’s able to access Facebook on his Blackberry, but he can only read and can’t post.
Outside, as we walk through the neighborhood, people stare at Steph unabashedly. She’s blonde and blue-eyed and beautiful—and at five-seven, she stands taller than most Chinese. They don’t consider it rude to stare, so it takes Steph a few blocks of walking before she stops feeling self-conscious. By the time we make our way back to the hotel, we’re having a good laugh about it.
“I don’t notice that much difference between communism and democracy so far,” Steph says.
“Really? Why don’t you go ahead, then, and post a note about that on your Facebook page.”
Dusk settles in. The neon glow of the city punches through the smog. Horn blares careen upwards through the high-rise canyons. Veins of taillights blur through the haze. This could be any other city in the world.
But it’s not. It’s Shanghai. China’s showcase city, the symbol of its modern power, the heart of its economic and commercial might.
I am glad to be back.