“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”
These past few weeks traveling in Asia, I’ve let the experiences wash over me without filter.
About 35 years ago, fresh out of school, I backpacked through Europe with my college roommate. It was my first experience on the Continent. Eurail passes in our back pockets, we moved from city to city and from country to country according to the train schedules, taking in the Old World like oxygen.
This trip, my first-ever extended stay in this part of the world, feels like that.
With me for this trip I brought my American perspective on the region (because it’s all I’ve got) and an open mind. I had expectations, but I tried to set them aside.
What have I discovered?
Shanghai and Singapore are brand-name cities of the future built on centuries of complicated pasts, cities to be explored and understood layer by layer, district by district.
Shanghai, the city that opium built, is cleaned up and revved up for the 21st century. At the same time, it’s an internet black hole.
Shanghai was both the starting point and the real point of this trip. Our son Jackson was accepted to NYU Shanghai. We accompanied him to the city to help him move into his dorm and prepare for the start of his freshman year.
Upon arrival, the first thing Lief, Jackson, and I did was the first thing we typically do upon arrival in a new place—we pulled our various devices from their carrying cases and powered up.
Only… email didn’t work… Google didn’t work… WhatsApp didn’t work…
Ah, right, we reminded ourselves. We’re in China.
In Shanghai, you can forget.
“What now?” Jackson asked, sounding slightly panicked.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “Remember, NYU has its own VPN. Once that’s downloaded, you’ll be able to access the internet as though you were in New York.”
“Oh, right,” Jackson replied with a big sigh of relief.
Once we’d figured out our internet connections, I continued to have to remind myself sometimes that we were in China. Exploring Shanghai over the couple of weeks we were there, I imagined often that, if not for the Chinese characters on the street signs, we could have been in central Manhattan.
Same heritage architecture, same skyscrapers, same brand-name shopping, same well-dressed business folk to’ing and fro’ing between meetings… even the same oversized bronze statue of a charging bull on the street of Shanghai’s Bund financial district.
Fighting Back Against Pollution
Shanghai is like New York but ever-greener.
The city suffers a serious pollution problem. In 2013 air pollution levels became so dangerous that officials were forced to close schools. It was a wake-up call.
In the years since, Shanghai has worked hard to green itself up. Most streets are lined both sides with leafy trees. Beyond the trees are shrubs, grass, flowers, topiaries… along the sidewalks, in the median areas between driving lanes, even on the rooftops and the sides of buildings.
Plus, now, the scooters are electric. Given the number of scooters on the streets of this city every day, this should be a big help in the fight against air pollution.
On the other hand, electric scooters are silent… and the locals weave them between cars, between lanes, in the medians, down the roadside shoulders, through the emergency lanes, and on the sidewalks. My biggest concern leaving Jackson in Shanghai was the high level of risk I perceived that he could be run over by a scooter driver!
Shanghai is like Manhattan… and it’s also like Panama City. Shanghai is still a work in process, and everywhere you look you see something else being built. This is a city of soaring and imposing structures erecting loads more of the same. Construction cranes figure in most city views.
Shanghai is awash in businesspeople from across the region and also tourists… nearly all Asian and mostly Chinese. The expats, both business and tourist, seem to keep to themselves in the French concession and other international zones.
In Singapore, the tourists are fewer. People here are having fun but keeping an eye always, it seems, on the prize. Even the small shopkeepers are serious businesspeople, efficient and no-nonsense.
Just as I feel like I’m beginning to scratch beneath the surface of these places, it’s time to leave. Later this week Lief and I will fly from Singapore to Las Vegas for this year’s Retire Overseas Expo and Conference.
We’re already thinking about when we’ll be able to return. We feel connected now, with our son installed at university in Shanghai.
Plus, I’m fascinated by what we’ve begun to discover.
Before this trip, I thought of Asia as the developing world. Now I’d say it’s the re-developing world. China was a developed nation… an empire… long before the countries of the New World had made their way onto world maps.
As Napoleon suggested, this giant has been long slumbering… but it’s now re-awakening.
Shanghai and Singapore have evolved into the eclectic boomtown bouillabaisses they are today thanks to centuries of immigration from across the region. Migrants arrived from across China, India, Malaysia, and beyond with dreams and aspirations… and began to exchange, to trade, and to cross-pollinate values, religions, products, and ideas… creating, slowly and organically, dense cultural fabrics and vibrant economies.
Just as the mix of nationals and cultures choosing to up sticks to Panama over the past two decades has begun to form the foundation of a similar society in that part of the world.
What an intriguing point in history in both these regions reinventing themselves in real time.