Five years ago I had my first terrible travel experience. Spoiled by the service industries of Korea and Japan, which cater to American businessmen and soldiers, I was unprepared for everything about traveling in China. I was surprised when I was told that I needed to wait for a Chinese Visa for five days, all of which I spent in a Korean sauna. I was horrified by how badly my body reacted to Beijing’s pollution. I was disgusted with the way the government set up gigantic walls around its homeless and tenements, replacing these “eyesores” with posters of government propaganda.
And I did not know a word of Chinese. I had arrogantly assumed that, in a country of over a billion people, they would cater to English speakers in the way other countries do.
This time, roughened from excursions to India and Southeast Asia, traveling around China feels almost too easy. They have subways, convenience stores, and the only real danger is pick-pocketing. It feels like a level 6, whereas my experience is around a level 8.
Though I am armed with a year and a half of studying the Chinese language, the language barrier is still quite difficult. I still request English menus at restaurants, and I still run the risk of ending up in the middle of some village every time I buy train tickets to the next city. For the budget traveler, there is little catering to the English language. Most tourists hire translators or guides. What little I know helps. On the trains, I would not even know which seat to sit in or which berth to occupy, without knowing that shang means up, zhong means middle, and xia means low.
In step with the rest of the world, Shanghai and Beijing have become increasingly proud of their minority cultures, though there is still a blatant class separation between them.
Shanghai itself is super expensive for foreigners. Unlike Korea and Japan, which is home to military bases of soldiers with little money to burn, most foreigners in China are of the business, design or IT class. So any “foreigner” bars, clubs, restaurants, or tourist destinations, are going to be far more expensive than I can afford on a backpacker’s budget.
And past 9pm, pimps emerge from behind brick walls and station signs, their hails so common and frequent that often they’ll offer a girl as they pass by, giving you only .5 seconds to answer.
Girls are offered like fake Ipods.
—Hey, you want beautiful young Chinese girl? Very special girl, just for you.
—bu yao, (don’t want).
—Oh, you must be a student studying Chinese. We have special student discount on very special girl.
—Just go away.
—You want boy? How about young boy?
Christ, a lot of people must be buying, with so many selling.
Thankfully, my meager Chinese skills allow me to avoid the foreigner-heavy districts to drink, eat, and play with the locals. The super hard alcohol can be bought at convenience stores for only 5￥ (80 cents) a bottle. Locals sometimes mix it with coke, but usually take it straight, drinking it alongside 1￥ (15 cent) kebabs and chunks of beef or pork.
There’s a lot of eye-rolling to do in Shanghai. The city seems desperate to be seen as “global,” though they are far from it. To be “global,” one does not necessarily need to be extravagantly rich (Kuala Lumpur comes to mind).
Perhaps the closest I can think to it is Singapore. English magazines and newspapers in both cities speak in an extremely pretentious and fashioniesta-heavy language, with every sentence containing words like “posh” “environs” “sporting.” It’s like watching Bill Hader play Stefan but without the humor. Continuous appearance of the words “hip,” “young” and “cool” make one wonder: what do you get once you finally are hip, cool and young? Is there some prize awaiting those who make it? Is it like Scientology, where one gets infused with a new super-power when they surpass a certain level?
The women in Shanghai clubs dress like they are trying out for the role of “sin” in a medieval allegory. The highly fetishized fashion scene here seems like an obsession with European brands and styles. I’m speaking as a fan of the old Shanghai look, the supposed birthplace of the Chinese bob, that modern girl fashion worn in local casinos and moving down the French concession with light pink parasols.
But the look of contemporary Shanghai seems to have lost that uniqueness, that curious fusion between Chinese chongsams and French dresses. Instead, what we get are pajamas. Pajamas down the runway, pajamas on the street, most in polka-dots or blue and yellow stripes. The birthplace of the modern, cigarette-smoking Chinese woman, and we get pajamas.
The city feels like Singapore, except without the saving grace of the National University of Singapore and other popular schools. It is like Singapore but without the self-satirizing architecture and self-demeaning irony of Singapore. From the museums and the humor of the locals, Singapore seemed always aware that it was an artificial city created through the chaos of global commerce. Often it seemed that people in Singapore were having a laugh at themselves, at their own history, at their own extravagances.
Unlike Singapore, Shanghai seems to actually take itself seriously. The city’s narrative seems as serious about their pajamas-as-fashion as they are about their lotus-flower shaped buildings. The foreigners seem to shrug their way past it. Travel guides recommend using the airport to come into the country, but to otherwise avoid the void of materialism within the city center.
And of course there is little English, so who knows. Maybe there’s some kernel of irony in all that self-aggrandizement. If there is, it gets lost in translation.