Friday, March 23, 2012

China of the Present and China of the Past

One of my students, who actually hails from Turkey, told me he heard that if you want to see modern China, visit Shanghai; if you want to see China of 500 years ago, visit Beijing; and if you want to see China of 1,000 years ago, visit Xi’an. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but in comparing Shanghai to Xi’an, it’s clear how vastly different the two cities are. Quin remarked upon arriving in Xi'an that Chinese cities (at least the one’s he has visited) have really distinct feels to them. I don’t know if the different feel of these two cities is due to differences in the ethnic mix of the people who live there (the influence of the Western and Muslim minorities in Xi’an was very evident) or to the different histories of the cities (Xi'an was the ancient capital of China, while Shanghai didn't really emerge as a major city until the last hundred years or so), but in particular, two things really stood out to me.

First, Xi’an is dirtier than Shanghai. Now, as my father pointed out to me, we Americans didn’t really become all that clean until recently; throwing trash on the ground and dumping pollutants into waterways wasn’t uncommon 40 or 50 years ago in the U.S. And, yes – some of the dirtiness in Xi’an was due to this. As an example, while I was waiting for Doug and the boys, I saw a little girl who must have been 2 or 3 years old throw her (mostly) empty drink carton down in the middle of the sidewalk; her mother didn’t even spare it a glance as it splattered all over and they walked on. Years ago (and even to this day), you’d see stuff like this in the U.S. Still, the people in Xi’an really take it to a whole different level. The key indicator of this, I think, is the vomit. It’s EVERYWHERE. On the streets, in the middle of the sidewalks, even on the tourist bus we took to see the Terra Cotta Army (about 5 bucks each way – for the whole family for a 50 minute ride!). Luckily, Quin saw it (or kind of stepped in it) before all the seats were taken on the bus; the poor American tourists who boarded after us (the only other Westerners on the bus) were not so lucky. Earlier, Doug took the boys to use a public restroom; upon return, the boys reported with equal parts glee and disgust on the “wall of vomit.” Apparently, there were dozens of piles of it along a wall that was tucked from view. Now, I don’t know why there’s all this vomit everywhere (Doug is convinced it’s the street food, but I’m not so sure), but this, along with the overflowing trash, the kids peeing and pooping out of their split pants all over the street and so on, just lent the place a general air of dirtiness. While Shanghai is not as neat as most major cities in the U.S., it’s not that far off from what it would be like in some parts of Chicago or New York. This is due in part to the cleanliness campaigns conducted by the government in advance of the 2010 World Expo that was held here. These campaigns seem to have stuck, making Shanghai much more bearable for a long term stay.

And this cleanliness ties in to the second major difference that struck me, which is that Shanghai is much more international than Xi’an. Now, don’t get me wrong – you can still find Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut and the like in Xi’an, but our friends told us that there’s only one Western grocery store in the whole city. And in that Western grocery store, they can’t get some things that we can get at our local Carrefour, like Kraft Mac and Cheese or Goldfish. The Western restaurants (really meaning anything that’s not Chinese) are not nearly as abundant in Xi’an and well, they’re nothing like we have at home. As Doug said, he knows how Chinese visitors to the U.S. must feel when they visit an Americanized Chinese restaurant – close, but no cigar.  In contrast, in Shanghai, we can get any kind of cuisine that's just about as good as what we can get in the U.S.

As a result, my general impression of the two cities is that while I think Xi’an is a much more interesting place to visit, Shanghai is a much easier place to live. In fact, if someone asked me for advice for where to visit in China, I would definitely say you have to visit Xi’an, but I’m not sure I’d put Shanghai on the must see list. To me, it seems Shanghai is most interesting in how un-China like it is in some respects. Is this the future of China as my student suggested? I don’t know, but we’ll have another chance to see how accurate his statement is and to compare Chinese cities when we leave for a 4 day trip to Beijing next weekend.

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