The Chinese Dream(ers)

So, this was my third time to Shanghai. The first visit was nearly 13 years ago now–a whirlwind 4.5 day trip to present an invited talk at the 5th Annual Yangtze Development Forum in 2002. The second was a decade ago as part of a Freeman Foundation-funded trip with my colleagues in the Political Science Department at Wittenberg University. Each time I have been struck profoundly by the contrasts apparent on a daily basis between traditional and modern China. But, with a decade elapsing since my last visit, the degree of evident change is staggering, and was immediately apparent to me within the first few days of my arrival. As Evan Osnos relates in his excellent book Age of Ambition, China’s last 15 years have seen an enormous unleashing of individual capitalist fervor, and the concomitant emergence of what has come to be called the Chinese Dream. This can best be described as a kind of frenetic version of the American Dream characterized by a sense of desperate striving on the part of the younger generation of Chinese who hope to achieve a significant measure of economic success all the while fearful that their freedom to strive is merely quixotic and could vanish as quickly as it emerged.

In a remarkably frank conversation with one of my students, I suggested that her peers in the United States, the millennial generation, were concerned about a work-life balance that tipped the scale of priority toward life rather than work. Choosing less remunerative jobs and professions in order to achieve a higher quality of life and leisure was a common value among American millennials today. After considering the implications of that suggestion, she frowned deeply, shook her head, and said quite emphatically, but clearly sadly, that all her peers cared about was achieving a high level of financial success, intimating in the way she chose her words that this was not necessarily something she liked, but to which she had become resigned.

In another revealing conversation, a well-traveled, highly-educated young woman in her ‘30s, referred to her generation (born in the 1980s) as “The Lucky Generation” and to her parents’ generation (born in the 1950s) as “The Unlucky Generation.” For her, her husband, and many of their peers, there has never been anything but opportunity and a seeming boundless ability to explore the world unrestrained. This sense of mobility was instilled in her at an early age when she was one of very few Chinese children to receive a visa to participate in a middle school educational exchange program in the United States in the 1990s. Very shortly after that, the Chinese government opened up the visa program for those trying to study abroad so much that close to a 98% approval rate was experienced in the early 2000s. As she sees it, there has been nothing that she has not been able to do, while her parents, who got caught up in the Cultural Revolution have memories of going hungry and jobless for months at time.

As the Chinese government abandons its 1-child policy, and its economy slows down, I can’t help but wonder how these Chinese Dreamers will fare in the months and years to come.    As for my students, I wish them well.

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Students in my American Urban Governance class at Fudan University–Summer 2015

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What’s for Lunch (and dinner, and breakfast)?

​My gustatory experiences in Shanghai were definitely adventures all by themselves. This is usually true, of course, when one is traveling, and tasting new and interesting foods is often a highlight of any trip abroad. I won’t dispute that basic tenet, but I certainly stretched my taste buds to the max the four weeks I was in China, and frankly I really looked forward to biting into a good ol’ American bison burger upon my return to the states.

 ​Let me discuss lunch first. I was excited to eat what and where the locals ate, and I was grateful to find out that the University had loaded 200 yuan (roughly $32) on my ID card for use in the school’s cafeteria. This meant I was able to eat most lunches there. My initial experience was after the first day of class when I met Professor Ren Xiao, whom our department invited to Witt for a colloquium talk this September, for lunch. He showed me the procedure for going through the café line. Everything in the line was in a single-serving dish, so you selected what you wanted  making sure to take some chopsticks at the end of the line, and a soup spoon if you’d chosen some soup. Then a dour woman promptly rang up your total and you swiped your ID card across a card reader which then told you how much was left on the card for future purchases. Easy enough, of course, and most folks chose about 4 dishes plus some rice which came to around 10 yuan ($1.62)—yeah, really cheap.    

 ​At the front of the line were the protein dishes, then the vegetables, then the bowls of rice and soup. The problem with this system was right at the front of the line; it was damn near impossible to figure out what was in the protein dishes (except for the small bowls obviously containing fish heads)! On my first trip through with Professor Ren, I chose what looked like pieces of pork mixed with onions, then slipped a small bowl of cooked cauliflower onto my tray along with a dish of green beans, a bowl of rice, and a banana. I was very hungry since I had not really had time to eat breakfast in my effort to figure out how to get to class that first day. So, as we sat down and dug in, I eagerly picked up a piece of the pork with my chopsticks (which I’m pretty good with, now, by the way), and chomped down hard on a . . . bone! Luckily, I did not break a tooth, but I did have to clumsily take the thing out of my mouth and ponder my next attack. This was my big moment of realization that the Chinese often do not take bones out of their meat, whether it is pork, chicken, duck, or beef. You simply have to let your fingers be your guide and pick the small morsels of protein apart for safe consumption. Unfortunately, since a large percentage of each piece is bone, there is not much satisfaction in finishing a small bowl of the offering. I went away still hungry from that first lunch, but all the wiser just the same. 

  

A typical Chinese lunch.


 

As the days passed, and I continued to eat lunch in the cafeteria three times a week, I began to eagerly hope for a protein dish that became a favorite one—small pieces of bacon with onions and bok choy. Whenever that wasn’t available, I was reduced to just eating vegetables and soup (usually egg drop soup), and a banana (thank god it’s hard to mess up a banana!). I never looked at the fish heads and thought “mmmm, don’t those look especially tasty today!” I did try a tofu and fungus dish once, but it was too bland, almost tasteless really, although the fungus had an interesting texture.  

 ​The vegetables were mostly quite good, and I ate a lot of them. I didn’t know what some of them were, but an especially delicious dish was sliced celery with hominy. Eventually, my taste buds grew tired of this lunch-time challenge, and by late in the third week I found myself having a hard time even finishing my rice. But, I ate because I was hungry as I watched my Chinese colleagues eagerly devouring their meals, including the fish heads they picked apart with impressive proficiency.  

On my frequent travels, my TA Chouyen (Celia) was eager for me to try special delights, and during our trip to Nanjing, she and her high school friend Fang, who is an engineering major at Nanjing University and was our tour guide for that day, insisted that I try two delicacies:  cold, fried chicken feet and duck blood soup!  I must say there is not much meat on chicken feet, so you just suck and chew a little before you’re done.   In duck blood soup, the actual blood is congealed and about the texture and size of a small piece of bologna.  There are several pieces of this in the soup, while the rest of the protein consists of duck organ meat (quite a bit, actually, and more than I could stand), and bits of tofu.  The broth was clear and finished off with celantro and celery.   Except for the overload on the organ meat, the soup was pretty tasty!  Finally, Chouyen and Fang were eager to try some soy and rice cake desserts while in Nanjing, so she treated us to an option that “looked” delicious.   Uh, not so much!

 

Fried, cold chicken feet.


 

Duck blood soup.

  

 

Soy and rice cake. Pretty, but bland and sticky.


 

Many evenings I took my dinner at a small family restaurant called the Ding Wang Tea Restaurant which was a block from my apartment.  I could usually get a full meal, including a large Tsingtau beer for around 25 yuan ($3.92)!   One of my favorite dishes was “Russian style soup” which had a tomato broth with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes (5 yuan–80 cents)!    On a couple of occasions I ordered roasted duck and rice and watched as the cook took one of the cooked ducks off a warming hook and sliced it for me before laying it on a bed of rice accompanied by a delicious side of sautéed bok choy . . . Hmmmmmm!   

An interesting feature of this restaurant, which tended to help attract the college students was that they showed Chinese soap operas on a screen on the back wall every evening, and on weekends, there would be a movie shown from what appeared to be the Chinese version of Netflix.  The pic below shows the movie that was shown one evening while I was there (probably not with full royalties).  🙂

 

Cook prep area at Ding Wang Tea Restaurant with roasted ducks , piglets. and chickens hanging in front.


 

After quite some time surfing the options, the proprietor settled on this movie for the evening show!

  

When I got a bit tired of Chinese food thank god for the little Italian place (Ciao Cafe) that served wonderful subs, pizza, salads, and pasta.   For breakfast, a great treat was a place called Pancake Day!  

 

My favorite option for subs and pasta diversions.


 

Pancake Day! A popular place with Fudan students

  

A treat for breakfast once in a while!

Many more food adventures were mine in addition to these I’ve discussed. I remember them fondly (well, mostly)!

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Top Ten List of Small, but Interesting, Differences Between China and U.S.

Here are some things that are noticeably different in China compared to the U.S., trivial variations, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

​10. Bicycles and scooters do not have to stop at stoplights, only autos. So, when crossing the street, pedestrians must continually look both ways to avoid being run down while they’re in the crosswalk. And oh, by the way, the scooter drivers honk like hell at you as they drive by. So pay attention!

​9. The Chinese usually don’t have clothes dryers in their homes, although they do have washing machines.  They simply hang the clothes up to dry, usually outside their apartment windows. On most days, you can see rows and rows of clothes hanging 1-5 feet out from the windows over the street on all floors.

Clothes drying from apartments in Xintiandi neighborhood.

Clothes drying from apartment in Xintiandi neighborhood.

The washing machine in my apartment.

The washing machine in my apartment.

​8. Many meals are served in what I’ll refer to as “Chinese family-style” with the dishes sitting on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Each person spins the food around taking small bites at a time, with their chopsticks that they have been using to put food in their mouths!

My TA Chouyen Chen, Celia, enjoying lunch

My TA Chouyen Chen, Celia, enjoying lunch “family style” on our trip to Xitang Ancient Water Town.

​7. Honking is a national pastime! It’s unclear as to whether the Chinese want you out of their way, or it’s simply a Chinese version of Descartes’ philosophy, i.e., “I honk therefore I am!”

​6. Toilets are often holes in the ground. There is usually a very nice porcelain fixture over the hole, but it’s unclear whether it’s for sitting on, or just for decorative purposes. I never tried it to find out. And by the way, in many public building bathrooms there is only one dispenser of toilet paper and so you must grab what you think will be a sufficient amount before you head into a stall to do your business.

Typical toilet stall in my academic building.

Typical toilet stall in my academic building.

​5. If you think Americans are addicted to their smart phones and other mobile devices, you haven’t seen anything. The Chinese are, almost universally, constantly looking at their mobile devices, even while riding their bikes and scooters. I saw several instances when walkers collided with each other as a result of this and even then some still did not look up from the screen.

​4. Umbrellas are not just for the rain. They are used daily, often as constantly moving shade trees.

​3. Speaking of rain, the Chinese are quite adaptive. Many scooters and some bikes have plastic or nylon covers that pop up during a shower. It’s quite delightful to see actually.

​2. In many Chinese food dishes, the small pieces of meat are not boneless. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but once burned, twice shy, is a good summary of my experience. All you can do is use your fingers as a guide. Otherwise, you’ll risk breaking a tooth or getting a bone stuck in your throat.

​1. Buying a whole chicken in China means buying a whole chicken. I don’t mean a live one; I mean a plucked-clean dead one for cooking. There are heads (and beaks) and feet (with claws) on chickens, you know!

Whole chickens for sale at Walmart (yes, Walmart)!

Whole chickens for sale at Walmart (yes, Walmart)!

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Mao’s Revenge in Xintiandi

​     Ok, so this was my third time to Shanghai. I’ve also traveled quite a bit in other less-developed countries, e.g., several Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Tahiti, and Hungary, where it’s not wise to drink tap water, so I don’t. I have never gotten sick . . . until this time. Did I mention it’s my third time to Shanghai? Must be the charm! Here’s the story. It starts with a wonderful sunny day, the second Friday of my stint. I did some work in the morning, and then decided to explore a section of the city known as Xintiandi. It’s located in the center of Shanghai, right off Metro Line 10, which is the line I could access easily close to Fudan University (close being a 30-minute walk from my apt).    
       Upon arrival, I hopped off the metro, got my bearings (meaning making sure I knew how to get back to the metro station) and starting exploring. Spotting a nice coffee shop, I ordered an iced latte and sat down to map out a plan. Xintiandi is a unique area that has seen incredible gentrification in the last 20 years, and is where many of the very wealthy locals and foreigners now reside (saw several high-end luxury cars driving slowly around the area when I was there, for example). Its old buildings are in what’s called the Shikumen style and were built in the 1800s as housing for locals. The site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1921 is the most famous landmark in the area. In 1997 the old buildings began to be totally remodeled and updated with ultra-modern interiors, and they now house upscale restaurants, coffee houses, retail spaces, and boutique hotels. A number of world-famous chefs have also opened restaurants there; Wolfgang Puck just happened to be showcasing a grand opening of one of his places during my visit. I primarily wanted to explore the remodeled Shikumen area, and as I finished by latte, I eyeballed roughly where its boundaries were.

       Setting out through the designated target area, I was amazed by the obvious difference between this part of Shanghai, and the many others I had seen. Even the famous shopping district on Nanjing Road is not as upscale as this neighborhood. Streets are clean. Garbage is invisible. Not as many bicycles and scooters swerving around me (though there were still many), and plenty of people bustling about dressed to the nines. After taking some photos of several examples of the architecture, I happened upon a Cadillac-sponsored art exhibit of Van Gogh’s paintings, which seemed totally appropriate in that setting. Having seen many of Van Gogh’s paintings in museums around the world, I skipped paying the 200 yuan (roughly $32), and kept walking. The area was filled with people from all over the world. Lots of westerners, for sure, indeed many more than I had yet seen. But, there was representation from the Indian subcontinent, Eastern Europe, and Africa, too. I even heard Australian accents at one point, and turned to see two young women staring at a map.   
 

Typical style buildings in Xintiandi.

  

Grand opening of this restaurant.

       ​Later in the afternoon, I discovered an upscale massage salon and decided to treat myself to a legendary Chinese massage. Upon entering, I was given a lengthy menu of all kinds of options, as well as some considerable pressure to purchase as many of them as possible. I stood my ground pretty well and insisted only on a regular full-body massage. In a last-ditch sales effort, though, the proprietor suggested I consider adding a “very good for relax” ear massage. I looked at the price, considered it reasonable, and thought it would be nice to add that treatment to my order, so I agreed.  

       Once we had an understanding, I was led into a low-lighted therapy room that had soft music playing in the background, given some hot tea to sip, and asked to slip off my clothes down to my underwear. Presently, a technician quietly knocked and crept into the room carrying what looked like a fishing tackle box. In broken English, she said “ready for ear clean, sir?” I assumed she meant ear massage, and so I replied in my best Chinese “Shi de” (yes).  

       She motioned for me to lie on the table face up, and she quickly got down to the business . . . of cleaning my frickin’ ears! At first, this was indeed relaxing as she gently rubbed and cleaned all around my ears’ external surfaces. Yet, when she started moving down the ear canals with some sort of utensil my pulse quickened as I began to think of the potential for a slip-up with whatever it was she was pushing toward my ear drums. As this continued, however, it seemed as if she was fairly skilled so I relaxed as best I could, and began to enjoy the experience. After about 10 minutes, just as I was getting used to a stranger cleaning my ears, she switched utensils and promptly began shooting water bursts into both ear canals. The surprising wetness of this caused me to flinch, so she put her hand on my shoulder and said “it ok sir; will help with clean.” So, once again I tried to focus on relaxing, and honestly started to enjoy this treatment variation, too. In another 10 minutes, she stopped her work, put a slip of paper in front of my face and pointed to where I should sign for the service. Then she indicated the masseur would be in next and promptly left.  

      ​As I sat there wondering what the heck had just happened, admitting that my ears did feel cleaner, yet thinking they definitely should rename the treatment on their menu, in marched a well-muscled young man who motioned for me to lie face down on the table. I reflexively put a hand over one ear, and then climbed onto the table. Immediately, the masseur slapped my upper back and jiggled my muscles fairly rigorously, then proceeded to pull my underwear down so that my butt cheeks were exposed. Now, I was aware this was often part of Chinese massage practices, but even still, it was a slight shock when it occurred. I was determined to relax, though, and enjoy what I had primarily come to experience, so I ignored my slight sense of embarrassment and focused on the floor below me. He then rubbed, pounded, slapped, and massaged my body so hard for 60 minutes that at one point I grunted quite audibly from the pressure he was putting on my lower back. He feigned concern by asking if I was ok, and I lied a little by saying yes.  

       ​When he finished, he indicated, by pinching me in two places where muscle knots still persisted and shook his head in frustration. I sat up to indicate I knew what he meant by rubbing my upper back, but he misunderstood and demanded that I sit down facing away from him with my arms above my head. Before I knew what was happening, he had grabbed my arms, kneed me in the lower back, and expertly cracked my back bones. Still trying to recover from that little surprise, I was handed his pay slip to sign and he motioned that I should get dressed.  

       ​As I paid my bill and walked away from the parlor, I tried hard to convince myself that what I had just experienced was wonderful. That my 55-year old body needed the type of treatments I had received, and that I was lucky to have stumbled across such an upscale salon. It was a tough sell, though, and I’m still asking what the hell happened to me in Xintiandi? And this is where I believe Mao got his revenge, because later that evening my stomach started cramping and I became quite intimate with my toilet for about 24 hours. Was it the ear massage, I mean ear cleaning? Perhaps. She did use water from an unknown source, didn’t she? Hmmm. Ironically then, maybe the ear cleaning ended up cleaning out more than my ears.  Or maybe it was the iced latte.    (A few more pics).

 

The Van Gogh exhibit.

  

Another upscale restaurant.

  

More examples of the architecture.

 
 
 

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Getting the “Scents” of the Streets in Shanghai

​As any intrepid traveler will attest, urban areas have a surfeit of sights, sounds, and scents. While the sights and sounds of Shanghai’s busy streets constantly kept my mind whirring and entertained, the scents occasionally overtook me, often when I least expected it.  Many of the olfactory delights wafted from the street vendors cooking their offerings of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, rice, noodles, and god knows what else. These generally yummy smells frequently got mixed with exhaust fumes from buses and cars, cigarette smoke, faint whiffs of urine and the intermittent stench of raw sewerage, and the periodic putrid fragrance of piles of garbage stewing in the smoggy heat. Added to all this was the distinct aroma of the mass of humanity scurrying along in Shanghai’s constant humidity. Can you get the scents of it? Not to put too fine a point on this, but one day I empathized with an unfortunate soul who hurried to the gutter in front of me and promptly threw up. He then moved along as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. My empathy was almost made reflexively tangible to those around me, but luckily, I held it together and continued my exploration. Whew!   See some typical street scenes below.

  

This guy is quite resourceful with his “chair cycle”!

  

My apt was on this street, Wudong Road.

  

Lots of street bike repair places .

 

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The Facade of Freedom

While the Chinese seem to be enjoying more liberty and choices in their everyday lives, and continue to pursue their individual versions of the Chinese Dream, an almost invisible (but chillingly palpable), ever-looming facade hangs over their daily activities making it seem like they’re actors in a Chinese version of The Truman Show. There is no denying the incredible advances China has made over the last several years in opening up opportunities for its citizens in many areas. Travel has opened up considerably, for example, and it’s fairly easy for average citizens to move about the country, including on newly-constructed high-speed rail systems, or an enhanced airline infrastructure. In urban areas, especially, cell phones and the internet are ubiquitous, perhaps rightly so since it’s the Chinese who assemble an enormous number of the world’s mobile communications devices, particularly Apple products. And the modern mass transit systems gleam and sparkle as they rapidly move throngs of urbanites across enormous distances that make up the huge metropolitan areas of the world’s second-most populous nation.

Riders on Shanghai's Line 10 Metro Train (which I took often)

Riders on Shanghai’s Line 10 Metro Train (which I took often)

The Bullet Train We took to Nanjing

The Bullet Train We took to Nanjing

This seeming openness and freedom is set against a backdrop of censorship and periodic shows of symbolic and actual force on the part of the government in Beijing. While much of this apparently washes over most Chinese like a gentle wave, to the Western foreigner it can seem repressive, isolating, and a bit unnerving. Some of this was known to me prior to arriving including China’s internet firewall blocking social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the search engine Google, and websites such as The New York Times. Aware though I was, however, I still was not totally prepared for the twinge of isolation I felt brought on by not being able to freely surf the internet and search for information that I needed for my professional or personal needs.

Adding to this ongoing low-level sense of intellectual deprivation were some overt displays of power on the part of the government including the frequent sounds of low-flying military jets doing maneuvers, and the fact that my arrival coincided with an annual period of compulsory military training for youth producing groups of students walking around in fatigue uniforms all over campus.

Fudan Students in Compulsory Military Training

Fudan Students in Compulsory Military Training

The most unsettling reminder that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, however, was when my blog site stopped loading two days into my month-long stint. Knowing that Facebook would be blocked, I thought I was being smart by setting up a blog site for writing about my experiences and posting pictures. The first night I arrived I easily posted a blog, and went to bed. The next evening, after exploring my surroundings, taking some interesting pictures, and considering what I wanted to write, I eagerly sat down to compose a second post only to find that the computer just kept grinding away trying to load my blog site. I also noticed that the site would partially load, but would not allow me to get to the login page.

Then it dawned on me! My site’s domain name—thedemocraticpromise.org—had probably gotten swept up by the internet firewall and blocked by the government censors! Whoa, was that an unnerving realization! At first, I was quite discomforted, then irritated, and then I was simply disgusted with myself for not thinking more carefully what to use for the domain name. (Full disclosure: my wife was irritated with me for the same reason, but not because she thought the domain would be blocked in China, I must honestly admit. As you’ve noticed, I’ve given better thought to the domain name and it is now “the1787POD.org” in a nod to the Constitutional Convention’s promise of democracy).

Finally, thank god for the NPR app on my iPad! For some reason, it worked during my entire stay in Shanghai (maybe because it was an app and not a website) and I listened to “all things NPR” religiously, even more so than when I’m in the States. Note to self: I need to send another check to my local NPR station—WYSO in Yellow Springs!

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Home in Shanghai (finally)!

After a 2.5-hour delay at the Chicago airport yesterday, we finally got airborne for the 14-hour flight to Shanghai.   Arrived at Pu Dong airport at 4:00 p.m. local time (4:00 a.m. on my body clock).  There had been so many flights canceled the previous day due to typhoon Chan-Hom that we were given a remote gate park on the tarmac requiring a several-minute bus ride to the terminal for customs and baggage.

plane pic

Clearing customs was pretty fast, even though several planes had landed at about the same time and I was then met by my teaching assistant Celia.

customs

After about an hour commute into the city from the airport, we arrived at Fudan University and my 11th floor apartment located in the International Faculty and Student Housing Complex on Wudong Road across from campus.

apt addressBelow are views of campus and Shanghai from my apartment windows.

view of campus from apt

window view of shanghai

Then it was off to campus to complete some classroom setup issues before a nice dinner.   Exhausted, I fell into bed and zonked out immediately.

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