Exile and the Celestial Kingdom

Street Caligraphy (Shanghai)

For the past week I have been working in Shanghai and Nanjing for my company.  The flight from Atlanta to Shanghai involved two legs: first three hours to Detroit and then another fourteen to Shanghai.  Most of the flight from Detroit to Shanghai was over icy tundra, so the view over the right wing of the plane was mostly of frozen rivers and crevasses.  Shanghai is a sprawling and quickly growing city on the south eastern coast of China.  Unlike other cities in which high rises are concentrated in the center, Shanghai has buildings everywhere reaching upward into the sky, the only space it can grow into since the Yangtze River does not deposit dirt quickly enough onto the coast to provide land for the Chinese perpetually migrating to this industrious city in order to fulfill their dreams of prosperity.

Misunderstanding the nature of travelling for work, I made the mistake of bringing eight large books with me to fill up the many hours I thought I would have to myself.  Instead, of course, the time has been filled up with presentations, meetings, long commutes, and exhausted evenings – not unlike Atlanta.

And so I find myself going through my regular routines in a thoroughly exotic environment.  Perhaps this is why, unlike Albert Camus’ famous description of his two weeks in a foreign city, I feel comfortable in China rather than — well — existential.

Each night the employees of the Chinese company for whom I am consulting take me out to remarkable meals.  On the nights when I am left to my own devices I have the opportunity to walk the avenues of Shanghai and Nanjing sampling street food.  Nanjing is particularly well known for its beef dumplings – which I believe I tired last night at a literal hole in the wall advertised in English as “Wu’s Famous Meat Buns”.

Nanjing is sometimes called Duck City (at least according to a website I visited) because of the quantity of duck consumed here.  Lu Bing, one of the managers of the local Nanjing branch, took me and my colleagues to a restaurant that specializes in Beijing cuisine which included, of course, Beijing Duck.

Beijing Duck

Here is a picture of our host, Bing, ladling duck soup for us:

Bing Lu 

I could talk about what a wonderful tourist destination Shanghai and Nanjing are.  Hotels and restaurants are relatively inexpensive.  The people are friendly without being fawning.  Neither city is overrun with tourists, and so one has the illusion that one sees the city an-sich rather than fur-uns.

There is another side, too, however.  The economic reforms of the past twenty years or so have brought prosperity to China — especially in areas like Shanghai and Nanjing — but have also accelerated the deracination experienced in America since the 1950’s as people increasingly move about and change jobs.  Two income households, separation from one’s home town and ancestral graves, the constant task of reinventing oneself and forming meaningful but short-lived relationships – all the symptoms described in America as “bowling alone” – are quickly manifesting themselves in China.

Nanjing streets

I wish I could say where it all leads, but I’m not even sure where this all leads in the West.  Perhaps to existential angst, after all – and perhaps it is this aspect of the modern China that I find so familiar.

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