Daybreak is ushered in by the rousing of the city in a cacophony of sound. The chirp of the birds is drowned out by the raised voices in the street who in turn are drowned out by gratuitous use of car horns. It sounds like feeding time at the zoo where in our analogy the animals are the communist Chinese themselves and the keepers come bearing sweet capitalism. It would be ironic, but I am not easily phased.
The microcosmic nature of life for the Chinese I see – the tailor, the shop owner, the street sweeper – is understandable. In a country where you are amongst so many it is impossible to care about everyone and so, naturally, your sphere of interest is kept small. It is easy to imagine these people will never reach the edge of their own city, much less see the ends of their great country. I do not presume that my life is more rich in virtue nor that theirs is devoid of meaning. At first glance, I am simply struck by the interesting juxtaposition of such smallness in a country obsessed with doing things big.
One of the great experiences of life is being a complete novice, a stranger, or lost somewhere you do not know left from right. It is often lamented that we are limited to but one first impression of all things new, but I love that experience. That first experience which is made more memorable by virtue of it only presenting itself once for all things. A fleeting moment perhaps, but memorable.
To truly enjoy a first impression it helps to abandon all preconceptions at the door and wade in boldly with your senses piqued. For the forgetful among us – and I am pointing the proverbial finger squarely at myself here -taking notes and pictures really helps as well. To then formulate a first impression into something you can share with others without such torturously uninformative exaltations as “wow,” and “great,” it helps to compare and contrast.
China, and more specifically Shanghai, are easy candidates for this process, because China has been around a long, long time and as a result has had ample opportunity to define itself as a nation and a people.
From the moment the Qin Emperor united the feudal kingdoms of Eastern Asia the concept of ‘great China’ began to take root. Now, several thousand years and countless generations later*, that root has grown into a tree, appropriately colossal, which is evident in all China undertakes. Helped along by a vast labor force and convenient laws governing said force, China has a long-standing tradition of being able to operate on a scale ‘lesser’ nations cannot hope to aspire to even in their most ambitious of dreams. This ‘go big or go home’ attitude, this national megalomania, started by the dream of the Emperor Qin has left this world bearing the mark of China. From the Great Wall to the unescapably numerousness of “made in China” labels, China has no interest in the small. Freudian enthusiasts amongst you will note generational Oedipus issues and a rampant drive for overcompensation, but it is beyond that now; the greatness of China has become genetic. The Olympics of 2008 gave even the most apathetic of onlookers a glimpse of the Chinese aesthetic. Harsh critics cried of shameless propaganda and a surrealistic portrayal of the true face of China behind the mask donned hastily for the Olympic influx of foreign press. A mask which served not just to obscure the stark reality beneath, but to dazzle and impress in such a way that even those who knew the truth might be persuaded of a brighter future. In short: China is working on its image like an actress who has come late to fame, desperately injecting Botox into her wrinkled face to hide her shame. Meanwhile, behind the Hollywood smile she behaves like a teenager – insecure and superficial – who still cannot believe she is finally being taken seriously.
*the generations are not actually countless, I say that because I am too lazy to do so.