The last time I was in China was 10 years ago, so when one of my sons told me he had been invited to give a series of talks at different universities there and would welcome my company, I jumped at the chance to see how the country had changed. I had been impressed by the energy and the work ethic of the Chinese people as well as the ambitions of the government, and knew that in a decade there would have to be a difference. So I invite you in turn to come along with me now, and I will share my impressions as we travel in this beautiful, exotic and ancient land of contrasts.
What a difference! We landed in Shanghai at night, and my first sight was of the airport: broad glass sheets, soaring steel beams and ultramodern with its people and luggage movers. No one we met in the bustle of humanity spoke English, but we did manage to find an ATM and a sign with the appropriate picture and the word in English directing us to the taxis.
Getting to our hotel was another matter. We did not have the name written in Chinese, a flaw that resulted in a two-and-a-half hour cab ride before we found ourselves ready to fall into our beds. As cynical New Yorkers, we suspected the worst of the cabbie but we couldn’t be sure and, to our delight, the bellman at the entrance to our hotel forced the driver to take two-thirds of the amount on the meter when he learned we had come from the airport. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, for we found the Chinese people to be honorable throughout all our subsequent money transactions with them, although they expect to bargain. In any event, the lesson here is to get the name of every destination in Chinese for the driver, and especially to carry the name of one’s hotel in Chinese for the return trip. And cab fares, by the way, are quite reasonable.
The number of skyscrapers in Shanghai has indeed multiplied, and the architecture is imaginative and impressive. But at the same time that we marveled at the skyline the next morning, we noted the thick gray fog that covered the sky. This was the pollution we had been warned of, and it was to accompany us during all but a couple of days throughout our trip. Few people wore masks, we noted, as we ventured out, and I was immediately dazzled by the colors of the clothing worn by the pedestrians as they hurried along the streets. When I was last there, most people wore blue jackets, gray pants and sturdy shoes. Now the women in particular were dressed in bright shades of every color, matched with fashionable sandals, and they looked quite elegant and attractive. They also looked thin, the men as well. It wasn’t until we traveled well north that we saw a taller and sometimes stockier population.
The city was clean and free of litter, the result of cadres of people with large brooms whom we saw sweeping the walkways as we rode the red double-decker tour buses. I remembered the human cleaners from my last visit, but this time they were reinforced with mechanized sweepers that rode along the sidewalks and in the streets.
Where before there had been many bicycles and fewer cars, now there were traffic jams of legendary proportions and few bicycles. And after a couple of days, we realized that we never saw anyone in a wheelchair or on crutches and, unless the buildings were quite recent, there were no aids like elevators or depressed curbs for the disabled. We did see a few people in wheelchairs where there were westerners, like in Beijing. In a few of the cities we visited, Chinese tourists from perhaps more rural locations, stared at us or came up and asked to take pictures with us. This was all transacted with pantomime, of course. They seem especially to like red, the national color, and the day I wore a crimson blouse I was a popular iPhone target.
Many of the children we saw were in the care of their grandparents since both parents tend to work. And although the single child — the result of the one-child policy — was often a boy, I was happy to see a lot of young girls. This, too, was a noticeable change from my last visit. The surest way to break the ice on the street or in a museum or park, we found, was to interact with the children. We were rewarded by the adults with broad smiles.
Part II will be next week.