American travelers move around the world as historical orphans. Having no ancient history of our own we absorb monuments into ourselves. If we can walk a three hundred year old street in Boston we can walk a three thousand year old street in China. We collect history, we photograph ourselves smiling in front of it as if it were a 4th of July barbecue. Our past deflates and refills with figures and dates we don’t even remember from textbooks.
In Shanghai we face a new experience, a history erasing itself, a culture rising to a plateau like those evolutionary spikes that happen with an extreme mutation. Often it is disappointing to see ancient monuments bookmarked between the ends of Mcdonald's and Starbucks but Shanghai no longer relishes cultural tourism, it knocks down its tea houses to make room for its towers. The city has displaced its world heritage sites for the world expo.
The western traveler to Shanghai is confronted by a city whose most alien feature is its impossible familiarity. We are caught in the paradox of wishing the past to return, and relishing the speed of its collapse. The city is unique not for the lessons we can learn from ancient architecture, or silken calligraphy, but for the absolute abandon with which it remakes itself in an image of the future. We are wading through the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, and a generation gap greater than anything thrown into the flower powered sixties rolled into a single unstoppable engine of progress.
In the evening the city collapses into itself like a neutron star, the streets peopled with parades during rush hour fade to a few bright twinkles in the bar districts, but thirty million people retreat into their beds, exhausted and excited. At four AM even the street sweepers and street cleaners have retired or parked, waiting idly for the next explosion of activity. The city breaths quietly in the dark, and I can walk along the curvature of its gently rising breast and fall along its sighs, its hope that tomorrow will bring the fortune yesterday convinced it was around the next bend.
Slowly the desolate nights wrap their breeze in the vortex of the cooking fires that rise from a million mobile pots with a million sets of hands. The unlicensed food vendors labor in the pre-dawn smog as if their small sparks together can beckon the sun, and loll their customers from crowded beds. The city wakes up as every one of its inhabitants do, synapses fire, eyelids dance, and muscles flex themselves slowly, as if every morning condenses into a single moment when the body remembers it is alive. Survival precedes coffee as hope precedes action.
The morning is the best reminder of survival in Shanghai, as it is not like New York a city of morning horns, and jackhammers, but a city of morning bells and squeaks. The cars still fill the roadways, swooping around buses, between lanes, and through red lights like enraged hornets, but the true measure of this city is in its bikes, its mopeds and motorcycles. Here the scratches and scars fill the narrow lanes that cushion the sidewalk from the street. If the taxis and buses advance by peristalsis to the cities major organs, the bicycles with their high pitched breaks, and endless chiming of bells advance through the capillaries to every back alley and door less, windowless stall that forms the feudal villages within site of those steel castles where the elite gather.
The charred ducks that hang with their umbrella handle necks barely register as the foreigner grabs a croissant from the French bakery next door. It is not hard to fill the vacuum of memory that gathers at 30,000 feet when we leave our homes and our lives behind us. For every conundrum there is a coffee shop, and for every culture shock there is a convenience store. We soon learn that haggling is accepting ten percent of a price and settling is paying a quarter of a western price for a faux knickknack or mass produced Mao relic.
For all the supposed exoticism that leads us to Shanghai, the only real change is the one we measure in ourselves when we arrive. If I came here to travel I have dropped that veneer of the wanderer and replaced it with that of the student. To be in Shanghai near the turn of this millennium is to be a part of a city changing with the world and changing the world with its ambitions. It is only fair then that we sacrifice some of our historical studies to become an army of cultural cartographers, intent on mapping out the present. We go to bars to network and we go to work to predict the future.
The western media approaches China timidly, afraid that making bold statements about its mysteries somehow exposes the inevitable decline of a way of life grown placid and unchallenged for too long. When we look into Shanghai we do not see a clear reflection of ourselves in their breakneck modernizing, but a glimpse of who we collectively were when our ambition was still pure and blind. For all our toys and gadgetry we have remade our homes with the whirring of computers, the speed of information, the chime of a blackberry, but we haven’t questioned what it is technology has been propelling us to. It seems in China that their answer to the question is that they are propelling toward us, but only as a brief interlude to the unknown.
Americans are sitting on a dock measuring their reflections in the gentle ripples of the waves, we are disturbed by the stones cast in, but not enough to question how much distortion it takes before we no longer recognize the gaze returned. The Chinese can only catch a glimpse of themselves in a rearview mirror as they speed toward that translucent veil none of us can quite see through. It is a rare treat to be swept into the cascades of living history, and a blessing to understand that there won’t be far to swim until you reach the shore.