My plane arrived February 12 in Shanghai from Detroit, Michigan, after a 14-hour flight. Instead of 6:20 am, it was already 7:20 pm in China because of the time difference. We stumbled out of the plane, still groggy and stiff from trying to sleep on unyielding plane seats, and dutifully stood in serpentine lines for health clearance, passport check, custom declarations and then for our luggage. It went smoothly since Shanghai, a city of 20 million, is a major international airport.
The following day I spent trying to overcome jet lag, with my body clock totally confused regarding times for sleep and daytime activities. I walked to the major Shanghai shopping area full of Chinese families looking for new clothes and gifts. The impact of China’s one-child policy becomes evident after a while: no large families. Entering the smaller shops with special sale items reminded me of New York City; all the salespersons hustled you to buy. I used the Chinese phrase “bu yao,” “I don’t want it,” quite often!
That evening, on Chinese New Years Eve, I was awakened by loud fireworks bursts before midnight. My hotel room enjoyed a river view and when I opened the curtains I enjoyed a 180-degree panorama of red, green and white fireworks displays shooting into the sky from about 24 locations. The colorfully lighted skyscrapers, towers and monuments provided a backdrop. Suddenly, from the street below, rockets shot up past my window as my hotel joined the celebration. It was a boisterous, cheerful and memorable display, lasting about 45 minutes. According to ancient legend, the fireworks and red lanterns keep demons at bay.
The fireworks heralded the arrival of the Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which features twelve animals. In honoring tradition, many residents had left Shanghai to visit their ancestors’ villages to reunite with their family and honor their ancestors’ graves in the Confucian tradition. According to the China Daily newspaper, 65 million Chinese people took long distance buses or ships and another 5.2 million people took trains on the Spring Festival holiday. Heavy snows in northern China hampered this huge migration by closing at least 30 highways, not unlike the recent snowstorms that shut down Washington, D.C.
On China’s New Years Day, which fell on February 14 in 2010, everyone wished you a Happy New Year. Since February 14 was also Valentine Day, you could also buy Valentine gifts for loved ones. I had thought Valentine’s Day was only an American holiday, promoted by Hallmark, but the Chinese saw business opportunities as well. Most Chinese celebrated the Spring Festival with family dinners, children receiving from relatives red envelopes containing money, but for good luck, an even amount. Experts say the custom is at least 1,800 years.
After meeting another Fulbright Lecturer and his wife, we ate in a restaurant in the picturesque French concession area. Around the corner was a museum in the original Shanghai building where the Communist Party of China (CPC) was created in 1921. The documents and pictures on display were interesting, highlighting the unequal treaties with foreign nations, the nationalist “bourgeois revolution” of l911, and then Mao Tse-tung’s key role in establishing the nation’s Communist Party. We were struck by the youth of the founders as well as the implied historical determinism in the course of the 1949 Revolution, portrayed as a continuation of the earlier revolts against imperialism and feudalism.
In an ironic clash with traditional China, as we left the museum dedicated to the founding of the Communist Party of China we encountered the Chinese New Year’s dragon dancers, accompanied by drums, gongs and cymbals. The children had their pictures taken with the fierce yellow dragon carried aloft by about a dozen yellow-garbed dancers.
Shanghai is a bustling city of commerce, with construction evident everywhere as the city prepares to host the World Expo that opens in May, expected to bring in millions of tourists. China’s superhero NBA basketball player, Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, called his hometown of Shanghai the “Paris in the Orient.”
One must learn quickly to respect the unwritten law of the road jungle here, with its pecking order of deference to buses, then taxis and cars, motor scooters, and bikes; pedestrians fall at the bottom of the street food chain. I wish I had more time to explore Shanghai, but tomorrow I fly to Chengdu, my home for the next five months.