China, Politics — October 14, 2018 at 11:05 pm

Tales of a foolish traveler: Or, random notes from a week in Shanghai…


I recently returned from a week in Shanghai, China, where I had been invited to speak at a conference and serve as a consultant to a group of Chinese music educators who are developing a music assessment system for use in their schools. While I was there I kept a running log of reflections on what I noticed, and the similarities and differences between our two countries.

  1. I was told two things not to do before leaving on my trip. One, do not bring your laptop or iPhone, as they will be confiscated at the border and malware will be installed, rendering your electronics useless; and Two, do not eat food on street level–go at least one floor up.
    Well, no one touched my electronics (except the helpful man at the hotel who got my wifi up and running), and the food on the street level–and everywhere else in Shanghai–was amazing.
  2. After trying to buy a lovely silk scarf for my wife at a small boutique, and discovering that none of my cards worked in the store, the shopkeeper and I engaged in about 10 minutes of excruciating pantomime, in which she continuously mimicked a motion of sticking her hand out, pulling it back, and then reaching into her pocket to withdraw some folded money. I had no idea what she meant, and left the shop defeated…until I walked down the street, and noticed a man in an ATM vestibule who was doing the exact same motion as the shopkeeper. After withdrawing the appropriate amount in Yuan, I trekked back to the silk shop, where the shopkeeper and her friends had a good chuckle at my denseness. But she couldn’t have been kinder, smiling and nodding as she knocked $100 Yuan off the price and pointed to my sweaty brow.
  3. As a person who has been raised to be distrustful of people trying to sell you things, I was immediately skeptical of the young woman in the t-shirt shop who kept holding up 2 fingers and shoving t-shirts at me after I’d selected one as a gift for Drew…until I finally noticed the huge sign proclaiming “2 for 79 Yuan!!!” So, I got 2 shirts for 79 Yuan, instead of 1 shirt for 79 Yuan. As my students would say, “uh, duh.”
  4. There are no such thing as “traffic rules” in Shanghai…merely “driving suggestions”. But amazingly, no one crashes into each other; drivers of all types–cars, bikes, and scooters–are pleasant, friendly, and courteous; and pedestrians and drivers are on seemingly equal footing. Everyone looks out for each other, and what looks like a tangled mess of spider webs run amok works out just fine. And even though every intersection has those countdown traffic signals with the flashing numbers and big red or green hands, no one seems to pay a whole lot of attention to them–if a pedestrian estimates that she can make it across the 4 lanes of traffic before the oncoming rush of cars and bikes reaches her, she goes for it–and the cars and bikes adjust accordingly. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

  5. The parking garages in Shanghai have floors that are cleaner than most luxury hotels in the US, painted a rainbow of sparkling colors that would make Walt Disney blush. Flashing lights and a gauntlet of swinging gates give the whole garage a sort of pinball machine vibe–and the search for a spot turns into a real life arcade game. These garages are also staffed by dozens of uniformed attendants who help you find your spot and then help you wedge your car into the tiniest parking spots I’ve ever seen. Professor Cao backed her Honda into a spot that most bikes would be too wide for, while holding a running conversation with the parking attendant on various parking strategies at the same time.

  6. My friend and colleague Haobing evidently goes by the nickname “BingBing” to her friends and family. So henceforth, my new nickname shall be “RobRob.”
  7. Spicy fish head soup, our lunch restaurant’s “signature dish,” is my new jam…

  8. As a child of the Cold War, I was raised with the belief that the people of Communist nations were cold, ruthless, humorless automatons…so my unconscious expectations on both of my trips to China were that the people I’d meet would be unsmiling and emotionless, and would view me–a foreigner from a democratic country–with irrational hatred.
    So imagine my surprise when every single person I’ve met in China on both of my trips was funny, thoughtful, friendly, and generous beyond belief. Every conversation was delightful. Every interaction was special and meaningful. My Chinese friends are open, inquisitive, and very interested in the United States and the rest of the world. Many Chinese are well-traveled–certainly more well-traveled than I am. And at the same time, very proud of their country’s history and traditions, and excited to share them with foreigners. As the saying goes, the best antidote to racism, discrimination, and fear of “the other” is travel.
  9. For some reason, there must be something about me that young Chinese children find humorous and accessible–because every small child I met on my trip erupted in smiles and laughter upon our making eye contact. It was pretty remarkable…and one of the best parts of my trip. The little girl sitting in my row on the flight back could not have been older than 2, and we struck up a solid friendship in the first 30 seconds of the flight. And the 4 month old boy in the pic below was one of the cutest kids I’ve ever spent time with. His mom (a professor of music at Shanghai Conservatory) and dad (an engineer) were kind enough to invite me to have dinner with them in their apartment in Shanghai, and it was really great to have the opportunity to see how folks live in the city.

  10. While not many Chinese folks talked politics while I was in Shanghai, the few that did seemed absolutely flabbergasted that Trump had won the presidency, and wondered how it had happened.–something I’m just as confused about as they are. When his name did come up, my new friends wanted to know if he was really as popular with my fellow Americans as as he himself seemed to think he was–and why the opposing party couldn’t find anyone more popular than him to run against him. (Good question, right?)
    For persons who live under a totalitarian regime to recognize how unhinged and erratic our president* is, and to recognize him as a clear and present danger to their country and the rest of the world was an astounding moment for me as an American. I remember traveling to Germany when W was president and feeling embarrassed to show my US passport. Traveling to China with Trump as president* was orders of magnitude worse. I envied the Canadians standing ahead of me in the line for Customs in the Shanghai airport, and wishing my passport was red instead of blue.
  11. I’ve never eaten as much fruit in a week as I did in China–and every piece was beautiful and lovingly prepared. Each grape was presented on the plate like a present, and there were fruits I never see in the US…like my new favorite, dragon fruit.
    And the Chinese show a reverence and respect for fruit that we never see in the US. For example, every night upon returning to my hotel room, there was a gorgeous plate of fresh fruit on the desk, arranged artfully. It was really lovely to snack on oranges, apples, and other fresh fruits as I checked email and browsed the web before bedtime. (Note to self: and it made me wonder why we don’t eat more fruit at home…)

  12. My assigned student helper from Shanghai Normal University, Fanny, was just delightful…smart, funny, reflective, and really excited to become a music teacher. We talked a lot over the course of the week about the differences between students in China and the US, with the consensus being that Chinese students are more deferential to authority, and less likely to question their teachers’ credibility than their US counterparts…and American students being more vocal in terms of class discussions, and perhaps more creative in their approach to problem solving and learning than Chinese students. Fanny had spent a semester abroad in the US, and had come to appreciate both the US and Chinese approaches, and hoped to incorporate aspects of both styles in her future classroom.

    While I enjoyed every minute of my week in China, I was also very happy to get home yesterday. As our country feels more divided than ever before, it’s easy to forget that we still enjoy a standard of living and personal freedoms that make life here in the US very attractive to people from all over the world. My friends in China still look to the US as a beacon of freedom and opportunity, even as some of our elected officials attack the press as “enemies of the people”, and seemingly flaunt the rule of law for personal enrichment. And my time in China has made me even more determined to be as active as possible in pushing back firmly and aggressively when those freedoms are threatened–because they are worth defending and protecting.