I write to you from the twelfth floor of a standard Chinese high-rise apartment building. Driving through Shanghai, these apartment complexes entirely like my own are innumerable, seemingly boundless in quantity to accommodate the ever-growing Chinese population. Yet, as large as everything is, it all seems so small. Each person and building is a small cog in the machine that is this immense nation. This was my first impression of Shanghai, and still, my ever-present perception.
It is easy to be distracted by grandiose thoughts about Chinese socio-economics by taking a drive through the city – Shanghai is so big that it’s genuinely hard not to be. However, living on Jinshajiang Road, a perfectly normal road in Shanghai, I have become familiar with the real Shanghai, the real people, the real smells, the real tastes.
Every day, at any occasion I leave my comfortable apartment, I walk down this busy stretch of cracked pavement. This road is the heart of my semester in China, and the center of my life for the next three months. The Road is my inconvenience when I need to travel to some destination or another, always a little too far for comfort; a destination for almost every meal of every day; and my methodical daily route to school, past people conducting their own morning routines.
Jinshajiang Road is heavily trafficked, a highway by my suburban standards, but in Shanghai it is just another road. Like all major roads in China, the Road is accompanied by crowded bike lanes extending in either direction, occupied mostly by mopeds, bicycles, scooters, and other convenient vehicles of the like, ridden by the elderly and young alike to the grocery store or pre-school, or anywhere their daily life my lead them. Everyone seems to constantly have the right-of-way, which creates an ambivalent sense of danger and safety, with in the constant expectation and mutual-understanding that someone will always nearly hit you.
The strip of Jinshajiang Road that I am so familiar with is bordered by residential buildings on one side (no taller than 6 stories, or so), and small apartment-topped shops stretching across the other. The shops lining Jinshajiang Road and peripheral streets are humble, and almost all family owned. In the mornings, they leave undergarments, shoes, and mops to dry in the approaching midday sun. In the evening, they often set up small tables where families quaintly eat their final meal of the day. As I walk past these families, I pretentiously admire the lives that I view to be so simple and foreign. Living their lives out of their small businesses, one in a billion people, I can’t help feel that they are so very small – insignificant in the grand scale of this immense nation.
As I watch them live their lives, foreign eyes in a strange place, my innate feeling of condescension is countered by the notion that these people are probably as happy as I am, or anyone else for that matter. They look forward to holidays; they cook dinners for their families; and they cry at funerals. In a subjective sense they’ve seen a lot, and they make the best of what they’ve got. These people I walk past every day are not small because they are mixed in with a billion other Chinese, they are as big as anyone, with individual timelines of equal merit. Their lives are as meaningless and valuable as is my own or anyone else’s. I suppose owning a shop that only serves noodle soup, drying your clothes on a tree, or living on a major intersection does not affect that. In fact, I’m not really sure what does. I do know, however, that perspective is a fascinating feature of living abroad.
Some days, I feel completely alone, a tourist in a foreign land; while other days, I feel entirely at home. The reality is, there are more similarities and differences between myself and a local shop owner on Jinshajiang Road than I realize. What’s important, is whether I choose to focus on those similarities, or the differences.
The world awaits…discover it.