While my friends and family were “battening down the hatches” back in Coastal Georgia in preparation for Hurricane Matthew, I wrote this week’s column from the 26th floor of the majestic Westin Bund Hotel in Shanghai, China.
Quite a long way to evacuate I know! I left a week before evacuating was on anybody’s radar and sincerely hope that by the time this column is printed that all will be well at home in Bryan County for everybody reading. For some light relief from hurricane news I am sharing some of my experiences in China in this column.
Growing up and spending much of my career and life in London, I thought that I was prepared for crowds, traffic and noise. After spending 10 days in China, however, I now know that I really was not.
I was lucky enough to join my husband on one of his business trips to the Far East to visit some of the major tourist sites, as well as some more personal highlights like seeing some of his friends there and the factory he set up. We started in Shanghai in the north of the country, and then flew over 1,000 miles south to Shenzhen, which is just across the border from Hong Kong.
China has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades and experienced huge growth and industrialization. According to the Congressional Research Service, China displaced America as the largest manufacturer in the world in 2010. With about 1.4 billion people, China is the world’s most populous country. It is four times bigger than us and around 20 percent of the world’s population. I have to say it felt like it.
Shanghai, now a major global financial center, has been one of the fastest developing cities in the world for the last 20 years. It sits at the mouth of the Yangtze River in East China. Known as the Pearl of the Orient and the Paris of the East, Shanghai’s population in 2016 is estimated to be just over 24 million. Compare that to the biggest city in America, New York City, at just 8.5 million.
There were a few things that, as a Western visitor, took me by surprise in China, in both good and not so good ways. Here are a few of these quirky observations:
• At 5 feet, 1 inch, I am used to being one of the shortest people around but in China I was about the same height as most people. On the other hand, my 6-foot-2 husband towered above everyone so I could always spot him in a crowd. I got a lot of attention because of my blond hair and fair skin since we were not always on the usual tourist trail during our time in China. In particular, some small children in rural areas stared in amazement at me!
• The traffic and crowds were mind blowing. We visited one of the famous ‘canal towns’ just 16 miles away from our Shanghai hotel, with the journey taking over two hours in a very warm and bouncy taxi. Traffic rules sometimes seemed a little foreign to the Chinese, as bicycles went the wrong way down fast moving expressways and drivers would routinely back up if they missed an exit. Seatbelts really are a must there!
• The Chinese are good at many things but air conditioning and cold drinks are often not among them.
• In Shanghai, police were literally herding crowds onto one side of the street or another as old Chinese women viciously pushed past. The volume of people was compounded by the fact that we were there on National Day (their version of our 4th of July) so tens of thousands of extra tourists descended on the famous “Bund” district by the river (matched by thousands of extra police).
• Outside of the big Western hotels, the restrooms were usually of the “hole in the ground” type. As a schoolgirl traveler to rural France in the 1970s and a student traveling around Eastern Europe in the 1980s, I have experienced these bathroom arrangements before but did not really enjoy my Chinese refresher course.
• The smog. Swift industrialization in recent years has left much of China in a thick, hazy smog of pollution. Some days were clear and sunny, and others we could barely see the building next door.
On a more positive note, I will never forget these memories:
• The tea ceremony we enjoyed with a Chinese family. Decorous Chinese ladies, communicating in Mandarin and with sign language, went through complex and very formal preparations for our afternoon break.
• The view of the amazing neon lit skyline at night overlooking the river and in particular the striking Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai. Over 1,500 feet tall, the architecture aims to create a picture of “twin dragons playing with pearls.”
• Even though the noise rarely stops and the crowds jostle and shout in Mandarin to each other, the individual Chinese people we interacted with were gracious and eager to please. They were keen to make me comfortable in what was, for me, a very alien land.
China proved to be a great experience, and I was privileged to visit it. It makes me appreciate once again the quality of life we enjoy in beautiful Coastal Georgia which is particularly meaningful after the recent risk and damage of the hurricane. To summarize my emotions: there were parts of China I admired and loved and other parts I didn’t. It brings to mind that excellent quote from Confucius: “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
God bless America!
Francis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her PR agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com