The first city on the Ford School Trip to China was Shanghai. The city is very similar to what you see in films: a lot of bright lights, futuristic buildings, and a copious amount of people. What the films don’t show you is the significant amount of Western influence.
Nearly anywhere you go, English is written underneath the Chinese characters. Although there may be many situations in which you cannot find an English speaker, when in doubt, someone speaks a few words of the language. It is common on the streets to find a Westerner and even more common to find a Starbucks (of which there are over 150 in the city). When walking down one of the main streets of Shanghai most of the stores are Western, either to cater to the significant amount of tourists that visit the city or to appeal to the millennials that crave this type of fashion and technology.
But if one diverges from the normal path and ventures into parts unknown in the city at unique times, one can find the lifeline that is Shanghai, still isolated from foreign influence. Wake up at 5am and take a stroll through the streets of the city. Some streets you will find vendors selling cheap food to their loyal customers before they venture into work (for 2 yuan you can buy a fantastic scallion pancake), or you might find a street of vegetable sellers with natives haggling over price, or you might wander into a local park where the elderly stretch and exercise before a full day’s worth of work. It is this Shanghai that is worth taking notice. Although the city is constantly expanding and booming with investment; service industries and everyday needs fuel the lifelines of the city, for the many that aren’t coming to visit for a few days but spend the entirety of their life in the city.
It is when you recognize these individuals that your humanist nature takes over. You begin to ignore the few differences between those who live in China and the people that live in your hometown. Shanghai is in its heart no different than any city in the U.S., except that its invasion of Western influence and visitors seem to disguise it as something else.
There is one road in Shanghai that is full of lights and has the largest skyscrapers. If you take a detour and go down one of the “darker” alleyways behind it you will find this life that lives beyond a dominating Western influence. Amongst the cheap stalls and pungent smells you will come across a small hole in the wall bar. This bar is much nicer than its surroundings, with elegant looking food and a strong selection of micro brewed beers and mixed cocktails. Sadly there are no customers in this bar, perhaps because the interested few are mesmerized by the glamor one street over. The owner and his workers are eating and drinking their own product, joking around with a strong sense of optimism in their eyes. They talk to us as we pass by, telling us that their type of business is not yet booming in China. The young owner says “Many have failed, but we will survive.” It is this mentality that truly represents Shanghai and although the market might not be there yet, his work ethic and determination demonstrates a passing of the torch between his generation and the previous one that wakes up at 5am each morning providing life to the city.