Opinion

In High-Energy Shanghai, a New Mood: Malaise

In 1979 my mother pulled out a Band-Aid in a Nanjing hospital. The nurses clustered around it, amazed. “The West has everything!” they said.

We were on a family visit to China, where my Shanghai relatives were similarly wowed by our excellent teeth and ample body fat, not to mention our descriptions of American dishwashers, refrigerators and air-conditioning. And with the general awe came V.I.P. treatment. Hosts broke out bottles of expensive orange soda that they freely mixed with expensive warm beer. We could not escape drinking this any more than we could escape our government-assigned “guide,” whose job was to strictly monitor visitors like us. Relatives or not, we were foreigners.

I returned to teach English at the Shandong Mining Institute in 1981. My students were coal mining engineers preparing to study abroad, so that they might bring back safer mining techniques. I was their “foreign expert.” As such, I had not only a sit-down toilet in the apartment provided to me, but also running hot water, an unheard-of luxury. My ayi, or housekeeper, would make a fire under a vat of water on the roof and, when it was ready, turn the faucet handle in my bathtub.

After class, my students would bring stools out to the basketball court where, each facing a different direction, they would sit and study for hours on end. Loving their country and wanting to make it strong, they were grateful for Westerners like me. Foreign as we were, we were a help.

Fast forward a few decades to a booming China. In my many visits over the years — as a teacher, as a visiting artist and as a tourist — Shanghai hotel staff had always returned my credit card to me with two hands, a bow of the head, and a smile. But with a quarter of the world’s construction cranes said to be in the city during China’s boom years, raising skyscrapers from what had been rice paddies, attitudes had changed. My credit card was returned with one hand; the receptionist barely looked up. My relatives no longer asked that I bring American goods for them, either. “China has everything,” they said then. As many proudly proclaimed, the 20th century was America’s; the 21st was China’s.

One seldom hears that triumphalist tone today. Instead, the talk is of a loss of confidence and trust in the Chinese government. People remain proud of their city, which now boasts excellent, cosmopolitan food and spotless streets. There are huge new sports centers featuring tennis and paddle-boarding, there is an artificial beach with pink sand. The city is far greener than in years past, too. Magnolia and cherry trees bloom everywhere and even the strips under the freeways have been landscaped. And thanks to the ubiquitous security cameras, Shanghai is spectacularly safe.

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