My program in Shanghai is called Projects-Abroad. The program sets its volunteers up with an internship and an apartment, gives a monthly allowance and then leaves them be. Jaime’s and my flat is much better and bigger than I expected. We have three other flatmates- Vicky from Leipzig, Germany, Christine from Phoenix and Ali from Irvine. Ali is of Iranian descent and so we’ve had some interesting conversations about his trips to Iran and his view on President Ahmadinejad.
Projects-Abroad currently has about 20-something volunteers in six flats spread throughout the city. Projects-Abroad is based in London, so the majority of volunteers are European (Brits, Scots, Swiss, etc.), but there are a few other Americans beside Jaime and me. There’s more socializing and camaraderie within the program than I figured there would be which is cool. We go out to bars, clubs and karaoke (KTV here) a few times a week.
My internship is with a bilingual lifestyle magazine called Metrozine. I haven’t been working too hard, only one article for the travel section on India so far, and generally just use my time at Metrozine for the free internet. I also took over a week off to be with my family and go to Beijing.
I love city skylines. I get trigger happy with my camera when I get a good view of a city’s skyscrapers and come to identify that city with its skyline. Like Cape Town with Table Mountain and the City Bowl, Auckland with the Sky Tower, Sydney with the Harbor Bridge and Opera House and Yaroslavl with um, well… there’s that one statue of Yaroslavl the Wise?
But I think Shanghai blows the others out of the water. After the communist Chinese government spent the prior few decades breaking Shanghai down and holding it back, the government reversed course in the mid-90s and decided it wanted to build Shanghai back up and have it reclaim the title of Asia’s main financial center from Tokyo. To that end they built up Pudong (or the land dong/ east of the Huang Pu River) into an impressive land of towering skyscrapers. In 1995 up went Oriental Pearl TV Tower, with its two pearl balls that most locals consider a trying-too-hard-to-be-futuristic eyesore. My favorite is the Shanghai World Financial Center with its slanting bottle opener top.
Shanghai is a city on two wheels. In the city, you’ll find most of the Chinese riding around on bikes, scooters or some strange combination of the two. And that includes businessmen in suits going to work, old women selling vegetables and somehow inexplicably taxi drivers. Jaime actually had to resort to a motorcycle cab ride one morning when he was running extra late for work and couldn’t find a more traditional cab.
There’s a massive park right in front of my flat with one of the few large green spaces in the city. And on any day of the week you can find old couples waltzing, an old man or two eyes closed, content to solo and reminisce about a partner from decades lost. Go a little further and you see a small crowd circled around a middle aged man using a big water brush to write Chinese poetry in calligraphy. There’s bumper cars and bumper boats with squirt guns, and bigger boats for young couples to take around the river that runs through the park. Octogenarians meet in the mornings to do tai chi, and old men slip away to run through some sort of martial art in slow motion. Old women walk through the park doing something that either is an arthritic hand exercise, or the most complicated way I’ve ever been flipped off.
And this is all just along the paths through the park. When you reach the green spaces, it all slows down even more. There are young people everywhere. You wonder what they’re doing here in the middle of an afternoon on a weekday in mid-April, but they don’t seem to care, so why should you. Some play Frisbee. Others fly kites. Still more kick around a badminton birdie like a hacky-sack. There’s a few tents scattered around and couples lie down in the grass and rest together. Not to step on the band Chicago’s toes, but it does really feel like every day here could be the 4th of July, and everyone’s just waiting for it to get dark so the fireworks can get started. But the park closes at night, so those who want to stick around a little longer migrate to the front, and perform or watch some outdoor karaoke.
I guess this is the peace of mind you get when you don’t have to fuss about elections and multiple political parties. Communism seems fun.
You hear another crazy story about rapid Chinese expansion and development. And then you stop and take another look around Zhongshan Park, and it all feels so very far away. And it makes you want to tread very carefully, so as not to pop the magical bubble they’re living in. This is the part of China I want to remember.