Breathing Shanghai

In a city of 23 million people, staying healthy takes militant self-protection. For me, staying healthy in China is a conscious daily struggle.

In a city of pollution and overcrowding, chances for illness are ubiquitous. Public health crises are growing all over China. As Elizabeth Economy discusses in her book The River Runs Black, people throughout China are facing water scarcity, higher rates of birth defects and cancer, and poor air quality because of environmental degradation. Respiratory problems are rampant because of the poor air quality. Tap water can cause days of diarrhea and stomach pain. Viruses transmit rapidly because of urbanization and overcrowding. An infamous example is the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS in southern China. After failing to control the outbreak and failing to cooperate with the international community, China was criticized for its public health management. As the population grows and environmental destruction continues, the public health problems only increase.

From the beginning, I noticed a difference in Shanghai’s treatment of health. Near our apartment complex, there is a large hospital. Whenever I walk by the hospital, I see at least ten patients milling around, smoking cigarettes, or eating at local restaurants. Sometimes the patients are wearing facemasks, but sometimes they aren’t. They wear hospital pajamas, but they can easily walk around the block and do what they please. Even if I am not near the hospital, I usually see at least one person wearing a facemask each day. I often wonder what they are afraid of breathing in. Although it is socially acceptable to wear a facemask, other Chinese habits seem less conducive to public health. It is not uncommon to hear someone spit or blow their nose loudly onto the sidewalk. Parents hold their babies go to the bathroom on the road. Squat toilets are often dirty on and around the toilet. Trash piles up throughout the city. For the squeamish or germophobic, Shanghai would be a hard place to live.

Despite the differences in public hygiene, Chinese superstitions about personal health are often surprisingly similar to my own habits. I burn incense because it relaxes me, and every temple has countless incense offerings. Incense actually helps to reduce anxiety and depression, so it makes sense that religious temples have incense to ease their visitors. My Chinese teacher also says that air conditioners and travelling make her sick because her body has trouble adjusting to the changes in environment. I am not sure why, but both of these are true for me as well. Finally, my Chinese teacher always suggests cups and cups of hot tea to cure illness. I drink hot tea endlessly when I am sick. Like drinking chicken soup in the States, we know our at-home treatments are helpful, even if we can’t explain why.

Shanghai is an interesting place to think about public health because every person lives the public health problem. No one needs to tell me there is poor air quality; I can simply feel it in my lungs. I do not know how public health will continue in China, but it is obvious that there is real potential for a crisis.

Hukuo (户口) in China

Earlier this semester, my classmates and I learned about Hukou (户口), a household registration system in China. In her article “Foreign Marriage, ‘Tradition,’ and the Politics of Border Crossing,” Constance D. Clark introduces and describes Hukou:

Hukou was a system of social control created by the Communist Party, which segregated the entire Chinese population into a two-tiered rural-urban ranking of privilege. Statuses of “agricultural” or “nonagricultural” meant that a person born into an agricultural family had no opportunity to convert to nonagricultural status and was therefore denied benefits allocated to those in the cities such as housing, medical insurance, food allotments, and pensions (Cohen 1994; Potter and Potter 1990). In many ways, the package of urban welfare came to be understood as socioeconomic rights that were the property of urbanites. (Clark 1999: Kindle Locations 1394-1398).

From my understanding, Hukou is a government instrument for manipulating and controlling the movement of people in China. The word Hukou is comprised of two separate characters: 户 and 口. Independently, 户 carries the meaning of family, and 口 carries the meaning of entrance or gate. So, the combination of the two characters is a fitting description of the structure. Without approved official documentation, a person cannot legally enter and establish a life in another province or town. This barrier has been and continues to be problematic for Chinese citizens, particularly those living in rural towns wishing to move and work in exciting and economically thriving cities. Moreover, the difficulty of transferring Hukuo registration has made the city the “preferred place to live and… a steadfast destination of desire for rural dwellers and exiled urbanites” (Chen 1999: Kindle Locations 133-134). Thus, the increasingly high population densities in Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, should be expected.

Before learning about Hukou, I took “the freedom of geographic mobility” for granted. In America, the government does not directly control the migration from countryside to city. In fact, the transition from small town to big city is a popular theme romanticized in novels and movies. During my childhood, my family moved every few years according to my father’s job and economic opportunities. Hukou would have restricted my father’s career and my family’s chance for economic prosperity. Chinese college students are facing this restriction of Hukou during their job hunts after graduation (Hoffman: Kindle Locations 757-758). If graduates do not get their Hukou registration transferred to an economic center, such as Shanghai, then they are forced to look for job opportunities in their hometown. This can be extremely disheartening for college graduates from small towns, since better, higher-paying jobs are located in larger cities.

The subject of Hukou surfaced during an interview with Ms. Li (李), a migrant farmer on Chongming Island. Recently, Ms. Li’s son returned to their hometown in Anhui Province to attend high school. When asked why he did not attend a high school on the island, she clarified that his registration was in their hometown. Therefore, he could only take his university placement exams in Anhui. Ms. Li hopes her son will find a job outside farming and recognizes the importance of an education for his future. Thus, staying on Chongming was not an option for her son. Additionally, Ms. Li mentioned her son’s desire to attend university in urban Shanghai instead of Chongming. As mentioned earlier, life in a larger city is economically and socially more attractive. Chongming Island is the least developed region of Shanghai. Ms. Li’s son is simply another illustration of the rural population’s longing for city life.

(Ms. Li is pictured above; population density map provided by china travel guide)

There and Back Again

It was not until I returned to Taiwan after spending a month and a half in Shanghai that I really discovered just how different the cultures on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are.

Or, to be more accurate, it was not until I found myself acting in accordance with Shanghai culture (and against Taiwanese culture) that I began to realize the gulf.

In broad daylight, on the fairly busy Linsen North Road in Zhongshan District, Taipei City, I found myself stepping out to cross the road during a lull in traffic, at a point roughly equidistant from the two nearest crosswalks. As I did so, I had 5 revelations in rapid succession:

  • This is really rather stupid;
  • This is quite lazy;
  • This is probably illegal;
  • This is what people do in Shanghai, and;
  • This is not what people do in Taipei.

A month and a half spent in Shanghai, with its unique traffic patterns for both pedestrians and drivers had desensitized me to the sensibilities about traffic I’d learned growing up in the United States (as in, it’s probably quite stupid, not to mention illegal, to jaywalk). When I began to cross a busy street in Taipei I realized that jaywalking is not generally considered acceptable behavior there, as it is not generally considered acceptable behavior in the United States.

I discovered many further differences between Taiwanese culture and Shanghai culture over the next few days. “Night culture” was perhaps the most starkly different. Shanghai, which is often considered a “global” city, quickly shuts down after about 8:00 PM. Bars and nightclubs remain open, and it’s possible to find vendors hawking fried rice or noodles as late as two in the morning, but these are not really pervasive parts of the culture. Outside of the small areas of the city with a high per capita presence of nightclubs, the streets are almost silent at night. A garbage collector might roam the streets, picking up trash, but he’s invariably alone; a late night public bus might cruise its route, but it’s invariably empty; Family Mart or Lianhua Supermarket might be open 24/7, but, invariably, no one walks in during the late-night hours. For the average Shanghainese, night is a time to remain at home.

Taipei stands in stark contrast, with night culture is omnipresent. Night markets, the pride of the Taiwanese tourist industry, remain crowded by locals and tourists alike until 11 PM; college students stumble out of KTVs well after midnight; old folks sit around outside chatting until all hours of the night. Even late at night, the city still feels alive – while New York may be called the City That Never Sleeps, Taipei actually feels like the City That Never Sleeps.

Food culture also differs significantly between Shanghai and Taipei. In Taipei, friends connect over food on a regular basis – food is the basis for a large portion of Taiwanese social interaction (for really great examples of this, see the movies Eat Drink Man Woman and Au Revoir, Taipei, in both of which food is a central plot element). Food is also the primary focus of most Taiwanese domestic tourism. Whenever they go somewhere new, the main thing Taiwanese people do is try the special local treat (the variety and sheer numbers of these local delicacies is truly astounding for an island the size of New Jersey). In Shanghai, however, food does not seem to carry the same cultural significance. Oftentimes it can be nigh impossible to find something to eat during non-peak hours!

My analysis of Taiwanese culture undoubtedly carries a heavy bias, as the year I spent living there was highly formative for me, and I will likely always have an abiding love of the island and its people. We’ll have to wait for my classmates’ reflections on their time in Taipei to get a solid comparison of Taiwanese and Mainland culture. However, I think it really is fair to say that significant differences exist between the two, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses. While these differences are not an insurmountable barrier, they do have the potential to inhibit unification, and culture is something that leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to be cognizant of.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Reading with Angelina

When we first arrived in China, my classmates and I expressed our interests in connecting with local Shanghai people. Shen Yi Fei, a professor at Fudan University, suggested pairing each of us with a young Chinese student for English language lessons and practice. This arrangement would reward both parties; Davidson students would experience more cultural immersion and the Chinese family would receive a free tutoring service.

I met my “Chinese family” this morning. They picked me up from my apartment and brought me to their home, so I wouldn’t get lost using the public transportation. The mother, Ling, and her sister, Emma, were more than welcoming. For the remainder of the semester, I will be helping Ling’s daughter, Angelina with her English speaking and reading skills. Angela is a third grader who enjoys math, playing with her friends and watching movies. We already got off to a great start today. Angelina read dialogue passages from her English practice book. She also read two of my own childhood favorites, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Listening to her struggle with the longer or trickier words made me think more about the process of learning a language. After reading the three books, she was exhausted, and I could relate. My brain always seems to hurt after Chinese class or any intensive readings. Thinking, reading and speaking in a different language is tiring. So, we called it a day. Plus, it was Angelina’s birthday, so we didn’t want to make her read too much.

While I was at Angelina’s home, I noticed different signs of a Chinese family. For instance, Ling prepared snacks and tea for my visit. She kept on offering me more and more snacks, which reminded me of my mother scooping more and more food onto my friends’ plates back home. When Ling asked if I wanted a banana, she peeled the banana and placed it into my hands before I could politely decline. Additionally, the family’s car had a decorative hanging of Guanyin, also known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion or the “Goddess of Mercy”(Palmer 2011: 107). Guanyin is a venerated figure in Chinese popular religion. These are just two of the most obvious observations I made. I hope to learn more about their family and family traditions over the last ten weeks I have in Shanghai. Today, I learned that Ling is a judge in Shanghai and Emma is a banking and finance lawyer. I think it would be interesting to hear their stories and opinions about women in the Shanghai workforce. On Wednesday night, I will return to their home for another visit. 

Yeye and Nainai

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As the saying goes, life is all about “seeing and being seen.” There are plenty of people to see in Shanghai: the rich, the young, and the fashionable. They are the up-and-coming stars of Shanghai’s future. Chairman Mao is a distant memory to them, and communism has always meant “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as Jeffrey Wasserstrom calls it in China in the 21st Century (97). When I am out and about, though, it is not my youthful peers that catch my eye; it is their parents and grandparents.

The aging generations of China have experienced a great deal in their lifetimes. Many experienced the Cultural Revolution. Some were part of the Great Leap Forward. Some even saw the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party. In a city with so much emphasis on the future, the aging generation is living proof of the city’s tumultuous history.

Families are ever important in Chinese culture, and children traditionally support their parents as they age. Adult children will often send home weekly paychecks in gratitude for all their parents did for them. However, with the aging group of One-Child Policy babies, sometimes called “Little Emperors,” it will be harder and harder to support the aging generation of Chinese grandparents. For each only child, there are four grandparents to support. The pressure to succeed monetarily ever increases on the “Little Emperor,” or grandparents are left without a retirement plan.

Besides age and money, the digital age also separates the age cohorts. In most countries with internet access, there is a distinct divide between those with internet and those without. The internet can offer a wealth of information, but the elderly generation is often the slowest to adopt new technologies (as makes sense). In China, the divide is even wider because of the “Great Firewall,” a term referring to the Chinese government’s internet censorship (Wasserstrom 86). VPNs and other proxy servers can go around the firewall, but that technology is limited to the savvy. So, in such a futuristic, technologic city, the elderly are often left without the internet’s information.

Before coming to Shanghai, I thought that aging in China must be pleasant. In conjunction with Confucian principles, the ancestral line is cherished and respected; however, in a city that adapts so quickly to the waves of the future, it seems that the attitude towards the elderly is changing as well. I rarely see a younger person move to give their seat to an older person. People push past each other roughly, regardless of age. Maybe these examples are just cultural differences in manners, but they could also be signs of deeper cultural changes. As Wei Laoshi told me, adult children still send their parents money, but it is often out of duty and obligation, not necessarily love. With the tide of Western culture infiltrating Shanghai, I wonder how the aging generation will fare. Will the younger generation still hold onto their Confucian reverence, or will the aging generation be left behind as the youthful generation embraces their individuality?

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