Shanghai: An International Community

Anyone know that little voice that sprouts up inside your head on Saturday night that says “tomorrow is Sunday, you’re going to church, right?”  This little voice has brought me to one of the most beautiful places in Shanghai, the St. Ignatius Cathedral.  The plot of land on Puxi Road, right near Nandang Road, has been owned by French Jesuits since the early 1600s and the structure visible today was built in 1910.  The church is affiliated with the Catholic Church and is now a member of the Diocese of Shanghai.  A British priest oversees the only English service, which takes place at noon on Sundays.

The first time I walked into the cathedral, I really did not know what to expect.  The grand towers and large, beautiful doors gave me the impression that it would be pretentious and gaudy.  As I walked through to find a seat before the beginning of the service, I saw many different faces and heard many different languages among the participants that were present.  Children and families as well as young adults and elderly people, especially elderly couples were congregated together inside the church for the English service.  I was surprised to see how many people knew each other in such a large church and were conversing with each other and with the new participants who were welcomed by many around them.  People surrounding me were impelled to shake hands with each other and greet each other as if they were family members.  It was as if there was something much stronger than the service that was ready to begin bringing people together and encouraging them to get to know each other.  Very soon, one Chinese phrase came to mind: “wai guo ren,” which means “foreigner.”

I have never visited another city in the world where I have witnessed so many people who are not natives create communities using a plethora of diverse pathways.  Of course, the church is a mode of creating community and camaraderie among its participants, but why are there no Shanghainese present at the service?  Before entering the establishment, I was under the impression that a parochial church like this one would work to forge relationships among people of different ethnicities, especially among both locals and foreigners, who have religion in common.  After having been to a few church services in Shanghai, I realize that it is because there are so many cultural commonalities among foreigners (and here I specify Westerners), that these wai guo ren create their own communities separate from the natives.

St. Ignatius Cathedral is only one example of exclusivity among foreigners that is plain to see in Shanghai.  With its crown molding, towering archways, and depictions of the Virgin Mary and other saints, it is the epitome of Western culture right in the middle of booming Shanghai.  This is a place where Western culture can be experienced and praised.  Hopefully it is used as a “touch-base” point with the feeling of home for most people instead of a means for creating an exclusive community and avoiding immersion into a culture so rich and with so much to offer.