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Published: January 25th 2015
Happy New Year! I hope that 2015 has started off happily and healthfully for all.
After a glorious winter holiday, where I was able to share my family, friends, and beautiful Colorado with Mads, my 2015 started off with a big adventure.
The Model United Nations group at my school asked if I could help chaperone their trip to a conference in Shanghai! Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity to spend time with the students in a context outside of the classroom and to visit a new city.
After a non-stop flight from Copenhagen to Shanghai, it was hard to discern if the landscape was hazy due to our bleary jet-lagged eyes or the haze…time would tell that it was the haze of air pollution. The airport is enormous, and we were slow moving, but we made our way to the subway. It was a bit comical these tall Northern European kids bumping their heads on the hanging handholds, so I understood some locals snapping pictures. In the place of the books and newspapers in the hands of train commuters in some other cities, phones playing videos or games ate up the
passing time. As we neared the city center, and our hotel, occasional advertisements projected onto the walls of the tunnel, following along at our speed. The amount of commercialism and brand names was a bit striking compared with other communist countries I’ve, where such was virtually absent, but, this city of 26 million people is the financial heartbeat of China, so I suppose I was a bit silly to be surprised by the advertisements.
We shuffled out of the subway and up to the hotel, regrouped, and headed out for a little exploration of the city. (There were many a head count in each transition, but I will not bore you with that!) My colleague, the actual director of our school’s Model UN, he gave the students an increasingly large radius of freedom, as they proved their trustworthiness. We let the students choose where to eat for dinner and set up a meeting point. Many huddled together, which I completely understand-all of the signs were in Chinese and ordering based on pictures can be a little daunting, particularly for the vegetarians! But, we all managed, and tasty dumplings were a great introduction to Shanghai.
Though it was a little drizzly, we walked to the Bund. The Bund is the waterfront embankment, built by Indian laborers who gave it its name. We crossed over to take in the view of the Pudong neighborhood for the iconic photos of Shanghai’s skyline. We waited for the light show, but figured the low hanging clouds and drizzle might prevent it, that evening. As we waited, I turned to look at the buildings behind us, which are substantial and European looking, appearing to be from the 1900s. The contrast to the towering, modern, glittering skyscrapers struck me as a little odd.
Again, silly me, forgetting about the firewall in China! I expectantly opened the Gmail app on my phone only to have it not refresh, and not refresh, and not refresh. I do not care to admit here how many times I tried to refresh the page before I remembered that Google does not work in China. A testament to our wonderful students is that those who had not planned and downloaded some unblocker did not gripe too much that they were suddenly cut off from Facebook, and SnapChat, and who knows what else. This does
not mean that they did not take a million selfies, which I presume were posted given the first chance.
It only seemed right to start the next day off by adding to my plate of fresh watermelon a few steamed dumplings. My colleague then led us into the subway and to Jing’an
Temple. The signs for the trains and streets are written in Chinese and English, making the use of public transportation manageable, which was great since doing so offered a cultural experience with the crowded trains and different conceptions of personal space, causing a raised the eyebrow or two of a few students.
What struck me about the temple was the contrast between this traditional structure and the modern buildings surrounding it. The main temple courtyard was filled with the smoke of burning incense used in prayer. Chanting led me back to a room behind the grand staircase, where a wedding was taking place. Various Buddha statues in small rooms dotted the exterior of the temple. Though there were elements of the temple which were interesting, the experience left me oddly cold. As I read about its history, this feeling might come from
its history, as much was evidently rebuilt or returned to its original purpose, as the structure had served as a plastics factory during the Cultural Revolution.
We herded the group off to enjoy People’s Square, before taking them to the hosting school where their host families were to meet them. Coming from a Swedish public school to this private school with substantial tuition, led to some oohing and aahing over the school’s campus, but it was not long before the hosting school made us all feel welcome.
With the kids now taken care of and another nice meal in my belly, I was able to take stock of the trip. Though the temple was lovely, the view of the skyline impressive, and the people-watching interesting, I must say that after our first days, I did not feel much attachment or excitement about the city. I learned later on in the trip that this is because I was just experiencing the surface of the city, and was not appreciating the city’s history which of course added depth to the experience.
We met our students at the hosting school the next day. As
we waited to register, a quartet of students played; what a welcome! This was the sixth conference the school hosted, and 750 students participated. The energy at the opening ceremony was electric. The theme of the conference was on challenging inequality, and the opening speech lit a fire under the students. As I knew nothing about Model UN, I spent time wandering into the various rooms listening to the students, who were all dressed in suits, debate and engage with the work so earnestly. The day was rounded off with a fireworks display; I have the impression that I may have started on the high end of Model UN conferences…
The next day, the school offered a “Shanghai: Past, Present, Future” tour to the teachers. My colleague had taken the tour the year before, so he encouraged me to go. There is nothing like a great guidebook or tour. In 6 hours with a British student studying China and a group of teachers who are rather knowledgeable about China and its history themselves, my appreciation of Shanghai changed.
We began at a market built with, what I would call, pagoda style roves. But, like
the temple we had visited with the students, the buildings were built recently, so while there was a teahouse claiming to date back to the 1700s, it was only the foundation which dates that old, the building was rebuilt in the last 30 years. Walking through a traditional Chinese garden and rooms of a banished official proved a highlight, as we appreciated the framing of doors and learned about the stories which inspired specific details, a frog mosaic in the ground, a gingko tree, and so on. After appreciating the nearby Temple of the City Gods, we made our way back to the Bund.
The day was the clearest we had in Shanghai, so I was looking forward to a better view of the skyline. Instead the highlight ended up being the stories our guide shared about the history of the area. Some events involving histories I knew, such as the Opium Wars and the Cultural Revolution, but the details our guide explained the about history of the European buildings really grabbed me. Seeing the glittering interiors of the Waldorf Astoria, formerly the Gentlemen’s Club, and other buildings was overwhelming-how does this exist in communist China?! We
made a bit of a game of looking for what was “overlooked” during the Chinese government’s multi-million dollar investment in the restoration of the buildings along the Bund. For example, the crest of the Scottish investor who profited from the opium was not repaired from the damage it suffered in the subsequent years. It was really funny as we walked along slowly discussing each building, some passing groups of Chinese would stop to stare, pose with us as a background, and then giggle and move on! This was not the case with the police officers who were aware of our slow movement and seemed to find it suspicious.
We then crossed over and climbed up to the viewpoint for the Pudong district. It was nearly impossible to comprehend, but every building in that area has been built in the last twenty years. As we looked at the photo of the rice patties that had been there before, it sunk in just how quickly the development happened. The Shanghai Tower does indeed tower over the other buildings, as it should, being the second tallest building in the world. I appreciated the anecdote about the building that looks like
a bottle opener, the Shanghai World Financial Center, which was financed by a Japanese company. The hole was originally to be a circle, not a rectangle, which reportedly caused the mayor of Shanghai to say something to the effect of, “I will not have the rising sun over my city!” Evidently, the official reason provided was it is cheaper to make it a rectangle than a circle. The tour certainly added to my experience of Shanghai.
After returning to the school and listening in on the students in their committees in the afternoon, the school hosted teachers at a restaurant called Lost Heaven
in the French Concession area of Shanghai. We ate family style, tasting as many as twenty different delicacies, confirming that I was at a very top end Model UN event! Talking with the other teachers at this event and throughout the week was a highlight of the trip. I could not help but marvel at the options and opportunities available to other teachers and myself. It was also a great reminder that nowhere is perfect, and everyplace is, to some extent, a compromise. It is interesting to see where people put their foot down,
Old and New
Supposedly the oldest tea house in Shanghai, and the new Shanghai Tower
though. I for example, could not imagine having school off for “pollution days.” In fact, I feel all the more grateful for Sweden and the buses of my town which run on compost!!
At the closing ceremony of the conference, it was clear the students had enjoyed their time and formed bonds. Our students made sure I saw that in the hosting school’s paper, in response to “Who was the hottest?” it was “The Swedes.” I guess that makes all the selfies in the temple make sense. But in all seriousness, the students did excellent work preparing and had three of their resolutions pass, so they can hang their hat on other accomplishments than their physical beauty.
Though I admit I would not single Shanghai out as a place I would like to return to, I know that there is more to see and experience in the city, and if I gave it the attention, preparation, and research it deserves, I would enjoy it and keep deepening my understanding of this culture with a long and complex history.
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