My final night in Shanghai

So long, China.

In a broader sense, it’s more like “So long, Asia” — as my overseas travels have finally come to an end. After a nearly four-month odyssey that’s spanned Nepal, India, Thailand and China, I begin the journey home.

It is incredibly bittersweet, and I still cannot believe that the time is here. It feels like I just boarded my flight to Kathmandu, where the journey first began. That was right after Thanksgiving, when people were preparing for Christmas. The world has since moved on to St. Patrick’s Day and Easter preparations. How time flies.

As I strolled The Bund — Shanghai’s dynamic seaport walkway with awesome views of glittering skyscrapers — I tried not to reflect on the past nor worry about the future. No emotional reminiscing, no neurotic planning. Both would likely drive me to tears right now. Not to mention, they’d break the “live in the moment” mantra I established for this journey.

On this final night in Shanghai, my intention was to celebrate China. What it’s gifted me. What I’ve learned. What I’ll champion back home, and what I won’t. I did this in one of the most spectacular settings I could find: a high-end steakhouse overlooking The Bund. I couldn’t believe my luck in scoring this table.

China was an afterthought to my journey. It wasn’t part of my original plan. It was a way to “kill time” before flying to Vancouver, where I will spent time visiting a college friend before driving the coast to Los Angeles, then home to Chicago via Route 66. I needed to plug a few weeks with something while my Vancouver friend was vacationing in Mexico.

So I thought to myself, “Why not check out China? I am already in Asia. When might I get this chance again?” I figured that it would be wise to acquire first-hand experience in a country that’s gaining global dominance. Getting to know China, like getting to know any foreign country, would eliminate ignorance I have about it. This could serve me well in business, friendships, life in general.

It was a very good move. This destination has certainly promoted eye-opening cultural insights.

The country is at an interesting crossroads, as the generation that lived under Chairman Mao grows older and the younger generation starts flexing its muscle. Today, China straddles old politics (Communism) and a modern economy (Capitalism). Although Mao is still revered and honored, and Communism is still the dominant “religion” of China — China also embraces the fruits of Capitalism and Western philosophy. They are succeeding at having it both ways, which I find fascinating.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the “old ways” will slowly fade in a few decades, as those who lived in Mao’s time die off. I question this after paying specific attention to China’s Millenial generation. This is the generation born after 1980, after Mao’s time, after China opened up to the rest of the world. This generation didn’t live through policies and perceptions that, I assume, are still deep-seeded in the minds of the older generation. They have freedoms and choices that their parents and grandparents didn’t have. How do they approach their life? How do they interact with the rest of the world? These were questions that held steady as I observed and interacted with the Chinese.

I may have been at a disadvantage in getting a clear view of this generation, as most of my interaction with them happened in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai — and cities tend to breed a more worldly sort of people given they attract an international crowd. Nevertheless, I experienced a stark difference in my interaction with the youth versus people my parents’ age.

My smile became a simple indicator, actually. When I smiled at the older folks, I didn’t always get a smile in return. They would either stare at me, unmoved and unchanged, or avoid me altogether. It was bizarre in some cases. The younger generation was all smiles when smiled at them. Many weren’t hesitant to come up and talk to me in English, to ask about me, to ask about America. Eyes lit up when I told them I was from America, which was not the reaction I had expected to receive at all. A few young ladies I met yesterday even invited me to spend the day with them at a local festival. “You are so friendly!” one of them exclaimed, almost shocked at the discovery. (It is moments such as this that remind me that I am as much a cultural ambassador to my country as I am a tourist in a foreign land. Perhaps I changed the perception of Americans as being “unfriendly” for this young woman.)

There is a curiosity and openness about the Chinese Millenials that I didn’t experience with the older generation. I expected everyone, even the youth, to be much more guarded and perhaps not even be acknowledged by the locals. But that hasn’t been the case at all. I have been welcomed and befriended, certainly by the Chinese in my age demographic or younger.

This is not the China of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations — or at least, the China that I learned about through them. Perhaps the same “ah-ha” moment holds true for the Chinese when they meet Americans or visit America for the first time. We can begin shattering years and years of prejudice and misperceptions. That is the beauty of travel.

While a strong current of political history and legacy flows through the country, the youth are definitely embracing the economic and social opportunities that come with forging relationships with the West. To what degree, I am unsure. In a city such as Shanghai, which is China’s answer to Manhattan, they are certainly doing it with gusto. Shanghai reminds me of New York, London and Paris all rolled into one — with some really amazing, space-aged architecture stringing it together. But Shanghai is not the rest of China, so it cannot give me an accurate view of the country as a whole. It would be akin to summing up all of America’s values on a single visit to New York City — and American is much more complex than that.

My big “Why” question that has gone unanswered in China has to do with social media. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — huge communication channels for the rest of the world — are blocked in China. (China has it’s own version of Facebook and Twitter.) There is an intriguing Internet censorship that effectively prevents Chinese from participating in social media dialogue with friends, colleagues and perfect strangers outside of their country boundaries. It has actually been really interesting for me, to not be able to communicate with the outside world in this capacity while in China. I have effectively been blocked, too! And I have hated it!

Sure, the Chinese can access the communication stream under the radar with the help of a tech-savvy friend, as I learned from a few Chinese Millenials. But fact that government has such a strict policy in place, identifying specific websites that are forbidden and censoring real-time communication over the Internet, is just … curious. It shows that the “old ways” are still very much in place.

But for how long? Policing the Internet is like trying to add layers and layers of sandbags to a flooding river that will inevitably crest. How many sandbags does the Chinese government have?

As I sipped my Malbec and stared at the twinkling skyscrapers outside of my restaurant window, I mused on the China I might be able to visit a decade or two from now.

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