Tag Archives: China

Dumplings and diversity … or today would be a good day to be in Shanghai

This weekend I noticed that my favourite local dumpling place, just around the corner, has closed down. There are plenty of other dumplings available nearby (I do live two blocks from Chinatown after all), but it’s not just the taste I will miss, but the staff I have come to know from being a ‘regular’ at my ‘local’.  It was one of the first places I discovered which helped me articulate a real sense of neighbourhood in the midst of the city.

It was my enjoyment of travelling to various cities around the world that prompted me to move into the city in my hometown. I love city living – the vibe and the variety, the hustle and bustle, the joy of walking and watching. But mostly, I love the diversity of people and the sense of neighbourhood community that I’m discovering can be found in the city.  So today I’m thinking it would be interesting to revisit one of the world’s most populous cities, Shanghai. With just over 24 million people, this city has around the same population as the nation of Australia in an area about twice the size of Adelaide.

What did I love about Shanghai?

The sheer size of the city is a sight to behold,  best appreciated by visiting the scale model found at the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre.

Within this huge footprint is a huge diversity of neighbourhoods. From the Old Town artisans …

… to the Beaux Arts buildings lining the Bund …

… to the modern skyline of the financial district.

As well as one of the largest populations in the world,

the city boasts the world’s fastest passenger train, reaching 431 km/h,

Asia’s largest train station, at 1.3 million square kilometres,

and China’s first world-class museum,

celebrating the nation’s art and history.

It is also home to perhaps the most surreal tourist attraction I have ever visited in the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, which despite its name is a tunnel under the river with psychedelic lights, trippy music, and bizarrely poetic random phrases read throughout the journey.

And when it comes to dumplings, I’d stand by the claim of those I had in YuYuan to be up there with the best in the world.

What did I learn from Shanghai?

With all these ‘best’ and ‘biggest’ things to see and do, what I appreciated most about Shanghai was the interactions with people. Walking along the Bund is perfectly suited for ‘people watching’, but it was also while there that I met and interacted with people from six or seven different countries, with locals as well as visitors.

I don’t know whether it is the closer proximity of city dwelling,  the fact that they are by nature less homogenous than other locations, or the fear of getting lost in the crowd, but I find that in the city there is often a greater willingness of people to at least smile, if not engage, and seek out some sense of community and connection.

As I seek to connect with my neighbourhood community in the city where I live, as I try to overcome the temptation to be anonymous and instead choose the simple, deliberate gestures of eye contact and a smile, perhaps leading to a friendly word or willingness to engage, I’m challenged by how I can play my own small part in making city life the best it can be not just for me, but for those around me.

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Today would be a good day to be in Beijing

I missed my regular Monday travel post last week due to study deadlines, some of which are still looming. So today I’m thinking it would be really nice to be able to go somewhere different enough that my mind would be compelled to think about things in different ways, to be opened up to new perspectives. And the place that comes to mind is Beijing, the first place I visited in China, and a place that certainly reminded me that different cultures and histories lead to very different ways of viewing the world.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
What did I love about Beijing?

Great Wall 3

The beauty of its history and culture.

The northwest corner tower of the Forbidden City

The peacefulness of the grounds at the Summer Palace, an oasis in a bustling city.

Summer Palace groundsSummer Palace view

The grand spectacle of just a small section of the Great Wall a few miles outside town

Great Wall 2

The ancient temples bearing witness to generations of people’s commitment and devotion.

Forbidden City temple

The opulence of the Great Hall of the People.

Inside Great Hall 2

I was taken by the simple and profound art displayed inside too.

wall painting 1

I also enjoyed seeing the pride of the people in the way they had pulled off the Olympics a couple of years prior to my visit.

The Watercube, Olympic Swimming Centre
The Watercube, Olympic Swimming Centre
Birdsnest
The Birdsnest Stadium
What did I learn from Beijing?

I certainly often felt like an outsider. I didn’t always understand what was going on. It is good for me to experience that sometimes, and hopefully it helps me develop compassion for those who feel it in places where I feel comfortable and at home.

The Great Hall of the People
The Great Hall of the People

Nowhere was my lack of understanding clearer than at the most popular attraction in Tiananmen Square – the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. After walking straight into the Art Museum and Great Hall, it was a surprise to me to see a queue that went several times around the block. After checking in cameras, bags, phones etc., I joined the line which moved at a brisk pace, almost “marching” into the foyer overflowing with fresh flowers, and then solemnly filing past Mao’s embalmed body. It was over before I really knew what I had seen, and while it seemed for many locals to be a sombre, even sacred experience, for me it was quite surreal.

Exiting the Masouleum
Exiting the Masouleum

I was also very conscious of looking like an outsider; an oddity. At times this presented the wonderful gift of meeting people – people who were usually apprehensive but pleased to make my acquaintance. At the Forbidden City I had a couple of individuals come and ask to have their photo taken with me. At the Summer Palace I had a lovely lady stop me to practice her English on me. I was reminded of the privilege that comes with the colour of my skin and the language of my tongue. Even if I am greeted with bewilderment, I am rarely rejected outright.

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace

That’s not to say that I didn’t experience being stared at and even being “stalked.” I was walking down the street one day and a young couple were walking in front of me. They had obviously noticed me and wanted to get a photo with me. So the girl slowed down until she was walking beside me, then called out to the guy who quickly turned around and snapped a photo of the two of us, before they both sheepishly ran away. My best guess is that they were visiting from another part of China, and wanted to be able to show their friends at home the white person they “met” while in Beijing. I would have been happy to be photographed with them if they had asked, but I realised perhaps my privilege also makes me intimidating.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

The strong presence of the army was something else I am not used to from my own country. I spent a fascinating 20 minutes in Tiananmen Square watching as an officer meticulously corrected one of his soldier’s hand movements, and pondering the many choices I have had in my life that others have not.

Army

I wondered about the ancient mindset of building a wall to protect your nation’s borders; especially as perhaps the only parallel in my own country’s history is a fence to keep the rabbits out.

Great Wall

I also wondered anew how much of my own perspective is shaped by growing up under the political, social and economic systems I did, and thought a lot about how easy it is to judge others without really being able to understand where they are coming from. As I find happens so often when visiting different cultures, I asked as many questions about myself as I did about the people I saw and met.

Inside the Great Hall of the People
Inside the Great Hall of the People

And of course, in the end, I caught enough glimpses of every day life to be reminded once again that people are people everywhere, even in places that seem about as different from what I am used to as I can imagine. I may find the way they do things a little unusual, but their hopes and dreams and hearts are really much the same.

Inside the water cube, an indoor beach
Inside the water cube, an indoor beach