HANGZHOU, China - I have been to Shanghai numerous times - indeed, I've taken 14 trips since January. My city, Hangzhou, is an hour away from the megalopolis by fast train, and so I often go to Shanghai to meet friends, have fun, or run errands. It is a city of 20 million-plus people, gleaming skyscrapers, boutiques and cafes, and narrow residential alleys.
Shanghai became an international city in the mid-1800s, during the period in China's history when foreign powers found ways - whether by war or treaty - to enter the country and set up trading posts. Different countries set up their own concessions in Shanghai, creating a city that included Chinese, French, Russian, British, German, and American residents. In the 1930s, Shanghai's Art Deco buildings, dance halls, and theatres gave it a reputation for being the "Paris of the East."
Given this international influence, Shanghai is sometimes scoffed at by some Chinese for not being "Chinese enough." It's true that Shanghai's European character can still be seen today: the French Concession is recognizable by its leafy streets and Tudor mansions, and the west side of the Huangpu River is lined with stately buildings that once were the bank headquarters, hotels, and social clubs of foreign powers.
Shanghai takes on a different character on the east bank of the Huangpu River, however. In Pudong (which means "east of the Huangpu" in Chinese) rise the skyscrapers that have made modern-day Shanghai famous, from the bulbous Oriental Pearl Tower to the World Financial Center with its bottle opener shaped top. And amazingly, the development of Pudong as a commercial and residential area began in 1990, barely 20 years ago.
Many foreign companies and expat-oriented housing developments are found further to the east in Pudong, in an area some foreigners jokingly call "Pu Jersey." Like the office workers who raise their families in New Jersey and commute into New York City for work, many international professionals with families live in Pudong's gated, suburban-style homes and travel westward for their corporate work. Walking around Pudong's Main Street-style streets, international schools, and Western restaurants can indeed feel like being in America again.
But not all of Shanghai is new or international, of course. Shanghai's old city, Nanshi ("southern city" in Chinese), has winding streets, a bird and insect market, and a famous Chinese-style garden. And scattered throughout the city are shikumen, a style of residential living unique to Shanghai, developed 150 years ago as a mix of Chinese and Western-style architecture.
These townhouses have brick walls in front, narrow alleys between them, and inner courtyards. While many Shanghai families once lived in these kinds of homes, they are rarer today as Shanghai's population grows and more and more people move into giant apartment blocks. Some shikumen areas have been renovated into dining and shopping centers, which at least conserve an element of old Shanghai if at the same time bend to the pressures to modernize and monetize the city.
I once read that expats to a new country often consider the first city that they live in to be their "hometown." If that is so, then I am a Shenzhen ren (a Shenzhen person), since I lived in the southern city for my first five months in China. But I am now, perhaps, a Hangzhou ren, as I have lived in Hangzhou for the past 10 months. When I think of Shenzhen, I think of its lush tropical climate, its proximity to Hong Kong, and the factory workers - most of them young women my age - who lived and worked in my neighborhood. Shenzhen is 30 years old; Hangzhou, my current city, was founded 1,400 years ago. Tea fields, West Lake, and a relaxed lifestyle all come to mind when I think of Hangzhou, a very different city from always-striving Shenzhen.
I have not lived in Shanghai, but I have traveled to it many times, and so it feels nearly as familiar to me as Shenzhen or Hangzhou.
Shanghai is often crowded and polluted and its summers are scorching. And it is far from a perfect place: its focus on growth and development can be both inspiring and off-putting, and the beggars who literally grovel on city sidewalks when darkness falls serve as grim reminders of the poverty that still exists in China.
But I am fond of Shanghai nonetheless. Perhaps it is because of its Art Deco effects, its glamorous past, or its international influences. Or because it is a place where I have met friends and family, spent afternoons reading in cafes, and have had nights out in loud and lively venues. Shanghai's Western and Chinese characteristics make it both familiar and intriguing.
Shanghai, compared to other cities, does not have many tourist destinations. It is a place to do things, rather than see sights. It has grown on me. I am a slightly restless person, never quite sure where I wish to go or stay or belong. And so it is nice to be able to consider my time spent in Shanghai - the meals with friends, the evenings enjoyed, the afternoons spent running errands - and realize that I have indeed lived in Shanghai, in a sense, even if I have never called it home.
- - -
Brittney Moraski, daughter of Robert and Bethany Moraski of Bark River, graduated from Bark River-Harris High School in 2005. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 2009. In February 2010, Brittney moved to Shenzhen, China, to work with Chinese students applying to U.S. universities. In July 2010, she moved to Hangzhou, China, to work as a program coordinator and to continue working with Chinese students. She plans to return to the U.S. this summer. You can follow her blog at www.brittneymoraski.com.