Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blue Skies Over Shanghai

He met me at the airport and loaded my bags into his new BMW. He's a music professor, but you can't maintain a lifestyle like his on a teacher's salary. He'd made his money in real estate.
When Deng Xiaoping opened China to capitalism, he told his people some would get rich faster than others. My friend was one of the first.

We were speeding along an elevated highway, a ribbon of concrete stretched across a sea of tiled rooftops.

"I just got back from India," he said.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Dirty. Very dirty."

I used to think the same about China, but I didn't tell him that.

Today the sun was shining, the sky was blue. Blue skies over Shanghai? (Of course, it was the end of the weeklong Chinese New Year celebration. And by Monday, the familiar Shanghai smog was back.)

On the plane, I'd met an American teaching at a university in Yangzhou.

"Everything in Yangzhou is powered by coal," she said. "A fine black dust settles on everything."

"Shanghai used to be like that," I told her.

Nowadays, Shanghai's smog is no different from what you'd find in any big city, like New York or Los Angeles. As China develops, I guess some cities will get cleaner before others, too.

I've been taking early morning walks, just to learn my way around. Along the way, I buy a bun or pastry from a street vendor and eat it as I walk. It's a customary breakfast here.

The main thoroughfares of Shanghai are lined with shops and restaurants, many with names familiar to Americans. The cars are sleek and the people are smartly dressed.

But turn into a back alley and you're in another world. Here, quarters are cramped, and life spills out into the street. A teenager washes his hair in a basin of water. An old man butchers a fish. A woman stirs a kettle of who-knows-what. A little boy pees in the gutter. Here are the people of China still waiting to get rich.

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