“Youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope.” ~ Aristotle
I had unintentionally trailed the two young girls for much of the block.
One walked with a swagger, the other with hesitation. Both had their heads buried in their mobiles, their fingers texting furiously. Without looking up, they weaved in and out of the Saturday afternoon crowd along Hefei Lu (合肥路).
They paused for a moment on the sidewalk to decide their next move. Swaddled in trendy winter wear, they chatted absently while continuing to play with their phones. The dialect was incomprehensible. Though their soft tones suggested Jiangsu, their attitudes spoke of enough time spent in the city.
Sometimes we forget that it is more than commerce that defines Shanghai’s pulsing vibe. Its fast pace rides on the depthless energy of countless youths that flood the city. Many of them moved around with their parents who sought better lives in Shanghai, others were bundled into buses and dispatched to work for distant relatives when crops failed in the countrysides.
Most finish high-school with no expectations of further studies. Instead, they arrive in Shanghai with stars in their eyes which are eventually dulled by their unglamorous lives as shampoo boys/girls, shop assistants, security guards, masseurs, waiters and waitresses.
But the fervour of youth is impossible to extenguish. After 12 hours attending to demanding (and often verbally abusive) customers, they shed their uniforms and plunge into crowded streets and bright lights. On their days off, boys and girls strolled along the Bund, window-shopped along Nanjing Lu, gossiped about budding romances and watched hours of Korean soap dramas. In a city with an extreme income disparity, Shanghai was theirs as much as the next person.
That was the thing about a large and mean metropolis. If it doesn’t care for you, it cannot judge you. Unlike tightknit communities back home, the city barely bats an eyelash if you have become a married man’s mistress, are being sexually harassed by bored housewives, joined an underground Christian prayer group or studying for the real estate exam after failing three times in a row (all true stories).
Shanghai carries the hopes and dreams of the wild-eyed youth, hoping to strike it big and live the modern life that his/her parents could never have imagined. Maintaining one’s dignity can be challenging in such circumstances.
Once, I watched a property agent, no more than 25 in his ill-fitting and shiny suit, stand outside a luxury estate distributing property listings. As only the help staff would walk out of that area, all other residents entered and exited in their flashy cars. The young agent would stuff the flyers eagerly into open car windows, much to the annoyance of the drivers. I watched a haughty woman in large sunglasses fling it right back out on the ground before speeding off in her BMW.
The young man picked up the flyer and smoothed it out for reuse. His hopes were not quite dashed but just a little shaken.
Great post and great pics (small and descriptive)
I love the words in the post more than the photos. Given that I’m a rather impatient person and now that I’m sleepy, I can’t help to re-read the whole paragraph again. It’s nice… nice…
About those kids… those who finished high school are the lucky ones. Most turned out, to our astonishment, to have only finished their primary school education. I don’t think the situation is too different for the shampoo boys and girls 🙂
Cintia, most entrepreneurs never finished high school and primary school, mostly out of unfortunate circumstances. But I doubt that’s ever stopped exuberant and go-getting young folks to make a buck!
Great post, you put it perfectly.
Shanghai is very much a confusing place. But still, far far away, you see this pattern, destroy, rebuild, bring new blood, start afresh, again. So coarse a view, hardly of any help to get a grip on your neighbor’s hardship or happiness. Caught up in transforming forces, way bigger than their lives. Gotta have a thick skin.
Photography is your hobby, but words seem to be a love story ? Can’t wait to see how it plays out once you give it a serious shot.
“I had intentionally trailed the two young girls for much of the block.”
Thanks for the trails, out of the beaten paths. A given for camera lovers.
Thanks for the lovely comments, Alex. I think Shanghai is no different from the large cities of Mumbai, New York, London or Tokyo. The larger they are, the more lonely we feel. One has to be tough under such circumstances.
Better than any geographer!
This strikes a chord with me when I observe Chinese youth on the metro and admire the march forward of one fifth of our humanity.
Seamus, good to hear from you! As a professor, do you feel Chinese youth are any different from your students?
The big difference is that many of the young people in Ireland take the great opportunities they get for granted, particularly their freedom of expression. My experience with Chinese students is that they work very hard and show great respect to professors.
They are obviously very proud of their country, and yet seem to have little in-depth knowledge of their recent history.
In 2008 we brought 50 Irish students to Shanghai and one of the high points was a walk through some old neighbourhoods with a group of wonderful Chinese postgraduates. One of them proceeded to give me a lecture explaining China’s one-child policy!
Seamus, you are indeed right about the diligence of Chinese students and deference to authorities. The intense competition for limited university spots also discourages them to think out of the box, if there is no precedent, why bother. Students themselves acknowledge that the nail that stands out only makes it easier to hammer down. With regard to that graduate student who defended China’s one-child policy, I suspect there are two reasons for it. One, Chinese people tend to be more defensive against foreign (or perceived foreign “misunderstanding”, and second, after years of indoctrination on the rationale behind the government’s policies, it is second nature to accept it. This is not to say they don’t actively debate or critique such policies, I am sure they do on their own, just not necessarily in front of teachers or in public.
Probably why a direct question is usually counter productive as you seem to suggest – if the goal is to sample the opinion a Chinese may or may not have on the party’s policies – . I remember, after a long conversation with a Chinese acquaintance, on recalling how the one-child policy affected her family, she asked “What does that mean ?” with a sense of loss in her voice, trying to understand how she would fit into a society that didn’t want her as she was a few days old. I didn’t capture the depth of her torment until I read this speech:
It tells a lot, and so few, about China when you read between the lines.