I left early a few days ago to catch a train to Hangzhou, a city about 100 miles from Shanghai. Just outside our apartment complex’s gate, beside the usual guys selling vegetables from the back of tricycle carts, I came across a woman selling live chickens. While most of the chickens were in wooden cages held together by wire, one of her roosters was walking around like a neighborhood watch patrolman, unaware that local residents took his heroics as a sign that he’d make for a great dinner.
Our sidewalk-cum-farmer’s market isn’t like one you would find in LA, with young farmers, organic fare, and hipster customers. In front of our building we have the old school kind of farmer’s market that has been around for centuries, where the salespeople are one step away from the farmers and the customers are local residents who often hang out in the old person’s park and senior center during the day.
The expats across the street
Our neighborhood in Shanghai has a mix of foreigners and locals, though it is split by a street that runs east-west and separates an older part from newer housing filled with wealthy locals and expats. We’re on the older side of the street with the locals, both because we like living on that side of the street and because it’s much cheaper than the expat side. On our side of the street it feels a bit like an older China, though it’s certainly not like we’re living on a movie set of China in the 20s.
Behind the lady selling the chickens, not more than half a block away, I could see the towering apartment buildings where many expats live. These well appointed apartment complexes would not look out of place in any major American city and also have rental prices that compare to nice parts of Los Angeles. The grounds are manicured, satellite dishes adorn the sides of the buildings, and the complexes include many modern amenities.
On our side of the street we have an old person’s park and senior center, a farmers market with cheap vegetables and meat of questionable quality, the rooster who might already be in someone’s freezer, and many residents who were probably born in the neighborhood. The contrasts in our neighborhood are replicated in first and second tier cities throughout China, with the extremely modern frequently located right next to the traditional. It’s this intermingling of the two that I find fascinating, not only traditional and modern but locals and expats, farmers markets and international grocery stores, holes-in-the-wall and modern western sandwich shops.
China, both fast and slow
It’s certainly true that you will find extreme differences in living standards in most major cities in the world. I can drive for a few minutes in Los Angeles and go from a crime-ridden neighborhood with tattered houses to a pristine neighborhood that looks like mansions have been scattered across a golf course. The contrast I’m talking about in China isn’t specifically squalor versus riches; I’m talking about the mix of the past and the future. Unfortunately, that future is far off for many of those living on my side of the street. As a few segments of the population race forward, others are left behind as they do their best just to keep up with the present.
I have no idea how these disparate segments of society will continue living in harmony as they are challenged by the rifts growing between them. In the meanwhile, I enjoy witnessing scenes like the lady selling the chickens and the expats in the background. In some ways, these two groups couldn’t be farther apart. But, if they are able to enjoy living in the same neighborhood, maybe there’s still hope for a country that’s changing so quickly that society doesn’t seem to have time to keep up.