First Dispatch from Tomorrow

This sets my personal record for distance learning. I’m half-way around the world in China’s largest city, Shanghai. It’s Day Three of the Wofford Milliken Faculty Development seminar.

I think it’s yesterday where you are, or maybe it’s yesterday here, and today there. Time is just the first of my concepts under renovation. This morning the only thing I know for sure is I’m not in Kansas (or Cowpens) anymore.

I haven’t had my boiled sweet potatoes yet for breakfast. That’s right, our hotel buffet has a big pan of juicy steamed sweet potatoes, and being a good Southern boy, I’m taking full advantage of them. Add to the sweet potatoes the breakfast dumplings (ginger and pork), and the mixed stewed greens, and you start the day a little different over here.

Shanghai is our classroom. We’re leaning history and culture, just like our students do when they come to study abroad. That’s what Roger Milliken had in mind when he funded this seminar for the college. He wanted to get us out in the world, and so that’s where we are. We’re out there, and we’re enjoying every moment of it.
For lunch I ate a “river fish” in a stew of hot chili peppers, kelp, and bean sprouts. It was so hot my lips burned all day, but it was worth it. The Chinese students complimented me on my chopstick use.

What’s overwhelming so far is the pace of the change in Shanghai. We’ve heard about it from lecturers and we’ve seen it from our bus windows and on one “walkabout” downtown.

From 1978 onward there have been a series of remarkable reforms in China, culminating in 1992 when the government declared that they must do away with equality as a goal.

Instead the People’s Party said China must embrace “development as the hard truth,” and that the goal would instead become “shared prosperity.”

They allowed some groups and regions to prosper first. The result has been this amazing growth like you experience in Shanghai, or Shenzen, a city near here we will visit next week. Shanghai’s always been a big city, but Shenzen grew from a small fishing village of 5,000 people to an industrial city of 5 million in 15 years.
In 1992 the government decreed that Shanghai should have a “new image” every year, and every three years, a completely new image. They want to make sure if you visit Shanghai in ten years you will not feel you are in the same city you were in before.

Progress, the reformers said, must be measured in terms of the height of skyscrapers to demonstrate the potential and strength of Chinese cities to their own people and to outsiders. Shanghai was tapped as “the Global City,” and that’s why it’s grown at such an amazing rate– 22 million today!

As we rode our bus downtown on the expressway our guide swept her hand over an entire neighborhood of traditional-looking one- and two-story houses and said, “All this will be gone, replaced, in two years, and there will be highrises here to match the skyline.”

We toured the city center shopping district yesterday, and it was remarkable how they’ve out-Westerned the West– had dinner in a five-story shopping mall with lots of fashionable shoes on sale 50 percent off.

As you could guess, this city at first hit me as my worst nightmare and challenged my values to the very core-triumphant mall culture, freeway culture, highrise culture halfway around the world.

I’ve always operated on the idea that the best way to build a city is to preserve as much of the old as possible and plan/design/construct the new slowly at a reasonable rate alongside the old. “Smart growth” has always been slow growth for me.

Here in Shanghai, “old” doesn’t stand in the way of “new.” And under it all is the sense that China is still here, not threatened by modernity converging on it. China didn’t vanish in 1949 or 1992. It hasn’t been blended or leveled. They have found their own way in the world, with a strong flavor of capitalism and an intact socialist framework.

What is core China survives, still perceptible in the world stew, like that indigenous river fish, head and tail, boiled in a pot of peppers and eaten with chopsticks.

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