Some weeks pass and it feels like we could be in Shanghai, Connecticut or anywhere in Europe. I go shopping, to and from school, to the playground, maybe a mall…same things people all over the world do. This week was not such a week. A few things happened that felt so typically Chinese, it was hard imagine ever thinking this place is just like any other.
It seems strange to me that you wouldn’t have heard (based on the fact that this is the only thing Shanghai has been talking about for the past couple of days), but maybe you haven’t heard that the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was in Shanghai this week. Various heads of states, government officials and chiefs of international organizations were here though most notably, Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani (Iranian President), Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan President). Talk about enemies of the State (as in my United States). Russia, Iran, Afghanistan in the house? I’ve actually never felt safer.
Shanghai, dutifully behaved as if the good Lord himself were descending upon us. (If, of course, the majority here were Christian.)
Last week, a note from our apartment complex appeared under our door. The highlights for me included: no fireworks unless you have special permission, don’t take your pets outside, limit outdoor activity, and no hanging your laundry outside. (As if China took the idiom “don’t air your dirty laundry in public” literally. They do love their idioms.)
The newspaper printed which roads were to be closed and the government essentially declared Wednesday a public holiday. In the days leading up to the event, I heard stories (within the expat community) of how an increased officer presence was in the streets and they were checking passports. News of school closings for the day began to emerge, bus and metro schedules would be amended and sure enough, came a note from Hunter’s school. They would have a half day on Tuesday and close for the day on Wednesday. All because of a meeting. It kind of felt like some fictional story about a totalitarian regime scaring its people into basement bunkers while a would be invasion passed.
And sure enough, the streets were littered with police officers and other part-time looking “security” officials (picture un-intimidating teenagers in ill-fitting, nondescript uniforms, or just flimsy red armbands attached by a safety pin). The normal hustle and bustle of life – the construction workers normally meandering/napping/eating on the sidewalks were gone; the guy who sits outside our gate to collect recyclable boxes was gone; and people generally seemed to heed the advice given, to remain indoors.
At about 3pm Tuesday, a heavy police presence was felt in out apartment complex. The lobby was filled with police officers (mostly sleeping on the couches) but others outside pointing in all directions. Some of the officers, and our regular guard, spent about 10 minutes chatting and pointing to the top of our building. I was sure they were talking about the snipers they were going to put in place. No one was moving with a great sense of urgency but clearly something was happening. At around 4:45, they closed the roads surrounding our building and two of the teenaged “security” volunteers appeared in the landing of our floor.
At around 5, the sidewalks were blocked. They laid down spikes in the middle of the street should anyone try to make a break for it.
Finally, around 5:50, the cavalcade started passing by. By 6 pm, everything was opened up again. For all the exciting anticipation they had built, it was actually rather anticlimactic. There seemed to be way more of a fuss for what little action appeared to have taken place. But I guess that’s a good thing.
While we were outside waiting for the sidewalk to open, I ran into my friend. She said she was speaking to a native of Shanghai who said there was a similar meeting here about 20 years ago. At that time, they (supposedly) actually forced people to stay indoors and hired actors to walk the streets. Two years ago I would’ve said, “no way.” Today, I believe it.
It felt as if the entire city took a deep breath and held it for two days. Today, it finally feels like the city has heaved a collective sigh of relief that the invasion is over and we’ve all come out unscathed.
Maybe other cities respond similarly when multiple heads of states are in town but all of the above, collectively, felt uniquely Chinese.
Further heightening my “I am in China” awareness this week…
There are always elegant displays walking through the fancy mall. Sometimes they are in conjunction with holidays and other times they feature a special display from a clothing or jewelry store. I smiled a bit at the showcasing of lipsticks above because it reminded me of the time I saw this:
Jewelry? Nope. Watches? Not exactly. Godiva chocolate. Lots of things are overpriced in China but none, perhaps as much as Godiva because nothing says, I’m rich and important, like a hazelnut truffle.
Anyway, the lipsticks…funny, though not unusual for a Chinese mall. Nolan wanted to get a better look.
These weren’t just any lipsticks! They are art! Look at the time and care put into these carvings! Expensive lipstick as art. So uniquely Chinese.
Lastly, if we’re Facebook friends, you’ve seen this.
Everything about this picture is typical China to me. A friend of mine (who coincidentally is moving to China about the time we’re living, called it the perfect allegory for China). Couldn’t agree more.
The only back story I can give you is that about a mile up the road, I passed this:
I thought it was a pop-up fish market. But I happened to see a friend there who told me it was a Buddhist tradition called “release life.” It essentially involves releasing caged animals back into the wild. So either the guy with the hardhat had decided he was going to release the turtle’s life to himself? Or he is a Buddhist, and was going to bring the turtle back to the polluted waters of the Huang Pu (but he was headed in the opposite direction of the event). Also, I did not see any other turtles at the Buddhist event.
And so, it was an odd, yet somehow refreshing week, reminding me that China is unlike any other place I’ve lived.