I have just arrived in L.A. after a day of travel that started about 20 hours ago.
I will do my best to make sense.
I visited Shanghai in 1986,before the Tianemen Square student uprising. It was a big, sleepy town in a Third World culture, reeking of Mao worship and completely lacking a work ethic. I remember going into a store, and the employees were asleep on the floor with the lights out.
Shanghai today is high-rise. Loaded with luxury buildings, luxury shops, luxury restaurants. Unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, the main mode of transportation is auto, not motorbikes. People were getting ready for the New Year, so there was a festive air and many decorations. Most of the high rise buildings are ablaze with moving neon graphics, and the city oozes money, entrepreneurship, dynamism, great wealth. Porsche’s, Mercedes, BMWs, and other luxury cars zip around.
From talking to service people, I learned that the public schools are not free. There is a fee for every child.classes are crowded, 40 or more. Private schools have small classes but they are expensive. Medical care is not free. There is no social security. Parents put all their hopes and savings into their child or children’s education. There is enormous pressure to do well, because education is the determinant of one’s life chances.
We had a very smart, well-spoken tour guide. She commutes nearly two hours a day each way to work. She can’t afford to live in the city. She worked at MacDonald’s but was paid only $.50 an hour. Being a guide is good and pays well.
She was knowledgeable about ancient Chinese history. She loves her country and is very proud of it. I asked what she learned about the Cultural Revolution, and she said it was at most a paragraph in a textbook. There was no discussion in school but she had learned from other sources. She knew about the famous photograph of the young man in front of the line of tanks but not from school. She could not explain Why sites like Twitter, Google, and Facebook are banned but said there are ways to bypass the bans.
We stayed in a very beautiful high-tech hotel on The Bund, a major thoroughfare. Every afternoon, they served tea in a large Art Deco room that seated about 200 people, and a string quartet played western classical music. At night, during cocktails and dinner, there was a six-piece band and a singer. She sang American songs-Broadway tunes, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Billy Joel, Karen Carpenter. She was really good. At the end of each song, we four Americans applauded but no one else did. Almost everyone else was on their cellphone, reading and texting and completely oblivious to the music. I found it rude and alienating.
One morning at breakfast, we saw a family of three-Father, mother, child about 6, all on their own cells. No conversation.
I thought about Marc Tucker’s book, “Surpassing Shanghai.” I thought, I don’t want to surpass Shanghai. I hope we are never like Shanghai. The city is successful, if success is measured by test scores and dollars (but I don’t think the two have any relationship.) The City is booming because an authoritarian government invested in infrastructure and lured business and made profit its goal.
I don’t have any answers. But it was unsettling to think that the economic giant of the 21st century thinks it can and should control communications and thought.