Hardly a day goes by in Shanghai where I am not reminded, in some form or another, that “China is the next empire.”
Now I have to be frank: my patriotism for America is undeniable. What a predestined failure I would be if I attempted to prove myself unbiased. But even though I acknowledge my preference, I can hardly comprehend how the fishmongers that bicker several floors below my window every morning could, as the statistics predict, twenty years from now call themselves citizens of a nation more powerful than my homeland.
I have found myself in a nation where decapitated fish heads are sold, their gills still gasping, on street corners. Where 500 square feet, a hose cemented in the wall and some dusty sheets make for what is considered a suitable five-person residence. Where homemakers haggle for sweets made of batter that has been sulking in the smog-infested air for hours while the chef puffs away on his cigarette.
Do these conditions exist in the US? Is there a block in my country of origin where 50-story skyscrapers cast shadows over one-story mud cottages? Is there a road where factory-fresh BMWs reflect street-strewn frog intestine in their hyper-shined rims? Is there land where eight-story designer malls make like phoenixes and rise out of ashy, impoverished alleyways?
With these considerations on my mind, I cannot currently fathom China overcoming my homeland. What I can foresee, however, is a desire to call the blossoming nation my new home. While the aforementioned contrasts may prove inconsistent and unsettling to some, I am delighted by the opportunities that it provides.
Every dawn I am given the choice: Will the morning be filled with a colorful weave through a tea market? An afternoon lunch of pig trotters from a street cart in a crammed alleyway? Or an evening promenade past Tiffany’s in the marble-sidewalk-encrusted French Concession? This freedom to move from lifestyle to lifestyle has proven endlessly refreshing.
Maybe this and the forthcoming decades is China’s time to shine. My only hope is that twenty years will not be enough to eliminate the current China I know and love.