Thursday, July 19, 2007

Slumming in Shanghai

I never truly grasped how much puff there is in newspapers until I started reading them regularly. If mistake reading a trend piece looking for news, I mostly shrug, with the occasional shake of the head at a particularly poorly constructed segue. Now it’s evident that the advent of blogging that diarylike pieces has provided a new arena for fluff to appear. The New York Times is running some sort of series about people making homes in foreign countries, a interesting enough start point.

Not so much for the commentary about China or Shanghai, (despite the red state label)—though the broker stuff is kinda interesting to me—I was struck by this piece. Well, by about a page of this piece, before I got bored and skimmed the rest. I’m struck by the weird blinders on the writer, the lack of self-awareness combined with the sense that the writer is thoughtful. And don’t mean her interaction with China, and I actually don’t want to discuss China in this post, but the strange dissonance in the article.

She’s moving out of New York, tired of boutique shops on Bleecker and the $20 hamburgers.* The fear of terrorism is certainly real, but a good of her motivation to move seems to be related to escaping being surrounded by conspicuous consumption, even while marveling at the ease for finding a 2k sq. foot space plus for 1,500 a month (a couple hundred less than per capita in China). The experience of finding her newly renovated rented family house in old middle class neighborhood (the sort getting plumbing while developers force out tenants) with an oven, ac and heater is likened to finding a $150 a month apartment in New York back in the day. I tell you I can find an apartment in Shanghai right now for $150. It might come with a bucket.

So she’s leaving New York to Shanghai to escape conspicuous consumption, and I wouldn’t begrudge that, and I know this Home and Garden**, but what the hell? The theme in the piece that keeps coming is the energy in the new gold rush Shanghai is like living in early 70s New York. Target audience or not, what kind of dissonance is required to decide that's a good notion? Now, I didn’t live in New York in the seventies, but presumably she’s excited for the economy to bottom out and all the attendant crises. Much to look forward to. But her neighbors are thrifty and not wasteful. And the middle class and poor, they live near by. And I guess living next door to that might assuage whatever ill-defined (not even necessarily necessary) guilt she might feel.

Anyway, good luck to Shanghai, hopefully not actually beginning to feel the greatness of New York in the seventies, or it has an absolute shit decade to come.

* There is that foi gras burger though that’s bound to be more than twenty, but I still don’t know where to get a $20 burger other than in hotels.
** There’s always the occasional article about young people happy to be independent in soho and with the parents paying for freshdirect.


Chengora said...

The Chinese just reported that their economy grew at 11.9%. That's a recipe for disaster and a call for their economy to bottom out if they can't do something soon.

Anyway, perhaps the $20 burger was mind-boggling to me. She clearly isn't eating at the right places. New York is expensive, but not that much so.

And the whole piece has - as is understandable - a bewildered feel to it. But I don't just want to know what she experiences. I want to know what she experiences through a careful and measured eye. Walking a dog down a dark alley? You can do that in places in DC (and definitely not in others). The lack of waste? China has nothing to say about that, since it will soon overtake the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

I can appreciate the little nuances, like the realtor, but overall, it's just hard to see this as a credible piece of travel or "living" writing.

Mike said...

It might be telling of her cognitive dissonance, but I was getting more and more annoyed at her "aw, look at how quaint the little Chinese are" attitude she takes as she goes on.

She might find it a little less quaint if she were living the lives of her neighbors, working as the street sweeper, or garbage collector, or parking attendant, or gardener, or computer tech, or clothing maker that she seems to be so fond of, instead of living as an American (with all of the trappings of modern life, indoor plumbing, dishwashers, A/C's, satellite TV even) amongst them. I hate to say it, but she sounds almost like a Marie Antionette saying "let them eat cake."

Jonny America said...

To follow up on Chengora's comment about waste, this woman is clearly not in the right part of Shanghai. The thing that struck me most about the place? Vomit. Everywhere. On the sidewalk, on the overpass, on the side of the bus, on the trees. I remember constantly being on the lookout as I made my way down the streets. Other than that, Shanghai seems to have a pretty good garbage collection system. China has some pretty rockin' landfills.

HoBs said...

The foie gras burger is at db Bistro modern. R- got it last time we were in the city. More than $20, but not much more. Like $29. We both liked Shake Shack better.

The quality of blogs on nytimes are pretty awful. I read the college student one, where they got college seniors starting out. Horrible. Poorly written, and largely uninteresting. I guess I expect that in my own blog, but I expect more for something for the ny times.

Even the blogs of the staff writers and columnists are bad. They are longwinded and desperately need edting.