Getting lost, Shanghai

By Binh Vong, B.A. program student.

Insight from Shanghai, China.

It’s easy to get lost in Shanghai, virtually and psychologically. My first memories of Shanghai are the bright lights that illuminate its skyline at night, pedestrians piling every street and corner, and the endless rows of cars racing back and forth across lane lines. With skyscrapers on nearly every block, the city itself is a labyrinth and it’s nearly impossible to not lose one’s way. However, one can also get lost in another sense as we indulge ourselves in Shanghai’s modernity, wealth and fast lifestyle.

Surrounded by luxuries of every kind, it is easy to completely forget about China’s record of human rights abuses, flawed legal system, and income inequality. It is easy to overlook the people living in the margin of Shanghai’s advancements. Behind the tall skyscrapers are run-down tenements that are easy to miss as we instead gape at the unique and innovative designs of modern architectures.  Beyond the façades of high GDP growth and fancy restaurants is a stark underside: people living in the margin of Shanghai’s advancement, normal citizens barely eking out a living, struggling to keep up with the growth of modern Shanghai.

The Bund is perhaps Shanghai’s most popular tourist attraction. Tourists and locals alike crowd the walkways to catch a view of the beautiful skyline in Pudong, Shanghai’s financial district. Cameras flicker every other second as families and friends pose for pictures with the infamous Oriental Pearl Tower in the background. The lively environment can easily allow one to overlook the young migrant workers that fill the benches of the Bund after ten PM. These workers, usually youths in their late teens and early twenties, came to Shanghai from rural areas to look for work. However, they soon find that work is not so easily found nor is housing in Shanghai very affordable. They also face legal challenges as China’s hukou system (a household registration system) makes it nearly impossible for migrant workers to gain residency in another city after leaving home. Even university students like my language partner from Hubei cannot attain a Shanghai hukou. The rigidity in the system leaves room for much inequality.

One of the most unforgettable conversations that I had in Shanghai was with a professor. This professor teaches Political Science. Having recently taken a class on Chinese politics and governance at the UW, I was excited to consult this professor and to hear his perspective on matters pertaining to Chinese governance. Everything he told me was more or less what I expected to hear, but hearing it from someone who lives and works in China gave me a very fresh perspective.

The professor was candid and acknowledged the flaws in the Chinese systems. He told me stories of his colleague being arrested for conducting a research around AIDS patients, a subject considered too sensitive for Chinese officials. Fortunately, this colleague was released on bail, though not without extensive warnings from the government.

Then there is the notion of quantity over quality. I told the professor that from my experience in Shanghai, I grasped a sense that ‘face value’ seems to matter more than the actual intrinsic value. This is especially apparent from the contrast between outdoor and indoor lighting. Skyscrapers and many shopping buildings were covered with gorgeous lights on the outside of the buildings, yet many buildings that I’ve entered are dimly lit on the inside. In Seattle, it was the exactly opposite. Our skyscrapers are rarely lit aside from the light emanating from offices.

The professor confirmed my theory that the Chinese value ‘face’ or ‘mianzi.’  He told me that such was the same in the Chinese education system. Chinese students are required to take an excessive number of classes every semester, with some taking up to 8 to 10 classes.  The rationale for this, according to the professor, is because of the perception that the number of courses students take represents the wide range of knowledge that students are required to learn. However, many of these students are overloaded with work and do not have time to build comprehensive understanding of any subject matter. Consequently, according to the professor, breadth without depth can do more harm than good. Students leave their classes without substantial knowledge of the subject.

This conversation with the professor showed me the underlying problems in China’s education system, one that is rarely portrayed in Chinese media. Of course, while the professor is more educated than the average Chinese and had been educated in the United States, which had substantially influence his perspective on these matters. The average Chinese citizens, on the other hand, are not as concerned as they are too busy concentrating on making ends meet. This group includes my co-workers at my internship. They epitomize the average Chinese who are neither at the higher tier nor the lower tier of the income strata.


Binh Vong is a junior in the International Political Economy track of the Jackson School of International Studies and is also majoring in Political Science and Chinese. She is currently a member of the Jackson School Journal Editorial Board.

This past summer, Binh studied Business Chinese at Shanghai Jiaotong University and interned at China Telecom through a Columbia University administered program.