The “greats” and the “not so greats” of China

You probably do not care about what I did over Fall Break. But here I am, at the command of my editor, writing a 1st person article on my personal travels to China, the land of Xi Jinping. It is relevant; I wrote an op-ed on the overwhelming greatness of this nation several weeks ago, and just a little after that, I finally had an opportunity to make a small visit.

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This was easily the most epic start to a trip in my life. While on Activity Week, I was deep inside of the Himalayas one day to the point of almost being stuck in the mountains. 36 hours later, after an 18-hour drive back to Woodstock, I was on my way to China.

Leaving India for the first time in three months was thrilling. I have way too many allergies, and India makes that difficult for me as all I eat some days are rice and dal. Other countries just have better options for me. I also have always loved GOOD public transportation, and ever since leaving Tokyo for my layover on the way to Delhi, I have been craving a good train.

Arriving in Beijing, my grandparents who came from Tokyo met me at arrivals. From there, we headed to our hotel, which turned out to be only three blocks from Tiananmen Square. Being next to a historical site was cool, but the idea of sleeping next to the world’s most powerful leader was a bit unsettling.

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I visited the Great Wall, which was unlike anything I imagined, had some incredible Peking Duck, and after three days in Beijing, my grandparents and I headed for Shanghai by train. Riding the fastest (non-maglev) train in the world was a soothing experience. Traversing 1275 kilometers (typically a 12.5-hour drive) in four and a half hours was magical. This was exactly what I was excited for.

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Once arriving in Shanghai though, I was unexpectedly surprised by how different the city was compared to Beijing; it felt like Tokyo. Streets were clean, the sky was blue, and it was a city of concrete; all things that were somewhat absent in Beijing.

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Beijing and Shanghai definitely both feel futuristic, but its as if they are on two different paths to the future. Beijing feels more like a dystopia with its smog, older cultural buildings, and less modern infrastructure. It felt bleak and Orwellian. I also got the strong sense that it could one day be a dystopian state where there are only small pockets of luxury for the rich while the rest suffer. On the other hand, Shanghai was the clean, bright, modern utopia for all.

One thing that is true about both megacities, however, is that the modern services available are mindblowing. The entire society runs basically on one app, WeChat, where life is clearly not as great without it. In one outing, I could find a restaurant, request a car to that restaurant, order food by scanning the QR code at the restaurant, then pay, all within WeChat. It is impressive, and I was even able to rent a portable charger at one restaurant to use while eating.

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Another thing that was nice was the bike share system in China. It too can be used through WeChat, and because of the comic amount of bikes available, it was awfully convenient. You just cannot have these kinds of unique experiences outside of China.

Something that kept occurring over my 48 hours in Shanghai, however, was how the city kept on reminding of Tokyo; and yet, it was not quite the same. Visually, I saw many similar aspects that in turn made me expect Shanghai to operate the way Tokyo does. But the train system was not nearly as intricate, convenience stores were not as prominently available, and vending machines were virtually nowhere to be found. Because of this, I had a difficult time at first accepting Shanghai for what it was, while I constantly compared it to Tokyo. I am just more accustomed to Japan, and because of that, I found myself favoring Japanese values and behavior. Leaving Shanghai though, I knew that it was a place I would be happy to live in.

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China was pretty much everything I expected, and then some. The digital services were something incredible to witness, and Shanghai particularly had me excited for its future. There were times though when I noticed how China was not so great. Cameras were stacked everywhere you looked, and just outside of these cities were, of course, a very different reality where people did not enjoy the luxuries of living in a modern city. And, of course, I could not check the news or my Instagram.

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Seeing China was great. I could connect with half of my roots, and got to witness China at its current state before it changes even more over the next decades. Like India, China was once too a developing nation. Both have a massive population as well as expansive lands. What impressed me was just how China managed such a large nation so efficiently.

All photos by Mikko Aoki Liu

Edited by Victoria Lee

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