Friday, July 12, 2013

On Shanghai

-One of the classic experiments in psychology to indicate overconfidence is to ask people to self-rate their driving ability. Nearly everybody is ‘above average’. Part of this is certainly everyone thinking they’re better than everyone else, but part of it is also people disagreeing on what it means to be a good driver. Shanghai really illustrates this distinction quite sharply. The drivers are not ‘good’ drivers in the sense of being safe and prudent. Instead, it’s hair-raising – squeezing  in between cars, non-stop games of chicken with buses and other cars trying to merge, motorbikes regularly just breezing through red lights while pedestrians are walking at a cross-walk. But in another sense, the drivers are highly skilled in their ability to navigate these hazards without crashing more often. The number of times my taxi driver would be totally comfortable driving maybe 10cm away from another car trying to merge was outrageous. And the games of chicken always end at the last minute, but without the driver seeming noticeably put out. I would be freaking the hell out long before.

-It is fascinating to watch the behaviour of the native Chinese in China versus the native Chinese when in America. The latter tend to be quiet, incredibly polite and soft-spoken, and give off a strong vibe of wanting to avoid causing offence. But in Shanghai, people yell and shout all the time, often in ways that make it difficult to tell if the people are irritated at each other, boisterous, or simply have difficulty controlling their volume. Their faces don’t necessarily indicate anger, but the other parts of their body language seem oddly loud and confrontational.

-The notion of body image is very different from the US, particularly among the men. I didn't see anybody that looked like they lifted weights, and few that looked like they even did regular exercise. Notwithstanding this, some of the men have a tendency when hot to simply lift their t-shirt up to expose their stomach. The men that would tend to do this on average had a slight pot belly, making it a hilarious image of not-giving-a-@#$%.

-To my mind, skyscrapers have enormous positive externalities simply in terms of producing interesting vistas. Shanghai has a particularly excellent skyline. The guidebooks wax lyrical about the elegant historical buildings near the Bund, with their classical early 20th century architecture. But the people, both Chinese and foreign alike, have voted with their eyes, which are all turned towards the massive skyscrapers of Pudong. They are right to do so. A hundred storey glass and steel structure is an amazing sight, and a fitting tribute to man’s mastery over a world that cares not one whit whether we perish or not.

-If I had to describe the city briefly, it would be thus: imagine Singapore, but ten times bigger, and considerably more chaotic.

-Inspecting the boarding passes and flight times for my flights from Beijing to Shanghai and Shanghai to Hong Kong reinforces in my mind that I have not the foggiest notion of Chinese geography, including even basic questions about how large the place is.

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