I’ve been experiencing the strangest feeling lately: from time to time, I forget that I’m in China.
I know this sounds absurd. After all, China seems like it’s almost inherently the polar opposite of the United States; every day here should be full of reminders that I’m in a different country, living inside a different culture. Right?
Not so much.
A large part of this has to do with where I live: Shanghai is China’s most cosmopolitan city, and the Former French Concession neighborhood is full of foreigners and the businesses that follow them. Within a ten-minute walk from my apartment, there are two gourmet cupcake shops. If I want a cappuccino, I have at least a dozen different options in a quarter-mile radius, from global chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee to Shanghai-based chains like Baker & Spice (where I’m writing this right now) to small local cafés—many of which are very good, while others sell bad coffee at jacked-up prices. There are grocery stores full of imported foods, real estate agencies that cater to an English-speaking clientele, and a large foreign-language bookstore with a much more diverse selection of reading material than what’s available at the government-run foreign-language bookstore down near the Bund. If I’d wanted to do so, I could have bought the exact same IKEA furniture here that I’ve had in my apartments in the States. Almost everywhere I go, I hear a mixture of Chinese and English, and there are plenty of places (such as Baker & Spice) where I find it easier to speak English with the staff than try to remember “smoked salmon sandwich on a bagel” in Chinese.
But this weird sense of cultural familiarity has more to it than the ready availability of my favorite foods. Technology is constantly making the distance between the U.S. and China smaller and smaller. During the six months I spent studying Chinese in Beijing during 2005, I didn’t have my own computer and would log on in the school computer lab a couple of times a day, mostly using email to stay in touch with people at home (though my parents would call me about once a week on my cell phone or dorm phone to say hello). When I returned to China the following year, I brought a laptop and had Internet access at home; Skype had also become the easiest way to call people in the States, so I was able to write to or talk with family and friends whenever I felt like it. But even places like Starbucks didn’t have wifi—though that was starting to change by the time I left Nanjing in the summer of 2008. Wifi is now relatively easy to find across Shanghai, and even in Starbucks, connection speeds are fast enough that I can do a Skype video call while grabbing coffee. Yesterday, I ate lunch in my apartment while watching Jon Stewart’s live Election Night broadcast on the Comedy Central website, seeing from Facebook and Twitter updates that a lot of people I know were doing the exact same thing on the other side of the world.
Seven years ago, being in China meant that I would always be a few steps behind people in the U.S. when it came to keeping up with news or television; I simply accepted that I wouldn’t hear about things in real time, but catch up with them later. That feeling has entirely disappeared.
(I also can’t use “Sorry, I’m in China” as an excuse for being late to reply to someone’s email anymore. I kind of miss that.)
I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Shanghai is becoming “just like” New York or other cities in the West, but this cultural shift is also not unimportant. Coming to China used to involve a real adjustment, a feeling that I might be sacrificing some of the comforts and niceties of home but gaining other experiences and opportunities in return. Now I’m increasingly feeling like I can have the best of both worlds, with little sacrifice involved.
But, of course, while that’s true for Shanghai, it’s certainly not the case in many other parts of the country, and I’m looking forward to this weekend, when I have the chance to visit Moganshan and remind myself that I’m not in the U.S. Having ready access to good coffee and wireless Internet is great, but what fun is there in being in China if I don’t even remember where I am?