A good way to see how a place changes is to go there once every two or three years and stay two or three weeks at a time. I always tell people that Shanghai is wildly different each time I visit; on past trips I’ve been aware of the country playing catch-up to the US both technologically and pop-culturally. I’ve estimated in my head the number of years I felt China was “behind” when it came to stream services, online shopping, blockbuster films, craft breweries and third-wave coffee shops, the memeiness of its social media.
This trip, however, was the first time I felt China had not only caught up but surpassed the States in ways – the first time I felt that by being there, I was legitimately glimpsing the future. Here are some things I noticed:
- Delivery services. The boom in and sheer scale of delivery services seems like what Amazon is aspiring to do in the States. My mom orders fish on JD.com late at night for a friend’s elderly parent and it gets delivered fresh the next morning, at very little cost. On a different day I see a group of silver-and-blue-uniformed couriers checking their phones on the stoop of a dumpling shop, their insulation-crated electric scooters parked like savannah creatures around a watering hole.
- Mobile payments. Almost everyone was using their phones to pay for the Metro (whereas a majority on my last visit were still using their transit cards). According to my parents, some local vendors have stopped accepting cash altogether. Ever time we go out to eat I hear asked, “Do I scan you or do you scan me?” I even see two beggars walking up and down the subway cars, phones in hand, holding up their WeChat payment codes asking people to zap them money.
- Fast homegoods (as opposed to fast fashion ). At pretty much every mall or retail venue there’s at least one Miniso -or-similar store. These are China-made products, designed by Japanese(Miniso), South Korean(Mumuso), or Swedish(Nōme) designers. It’s like if you took the stationery and cosmetics from Muji, the underwear from Uniqlo, small kitchen items from IKEA, slapped on a couple branded partnerships like Pantone or Peppa Pig, and housed everything in a small-ish retail space at dollar store prices. It’s kind of what Amazon Basics and Brandless are doing here, but in physical retail instead of only online. (I am, by the way, now in possession of a Jake-from-Adventure-Time car-vent-clipped scent diffuser that smells of white peach.)
- Security cameras. Are everywhere, and even greater in number than I remember. It’s not just the municipal, government-run ones; my parents’ apartment complex and ones nearby now have active cameras at the main gate that photograph you and use facial recognition software to make sure you’re a resident. I’d see their flash bulbs going off as I walked to the apartment (and would then just use the unmonitored side gate).
If this is the future, then it’s a deeply complicated – and in ways frightening – version of the future, where things are cheap, plentiful, delivered fast, yet intensely monitored and tracked. Then again, the question of how much China is ahead or behind is a clumsy question. The subway system there, for instance, has long surpassed the public transit here in the States in nearly every factor: design, cleanliness, timeliness, and reach; my parents moved to their current apartment knowing there’d be a new Metro line completed within two years, and now it’s been completed. These core samples have as much to do with where my attention is and what’s happening here in the US (particularly with housing, transit, and tech companies) as they do with what’s happening in Shanghai. They’re as much about how I’ve changed as how the city’s changed.
I feel the need to end on a less gloomy note. I’ll say that on this trip, it was especially jarring, having become more accustomed over the last five years to life in Detroit, a city of less than a million people, to spend time roaming with J. and seeing through her beginner’s eyes this much-older metropolis of 30+ times the population. A bath house we went to on our last full day had already been reviewed 50,000 times. A sign on the wall about reviving Ancient Chinese bath traditions started, “After 1500 years, we’re proud to bring you …”
I don’t know yet what this says about me, but I know it says something.