Shanghai memories

I have just finished teaching a graduate course in strategy at the Fudan University in Shanghai. The students were executives – all Chinese – from Chinese and Western companies. I haven’t been to China for ten years (and then I was in Beijing, not Shanghai), and the difference was dramatic – Shanghai is a modern city, with skyscrapers, a central shopping district with pedestrian streets, and any kind of hotel you want (if you can pay). Beijing ten years ago had ratty taxis and impressive, though dusty, tourist attractions, but not much else. Here is a random collection of some of my impressions:

  • Lenovo, a Chinese company formerly known as Legend, and listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, had just agreed to buy IBM’s PC division – the second time a Chinese company had made a large acquisition of a Western company (the first was the takeover of Thompson, according to my students). Hugely significant to the students, as Lenovo took over a company about four times their size, and moving their headquarters to the USA. I detected quite a bit of pride – and a nagging wonder if not the company had sold itself too cheaply, that this really was IBM taking over Lenovo.
  • The perplexed look on the faces of most foreigners – by that, I mean Caucasians – trying to take in all the Chinese signs and the incredible din of life in Shanghai. Reminded me of Chinese communist delegations to Oslo in Mao suits in the mid-80s.
  • The many business opportunities and vibrant atmosphere. Shanghai is shock full of students and businesspeople with guts and smarts, primarily held back by a lack of fluent English. This will change – and this is currently the land of opportunity if there ever was one.
  • The quality of the food. Shanghai knows seafood, and the hotel restaurant had a dish with small shrimp fried whole in Maggie sauce that was just incredible. Normally I an slightly squeamish about eating the whole shrimp, shell and all, but in these the shell had the consistency of sugar coating rather than plastic, and were a delight.
  • The customer service in the restaurants – I finally understood why waiters are called waiters. They waited in the background, and as soon as you were finished eathing, they instantly brought the next dish.
  • How wonderfully the skyscrapers add to the cityscape of Shanghai, and how bad they would look in Oslo. The difference lies in topography – Shanghai is flat, with many people, Oslo is surrounded by green hills, and has a small population. In a featureless landscape, skyscrapers provide definition. In a hilly city, they disturb the view, which is why skyscrapers don’t really look good in Hong Kong (but where the population density makes them unavoidable).
  • How being a pedestrian single white male makes you an instant target for every prostitute in Shanghai, even in the good shopping streets
  • I don’t know to what extent the European fashion brands do business in Shanghai, but their brands certainly are there. At ridiculously low prices, especially if you bargain a bit.
  • How the Chinese have not been infested by the irony bug – an epidemic that, I think, started in California and moved eastwards with Starbucks. Makes you really careful about what you say, if you only shut up long enough to hear how they speak.
  • How incredibly much more complicated life becomes when you have to express thoughts in pictograms rather than text. On a similar note, I was rather surprised that my Tablet PC attracted attention – would have thought that with the Chinese character handwriting recognition it has it would be very common – but I only saw one person with a Tablet, and that was a German businessman in the check-in line at the airport. A few of the students had Graffiti-style devices, combining keystrokes into characters, but that can’t be the be-all and end-all in Chinese character entry.
  • The instant cognitive dissonance produced by seeing angels, Santa Clauses and snowflakes in shop windows in a country that is patently non-Christian (though it is very spiritual – several of my students bore witness to their Buddhist convictions when presenting themselves at a student dinner.)
  • The ambivalent relationship I suspect people have to the Mao period. The Shanghai Bund museum, for instance, has detailed explanations about the situation during the settlement period, the early resistance against the European colonizers, and the resistance against the Japanese. But for the Mao period there are only large, captionless photos of parades and dignitaries. I wonder if not the rather sophisticated population of Shanghai pegged the Communists – including the people from Beijing – as powerful but rather annoying country hicks. Shanghai is brash, vulgar and modern, Beijing is cultured and political, and slightly out of touch with the business community. The relationship between Shanghai and Beijing is rather like that between New York and Washington D.C.
  • The fact that China has many languages and many provinces. I was hitching a ride with three of the students. The two in the front seat were talking to each other, and the person I shared the back seat with turned to me and said “they are talking in Shanghai dialect, which I don’t understand.” Or the faculty member who described to me the problem of the Western provinces, who are “not open-minded”, like Shanghai and other areas on the Eastern seaboard. China is not one country, but many provinces – and sometimes it can be as hard, if not harder, to move goods or people between provinces as between countries.
  • The incredible manual dexterity necessary to be Chinese – for writing, eating or making art. Everything is done in exquisite detail, at sometimes heartbreakingly low prices.
  • That it really takes 5 days to get over the jet lag (from Europe)
  • How human personality shines through cultural and physiognomic variations “like x-rays through a wall,” to quote Neal Stephenson. The students had every archetypical student personality – the kidder, the sincere woman with a social conscience, the experienced senior manager who thought through every slide and asked pointed questions, and the social facilitator who was mostly interested in having fun, volunteering to run the karaoke competition
  • Speaking of which, karaoke and gift-giving is what middle-manager Chinese do for fun (at least in my limited experience), and they have a good time doing it
  • That Chinese drive like crazy – apparently, they have 1.5% of all the world’s vehicles and 15% of all the world’s road accidents. More than 100,000 killed on the road every year…. People routinely weave, drive through groups of pedestrians, run lights, and speed. I never saw anyone letting another car into a line, unless the driver of that car pushed his way in.
All in all, it was a very interesting experience. I will definitely go back – and I will look into arranging tours for businesses interested in learning something about China.