In Shanghai, I’m a Chinese dissident

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iol travel aug 13 shanghai

Shanghai - I am so glad to be an African. A realisation born not just at this point in time, but one that has been deeply entrenched after a whirlwind visit to Shanghai. Give me the wide open spaces, the blue skies and the unique smell of the Highveld after a thunderstorm anytime over China’s seething masses of humanity.

While the city that never slumbers undoubtedly has its own unique footprint, I felt distinctly alien among the swarms of people, the garish neon lights and the entirely unfamiliar language. Separated by my mother tongue from a language seemingly made up of shrill vowel-like sounds, my palate shrunk away from the array of exotic dishes.

My first jet-lagged impression of Shanghai was one of gloomy, dull skies pierced by sentry-like slabs of concrete, the one spindly building more drab in colour than the next. Apartments constructed like boxy rabbit warrens, each one stacked on top of the other, with laundry pegged to metal rails jutting outside each postage stamp-sized window.

It came as a relief to take in the city by night when compared with the daylight bumper-to-bumper traffic on never-ending stretches of grey highway, through-ways, ring roads and flyovers, with barely a patch of greenery in sight to punctuate the gloom.

At dusk, the crowded streets come alive, the throb of humanity all making their purposeful way up and down the sidewalks. Each building is etched with neon, each signboard bigger and brighter than the next. Eight floors of shopping malls, each stocked to the ceiling with the world’s biggest brands, vying with each other for attention – pure, unadulterated nirvana for a shopper.

Edgy street fashion comes in the shape of razored hairstyles, skinny jeans, fashion-statement spectacles strangely worn without lenses, or mandatory black pantyhose thrown together with anything from the shortest of skirts to the tiniest of shorts. Then there are the shoes.

iol travel aug 13 shanghai2

Purposefully unlaced trainers or the gaudiest of heels I have ever laid eyes upon. Blue pom poms attached to bright orange ankle straps, yellow stiletto heels adorned with green glass beads, cerise sandals with animal print wedges – the more bling, the better.

And the people seem so delicate, so fragile. Tiny frames, tiny feet – all quite mortifying for an average South African girl faced with having to try on clothes in XL… But where else in the world can you get copies that seem even better than the original? Chanel, Mont Blanc, Gucci, Polo – you name it, they are there for the taking.

I longed for my pets, my home comforts and just being able to converse. Perhaps getting older means that I need more than just elbow-room. I need space to think and just to be. Today, the bird song outside my office window sounds like the sweetest of melodies over the swarms of humanity and garish neon lights.

So call me uninformed. Call me untouched. - Saturday Star

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