By Jillian Smith
It was with great excitement that my friends and I accepted the invitation to dinner with a Chinese local. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve, and we had been told that the holiday was “bigger than Christmas in America.” My imagination ran wild with visions of fireworks displays, parades and lanterns strung on every available space.
It became apparent quite quickly, however, that Shanghai is not the place to be for the biggest holiday of the year. Dinner, though it featured incredible sizzling meats and vegetables, was a sober, toned down affair. It was made strange and disquieting by the fact that we were one of the very few tables at the restaurant.
Our host, Adam, was very gracious and kind, but even he admitted that he would have liked to have gone home to his family, but they were impossibly far away. Dancing afterward was a slightly more festive experience, but only because it was at an “expat” bar, where westerners comingled with each other, and scarcely a single local was to be found. The streets of Yiu Garden, where merely days ago we could barely move through the shoulder to shoulder crowds, stood hauntingly empty.
Adam explained that the issue was that Shanghai is a place where people have come to make money. Chinese New Year is a time when you leave Shanghai to be with family. A striking majority of those living and working in the city are transplants; during the holiday, they return to provincial family homes, often in the less wealthy and less developed western half of the country.
The “Chul Yun,” as the New Year mass vacation is called, may have given my friends and I a more subdued experience than what I was expecting. But it was highly telling of what changes China has recently gone through. The large majority of those traveling home from the city are young people. This means that, while the parents of those young people still face the stark income inequality of a developing country, the vast distances and sacrifices made by their children to have access to opportunity and resources may soon prove an equalizing factor.
The younger generations of China seem more determined than ever to tap into the riches of their rapidly globalizing economy. Living in cramped apartments in smog-filled cities, seeing their families only once a year, the measures they are taking to achieve that access are truly noteworthy. When I mentioned to Adam that I liked to go dancing to relieve stress, he laughed and said, “most people here are too busy to relieve stress.”
Our night ended on a successful note, with a cheery toast to the Year of the Rooster on the roof of the expat bar. Our view across the Huangpu River was the brilliant skyline of the Bund, Shanghai’s famously iconic cityscape. I had mastered the Chinese phrase for “Happy New Year!” (Xin Nian Kuai Le) and was wishing it to anyone who would listen.
China has made monumental progress in its growth from its famine-inducing years of the Cultural Revolution. But much of that progress has remained stuck firmly on the coast, with wealth being concentrated almost entirely in three major cities. Hopefully, the empty streets of my mediocre New Year’s experience means that it won’t remain that way for long.