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  • A blog entry I wrote two months into my time in Shanghai. A moment of naive clarity when I realized I was falling in love with a city:

    Musical accompaniment: When You Walk in the Room by Fyfe Dangerfield

    Objectively, I should hate it here in Shanghai. Waiters and store owners are extremely rude, the drivers are awful (no racism there), everyone tries to cut in line. People hock and spit in the middle of the street, on the subway, in elevators, in restaurants, out of moving cars, and pretty much any other public places imaginable. I thought people smoking everywhere was a problem in Europe but even Frankfurt Airport (In its tobacco fume heyday) have nothing on any given bar, restaurant, or even elevator here. Despite having the world’s oldest cuisine, it is still a rather rare surprise when my response to a new Chinese dish is anything more positive than “that’s interesting, except for that greasy intestine bit”. I’m also quite sure I could eat McDonalds every day and fill more of my daily nutritional needs than I do eating the local food. The streets, in the working class neighborhood where I live, are dirty and filled with trash. Because of a lack of public bathrooms, it is common for parents to let their toddlers defecate on any part of the sidewalk as long as a street vendor hasn’t already occupied that entire section of the sidewalk. Food safety is a concept that seems to be a joke for most restaurant operators. When buying something other than groceries or western goods, it usually takes a good five minutes of angry haggling before the price of a good comes close to its real value. People here also love light off fireworks at insanely early times in the morning—every morning— only a few blocks away from my dorm. The choice to take a taxi is often on the verge of suicidal. When it comes to environmental awareness— the only things that are recognizably green about Shanghai are its highly polluted rivers which have a lovely shade of milky asparagus. The smog here often makes LA seem like the Galapagos Islands.

    Somehow though, I couldn’t care less. I’ve been here now for over two months now and Shanghai is quickly becoming one of my favorite places ever. Its hard to put into words but Shanghai has something that no other place I’ve been to has. Shanghai is the center of all of China’s hopes for the future. Its a fact becomes glaringly obvious when looking at the Pudong district skyline. Its a collection of skyscrapers that seem to have come straight out of the Tomorowland section of Disneyland. Its slowly joining the likes of the Empire state building, London’s Gherkin building, and Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor (among others) on the list of the word’s most recognizable cityscapes. Whats most astonishing about the Pudong skyline is that it didn’t exist at all 15 years ago. Its also still growing— the world’s soon to be second tallest building, the Shanghai Tower, is still two years away from completion. The subway system—already the biggest in the world—is clean, extremely efficient, entirely brand new, and is only half completed. In terms of population, I have been told that Shanghai is the world’s most populous city and its still growing rapidly. Shanghai is also home to one of the few magnetic levitation trains in operation.

    More than that though, there is an infectious feeling of optimism and openness among the people here. Aside from the occasional rudeness, so many of the people I have met on the program and on the street (when we find a way to communicate) have this incredible curiosity and are unbelievably nice. Riding on the train or walking around People’s Square Park, random people will ask me and my friends if we can take a picture with them or their child (dirty blond hair and white skin are quite rare here). Occasionally strangers will start a conversation with me just to practice their english. On one plane ride, my friend Andrew had a conversation with a Chinese grandmother in broken Chinese and she spent the majority of the plane ride giving him far too much food to eat—so he wouldn’t go hungry. Once in a while, little kids who’ve just come out of school will come up out of nowhere and greet us in broken english.

    There is no doubt that the future belongs-at least partially- to China and its hard not to sense that here. Yet that future is still at least a generation away. Everything here is still changing and growing rapidly. Its clear that there is a great deal of growth that still needs to occur here before Shanghai joins that very short list of global capitals but it is inevitable. Its one or two generations away but in the grand scheme of things that is nothing.

    I think that’s why I love being here so much. Every part of this metropolis is teeming with an excitement for a future that is as bright as it is close. Its the kind of optimism that is so refreshing to be around, especially when thinking back to moments like my mid-junior year conversation with my High School’s college counselor. The way she told me—with that magical disenchanted look that only a high school college counselor can give—that I should “lower my expectations” was somewhat crushing. Almost all my friends went through a similar experience. Whether its a low SAT score or the rejection letters from all the “reach schools” its an awful moment when you’re told that you are just not good enough to actually live out your highest hopes. I’m so tired of feeling like my D+ in algebra II honors determined what college i got into and subsequently the rest of my life. I’m tired of being worried that a major in Econ and two minors is not enough to put on my resume if i want to be competitive. I’m tired of feeling less like a 20 year old and more like my actions have already determined the course of my life. I’m sick of feeling far too old to be able to do anything I want with my life and yet still not old enough to step into a bar.

    Until recently I was also becoming increasingly convinced that I had already missed my chance to ever learn a new major life skill. I thought I was past the point of learning to play an instrument or learn a whole new language. Somehow though I just aced an entirely chinese midterm and ordered a meal entirely in chinese. Adults around me always joked that people my age are naively convinced that they’re invincible— honestly I don’t think I felt that stupid sense of bravery too often— until recently, and it is intoxicating. For the first time in a long time I truly feel like the world is open. I can wake up and take a subway anywhere in a city that is mindblowingly large. I can travel almost anywhere I want (Iran might not let me but other than that…). Shanghai has taught me that I can change my entire life in the next few years more than most people in the world can in their lifetime. I’ve also realized that the resources I was born with are more than just a competitive advantage, they are a better shot at doing something I want to do than the vast majority of the world ever gets.

    So in the most cheesy way I can say it, Shanghai has reminded me of the power of the future. It has left me with is a sentiment pulled off so brilliantly by Anthony Kiedis when he compared himself to Los Angeles in “Under the Bridge” and a quote from a man who has become somewhat of a God here in China. In a Stanford commencement speech that has been playing on virtually every screen in Shanghai since his death, Steve Jobs told the crowd to ”Stay Foolish Stay Hungry”. What better way is there to stay hungry than to look to the future as often as possible? What is more foolish than not looking at past performance to predict the future? I let myself forget to do either of those things far too often. I mull over the past constantly and often resort to laziness and cynicism when I’m in Waltham and Los Altos. Shanghai has had its fair share of failures and missteps. Its a city that is still visibly haunted by the past. Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism have all left distinct marks on this city that are still very visible. Despite all that, Shanghai is heading to an unparalleled future at a pace that was unimaginable before the 21st century.

    I want to be part of that. I want to occupy wall street and see places like Vietman, Japan, Brazil, Spain, and India. I want to keep trying new foods, even if the majority of them will probably give me horrible indigestion. I want to create something of my own, not resell someone else’s ideas. More than anything, I want to be in my 20s… not an aspiring investment banker or accountant. Its nice to finally realize that
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