Change of Scenery

Dear Reader, I anticipate that I won’t have time to blog tomorrow night, and I’ll be preoccupied in Shanghai with family over the weekend.  This may be my last entry for a few days.  I will write again early next week, perhaps sooner.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some general thoughts on China and musings about changes transforming this immense and fascinating place.  Having married into a Chinese family, I am far more intimated to Chinese culture than Korean culture.  Traveling to China is like meeting up with a long-time friend, and I’m looking forward to visiting the Middle Kingdom again.

This will be my fourth trip to China in 12 years.  I’ve seen some remarkable changes in this amazing country since my first trip in 1994, and I expect that China will have changed even more since my last visit in 2002.  It is perhaps the most dynamic place on earth at the moment, and our destination, Shanghai, is the epicenter.  I am looking forward to seeing not only the architectural changes that have revolutionized and modernized the city but also changes in the mindset of its residents.

When I first visited China in 1994, Shanghai had just begun its current push to become the economic center of East Asia.  The Pearl of the Orient Tower was one of the few buildings standing in Pudong New City, a new commercial development situated across from the Bund, the downtown waterfront and former British concession.  By 2002, Pudong had been largely developed.  Despite the city’s architectural transformation, during my 2002 visit, I noted that Shanghai residents remained somewhat parochial and lacked the cosmopolitan paradigm of peer cities such as London and New York.  During my upcoming visit, I plan to observe how attitudes have changed in China over the past four years.  Chinese have always been a proud people, but what is new in Chinese minds’ is a sense of destiny, that China will reclaim its position as the center of the known world.  Until the 1700’s, China was the strongest, most powerful realm in Asia.  It is on its way to becoming so again.  What remains to be seen is whether the Chinese can channel its newfound enthusiasm and energy into becoming a place that is fully integrated with the rest of the world.  It may with time.  This is not intended to upset ethnic Chinese who might read this–it is a realistic assessment of a nation that is moving so rapidly into modernity that it cannot possibly mature until it slows down.

We have several activities planned during our visit.  On Saturday we arrive in Shanghai and will be met by family at Pudong International Airport.  I wanted to take the high-speed Maglev train from the airport to downtown, but the family would rather pick us up by car (high-speed train and private automobiles–yet another change in China since the 1990’s).  On Saturday evening we have a dinner planned with family.  Sunday is Easter.  We have a friend who will take us to church (yet another change since the Cultural Revolution–the spread Christianity has spread dramatically since the start of economic reform period of the 1980’s.  Then, as mentioned earlier, we will visit Thames Town on Sunday afternoon (a very recent change–suburban, planned communities).  On Monday I will go to work at an office in a large mall.  I never would have thought that one day I would be working in a mall in China.  The changes are absolutely amazing.


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In Memory of Nai Nai

My wife called me today with very sad news.  Her grandma, her dad’s mom, passed away today in Shanghai.  We are very saddened by the news.  Grandma, or “Nai Nai,” was 89 years old.  She lived a very long life, outliving many elderly Chinese.  She was born and lived most of her life in Hexian, a county in Anhui Province, China, about one hour west of Nanjing along the Yangzi River.  I can only imagine the changes she must have seen during her lifetime, from growing up as a peasant in rural China after World War I, through the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and into the Deng Xiaoping era and China’s revival as a world power.  Her life makes me recall one of my favorite novels, “Wild Swans:  Three Daughters of China,” which chronicles three generations of women in one Chinese family during the 20th Century.

I met Nai Nai twice and have fond memories of her.  I wish I could remember her name.  Learning her name was a big challenge, because each time I asked, I met with strong opposition.  Unlike America, referring to your elders by name in China, even modified with a title, is considered inappropriate.  Hence, she was always known as “Nai Nai,” the Mandarin Chinese word for paternal grandmother (the maternal grandmother is called “wai po”).  I first met her was in 1994, when I visited Hexian with my wife’s family.  We went to my father-in-law’s hometown and visited the place where he spent his childhood.  Nai Nai was a smallish woman.  I remember her smile and the twinkle in her eye.  I did not know her well, but she always seemed like a sweet lady.  I’m sure it was a bit strange for her to meet a foreigner for the first time and at the same time welcome him as the newest member of the family.  The second time I saw her was in 2000, when we attended my sister-in-law’s wedding in Shanghai.  I remember that she seemed so happy to have family around her and have her children reunited.  She had taken care of my sister-in-law as a child, so Nai Nai was especially excited to attend her wedding.  My sister-in-law and she were very close.

Even though Nai Nai lived a full life, we are sad to hear of her passing.  She reminds me how precious life is and how important it is to be ready when the inevitable happens, both in life and in death.  One cannot know which day will be the last day of life, so live life to the fullest, as if each day were your last.  Never take for granted the lives of those you love, because you never know when they will be taken from you.  When my grandpa fell ill with cancer, we waited until it was convenient for us to visit him.  He passed away while we were en route to see him one last time.  I was devastated.  I regret that I let convenience get in the way of saying goodbye to my grandpa.  Two years later, when my aunt was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I dropped everything to see her a few months before she passed away.  A few years ago, I helped bring my mom and my grandma together again one last time.  I’ll never forget the touching moment when they reunited.  Three weeks later, my grandma passed away.  I did not see her again, but my final moments with her, watching her embrace my mother, is a memory etched in my mind.  I’m teary eyed even now thinking about it.