Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Most Spectacular View for Royalty

[Note: This is the third in a series of posts about a young lady from Sichuan province I met during my first trip to Shanghai, China. An introduction to why I am sharing these stories is here. The first post told the story of Xiaoxin's very special first payday in Shanghai and the second shared Xiaoxin's thoughts regarding a vegetarian restaurant.][Added note: This post was edited to remove a section which can be found in a separate post here. An explanation for the edit is here.]

While there was much about Xiaoxin's experience in Shanghai that signified the improvements in her life, some of it did not meet her expectations. During my conversations with Xiaoxin there was one problem in particular she regularly discussed: her dissatisfaction with the business practices of her job. Initially, she had been excited to work at the art gallery. She had grown up with a deep appreciation for art, and she welcomed the opportunity to share her interests. However, she quickly found that her job was less about selling art to people who appreciated it and more about convincing tourists to purchase overpriced items. Although she was certainly happy to be earning much more money than she could in her hometown, her ideals did not allow her to take a more "pragmatic" approach and be content.

Of course not everything we discussed was about her life, and she was curious about mine as well. One day she said as if imagining a dream world, "Living in the U.S. must be wonderful. It's like all the streets are paved of gold." I briefly considered Baltimore, where I lived at the time, and thought there was much I certainly would not describe as golden. Capturing my feelings concisely would be difficult, though, so I decided to focus on one issue by saying, "Sure there's much that is great about America, but there are also many people who are not very fortunate and live in poorer conditions."

Without hesitation she replied, "Yeah, but they must feel so good to be surrounded by all that greatness."

I had never considered this and again thought about Baltimore, especially the poorer neighborhoods which closely bordered more prosperous areas. Were the people there lifted up simply by being proximate to "all that greatness"? I didn't know for sure, but I was not aware of any evidence that people felt this way. So I wondered out loud, "Maybe being around all that greatness can make people all the more aware of what they don't have. They could actually feel worse than if they weren't aware of it." The expression of wonder on Xiaoxin's face quickly disappeared. She never responded but instead considered the point in silence.

Conversations such as this one provided insights for each of us into the other's world and also more perspective on our own. I met a number of people during that trip to China, but it was only Xiaoxin that I got to know this closely. So, as my time in Shanghai was coming to an end I explained to Xiaoxin that I wanted to splurge on my last night with a special meal and that I hoped she would join me.

She accepted my invitation, and on my last evening in Shanghai I brought Xiaoxin to the Jin Mao Tower, at the time China's tallest building. I had chosen a Shanghainese restaurant near its top primarily because it offered an incredible view of Shanghai.

After the meal we walked to one of the large windows in the restaurant. I pondered the amount of unparalleled rapid development represented beautifully in front of my eyes. I also wondered what Xiaoxin, who had grown up in a far less developed region of China, was thinking. Maybe Shanghai's own version of golden streets further uplifted her spirits.

That was to be the last evening Xiaoxin and I would ever spend together in Shanghai. In a number of months, she would return to Sichuan. I would have never guessed that in a little more than a year it would be me and not Xiaoxin living in Shanghai. I will never forget those days, and I doubt she had any awareness of the type of impact she had on me.

There are many other people I later met in China who have also changed how I view the world. In future posts I will also share some of their own stories and comment further on what lessons there may be in my experiences with Xiaoxin. While she and others are but a small part of China's more than one billion people, their stories can shed light on issues of great importance to understanding not only their lives, but many others as well.

Finally, as that evening's meal of fish and other Shanghainese food settled in our stomachs, a meal which had cost more than the monthly salary of many in Xiaoxin's hometown, we continued to look at the brightly lit landscape. But like her payday and the meal at the vegetarian restaurant, the experience was not the same for each of us. The difference at the moment became very clear to me when she broke the silence and in a voice touched with amazement said, "You know what?"

"What?" I asked as we gazed at at an almost unreal scene.

"I feel like I'm a princess."


  1. I just found your blog. Very enjoy reading it. These could make a good book about lives and dreams in China.

    Ps. Any update on Xiaoxin, is her life better back there.

    1. More to Xiaoxin's story... As is often the case, it's complicated. Too much for a comment but another post or, as you suggest, a book could happen. Thanks!