Around 1:00 p.m Jane and I left the hotel to explore Pudong district. Upon leaving the subway station, another Shanghai came into view. The subway station was built at the center of a wide open area, wherein smaller apartment buildings and some luxury car dealerships had been erected. Around these smaller buildings were grimy working class apartment high-rises, behind which loomed the ever-present shadow of Shanghai’s financial district. Beyond these buildings, open space becomes increasingly scarce, until it finally disappears behind the gates of the district’s expanding apartment complexes. An interesting feature of these complexes is the fact that they are all gated. Even the working class ones are surrounded by high fences, and guarded by security officers hidden away in guard posts, similar to those one might find in front of an American condominium complex. These working class apartment complexes are usually quite dirt, marked by rust colored stains and draped in copious amounts of laundry. Another interesting feature of these buildings are the windows. It is it important to note how little privacy those living in these apartments enjoy. Living almost on top of one another, it is completely conceivable that neighbors can hear and see each other day and night if they so choose. To counteract this lack of privacy, all the windows in these buildings are tinted or caged. To anyone who has spent a great deal of time living in a Western suburb, such an environment might seem quite strange. When we interact with our neighbors, it is usually from a distance. At first glance, there is very little separating us from our neighbors; in some neighborhoods, people are separated only by lawns and timidity. Often, it seems as if the lack of human interaction in these places is a matter of choice. I have lived next to my neighbors for years without speaking to some of them. If I know them at all it is because I have been rude enough to watch them through their windows. These windows act as stages on which people direct their domestic dramas. Back home, it is public life, not private life that is scarce. It should come as no surprise then that people market their private lives like commodities. In Shanghai, it would seem that there is no need for this. Privacy is precious in its own right.
This minimal degree of personal space translates itself into an amusing curiosity among the inhabitants of the district. Few people were embarrassed by staring at us as we walked down the street. Others would stop and look over my shoulder whenever I took a break to jot some notes in my notepad.
I also noticed that there were very few young people in the streets. In fact, most of those milling about beneath the apartment complexes and outside the shops were the very young and the elderly. No one we spoke to knew any English, and there were no other tourists in sight. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of how alien I must have appeared to the residents of this neighborhood. This was quite an odd sensation for me, since I had always been a member of some majority, linguistic, cultural, or racial, and had never been in a country where the inhabitants did not speak at least one of my languages.