I have spent almost my entire youth between these two cities and they have slowly robbed me of the impressions I first had of them. The feelings I had there are more difficult to classify than “like” or “dislike” they are a combination of love, gratitude, loss, frustration, abandonment, exhaustion, and many other difficult feelings.
In addition to this I also went to college in Shanghai. Many years ago, I took a long night train from a small town in the south to Shanghai to study. I passed through numerous towns and villages, hearing the dialects outside the window gradually change. An 18-year-old pregnant teenager on a long journey the unknown and my life’s ambitions. Before dawn the train pulled into Shanghai and on either side high-rises and street lamps began to appear one after the other. Inside, I stared at the lights of a big city for the first time and even now I still can clearly recall my feelings of wonder.
The intangible character of cities unconsciously shapes people’s preferences and personality. Beijing’s use of space is extensive and grand. It seems boundless, unbelievably large. There are lots of empty areas nearby large office buildings and although some places can be considered public space most of it is taken up by the unbelievably large roads. While in Beijing I was filled with resentment caused by inconvenience. When I went to Hong Kong I found that in many ways it is a city that is the exact opposite of Beijing. It’s narrow, cramped lanes make me run into people and lose my way until I miss the wide comfortable avenues of China’s capital. Visiting Hong Kong made me realize that I had been indoctrinated in the aesthetic of Beijing.
New York is another kind of city and in it you can see a charm unique to the rest of the world. In a way, it is a synthesis of Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing’s bold yet crude indifference to everything and the bone deep beauty and refined nature of Shanghai
At fast food restaurants New York, the waiter will ask: For here or to go? For most Chinese people in the United States whether students or illegal immigrants, whether new immigrants or those with ancestors who long ago planted roots; staying or going is always a difficult decision to make. Stay or return? Each one may find themselves frequently asking in their hearts and there is no perfect answer. This issue, like a ghoul, lurks in the corners and watches intently every soul wandering in a foreign land. All their tears are difficult to empathize with without having a similar experience.
Choosing your what kind of life you want to live is essential to the question of staying in New York or returning. Most Chinese people's hesitation can be reduced to a comparison between the life they would live in New York or in Beijing or in Shanghai.
Famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist and columnist Paul Graham has an essay titled "Cities and Ambition" and he describes the relationship between man and the city as very subtle. In his essay Graham says that great cities have always attracted ambitious people and that some cities become a gathering place for those with lofty ideals. A city can, he says, from time to time and in many different ways gradually attract more and more like-minded people. For example, in Cambridge (a university town in the Boston area, nearby the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University) passes a message to its citizens that they should " Be more intelligent." Meanwhile in Palo Alto (a small town near San Francisco and close to Stanford University) the message is "Become more powerful."
As for New York, Paul Graham believes that the message it communicates is: "You need to earn more money." This judgment is not wrong but it may be too absolute. Cambridge and Palo Alto contain tens of thousands of people while New York’s much larger population is more complex and diverse.
For me, the most important message passed down in New York is "You should be yourself." The city is a rare place of tolerance and indifference which encourages everyone to be their true self. Here, no one tells what you should do, nobody can forbid you to do anything, and in the end no one will care about what you are doing. There seems to be no concept of age and even kids from five to eight years old are vigorously pursuing the lives they want to live.
When compared to China there is a much different concept of gender. Almost all the Chinese girls I have met here have become very independent and strong in such an environment. This strength was not manifested by yelling or being rude to people rather it is a fearlessness and complete control of their own destiny. They can be gentle and pleasant but they exude a confidence that cannot be ignored.
No one cares where you come from or which language you speak. Here, everyone lives are at the peak of their bloom. Because everyone can become their own person, the city can attract completely different types of people until they form a seemingly contradictory yet harmonious coexistence. Gathered here are the world's richest tycoons as well as the world's most lackluster artists. Wall Street's financial elite, top thinkers of Ivy League schools, the world's top musicians and artists, as well as ordinary people from every country in the world. There is nothing whimsical or lazy about their lifestyles. They all take the same subway every day riding contentedly toward their own “Great Expectations.”
The environment in which all people can sense a true spiritual freedom makes this an undeniably attractive place. Stay in New York a long time, you may even think that this unfettered freedom perceived by other is false because it you have forgotten that elsewhere in the world you will encounter a much different reality. At the same time it may be possible that this is one of the reasons many people can’t let go of New York.
What about Chinese cities? If we don’t judge them harshly, we can say that Beijing and Shanghai are great cities or will eventually enter the ranks of the great cities at least.
Beijing is not easy to fall in love with. Its people criticize its many defects and they feel that to live there you must have a high threshold for these kinds of things. You have to adapt and tolerate its inconveniences.
Beijing's problem is that it is too rough. It has a rare arrogance absent from other cities. This makes Beijing one of the world's worst in terms of city life. For example, the city does not submit to the convenience store culture. Only a handful of convenience stores allow you to go out to buy a bottle of water at midnight. Meanwhile as early as ten years ago Shanghai saw the introduction of many convenience stores concentrated in residential areas.
Once you have crossed that threshold you may come to love Beijing very much. Beijing also says "You can be your own person" but in a voice that is more a whisper than a shout. Despite this Beijing is probably the Chinese city that is the closest approximation of New York. At least in comparison to other Chinese cities Beijing is closest to ignoring the actions of those who live there. It has its own way of showing acceptance and in its imitation has created a unique temperament.
Shanghai is ambitious but it is too concerned about the opinions of others to truly become a great city. Shanghai cannot wait to find templates that allow it to surpass Hong Kong and Tokyo.
However more than Beijing and other Chinese cities Shanghai offers a kind comfortable life that is unmatched. This partly stems from the relentless pursuit of pleasure and elegance. The message that Shanghai emanates is "Live a more refined life." Some people fear that this information is the result of social pressure but those who have been truly immersed find that it is truly necessary to measure quality of life. The southern city also has an usually strong marketplace atmosphere and more than Beijing, Shanghai was filled with naturally easy-going people who were warm and easily moved.
I sometimes jokingly categorize my friends into two types of people: one kind likes Beijing, another likes Shanghai. If you look closely, you will find that even people foreign to China can be distinguished this way. The foreigners living in Beijing and foreigners living in Shanghai often have very different temperaments.
No city is better or worse; selecting urban life is, in essence, to choose what kind of lifestyle we want and what kind of people we want to live together with. Because no matter where we end up we have to face that there is nothing but the same two questions: How can we get along with ourselves and how we can get along with the world. We all want to choose a great city but it is more important to choose a suitable life.