The Complexity of Traveling Abroad

13 Nov
Inside the Yuyuan Gardens of Shanghai (2012)

Inside the Yuyuan Gardens of Shanghai (2012)

The Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai is a wonderful retreat from the sounds and sensations of busy city life. When you step through its gates you enter a peaceful haven of ponds and plants. There’s nook upon nook to explore, an impressive number of fish, and buildings painted with immensely beautiful details. Right outside the garden is the Yuyuan Bazaar, a collection of shops and restaurants that line a street full of traditional Chinese buildings. Those buildings look just like what you’d “expect” China to look like based on old photographs and places like the China pavilion at Disney World’s EPCOT. But many of them were reconstructed or restored in 1999 with the express goal of evoking an older time period. So do those buildings still represent the “real” China?

My trip to China was thought-provoking for a lot of reasons. And one of the interesting dichotomies that came to mind as I explored was this contrast between old and new, authentic and reconstructed, “real” and “modern.” As tourists, we want to see what’s “real”- but our expectations don’t always align with the modern age. This is true of anywhere we visit, and I could have written this post about any number of countries. It’s simply that the contrast is so greatly vivid in China, where old and new try to coexist, but occasionally clash. While older housing units and city blocks are special and a part of the country’s unique heritage, they don’t always accommodate a growing country’s needs.

The Pudong skyline, taken from the Bund (2012)

The Pudong skyline, taken from the Bund (2012)

Which brings us to the “modern” Shanghai- most exemplified by the skyline of Pudong, pictured here. Pudong has some older sections, but it’s mostly become a base camp for constructing fanciful skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings. By 2015, it will also house a Shanghai Disneyland park. Pudong’s futuristic skyline evokes none of the “traditional” Chinese aesthetic we’ve been trained to expect- but does that make it less authentic? Or is it just reflecting a different kind of “real?” I’ve heard friends who went to China say that the buildings like those in Pudong are “too modern” and thus a let-down. But is it fair to say they don’t represent the “real” China?

As cities expand, their planners have to find the right balance between preserving what’s old and historic, and adding in newer structures and layouts that reflect more modern needs. We can’t visit foreign countries expecting them to look exactly like we see in history books, or in films, or at EPCOT.  I’ll admit, it does feel somewhat disappointing to visit a foreign country and see nothing but the same concrete blocks you’d find in any other city. It can be sad when you don’t discover the picturesque town or intricate buildings you expected. But we must remember that our needs as tourists are less important than the needs of the local people. Local political agendas and aesthetic preferences aside, modernization often comes when a city needs it. If a street no longer looks like it did 200 years ago, it’s certainly sad from a heritage perspective- but I think we just have to hope that the decision was made carefully, with calculated concern.

We can only hope that as cities continue to expand, urban planners worldwide are able to find ways to preserve local heritage. But as the world continues to change, we need to accept the reality of the modern world, rather than imposing our tourist expectations on locals. We can’t expect people in other countries to act like they’re in the 18th century for our own intrigue, any more than those of us in the U.S. would want to limit ourselves to how things looked back in colonial times. And we simply can’t declare that a country’s modern world is “not the real XYZ”- because if that’s the country’s current reality, that’s about as “real” as it gets. Historic- no. Authentic to the past- possibly not. But “real?” If it’s what’s happening today, I’d say that’s about as “real” as it gets.

Some more scenes from my trip:

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One Response to “The Complexity of Traveling Abroad”

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  1. On to the Next One | Culture Cookies - May 31, 2014

    […] and travel stories. I’ve debated whether it’s fair to expect foreign countries to feel “sufficiently foreign.” I introduced you to one of my favorite professors, and her charming memoir. I’ve […]

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