Another Shanghai classic is the boisterous Nanjing Road, just a short walk from the Bund. It’s perhaps the shopping mecca of Shanghai. Get ready for some hustling along the pavement until you reach the main pedestrianised area of Nanjing Road (split into East and West). You’ll see lots of policemen with glow-y sticks and whistles, seemingly randomly pointing and blowing them in a vain attempt to keep people out of the roads.
As is the case in any city, I was drawn like a moth to the bright neon lights. Cue lots of long-exposure photos. My tripod attracted a lot of unexpected attention from locals! I couldn’t work out if they were suspicious of what I was up to (like spying maybe?) or if they were just innocently curious. I had several people take turns literally standing over my shoulder and watching what I was doing!
In fact, one of those people was a local man in thirties (I’m guessing) who spoke good English and was curious as to why a Western girl was taking photos of neon signs. And of course he wanted to know why I was in China by myself. (As a rule of thumb, I don’t tell men I don’t know that I’m travelling by myself but so far in life I’ve been a good judge of character and this man seemed well-meaning enough plus I was in one of the busiest parts of Shanghai!). He said he’d never been abroad but had studied English hard by himself and had dreamed of meeting a British person and I was the first Brit he met! I felt rather flattered, although slightly alarmed by just how delighted he seemed.
Although he was a little annoying/intense as I was trying to take photos and he was talking a LOT, we had a really interesting conversation. He asked me lost of questions about British people’s mannerisms compared to those of Americans and Chinese, British people’s view of the Queen, Princess Diana, the royal family in general etc. He was also really interested in British politics and our new Prime Minister so me being a politics nerd/student, I was more than happy to answer those! He wanted to know how our multi-party system worked, what the individual parties’ values were and how our elections worked. I tried not to make democracy sound too enticing…! It was interesting to explain our electoral system to someone who perhaps knew very little about even the concept of free elections. I had several people in China ask me how British elections work which was interesting to explain but also made me a little sad that these grown adults knew so little about something I’ve always deemed a core part of society and key to social participation.
We had probably been talking for a good half hour when I decided that if this conversation was to ever end, it would be up to me. So I said my farewells, how it was nice to talk to him etc., picked up my tripod and carried on walking down Nanjing Street. I decided I’d take just a couple more quick photos, buy a drink and then head home. About 5 minutes after taking photos in my new location, this man appeared over my shoulder again!! He’d literally followed me a mile down the road at night, alone!! Rather alarming but thankfully there were still a lot of other people about. I can only assume this is a cultural difference because if this had happened back in London, I’d have very sound grounds to call the police…!
And so, a little reluctantly, our conversation continued as I packed up my tripod, although I was determined to keep it brief as it was late and I was super tired. The man turned our earlier conversation on me and asked if I had any questions about China or if I had made any observations about things in China that are bad! It was wonderful of him to ask this so openly but I was kind of taken aback and couldn’t think of anything to ask which was ridiculous! I’d spent every day of my time in China so far biting my tongue about politics/democracy etc. and here was a man inviting me to criticise China, yet here I was tongue-tied! Typical. Eventually I asked him about the Chinese political view of Hong Kong and Taiwan and why I thought refusing them true democracy/independence was awful. His eyes lit up and told me how pleased me was I asked this! He said personally he didn’t agree with the Chinese government’s stance on HK/Taiwan/Macau but said most Chinese people do agree because they see all ethnic Chinese people as ‘one’ and that separatism is not only socially a bad idea but would politically be a massive mistake, which I can understand. I mean, if China was to grant genuine universal suffrage or independence to a tiny territory/city like HK after the massive protests there in 2014, then what kind of message would that give to much large places and populations like Tibet and Inner Mongolia???
On a similar line of thought, we also briefly talked on the South China Sea situation as that was very high-profile in the news. Again, China’s utter tenacity and refusal to admit it is wrong is what the Chinese see as a show of strength and matter of national pride. I could understand why China thinks this way but obviously I absolutely do not condone their provocative actions and passive-aggressive foreign policies!
I wish I’d taken a photo of the man in question as a keepsake but I too scared to ask, which, again, is ridiculous! Before I left home, I had this grand idea of taking loads of street portraits and engaging with locals through portrait-taking but almost as soon as I stepped foot in China, people seemed to be super suspicious of my big DSLR camera and aware of where I was pointing it so I guess I just took the easy option of not asking people. Perhaps some of that suspicion was actually just curiosity but I always felt like the presence of my camera was never warmly received.
Anyway, I digress. Have you been to Nanjing Road before? Had any interesting conversations about politics with locals whilst abroad? Let me know in the comments below!