Nothing minor about this Asia

I am on my way back from two weeks in Asia, the first part in Japan and the latter in China, with visits to Nanjing and Shanghai. I was to arrive tonight in Atlanta but instead am spending a delightful evening in an airport hotel bar thanks to connections that didn’t quite work. Oh well.

Of all the stops  on the trip, I’d return to Tokyo first. I’ve never seen a big city that works so well. Clean beyond clean. While it teems with people, it’s quieter than you can possibly imagine. You can be at an intersection where a thousand people are crossing the street at one time (and I mean that literally), and yet you could hear a pin drop. The Japanese are unimaginably polite. We had the best dinner in Tokyo I can ever remember. On the other hand, tea for three at our hotel cost almost fifty dollars. The shopping would have been amazing if we could have afforded anything. I still regret not buying a Miyake overcoat I fell madly in love with. And this is all the case while Japan’s economy is in a long-term nosedive and they are about ready to select their seventh prime minister in six years. They are headed toward their own fiscal cliff. And yet, I found everything about Japan fascinating and as I wrote above, I’m ready to return.

On the other hand, my time in China was perplexing and I’m not sure I’ll return anytime soon. That said, I think every American needs to see modern China. I can’t imagine any business student these days not visiting and seeing the phenomenon that is China up close and personal.

I don’t even know where to begin, but I think I will start with the bullet train from Nanjing to Shanghai. In some ways, that two hour trip says it all. First, you have the train itself. I think I heard the top speed is something like 180 miles an hour. I don’t think we hit that number but the darn thing flies for sure. And it is the smoothest ride you have ever taken. I happen to love to ride the train, my favorite and most familiar route being the Philly to New York Amtrak adventure. To say the two are like night and day doesn’t do justice to either night or day. My main feeling was embarrassment for America. The symbolism of one county falling apart and another rising up is impossible to miss. And then you have the scenery. There was a recent photo story in the NYT’s Magazine capturing the scenes along Amtrak’s northeast corridor. Desolation and despair are two words that come to mind. One crumbling building after another, almost interrupted for 100 miles. I started to count the construction cranes along the route from Nanjing to Shanghai. That proved to be a ridiculous task. That’s all one sees other than already constructed new factories, warehouses, homes, and apartment buildings. When one arrives in Shanghai, the picture gets even more amazing.

Twenty years ago, Pudong, the part of the city that lies east of the river, was empty. You can’t even imagine how many skyscrapers now make up its skyline. And on the ground level of many, you find stores selling Gucci, Prada, Jaguars, and, of course, Starbucks coffee. And this is Communist China? It’s hard to believe this was ever Communist China. The Chinese do capitalism unlike anyone I have ever seen. With that comes the good and the bad. The income divide in China is massive and growing. The division between the wealthy in the cities and the poor in the countryside is proving disastrous for China. It all sounds very familiar, of course, but the scale of everything in China dwarfs America.

We finally did get to make some purchases, not in the real stores as the prices there were even more costly than in Japan, but instead in the knock-off mall. It’s six stories tall with hundreds and hundreds of small boutiques, each selling their own version of Gucci and Prada and Tumi. I had a blast shopping and my acquisitions certainly look like the real thing. In one booth, we saw a beautiful piece of luggage. It look Tumi-like but we couldn’t see the label. Is that a Tumi, we asked? No, the shopkeeper answered, but I’d be happy to write Tumi on it if you like. That seemed a bit much. Instead, we came home with the Samsonite, filled to the brim.

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