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'World is Flat'-Up Close and Personal

Posted Jan 07 2009 6:27pm

I recently traveled to Shanghai China to present at the International Schools'Learning 2.0 conference. I was part of a presentation team brought in that included such names as Alan November, Jamie McKenzie, Will Richardson, Gary Stager, Wes Fryer, and Chris Shambles. If you would like to know more about the conference itself search the learn2cn tag or visit Will, Wes,Jeff Utecht (conference organizer) or my blog as we each have posted about the event in detail.

However, this post is about my experiences and reflections in Shanghai that occurred after the conference while exploring the city with Wes and his wife Shelly, Will, Jeff, and my 21 year old son Noah. I have had the opportunity to travel and present in many different places around the world, but Shanghai stands out because of the contrast to what I had expected with what I experienced first hand. And as my son Noah put it, "The sheer admiration for what they have accomplished in just ten years."

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping declared that Shanghai would be “the head of the dragon” pulling China into the future trying to compete with Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore as Asia's pre-eminent financial capital. As a result Shanghai went into "go mode" and has built nonstop. During my recent visit, it wasn't unusual to hear hammering and the sounds of construction through the night and early morning. Until I went to Shanghai, the busiest city I had ever seen was New York, but NY pales in comparison. Shanghai is a constant source of movement, smells, and stimulation. Everyone has a smile on their face and seems genuinely interested in who you are and why you are visiting.

Sadly, at least to me, the cosmopolitan Shanghai has come at a price. Most of the old town neighborhoods have been or are scheduled to be demolished to make room for the high rises. The contrast between the skyscrapers and what is left of the colonial Shanghai was unnerving.

Buildings and Commerce Everywhere
Rising 1,385 feet, visiting the top of the 88-story Jin Mao Tower was a memory I will keep with me for years to come. Jeff, Will, Wes, Shelly, Noah and I took the elevator to the top floor to look out over the city. All of us shot pictures as we scurried from window to window looking out in amazement, as far as the eye could see there were buildings.

The building was completed in 1999 and is the highest, at least until the 101-story World Financial Center (WFC) next door is finished in 2008.

The two buildings in the center of this photo are the Jin Mao and WFC.

The completed building will look like this- a female match to the male feel of the Jin Mao Tower. Images

The Hotel

When we first arrived we stayed at the Ramada and the feel was very much like it is in the states with the exception of service. These amazing people were so humble, so eager to serve, so kind. We were encouraged not to tip, which really was a struggle for me, as the service - at least in comparison to the states- deserved tipping. The walk to the school where the conference was held was clean and had a real progressive feeling. I could have just as easily been in Miami.

After the conference, Wes Fryer and I moved to the Magnificent Hotel and Will Richardson bunked at Jeff Utecht's home. It was not as luxurious as the Ramada but the price was right- $56 per night US. My main complaint was somehow Wes got wireless and I didn't. So while Wes and Will were twittering, Skyping, and blogging, I was building a deeper relationship with my son. Not a bad payoff, although I must admit, I had serious withdrawal from being disconnected during a time when I had so much to say.

A Place with a View
The view from Jeff's apartment is stunning. Because the exchange rate in China is about 8-1, teachers are able to live very comfortably with massage, domestic help, and other such amenities becoming just part of everyday life.

Shopping and Life in Shanghai
I have spent a considerable amount of time in Belize and Guatemala, so I understand the concept of bartering a price. However, I have never watched a fellow American handle the negotiations with the skill and sense of humor that Jeff Utecht did. I so wish we had recorded the conversation Jeff, Wes, and the "Rolex" watch owner had over the purchase Wes was "considering." It was so entertaining. Turns out that watches like this have 34 days when it is Daylight Savings time. What a hoot!

I am not much for shopping, not even in the states. My idea of torture is the local mall at Christmas. But I did enjoy shopping for pearls. I think because it was a bit like a hunt. We had to find the right dealer, then Jeff taught me to tell the differences in quality, then I hand picked the ones I wanted, negotiated a price, and watched the dealer and her mother hand string and knot each pearl. We struck up a conversation sharing parts of each other's lives while she was stringing the necklaces and it made the event very meaningful. The fact that I was hand picking these necklaces for my daughter's wedding party gift only added to the specialness of the event.

Hungry Anyone?

Like any good adventure we ate our way across Shanghai. The food was amazing. There are basically two kinds of eating experiences in Shanghai: street food and restaurant experiences. Noah and I had come to China with the idea that we would be trying exotic dishes that would earn us bragging rights at home. We come from a family where food is at the center of everything we do. However, the food we ate in Shanghai had a familiar feel and was simply delicious, especially the vegetarian dishes.

The street food was most compelling. Because of the tight living conditions and limited privacy, in many neighborhoods life spills over into the streets. It isn't unusual to see folks cooking and lounging on the curbs near their homes. It didn't seem that finding food was as difficult for the poor in Shanghai as it is here in the states.   

We were treated to excellent meals in restaurants that had five star service. The food and conversation and was amazing.

Summing It Up
So what did I take away from the experience? What about having presented in a non-English speaking country  impacted who I am and what I believe?

1. It is one thing to say the world is flat and another thing all together to experience it up close and personal. When I keynoted in New Zealand, I expected to see certain things and pretty much my expectations were met.  I remember realizing how flat the world really is while in NZ in that as educators we were all concerned with very similar things. However, Shanghai was more profound. I talk about globalization, I even quote "Did You Know" and share how countries like China and India, which have long histories of embracing education, now have the means to connect their most educated citizens in meaningful ways through outsourcing. What I didn't realize was that the culture of Shanghai was such that it could easily equal the US as a super power in a few years. The images of quaint temples and extreme oppression I had when I arrived have been replaced with images of a thriving metropolis and a very entrepreneurial citizenry.

2.  One of the topics I present on regularly is homelessness. I found myself struggling with the issue of the homeless in Shanghai. It is obvious the homeless exist by the sheer number of homes being demolished to make way for skyscrapers. Everyone I asked about it said they didn't know much about the homeless. Often they were referred to as migrants. Because of the scale of construction being done, large numbers of migrants come from rural areas to the city in search of work. Many end up begging on the streets. China's migrant population is currently put at 130 million, including 50 million registered as temporary residents in urban areas. Shanghai, with a total population of nine million,  has a floating population of some three million migrants. It was disconcerting that Human rights issues seem to be swept under the rug in Shanghai.

I only personally saw a few of individuals I knew were homeless, a couple children and a woman my age. She and I exchanged glances, then she looked with beautiful eyes deep into my soul. I offered her money, she humbly took it bowing over and over with her hands folded saying please, please. I will never forget her or the guilt I felt for my station in life as compared with hers. Many approached you in Shanghai asking for money but usually in exchange for a product. Where are those migrants? How are they getting by?

3. I decided while in Shanghai that all teacher preparation programs should have required International travel for all preservice teachers. In today's changing times a teacher needs to understand first hand the flatness of the world in which their students will be living out their lives. I also feel that virtual learning communities that build and extend relationships with people around the world will become increasingly more important as we move further into the 21st Century. Connections and collaborations as a way of understanding and accepting different cultures will become as important as sharing content expertise.

I am grateful for having visited Shanghai. As I watched my son Noah trade translations of various words on the plane as he sat next to a non English speaking Chinese woman, I was struck with how very similar we all really are. She sat with her Chinese to English dictionary in her lap and Noah with his English to Chinese and together they experimented with learning each other's language. The learning was "just in time," passion driven, and obtained in a way that will mean more to both of them than any formal class they could have taken in their respective countries.

The challenge for all educators will be to replicate that kind of authentic learning in the sterile environments of our classrooms. A point which for me, illuminates why becoming multiliterate and using electronic communication tools should be standard fare in a Learning 2.0 world.

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