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What Foreigners Can Learn at the Shanghai Zoo

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After thirteen years on the mainland, I have learned there are two types of expatriates: "China friendly" and "China unfriendly." One is either drawn to the country's warmth and ambition or repulsed by shoddiness and lack of civility. If you're in the latter camp, get back on the plane; the Chinese have a spider sense for arrogance. If they sense contempt, they discreetly go for the jugular. If a laowei is a "friend of China," arms open.

There is no greater testing ground of an ability to navigate the Chinese landscape than the Shanghai zoo on a public holiday. On Labor Day, I ambled through its front gate. Besieged by crowds that would put a DeMillian spectacle to shame, I embraced my inner Tao and went with the flow. Six hours later, I stumbled out of the Great Ape House, oddly invigorated.

Unlike the Beijing Olympics or other events conceived to gain international face, a day at the zoo is strictly local. Signage is (mostly) in Chinese. I counted three Caucasian families. The zoo is apolitical. There were no fuddy-duddy red banners exhorting "harmony." Far from judgmental eyes, the Chinese let their hair down. With no dignity at risk, they are irrepressibly themselves, free to both shock and awe.

On the shock front, the crush of humanity induces anxiety. Competition for nose-against-the-glass views of popular exhibits -- fish, auspicious symbols of prosperity, are big draws -- is, um, aggressive. The concept of personal space, let alone respect for toes, does not exist. Jostles, pushes and pokes tests patience. Parents allow children to relieve themselves on public lawns.

Furthermore, the whiff of bureaucratic corruption is everywhere. Kick-back-fueled renovation bids result in third-rate "upgrades" on everything from panda cages to peacock gardens. Bumper car and Ferris wheel rides can charitably be described as "creaky." (Lines for these attractions were short.) Peeling paint, weed-infested gardens, cheap signage and scum-filled alligator ponds are evidence of a brittle bureaucracy that prizes check lists and cute-rate construction, not quality or service. China's dynamic market economy was nowhere to be seen; every concession stand sells corn on the cob, sausages on a stick and low-end ice cream. Souvenir stands hawk flimsy inflatable giraffes. Nothing else.

But what a buzz!

Who's at the zoo? The masses. With nary an international fashion brand in sight, the tumult was fun. Bickering was loud but people were happy. The stare of strangers, intimidating on Huaihai Boulevard or in the boardroom, elicited curiosity. Families -- from infants to their grandparents -- loved being together. They were open-hearted, joyful, proud to pose for photos, even when approached by a middle-aged American speaking middling Mandarin. Unrestrained laughter pierced the air. Both children and adults cackled when kangaroos hopped or bonobos swung. Boyfriends and girlfriends walked in arm and arm and wore matching "his and her" tee shirts.

The country's "family values," a unifying force as China hurtles towards modernization, were on display. Fathers doted, lifting their single child onto shoulders with a combination of king-of-the-jungle pride and papa-bear affection. Surrounded by fellow hoi polloi, China's preoccupation with "face" disappeared. Educational zeal was also in the air. Five-year-olds were quizzed on the difference between orangutans and gorillas; every exhibit boasted placards overflowing with "fun facts." (America's "creationist" brigade would have blanched at China's epistemological directness; on a kid-friendly diagram of "Man's family tree," a human baby was plopped within kissing distance of a chimp.) Parents encouraged their kids' embrace of the new.

True, Shanghai's facilities pale in comparison to institutions such as Singapore's Night Safari or even the Detroit zoo. Animal conditions have a long way to go. (Even in the morning, large mammals slept.) However, progress has been made, particularly if success is judged against an "international standards" checklist. Animal exchanges occur between Shanghai and foreign "sister cities." Cages have been replaced with (scraggly) natural habitats. Viewing areas have been enlarged. Walking paths have been broadened. Gardens, admittedly not Edenic, have been landscaped. Trash receptacles are everywhere. Bathrooms, recently primeval, are cleaner and friendlier to the handicapped.

There are two Chinas, one falling and one rising. At the zoo, both are on display. Pessimists will shake their heads at stultifying bureaucracy, robotic service and boorish civility. Optimists are reassured by the unquantifiable: relentless energy, a broad-based "urge to surge" underpinned by a thirst for knowledge and cohesion of the clan.

I know which camp I am in. Given my decision to spend the past thirteen years of my life in China, thank goodness for that.