One step at a time

September 26, 2011

By Carlos Barria

When I was a kid in the south of Argentina, we used to say that if you dig a very deep hole to the other side of the earth, you will end up in China. In my case, China was literally on the other side of the planet; about as far from Patagonia as you can get. Thirty years later, I made it here. I didn’t come through a tunnel, but on a plane that flew over the North Pole.

I moved to China one year ago in the position of staff photographer in Shanghai, China’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city. The challenge was enormous: a foreign culture, and a very foreign language.

I spent my first couple of days walking around the city, just wandering; something I hadn’t done in a long time. Before coming to China I lived in Miami, where I didn’t have much of an urban experience, unless you count sitting in traffic for long periods of time.

But in Shanghai, I didn’t need a car. The city’s public transportation system is one of the best in China, and that give me the opportunity to go back to something I love; street photography. I started to really enjoy the urban scenery. I walked around with just one camera and one lens, taking it all in, like a little kid alone in a candy store.

I had a preconceived notion of China as a country of factories and farms. I hadn’t thought much about the cities. But walking through the streets of Shanghai, I began to familiarize myself with a more modern society, one characterized by a large, growing and unstoppable middle class.

China also struck me as a country that was changing incredibly fast, with huge migrations to the cities, and more and more foreigners living here. Soon after arriving, for example, I was invited to photograph a wedding between Rebecca Kanthor, an American woman from upstate New York, and Liu Jian, a folk musician from China’s central province of Henan. They chose to have a tradition rural wedding in Liu Jian’s hometown. The groom arrived on a horse while his bride was carried around town on a sedan chair. Liu Jian was the first person from his village to marry a foreigner.

On my walks through Shanghai, I saw how residents were interacting and adapting to their fast-changing environment. One night, from my first apartment on the 30th floor, I saw people playing tennis at night, surrounded by high-rise buildings. For me, this image was an example of how people were trying to find balance in the midst of China’s furious growth.

My assistant once told me, “It’s very difficult for a foreigner to think like a Chinese person.” Perhaps I will never get that far, but on my long walks through Shanghai, I think of an expression Rebecca taught me as I covered her wedding:

“Man, man, lai.” One step at a time.

(View a large format showcase of images in China rising)


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OOOOh, your so brave! Spending time in Shanghai is comparable to spending time in ST Louis. It is the second least cultural city in China, after Beijing. Did you do all your shopping at Walmart and dining at KFC?

At least you didn’t take all of your pictures from your “30th floor” apartment windows. I bet you still have your subway map in your back pocket.

If you want to see China, see its cultural diversity, go anywhere but the big homogenized city.

Posted by thelaowai | Report as abusive

You will never see the true China in the big cities.
Trust me, go to the west like west Sichuan province, you will see the other true China!

Posted by dupontjoy | Report as abusive

This photo essay is about modernization of the cities, not the cultural diversity of the country side.

Posted by PDXmouse | Report as abusive

The first picture is beautiful, the shoes are fun too. The other city pictures are somewhat ordinary. Perhaps that is the point, but more likely there is a lot more walking to be done.

I’m in Beijing for a while and echo that it is surprising how the cities might differ from western expectations. Thelaowai is kind of missing the point. Sure, there is a Chinese culture found outside the big cities – but the big cities are also forging a new culture which is perhaps more important for the west to see and understand. And no it is not a culture of Walmart (does it even exist in Beijing) or KFC (ubiquitous, but comfortably outnumbered by local eateries fast, slow, small, and big).

The cultural diversity is not what is driving China’s rapid rise in the world. These vast cities are. And like big cities everywhere, they melt cultures.

Posted by Tanj | Report as abusive

Even though “thelaowai” said it in such a rude way, i have to agree with him. I have spent the last 7 years in Beijing, and if I hadn’t visited the countryside many times and traveled all over China, I wouldn’t have known anything about the real life of the average Chinese people. Shanghai and Beijing are one kind of economy in China. The rest live in a different kind of economy. Also, if you really want to know China, you have to learn Chinese. What Chinese say in English and what they say in Chinese is very different. They are usually the most friendly people in the world when speaking English, but the most racist, xenophobic people in the world when speaking Chinese and thinking you don’t understand what they are saying. So, I would suggest that you get a tutor as soon as possible.

Posted by sweettea | Report as abusive

I enjoyed your photos and agree that the feeling one gets from photo ops in Chinese cities (or China in general) is “like a kid in a candy store.”

However, thelaowai is right…and sweettea’s comment about learning Chinese to know what they are REALLY thinking is dead on.

Want true images of China?

One more thing: “I had a preconceived notion of China as a country of factories and farms. I hadn’t thought much about the cities.” Seriously?

Posted by SUAlum2002 | Report as abusive

Very cool. It’s important that we in the western world start getting a more rounded image of what China actually is.

@thelaowai: Stop being rude.

Posted by solamon77 | Report as abusive

This comment is intended for some of you previous posters.
First, to say that Shanghai is not “the real China” is ridiculous. Shanghai represents a very important facet of modern China and very likely the direction the country as whole is heading. You are right that Shanghai does not provide an accurate picture of the average Chinese citizen, but then the author never made that claim. This essay from what I can tell was meant only to convey the authors first impressions of his new home and how those impressions contradicted some of his preconceptions. I enjoyed the photos and commentary.
Laowai, I would guess that they don’t station many staff photographers in Kashgar. He’ll have plenty of time to travel and take photos of “the real China.”

Posted by Ambrey | Report as abusive