Summer Postcards 2013

Postcard from China

SHANGHAI, China--This is a postcard, according to The Crimson. That constitutes an interesting claim from an epistemological standpoint, or at least a nitpicking one. How does The Crimson know it’s a postcard? The United States Postal Service has a particular definition for postcards. “You may think your mailpiece is a ‘postcard,’ because it is a single sheet of paper,” its website chides unctuously. But according to USPS standards, a postcard must assume a rectangular shape within a specific band of length-width-thickness dimension. Still, even the everyday conflation of “postcard” with “single sheet of paper,” cannot apply here. This Crimson postcard is not even a “mailpiece,” to borrow the phrasing from our latter-day Pony Express. Instead, it is an amalgam of zeros and ones, encoding words too long to fit a standard card. And on top of that, the purest sacrilege of all: I don’t have a picture.

My postcard should have a picture of the country I am in. It should have a picture of China. But you know what China looks like, or you can find out with a Google image search (if you reside within Chinese borders, Bing or Baidu may serve better). Besides, I have neither aptitude nor energy for photography, and no camera without a smartphone attached to it. Another problem remains, too. A picture, a single picture—that could do more harm than good.

In one sense, China is a marvel of age-old oneness and continuity in culture, in political centralization, in language—in civilization. In another, it presents a pastiche of old and new, North and South, communist, Confucian, capitalist. I could attach a photo of Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial district where I’m interning this summer, an expanding skyline fertilized by rapid economic growth and a ripening credit bubble. On the Huangpu River’s opposite bank stretches the Bund. I could photograph that unfurled streak of historical buildings, marks of Shanghai’s past and the roles foreigners played in it (one building features a miniature Big Ben; another district’s name, the French Concession, says a lot as well). One night (before the too-early 11 p.m. closing), I could photograph the sleek and timely Shanghai subway, cheaper (in the per-ride sticker cost, at least) and more efficient than the New York counterpart I know better. Or I could photograph the weekday rush, dense with humans, to pack aboard the trains amid a rainy rush hour. Would a photograph of the Nanjing Ford factory I saw be better? Or one of the sweatier factories I didn’t see? Or of rural Guizhou or Yunnan, where I haven’t been? I might still have a shot of Mao Zedong’s portrait in a certain Beijing square, stored inside my computer from the time I visited.

Of course, it’s not just China. In 2012, the United States’ most photographed location on Instagram was Disneyland. That Minnie and Mickey’s domicile topped the list might say something about America (or its Instagram-indulging subset), but it leaves out a few facets. As for the Middle Kingdom, add several millennia of history and a billion people. Then try to find a picture to sum it all up. Words fail too.

Now we’re back to an epistemological dilemma, shifted from deltiology to sinology. During my pre-internship, weeklong Shanghai-Jiangsu tour, my group’s Chinese tour guides didn’t help solve it. We were brought to a village outside Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, billed as a nearby representation of rural Chinese life. I don’t know whether every other Chinese village sports an indoor theater, a cheerful, baseball-capped head official, and a quaint, lush sense of idyll. But the next day, in a move that makes something of a microcosm for modern China, the guide halted us for an hour in a tourist-geared silk factory’s conveniently adjacent silk store. At the time I yawned; now I can chuckle. A tinge of capitalist tact to follow a day spent commune-ogling.


Tours are not the way to understand China, and using simplistic phrases like “understand China” doesn't help either, presupposing false premises a) that China is a single entity to be understood and b) that China can be processed in the way we understand theories, equations, and mechanisms of the physical world. Instead, I might aim to experience a bit of life in this country—not as an alien subject to be studied but as a different home in which to live, however briefly.

Over the course of the summer, I plan to write four more of these, hopefully with less mailpiece musing and more thoughtful recollection. They will be myopic, myopic as any photograph. They might not capture your experience of China or even enough of my experience. Still, I hope to spell out one smallish slice of my own small slice. It’s just a postcard.

Brian L. Cronin ’15, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Mather House.