There's a story I like to tell about when I lived in China -- in the mid-90's -- and what it was like to be a Chinese-speaking expat back then. I can't tell you the number of times this happened to me: I'd stop somebody on the street -- to ask for directions maybe, or to ask where the best nearby dumpling restaurant was. I'd be speaking what, in all honesty, was pretty good Chinese and whoever I was talking to would look me right in the eye and say, in Chinese, "I'm sorry, I don't speak English." As if they couldn't comprehend that their language was coming out of my obviously not-Chinese face. So I'd have to explain that, in fact, I was speaking Chinese and oh-by-the-way, the dumpling place, can you help me out? Stuff like that happened even as recently as 2006, when Marketplace was broadcasting from Shanghai and Chongqing.
So as we spend the next two weeks here in China, we keep looking for signs of things that have changed since that 2006 broadcast. Today, I noticed that "wow" just doesn't seem to be happening so much anymore. Sure, Mandarin-speaking foreigners are still unusual -- if not rare -- and the locals sometimes still do a double-take when they hear me speaking Chinese (which is kind a kick, I admit), but there are a lot more foreigners now in Shanghai. A lot of them seem to be tourists. A good number are probably Westerners in town for business meetings. A lot, though, are probably longer-term expats, which means that the foreigners-speaking-Chinese rarity will be fading. Which is probably good for China -- and for the West. A bit deflating, though, for those of us who've been coming here for a while and thought we were a little special.
But enough about me. One quick item from the local paper today before I go to give you just a taste of the differences between the Chinese and American economies in the early summer of 2011: "The Shanghai Daily" covered a speech by the head of the China Real Estate Chamber of Commerce this past weekend. He said -- and yes, you're reading this right -- he was optimistic that "housing prices nationwide will fall 10 percent on average this year."
Optimism about that.