Essay Test

Scene:
Jean-Georges restaurant on the Bund in Shanghai. The Asian outpost of big-name New York restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Exquisite food and impeccable service. Bill for two, including drinks and wine (by the glass): $250 U.S. Not so much, really, for two Americans on a working vacation. And the tab certainly would have been much higher in any major American or European city.

Conundrum:
As my wife and ate and took in the atmosphere, we were surprised at the number of Chinese guests. And how young some of them were. Directly across from us was a table for four. The women sitting there couldn’t have been more than 30. 25 was more likely. But there they were. Paying $125 or more a head. Even though Jean-Georges sits on the 4th floor of a building that has an Armani store as the anchor tenant down at street level, that’s a staggering amount of money for most people in this country.

Discussion:
I spent some time with young people when I was in Shanghai. Twenty-somethings. Talking with them about money, mostly. What they want to do with it. How they feel about having it when their parents didn’t. And what it means for them and their place in the ‘New’ China.
They’re more than a bit conflicted about their new-found prosperity. They appreciate the opportunities and rewards that are coming their way. And they certainly know how to spend what they get. Nights out, clothes, iPods, cell phones and, sometimes, cars and houses. They’re part of the growing middle class in China and they enjoy that.
It’s not like they mind hard work, either. Most of the people I spent time with are in their first jobs out of college. They’re consultants, real estate developers and engineers. They say they work long hours, traveling both inside China and abroad. And they’re paid relatively well – about 9000 yuan, or $1000, a month. They have big dreams, too. Some of them want to go overseas for graduate school. Others want to start their own companies.
But you get a sense they’re a little bit unsure. Not in the what-am-I-going-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life way most new U.S. college graduates are unsure. But in a much larger what-are-the-rules kind of way. They’re really the first generation to grow up since Deng Xiaoping change the rules in this country by saying ‘To get rich is glorious.’ They’re the first to reach adulthood since the one-child policy went into effect. And they’re keenly aware of their country’s past. More than once some in the group I was with talked about their parents. About how they had never had a chance for education. Read between the lines and you realize the effects of the Cultural Revolution still linger here, forty years later.

Conclusion:
I don’t know yet. I’ll tell you in January.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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