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You know that feeling when you’re staring at the ocean and you suddenly feel so small? Standing in Shanghai is exactly like that, except the peacefulness that you might get from staring at the waves is replaced by a heart-thumping, hair-raising symphony of car horns beeping, motorbikes revving and people hocking massive loogies (a popular pastime, apparently). Shanghai is a city of hustlers, a city where the skyscrapers come by the dozen and yet people are still bursting out onto the street and into the parks, restaurants and shopping centers. Everything is always busy. There is sure to be a line at the ATM, predictably a crowd in the restaurants, constantly a throng of traffic on the streets. It all feels impossibly modern.

And then you take a step in, and you notice the wiggling fish in a basket on the street, where an old lady sits waiting to make a sale. You see the twisted palm fronds that have been fashioned into a streetsweepers’ broom. You pass a pharmacy where seahorses and ginger root are sold as remedies. You walk into a temple where incense is burning.

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If China is a study of contradictions, of the pull between old and new, then Shanghai is the Cliff’s Notes.

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