It's 7:30 pm and a cold breeze ripples through the crowd on the elevated walkway and down to the deserted streets below. On the walkway, Chinese and international tourists pose for photographs while Oriental Pearl TV Tower ticket scalpers scramble among them, yelling out prices and giving each other menacing looks. Scattered around the walkway are signs flashing translated bits of corporate American—Apple, McDonalds, Subway, Dairy Queen, Starbucks—each belonging to a franchise location equipped with English speakers eliminating the need to practice your Chinese.
Down the road from the Oriental Pearl a construction site sprawls, its gates bearing the recently exposed Foxconn label. Sleek skyscrapers loom above, their faces showcasing the names of banks and corporate giants: Aurora, Citibank, Mirae Asset, China Telecom, China Life, Bank of Shanghai, China Taiping. Somewhere among them is another construction site: that of NYU's second portal campus, slated to open in 2013. This is Pudong. This is modern China. These are the fruits of globalization.
But what is not present is equally important. Consider NYU in Shanghai's current location at East China Normal University, located in the west of the city, far from the corporate-branded streets of Pudong. One step outside the main campus brings students onto Zaoyang Rd., where street vendors sell fish and vegetables on skewers for less than a dollar and cheap local restaurants line the street.
The neighborhood is a vibrant migrant community, bringing students in contact with Chinese from all over the country, people who have flocked to Shanghai from their home provinces in search of economic opportunity. There are few skyscrapers here, but there is culture. And at 7:30 at night the district is alive with a palpable energy far from that of the world shaped by corporate globalization towering across the Huangpu River to the east, in Pudong.
It's not just the animated street life of Zaoyang that students at the new campus will likely miss. It's something essential about Chinese culture itself. Studying abroad is about immersing yourself in another culture, not isolating yourself in an American comfort zone complete with Starbucks and Subway.
The Pudong campus's location effectively trades culture for business. It trades a location where authentic local restaurants are within walking distance for a location where a Stern student's internship at Citi or HSBC is within walking distance.
The decision to build in Pudong—or, to be even more specific, in the Lujiazui financial district—was an easy one, it would seem. It's the economic jewel of modern China, and anyone perusing Google images of "Pudong" who's never been to the city is likely to feel a flash of excitement viewing images of the futuristic skyline where twenty-some years ago there was little more than swampy fields dotted by warehouses and patches of farmland.
Pudong represents China's economic miracle and the speed at which the country has, as the narrative goes, thrown itself into the future without so much as looking back. In many ways it resonates as the epitome of NYU's global initiative. The new campus will put NYU Shanghai on a high-status site built on some the most expensive real estate in China—something which might strike many as being quite ironic, considering NYU's meager endowment and financial aid offerings.
At a speech President John Sexton gave last semester, a student asked about the reasoning behind building the new campus in the corporate entity of Pudong. Sexton responded with a story about looking out over the Huangpu River at a grassy plain prior to the early-1990s explosion of skyscrapers. A friend pointed to it and said "that's going to be Pudong." Sexton, like so many, has since grown fascinated by the gleaming skyline that has arisen in the virtual blink of an eye, and the narrative of a new China that has arisen with it. One can only wonder if the future of NYU Shanghai might be different if only he'd considered the beauty and cultural richness of what was at his back as he stared eastward toward the future in all of its corporate-branded glory.