Shenzhen is a young city, I was told by everyone from the guidebooks to my one friend Mr. Lee, dominated by youth because old people can’t afford to live there. My speculation quickly became that they didn’t want the work that was available to them. The people who dusted the outdoor planter boxes, scrubbed the malls and subway stations, and scraped gum from the sidewalks in the CBD were all elderly. The streetwalkers across the street from my hotel were old. So was the only mad person I ever saw in my neighborhood, a woman with wild grey hair and vacant eyes who was out on the street every day.
There were happy old people everywhere I went and every last one of them, man and woman, was with a little child. During the week I saw few people who were younger than I who were in the company of children. Young people were working in the malls, behind hotel desks, in the thousands of little restaurants that fed this mammoth city.
They appeared on Saturdays, carefully dressed and often with children, walking through the neighborhood malls as though they were out for a stroll on Fifth Avenue, out at the theme parks, and crowding the restaurants.
The visible people in Shenzhen, a friend said, were out in public because they were poor. If they had money, they would be in air-conditioned apartments or in their cars, not roaming through shopping malls or sitting on a subway. The demographic I observed during my stay wasn’t the whole. It was the less fortunate participants in the economic miracle that had struck this part of China.
The families who began to throng the subway within two weeks of my arrival were on their way home for the lunar new year. The parents were carefully groomed, the children were dazzling. They could have posed for any Western fashion magazine, in their brand new baseball jackets and jeans, immaculate little dresses, or occasionally in tiny robes worthy of the last emperor. Almost all of them got off at the nearest train station.
In the opposite direction, the one that headed toward the airport, there were fewer children and more people in late adolescence. While the families were surrounded by boxes, bundles, and large suitcases, these younger travelers were traveling light, with one wheeled carry-on or an expensive looking backpack. Their clothes were very GQ and Marie Claire, simple but with a clean line. The few that I spoke to were ones who had approached me used English with confidence and were university students.
My friend Mr. Lee had been one of them once, and not long ago. He had studied in the UK and now he managed a coffee shop. When he traveled, he went in his car, with his wife and their little daughter, but that wasn’t often. He was in his shop all day, every day, except for the national holidays.
In the two months that I was there, Mr. Lee remodeled the business he managed twice, making the space more efficient for his employees and more enticing for the young customers whom he needed to attract. He began serving four-course Western-style dinners, accompanied by cocktails, in the late evening. He was determined to make the cafe profitable, on a street where the other food options were noodles and dumplings that came dirt cheap.
Mr. Lee had cake, salmon sandwiches, frites, pasta, and risotto to serve with his coffee. The first time I went in, I walked out in two minutes flat. “I didn’t come to Shenzhen to eat spaghetti,” I muttered as I left, but I returned often in my two month stay for some of the best coffee I’ve ever had when traveling, and for the frites, and finally for the dinner with cocktail. Often the people who sat in the place with me were Mr. Lee’s friends, never a good sign.
And they were all young.
I was a quadruple anomaly in the part of Shenzhen where I stayed. I was Western, I was a woman, I was elderly, and I was alone. I did what I always do. I chose a hotel in a neighborhood that wasn’t glitzy, and I used that as my base for my entire stay. Eventually I recognized faces on the street, found a couple of merchants who gave me a feeling of community, and became enough of a fixture that a street cleaner who was younger than the norm found the courage to ask me in Chinese if I were from India. Fortunately the word for India was enough like Hindu that I was able to understand and say no. And the tone I used for America was close enough that she at least pretended to understand me.
I watched the people around me and felt a twang of envy, especially for my old counterparts. They either had work that was clearly useful but not particularly arduous, or they had grandchildren. I told myself I was probably romanticizing but when I looked at them, their eyes looked untroubled, even peaceful. When they looked at me, they looked puzzled, and on one morning late in my Shenzhen stay, I saw pity.
I had hurt my foot while out on one of my long walks through the city and when I woke up the next day, I could barely hobble. There were no motorcycle taxis outside my hotel so my only choice was to slowly and cautiously walk four long blocks toward the closest drugstore. As I started to return to my room, clutching my bag of medicated plasters, a woman who was probably my age looked me straight in the eye. I smiled at her and shrugged. Her return gaze was gentle and clearly sympathetic with a tiny dash of exasperation. What, she asked me silently, in the hell did I think I was doing? And suddenly I was grateful that in this city where only the young dashed around the streets, I had no way to understand the people who were as old as I, all of them convinced that I was as crazy as that other old lady with the wild grey hair.