It’s been 3 months since I moved to Shanghai. It’s my first time living and working abroad, and for the most part I love it. I did a lot of research before I made the move, so I had some idea of what to expect. However, everyone is thrown a few curve balls when they travel. Here’s a list of 10 things I didn’t know about or expect to experience in China:
The Chinese People Really Love Singing and Dancing
One of my favorite things about China is that there are choreographed dances at night throughout the city. The dancers are usually middle aged to retired women doing any kind of dance from salsa to more traditional music. Sometimes they even have matching outfits. These people are not professional dancers, rather dancing is their hobby. The above video is of a dance that was taking place in front of my bank.
Singing in public is also more common than you would think. Just go to a park or public square and you’re likely to hear someone singing a song or a make shift band playing a tune. Most of the time they play traditional music, which is fine by me since it sounds absolutely beautiful.
You can still know what it’s like to watch the grass grow in the 21st century.
Not literally, because there isn’t an abundance of grass wherever you go in Shanghai, but you can know the feeling of watching the grass grow whenever you try to use the internet here. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve patiently starred at a bar as it slowly crept up to open the web page I needed. Sometimes you’ll catch yourself mindlessly starting at the empty screen for what feels like 2 minutes and you’ll start to wonder what you’re doing with your life. Why would you rather star at a vacant screen waiting for some stupid GIF to load, rather than talking to another human being or exploring your new city? On the bright side, at least us people with bad internet get these kind of reminders.
You may think that this is because internet in China is just bad. I’m not sure that it is, because I’ve heard that it’s actually quite good in the boonies. The thing is that no one has yet figured out what to do when 24 million people try to use the internet. Have you?
In China the D.I.Y. Rule Is Taken to The Extreme
Form entering your own work schedule to following up with your doctor to remind her that she didn’t send you your lab results, you’re expected to do everything yourself in China – and quickly.
I’ve never thought of myself as the type who couldn’t do things herself, but this place made me feel that way multiple times. The most ironic thing is that the times when I felt the most judged in this matter was always when I was talking to other foreigners.
The first time you ask a question about how to do something in Shanghai, people are nice and answer. However, whenever you ask them for more details, they start to look at you like you’re mentally slow. I get it when Chinese people become frustrated that you don’t get how things are, but you’d expect other Americans to understand why figuring out Shanghai isn’t something you pick up in a day. You basically have to learn how to do every little basic thing you’ve ever done from scratch. Getting an apartment, it’s done differently here, setting up your bank account, it’s done differently and it takes three thousand years.
If you’ve ever gotten one of those “um there’s thing thing called Google” responses to one of your questions, you’ll get that pretty much everyday here – despite that as I mentioned the internet here is a dinosaur and you can’t get on Google anyway. In fact, to continue on this topic, most of the time you don’t even know how to look up what you need because it’s too specific and there’s no answer to the question available online in English. So asking the people in your community what to do is your go to resource. I’m still really not sure why people have such an attitude about being asked questions.
Anyway, for better or for worse, you will have to learn to watch out for yourself here. Sure it will be a pain in the ass, especially when it feels you’re essentially doing other people’s jobs (like reminding another employee 3 times to answer your billing question), but it will no doubt make you a stronger person.
Your Friends Back Home Start to Seem Like They’re Always Bragging.
As an ESL teacher working exclusively with Chinese students, I am getting used to the Chinese temperament: you work your butt off, but you don’t think you’re anything special. Sure, Chinese people use social media like wechat, but even if they’re posting a general statement about life being beautiful, it’s usually not about how things are going for them in particular. In fact, many Chinese people are very critical of themselves, despite how hard they work. This may be why the custom way to react to a compliment is to say, “Where? Where?”
So after working with these people every day, and having a month or so where I had limited access to Facebook, I actually had a bit of a reverse culture shock when I logged back on to American social media and saw how Americans typically talk about themselves. I’ve always heard that the Chinese had a much smaller sense of ego than most westerners, but just how much smaller that ego was became very clear when I started scrolling through Facebook again. It seems like everyone on Facebook accomplishes something huge everyday. This is a good thing, but it does seem a bit weird to me now that I live in a country where this kind of behavior is unheard of.
Shanghai is Huge and Crazy, But At Least Its People Acknowledge That.
Back to this whole ego thing, there’s really no way you’d be able to survive Shanghai if the people in Shanghai had egos equivalent to those in New York. There are just too many people here to think that it’s all about you. As someone who used to get really irritated when people would push me, I am learning to let this go. I have to push someone in some way almost everyday, and I certainly don’t mean any offense by it most of the time. It’s just unavoidable. Luckily here no one here seems to get offended if you accidentally touch them or push them. I can’t really imagine people in New York being so zen about the whole thing.
Shanghai Has Its Own Language
It’s tough learning Mandarin, but it’s even tougher learning Mandarin when you can’t understand people’s responses to your questions – because they’re in Shanghainese! Today I went to buy some tofu from my local tofu lady. She was trying to explain to me that one tofu was better than another. I could hear that she was saying, “Hao ci.” I knew “hao” meant good, but I didn’t know what “Hao ci” meant. Could she have meant “Hao chi” (tasty) which sounds totally different? It made the most sense for the sentence she was constructing. But why “Hao ci?” Finally she had to write it out for me, and I realized that she was indeed saying the word for tasty, she was just pronouncing it in a completely different way than I’d learned – Shanghainese!
You Realize Shanghai is like America in the 1950s
You know how Republicans are always talking about the good old days when Americans had fancy cars, moms could stay at home, and everyone could retire comfortably, but then they don’t approve any policies that would enable that to happen? Well, China is that right now for foreign teachers and other experts. It reminds me of this story this guy told me about life back in the 1950s when you could walk out of church on Sunday and there would be recruiters waiting outside the door ready to give people jobs.
After graduating into the American recession of 2008, I never thought I’d grace this kind of job market again. Every employer wants me, whether it be for full-time teaching or tutoring. I can also easily get jobs outside of teaching like blogging, acting, and coaching. You can really do anything you want in Shanghai, and no it doesn’t require three interviews.
This being said, the exact opposite goes for the Chinese locals. Because of the high population, jobs in China are very competitive. Regardless, I wouldn’t expect this 1950s foreigner job market paradise to last forever, so I’d get here sooner than later.
If You Didn’t Already Know How to Build a Sanctuary, You’ll Figure It Out Here.
Like I said, Shanghai is nuts. While it’s more spread out than NYC so you don’t feel the burn of 24 million people as much as you might think, you’re still living amongst 24 million people, many of whom like to scream and honk their horns more than any other American you’ve ever met. As fun as it seems at first, it will drive you a little nuts if you don’t take refuge from time to time.
Before I began my apartment hunting in Shanghai, I was thinking it’d be OK to take a smaller room so that I could have cheaper rent. I almost went for a room in the middle of a 4-bedroom where I could have easily heard my roommates talking in the living room. It was cheap, but fortunately it hit me that coming home to an apartment where people would expect me to interact and talk outside my door after spending all day in the loudest city in the world would probably make my head explode. Hence, I chose a much more private room where I have plenty of space and privacy to unwind from the day. I’ve never been one to decorate my apartment, buy tons of aromatic candles, and play calming zen music, but it’s my thing now that I live in Shanghai. I have spent more time beautifying my apartment than ever before and have learned the true value of picking up objects and habits that can sooth me. Somedays I even huff lavender leaves. I also turned into one of those people who I used to make fun of – people who say all they wanna do is stay in bed and watch Netflix. Whatever.
Alcohol Starts to Seem a Bit Overrated
I know, crazy! I love wine and have always loved venturing to new bars and wineries more than most. But going to bars is not a big past time in China. In fact, finding a bar is a challenge unless you go to a dedicated area for foreigners. Most Chinese people drink in their homes, and go to bed early. At first you want to go on with your own ways, but after awhile the fact that you’re living your life differently than the vast majority of the other people you live with starts to feel weird. Maybe it’s the Chinese way of life getting itself into your bones or something. But let’s be real, the real reason drinking isn’t as appealing anymore is because it’s extremely expensive relative to all your other expenses. A glass of wine is much more than most full-meals in China, and hitting up any of the many cocktail bar deals could result in slurping up some bathtub booze – a believe it or not euphemistic way to describe China’s troubling counterfeit liquor market. So basically, the real stuff is expensive, and the fake stuff is dangerous to your health (more than alcohol is).
No Matter How Crazy Your City Is, China’s Parks Will Calm You Down
Shanghai has a ton of parks and all of them have lots of space to walk, and elaborate beautiful gardens. Some of them even have amusement parks built within! They’re one of a kind and one of my favorite things about Shanghai and China in general. The best part about the parks here is that people regularly sing and play traditional Chinese music. If you want to hear a local belt out a classic, just go to your nearest public park. You may think this would be annoying, but Shanghai seems to have no shortage of talented opera singers. It’s a real delight to wander between areas of the parks and take a seat when you find someone playing a tune you enjoy. It’s like going to a music festival without having to pay for the ticket.
So that’s what I’ve found unique about Shanghai and China so far. It’s only been three months, and my Mandarin is still at the beginner level. I have no doubt I’ll have much more to report in the next three months to come!