I first visited Shanghai in 2009. It was the very first time I had been in anywhere in Asia in fact. And I remember thinking to myself then: “this is a city I could live in.” Maybe not a city like Paris or Mexico City where I fell in love five steps into my first wandering, but much more liveable than I would have thought. Very modern, nice public transportation, all the amenities of a large city, etc. So it was something of a full circle to return in 2015 for work. Although I would at the time be based in Singapore, not Shanghai.
The second time I visited Shanghai (2015) I remember thinking to myself: oh right. Singapore is definitely NOT China. It lacks the South East Asian sweetness of Singapore. The streets and walkways are all much more crowded and a touch aggressive. I had begun to get to know Shanghai and China much more through the people than through the architecture of my first trip. It also happened to be a particularly rough trip, as I battled a nasty sickness and high fever. Between feeling particularly vulnerable from the illness and rather off balance from the distinct foreign-ness of China, I chose not to visit a doctor. And instead I limped along and manage the symptoms with the remedies in my travel kit. Which I admit tainted things.
Clearly I also had to address my unconscious assumption that Singapore was an easy jumping off point to all of Asia. Singapore is a very soft landing for someone coming from the West. It’s not really sufficient preparation for living or doing non-tourism travel in the rest of Asia.
Not only did I avoid the doctor for a week and suffer semi-silently but I found myself woefully underprepared for the taxi situation. Few taxi drivers in Shanghai speak English and I was heading to office buildings, not famous tourist destinations. Which made it even more difficult for the taxi drivers who had to guess my butchered addresses. Luckily at that time Uber allowed you to type your destination in English on your app, but drivers could read it in Mandarin. Between Uber and my colleagues I managed to get to and from the office every day. But every. single. trip. required an extended conversation based solely in gestures to get a receipt. Because I was on a corporate expense account and needed receipts of course. It was exhausting. My 2009 “I could live here” was being rapidly revised based on reality, rather than active imagination.
When I scheduled my return in February of 2016 my attitude had shifted to “brace yourself for Shanghai.” But then I had yet another, surprising, impression of Shanghai: as long as you speak some Mandarin, Shanghai is actually quite comfortable. And very nicely metropolitan.
I realized I expected a massive city like Shanghai to be a place where one could get along ok in English. It is a world financial center and super-urban zone roughly twice the size of New York City by population. Take a moment and process that: twice the size of New York City’s population. My Western-upbringing bias said these facts would equate to an English-speaking destination. My work experience to-date had reinforced that. For better or worse most of the places where I work are places you can get by in English.
That English is so uncommon here is a by-product of how relatively recent it’s been for China to open up to the West and allow many visitors. Or perhaps it is a symptom of how relatively few Chinese leave their borders, constrained by finances and government policy. But most pointedly, it’s part reflection of the fact that China has never been colonized by the West. It makes Shanghai both excessively modern and still extremely foreign. There are many subtle (and not so subtle) hints here that you have finally reached the land of the other largest super power throughout history. One of the lands that did the colonizing, rather than being colonized.
Luckily on my February 2016 trip I had learned enough Mandarin by then that I could direct the taxi on my own, and I also happened to travel with a teammate who was conversant in Mandarin. To be clear, I can’t so much as carry on a broken conversation in Mandarin. I can give directions, ask for a receipt (finally!), and understand little basics like types of food, yes, no, like, don’t like, etc. But it’s enough, especially with the support of other coworkers.
For me, this starts to get at the heart of life as an expat. Dropping in and out of a place on leisure travel is great fun and I get to see gorgeous places. But having to get around for business, handle illness, and so on in a foreign culture is where I’ve really experienced life (and not just history and nature) outside of the US. It’s also where I’ve learned to have faith in the general goodness of people. Nearly everyone was willing to help me with the taxi situation. All were willing to help me with the illness situation as well and I started to really feel that tribal environment in Asia. Plus, with a smile, I usually meet the better angels of peoples’ natures even in the heart of a busy financial center.