Things I Like and Dislike About Living in Shanghai
Even after living in Shanghai for over five years, I have missed it every day since I left three years ago. It’s a strange feeling being homesick for a place you don’t come from and only stayed in temporarily. Sometimes as I walk along a street in another city, in my mind’s eye I am picturing what I saw as I walked along a street in Shanghai. Sometimes I picture random streets or metro stations, relive random conversations with shopkeepers, or evenings out with friends.
I have some other friends who have also since left, all of whom have told me the same thing: That city changed us. It forced us to grow up, as we dealt with difficult, sometimes bizarre situations that we may not have been faced with elsewhere. Every day we encountered so many emotions: Frustration, stress, exhaustion, elation, joy… Since coming home, everything just seems too easy, flat and mundane. So, here are my favourite and least favourite things about living in Shanghai.
Fancy a McDonald’s delivered to your door at 3am? No problem! Want your grocery shopping delivered to your home? Easy! Want a prepared, cooked meal from your favourite restaurant delivered at a specific time? Done!
In a city of almost 25 million souls, there is no shortage of staff. An army of delivery men keep this city moving. Everything from food to appliances can be delivered to your door the same day. On some websites, you can even choose the exact time-frame you want it delivering. I would often buy my groceries online from my desk at work in the morning, and would ask for it to arrive within the hour of my arrival home the same evening. Perfect.
This is one thing that Shanghai does not lack. There is a shop for everything. Stationary, computers, clothes for all tastes and budgets, beauty salons, supermarkets, convenience stores, even tiny shops that just sell completely random (but useful) stuff. One of my favourite markets was a big indoor building in the backstreets of the Old City. It was great fun just to wonder around it. They sold everything from spare Mahjong pieces, knives, beads and threads and pots of glitter, gift boxes of all sizes, hongbao (red envelopes that are filled with money and given as gifts), ghost money (burnt at funerals so people can still have money in the next life), calendars, pots and pans, tape measures, sticky tape… the list goes on…
Shanghai’s metro is now the longest in the world and still growing. It is fast, practical, clean, modern and well-maintained. I used it every single day. When I first arrived in the city, there were only 4 lines. When I left, there were around 16. Sometimes getting a seat can be a pain as people literally run and push each other out of the way for one. It was often fun to join in the morning seat-rush and exchange smiles and giggles with people who got a seat!
Taxis are equally great. They are cheap, usually easy to flag-down and great for Chinese language practice as most drivers do not speak English. They were mostly very friendly and happy to chat. The bus system is also vast. It was not always practical however for those who do not understand any Chinese or know the city: Better learn your street names and Chinese characters first.
Shanghai is fun. It is a seriously hedonistic city. If you are the shy, stay at home, unsociable kind, then this is probably not the city for you. Bars, nightclubs, restaurants, cinemas, coffee shops are everywhere and open ‘til late. All kinds, all price ranges. From live Jazz bands to rock concerts to underground clubs to ladies nights to knitting groups. Shanghai has it all. Be careful though: fake alcohol is rampant and will give you the worst hangover or alcohol poisoning of your life.
5. History and architecture:
Shanghai is full of art-deco buildings from the pre-war era, and they are stunning. Art-deco touches can be seen everywhere. There even exists a group you can join which will take you on an art-deco tour. There are also traditional Chinese buildings from different eras that blend beautifully with the fancy, slick modern skyscrapers. One of the most famous buildings is the Normandie building, reputed to be one of the most haunted. One of my favourite historical buildings is the Qiu Mansion: http://travel.cnn.com/shanghai/play/haunted-shanghai-phantoms-qiu-mansion-274835/
6. Museums and Parks:
The Shanghai Museum in Peoples Square is great as it has everything from Chinese art to old coins. The propaganda art museum is also great although not easy to find as it is “hidden” in the basement of an apartment block. There is also the Science and Technology Museum, Maritime Museum… http://www.timeoutshanghai.com/features/Things_to_Do-Around_Town/7519/Shanghais-best-museums.html
The city also has a huge amount of extremely well-maintained parks. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/china/articles/the-10-best-parks-and-green-spaces-in-shanghai/. They not only provide a rest bite from busy urban life, but are perfect for people-watching. You can always see people practicing their Tai Chi or other martial arts, or playing badminton, chatting, playing card games or Mahjong, or walking backwards (believed to turn back time and keep the body flexible), or beating themselves against trees (keeps the blood flowing). There is no shortage of interesting sights.
Chinese people love food. From the multitude of restaurants to the small carts in the street, it is everywhere. My favourite street cart food was a radish and potato deep-fried fritter. My favourite quick and easy Chinese food was Malatang: A hot, spicy soup whose ingredients you chose yourself from a small fridge. There is also an abundance of international food joints: You can enjoy everything from North Korean to British at all budgets. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/shanghai-street-food/index.html
My least favourite was Chao Dofu (Stinky tofu): tasted as bad as it smelt!
I’m putting this one last as it is a love-hate thing for me. Shanghai has a semi-tropical climate which means it is extremely humid and hot in summer, and humid and cold in winter. Personally I love the heat. I loved walking around in my sandals and vest tops completely sticky from the humidity and it sometimes being so hot you feel you can’t breathe. I love the sound of the cicadas as they chirp from bushes and parks. And I especially loved that everything just seems to slow down in the heat as many people stay indoors or are just too hot to rush around. I really hate the mosquitoes, however! Winter is not much colder than Europe, but the humidity enhances it as the cold seeps right into your skin and the only way to deal with it is to wear as many layers of clothes as possible. It is also hard to find heating as it is not installed in the south of China (Shanghai is generally counted as part of the south), which means hot water bottles and blankets rule!
- Lack of hygiene:
This is a big issue for most people. Although I could deal with the spitting that most people can’t stand, for me the main problem was people going to the toilet in the streets. I often saw a lot of vomit in the streets, too, or trash been thrown everywhere (however there is a huge number of street cleaners who are paid by the weight of trash they pick up, meaning that by NOT throwing rubbish in the street, somebody somewhere is losing money). Many people get sick from food poisoning, people coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths (all the time!!). For me the A/C units always made me ill as the filters were almost never cleaned meaning they were full of dust and grime that is blasted directly onto you every day.
Another big issue. Thankfully, pollution in Shanghai is not as bad as other cities and China is working hard and investing enormous amounts to try to curb this. However, it is still fairly high in winter months especially. You always hear stories of perfectly healthy people developing respiratory problems; or that cold you get that would only last a week or few days back home, is just impossible to shake off in Shanghai. The most important thing is to buy a proper mask with a filter that can limit the amount of PM 2.5 particles entering. Those flimsy surgical masks are useless in comparison.
This can be a difficult thing for most people to understand. Chinese people like to “save face” and can sometimes… mmmm, let’s say… not quite tell the truth, in some situations in order to make sure they don’t look bad. This can become extremely frustrating and stressful. A friend of mine once told me that he had sent one of his colleagues to check the measurements of a new office space. She came back and told him it was suitable, so he then paid the money (it is very common to rent office space by paying a year’s rent upfront). They later found out it was not the right size and they lost the money: The girl had not told the truth and lied to save face. Perhaps she had misunderstood something, or just simply not done it, but either way the situation was complicated and stressful all round. As Westerners tend to prefer to be more frank or direct, this can often be insulting in China. Here is an interesting blog which goes into the concept of face in more detail: http://www.china-mike.com/chinese-culture/understanding-chinese-mind/cult-of-face/ My advice for this, is try to remain patient and try to understand all sides of the story instead of pointing blame and getting angry.
Racism usually prevails when there is a lack of education or understanding. However, although a lot of Chinese people can seem racist, I do not think it is really ever meant with malicious intent as it often can be in other places. I think it is just more ignorance and even nervousness as some there are many people who have never seen a foreigner and due to poor education, they just simply do not know how to react or what to do; so they point and giggle and may say something that a Westerner will not like. The worst thing I had happen to me was having food thrown at me as I was walking in the street one day. However, they were surprised when I shouted back at them in Chinese and they crossed the road and walked away.
Another thing that can be perceived as racist is when taxi drivers refuse to stop for a foreigner, but will often pick up a nearby Chinese person instead. This is often extremely annoying and feels unfair. However, I think this is more because they are afraid you cannot speak Chinese and as they have a certain amount of money they need to make every day (to pay the taxi company) before they can start earning their own wages, they do not like to lose time with stressful, time-wasting conversations.
5. “Bad China Days”:
This is a concept that all foreigners living in China will have heard at least once. A Bad China Day is difficult to describe yet makes perfect sense. It is one of those days when suddenly nobody seems to understand your spoken Chinese, when on any other day they do understand. It is when nothing you planned goes to plan. It is when everything just seems to grate on your nerves and you just can’t explain why or what. It is when you finally realise you have been ripped off, when you suddenly get diarrhea from something you eat regularly, when all of the taxi drivers either ignore you, or drive you to the wrong place (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not)… and it all happens on one particular day. There’s no way around this… Just take a deep breath and try to be patient…