It’s now been six weeks since I arrived in Shanghai and the dreams of home and the ability to walk outside and not feel like I’m in a sauna are just around the corner. Since last month, we’ve really been indulging in the Chinese culture, whether that be in what we eat, the customs we imbibe or the language we learn. Indeed, I can now order a meal and actually get something which vaguely resembles what I requested.
I’m working at the British Chamber of Commerce, a non-for-profit organisation supporting British businesses here in China and I have to say, it’s probably the most varied job I could have wished for. One minute you’re sat behind a desk writing flyers and proofreading (the task every English speaker here seems to have been set) and the next you’re meeting the Consul-General to Shanghai in a five star hotel with canapés circulating around you in a never ending tornado of decadence. You also get to go to business meetings, where there are occasionally freebies, such as the free breakfast we had at Shanghai’s first Pret a Manger a couple of weeks ago!
But Chinese culture continues to baffle me. Particularly the photo taking and the staring, which hasn’t subsided at all. A couple of weeks ago, we went to Hangzhou on a high-speed train, which is around 100 miles from Shanghai, and saw the most beautiful lake before hiking up a hill to a Taoist temple. However, when one of our friends was taking our photo, a lot of locals joined in and took photos of us too. At one point, a queue actually began to form and we were viewed as film stars. But the Chinese are always game for a laugh and are extremely hospitable people so the odd bit of cultural difference is what makes the whole experience worthwhile.
One thing that has astounded me is just how diverse Shanghai is. Some people have a tendency to generalise China and Chinese culture as one entity. But there’s such a vast range of customs and culture here specific to each region with which it’s impossible and flawed to identify all 1.35 billion people. Particularly here, you can find yourself in a church, wandering some back alleyways, visiting a temple and having a drink on a rooftop bar (think Bridge VIP without the darkness or the stench of alcohol) all in the same day and within a few metres of each other.
That obviously leads to a wide variety of cultural insights and many different experiences, even within this little enclave on the eastern edge of China. I’ve seen just about everything from hangouts of the wealthy in Lujiazui, the deeply-rooted traditions of the temples and even a migrant children’s school located in suburbia.
However, one thing that’s always a guarantee wherever you are in Shanghai is that it’s going to very hot, almost insufferably so. One day it reached 53 degrees Celsius, which would have been unimaginable before I came but is actually not too bad for a short amount of time. Indeed, you seem to spend your time searching for air conditioning and bottled water all day long, which takes you on a whistle-stop tour of all the local convenience stores.
Right now, I’m beginning to look forward to home. Although I can still stick it out another week or so before I’ll actually want to go home as we’re just starting to run out of things to do here. I think the best way to describe what we’ve seen would be ‘little bits of everything’. I’m well aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of China, particularly as Shanghai is rather sheltered from the rest of the country, but there has been nothing quite like what I have seen, which has only spurred me on to come back some day.
I’ve occasionally thought whether I could handle life as an expatriate here and there are quite a few reasons I feel I couldn’t (pollution, the language barrier and the lack of personal freedom.) But the life of the nation’s upper classes sitting outside having alfresco dinners, climbing skyscrapers and going to five star hotels is, of course, very appealing. So I guess it’s not so much a case of whether I’ll come back to China but rather when and where I’ll go.
I’ve never been a reckless person but coming here was a rather whimsical decision. It’s certainly the best impulsive decision I’ve ever made because it’s brought me all this way to perhaps the best city I’ve ever visited. Even though I miss home a lot and am now starting to dream of standing in some fresh air out in the British countryside where there aren’t any skyscrapers, the memories, the laughter and the many insights I’ve received into how China works have equipped with more knowledge than a lecture course at Oxford could ever provide. So I guess you could say this has been the trip of a lifetime, and one that will live long in my mind for many years to come.
If you want to follow my trip in more detail, see my blog at fromshanghaitogermany.wordpress.com.