Re: Shanghai


It's been six years since I was last there, but feel free to have them e-mail me. In general I recommend learning as much Mandarin as they can find time for, it really does help.

And I understand about the aversion to expats thing, but still, it's also great to have some people to talk things through with occasionally who understand exactly what it is you miss or find frustrating or whatever. I can probably put them in touch with some expats of the good variety who have been in China and Shanghai for an extended period who can help them find their feet.

The should expect lots of frustrations and misunderstandings, but try to keep a sense of humor and focus on the good and interesting things. And they should try to frequently take stock of themselves and each other to avoid/minimize falling into the constantly-complaining-bitterly-about-those-inscrutable-bastards trap that everyone seems to fall into at some point for at least a time during their soujourn there. It's an understandable reponse, and can too easily be reinforced by hanging out with others similarly afflicted, but mustn't be allowed to become a set way of viewing things.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 9:02 PM
horizontal rule

Also, this and this are good things to know.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 9:09 PM
horizontal rule

Oh, and they should remember not to talk about China too much once they're back in the States.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 9:16 PM
horizontal rule

I don't know why you'd ask M/lls and not, say, someone who's been to China.

Posted by: Standpipe Bridgeplate | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 9:28 PM
horizontal rule

...Regarding 2, when I lived in Shanghai, I actually was not required to eat anything odder than chicken feet, which really weren't too bad. (You pick them up in your chopsticks and sort of gum them) Shanghai food didn't seem to be as challenging for us wai guo ren as some of the deep south food. Oily, salty, sweet. Eat lots of snacks--somewhere Lu Xun describes Shanghai as "the city of the snack" and it's definitely true. Now, I haven't lived in Shanghai since 1997, so I don't have any specific advice that would still apply...but get your students to take you places. If you're teaching college students, you might even want to take on a little second job teaching business people (I made some really good friends this way). Ask your students where to buy used bikes--as recently as 2001 in Beijing, the best bike practice was to get beat-up used ones and just repair them as needed. The new bikes weren't worth the prices at all. Find a good bike repair guy, one who won't cheat you too much, and always go to him. Little old bike repair guys are the best, particularly really old ones, since they're often partly in it as a hobby. Long bike rides were wonderful. I've never been so healthy, and I probably did twelve to fifteen miles on my bike every day.

Fruit. I had the best fruit of my life when I lived in Shanghai. Watch for the oranges--how they'll come on the market as tiny and emerald green and expensive, and over the next weeks all the fruit-sellers will get more and more of them and the fruit will be bigger and bigger and more orange, until it's sold out of huge wicker baskets and they're practically giving it away. And the pomelos--it's often worth paying extra to get someone else to peel them for you. Also, the miniature melons. Also the extremely strange tart fuzzy maroon berry-like fruits with a stone in the center. Also the lychees--there won't be any until there's a ton of them, and then everyone will be eating them and if it's like I remember you will find rustling heaps of the shells at the places where workmen take smoke-breaks.

I ate lots of unpeeled fruit by blanching it lightly first and never got sick. Now there's a very good anti-bacterial soap for fruits and vegetables (yellow plastic bottle with dancing fruit, or at least that's how it was in Beijing), which saves a lot of time.

Watch out for hot-pot. People...and by people I mean my friend who invited me for New Year's...will often put out little plates of hard-to-recognize snacks before the hot pot is actually cooked. They may also put out plates of things that they intend to be cooked in the hot pot. You don't neccessarily want to discover this as you are politely trying to choke down a greasy piece of raw squid.

There are quite a few books now about old colonial-era buildings in Shanghai and it's a lot of fun to bike around and look at them--People's Park used to be a race-course, for example. I also found it, even then, interesting to look at such old-communist things as remained. There are still (I believe) a couple of old departments stores on the circular road near the river that are run very much as they were in the eighties. There were then--and may still be--a few restaurants that gave out little plastic chips when you paid, which you then took back into the kitchen to give to the cooks.

Shanghai was great. Biking in the winter, steamers full of baozi when it was so very cold out, a whole blocked off street full of people from the countryside with wagons full of lychees, the bright mylar flare of the water in the early morning when crossing the river on the commuter boat.

Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 9:48 PM
horizontal rule

I agree with everything Frowner's said. Shanghai really is a great place, and there's a lot I miss about it. Although if you really want good fruit, go south. Fuzhou is incredibly hot in summer, but the fruit selection and quality and variety I had there was nothing short of stunning.

Frowner, if you don't mind saying, where did you teach in Shanghai? My first year I was at China Textile University (which is now named something like China Eastern University) and after that was at Kai En, a private school, primarily for adults, run by two old China (and Taiwan) hands from Ireland. Not to mention numerous freelance gigs.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 10:11 PM
horizontal rule

I'm afraid that I can't really add anything useful about places to see and things to do, as I did not remember the names of any places we went to. I had a fully fluent travel companion who had lived in the area for several years, so she took care of everything useful like directions.

I second that you should learn more Mandarin as soon as possible. There are very very few people who speak english, and the competency level is usually not so hot. Signs are also rarely translated, and I know that I have a harder time remembering unfamiliar characters than I do remembering unfamiliar words. China was the place where I would have had the hardest time communicating of anywhere I've ever been.

As for the suggestion of biking a lot, you may find that the air quality has changed a lot since 1997. The explosion of cars and massive pollution means that you probably won't want to do too much jogging or biking outside, unless you're in the outer areas of Shanghai or wear a mask like the street workers.

Also, definitely have the local specialty bao zi (sho lum bao zi?) made with meat and broth inside a thick rice-paper wrapper and dipped lightly in vinegar. They're fantastic and tend to cost about 1-2 cents a piece from the decent street vendors.

Enjoy it, Shanghai was great times and I really want to go back someday.

Posted by: JAC | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 11:00 PM
horizontal rule

Also, definitely have the local specialty bao zi (sho lum bao zi?)

Xiao long bao (zi). Little steamed pork dumplings full of gravy. Famous throughout China, and rightly so.

Which brings up a good point. Even if the lawyer doesn't learn to speak any Mandarin, he should at the very least expend the minimal time it takes to learn how to pronounce words written in pinyin (the official Romanization system in China).

Definitely in Shangai, but also in many many smaller towns, at least one side of the street signs has the street name written in pinyin below the Chinese characters. Learning how to pronounce what's written in pinyin will help immeasurably in getting around, and can also help one learn how to pronounce the Chinese characters one sees on a regular basis. Plus having a standardized system for writing down the words one hears out and about is very useful in picking up Mandarin.

Also, Shanghai differs immensly from most Westerners' ideas about "The Real China". There are many more KFC outlets and highway overpasses than rickshaws or cooley hats, for example. For the record, I think the idea of "The Real China" is ridiculous (we generally don't advise Germans visiting New York City to go to rural Iowa to experience "The Real America", or Peorians visiting England to go to Eston-Under-Nab; also, Kansas City residents frequenting a Thai restaurant is a sign of multiculturalism, whereas Shanghainese patronizing a Starbuck's is somehow a major cultural tragedy).

That said, it can be a very welcome change of pace for whiteys living in Shanghai to go to Suzhou or Hangzhou or, even better, some smaller Chinese town (Suzhou and Hangzhou are charming, but are also famous tourist destinations for both Chinese and foreigners) to see a more traditional version of China.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 11:40 PM
horizontal rule

They both do plan to learn as much Mandarin as possible, and they've already been to several places in China, so I think they know that Shanghai is not typical.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 08-20-06 11:42 PM
horizontal rule

9: That's good. Even once you know that, it's still good to get out of the big city every once in awhile, or even just to go to another big city in China. China's an incredibly diverse place (just like every other country), and it's good to experience that, even when you already "know" it.

I don't mean to overdramatize the culture shock thing, but it can sneak up on you, despite your best intentions. I worked with and did a lot of hiring and training with expats, and sooner or later pretty much everyone, even the most adaptable (including me), had some sort of "bitter/cynical about China" period during their stay. The trick is to recognize it or have people you respect point it out to you and then figure out if you can overcome it or if you need to leave or at least take a break from it.

Your friends seem really thoughtful , plus they've visited already, so I'm sure they'll do just fine. Like I said, have them e-mail me if they want to, and I'll try to round up some specific and timely recommendations from people I know still living there.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-21-06 1:01 AM
horizontal rule

Also, to be clear, Shangahi is unmistakeably Chinese, even though not typically Chinese, much the way New York or Chicago are incredibly American, even though most wouldn't call them typically American.

Posted by: M/tch M/lls | Link to this comment | 08-21-06 1:03 AM
horizontal rule

Hi there, 6...I taught at East China Normal University, which had been cobbled together after the revolution from a religious college run by whiteys and some other school. It's popularly considered to be the prettiest campus in Shanghai, and it's thickly planted with flowering trees and bushes. I also had some recording gigs and a horrible freelance job at a junior high, where I had no instructions and performed very poorly. ECNU had the old libraries of the previous two schools, so there was a whole (almost unlighted except for clerestory windows) floor with lots of English-language books dating from 1895-ish to the mid thirties. (Margery Allingham mysteries in the original editions, f'r example. The book that Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden wrote about their travels in the east, including their stop in Shanghai where they met such luminaries as Rewi Alley and Agnes Smedley)

I wonder just how bad the air pollution is, vis a vis bicycling. I was biking like crazy in Beijing in 2001, and there were a lot of cars then. I guess it depends on your individual tolerance--for me, it was far better to bike 7 miles up the road to go somewhere than it was to wait for a taxi to negotiate the traffic. Black lung, here I come, I guess.

The thing is, I'm a big introvert, and bicycling kept me happy both because of the exercise and because I was out among people but not too close, as it were. You also get to see a lot of neat stuff that you miss in taxis.

Oh, if you like pop music at all you should buy some Chinese stuff--ask your friends and students. This was a lot of fun for me and really helped my comprehension of spoken Mandarin. (I still remember when Taiyangnizainali turned into "Where are you, sun?" Maybe not a great rock lyric, but memorable for me) Granted, I was in Shanghai at the height of the art-rock thing (Tang Dynasty, all that stuff on China Fire, and so on) When I was in Beijing, I saw Cui Jian perform at this little jazz club.

I loved living in China even though I HATED the expat was dangerous, for one thing. One of my friends fought off an attempted sexual assault (from this British soi-disant Commie, thirty years her elder, no less) and we realized that we really had no recourse. Our school wasn't going to interfere among foreigners and it was too small a matter for the embassy.

But I think I loved living in China so much precisely because I didn't taxi everwhere or spend much time at expat bars. It's easy to get seduced by the high-quality (neo-colonialist, really) life available in China (or available in Beijing as recently as 2001) I lived in a fairly rough-and-tumble way in terms of bikes, food, and wandering around.

Food--find a place that has a breakfast market. There will be guys cooking things over oil-drum stoves in the early morning and they'll pack up and leave by ten or so. Oh for fresh you tiao, or those shao mai things, or jiao bing! Back in the day, so to speak, they'd hand you these freshly fried things in incredibly thin plastic bags and you'd juggle them all the way back to the classroom at which point they'd be cool enough to eat. Everything is good.

I used to get my hair cut at this little place on campus where was known as "the foreign girl with the boy's haircut" because they thought I couldn't speak Chinese. And they gave me the Chinese price! The only time I ever got it for sure!

That was a good time, or maybe it was just because I was so young then.

Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 08-21-06 9:49 AM
horizontal rule

Wtf? I thought M-lls' fiance left him and went back to Athens?

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 08-21-06 10:00 AM
horizontal rule

Ah, I misread the post. Sorry for stirring up bad memories, M/llsy.

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 08-21-06 10:02 AM
horizontal rule