Six Months in Shanghai

As of the end of October, Matt and I are now 1/6 of the way into our Three years in Shanghai!

In the weeks leading up to the day that we left home trailing 6 suitcases,  we spent a lot of time wandering around Warwick saying ‘I wonder…’ and ‘what if…’ but were unable to answer most of our own questions. This uncertainty was part of the motivation for writing this blog, so that anyone else considering a move to Asia or abroad could get some insight into what it’s really like.

To date, we’ve written mostly about travel and food and some of the cultural traditions we’ve come across, but I thought that the 6 month milestone was a good opportunity to reflect and summarise my experiences. Here goes!

The ‘Highs’…

Travel- If you’ve been following the blog then you will have probably turned a lovely shade of green. Green with illness reading about what Matt has voluntarily digested, but also green with envy reading about our Yunnan and Guilin holidays. Our Shanghai base means that we can explore Asia without the gruelling and super-expensive long haul flights and jet-lag that would have been necessary if we’d departed from the UK. We are also seeing places that you wouldn’t fly long haul to see, but are incredible short trips.

City Life- When I graduated from university I watched pretty much everyone I knew migrate from cobble-paved Durham to gold-paved London. I lived in Liverpool for a couple of years so experienced a bit of city life. However, since I’d often prefer to stay in with a good book and glass of red wine rather than hitting the tiles, I did wonder if Shanghai would be wasted on me… But I needn’t have worried; there is something about this city which makes me feel like I’m welcome to participate in whatever is going on. I haven’t worked out an elegant way to express this yet, but I think it has something to do with the authenticity that lingers here; elements of the city without ego which somehow manage to survive alongside the Big Brand Malls, Celebrity Chef Restaurants and Expat Hangouts. Like how you see people queuing up to buy noodles cooked in the street by a guy in pyjamas, 50 metres away from a 5 story Prada superstore. Or seeing a guy in the bohemian French concession area walking down the street with a pair of guitars, then stop calmly to assault a lamppost with the instruments – without a flicker of surprise from passers by. It’s cool and diverse and I love it.

Food- The food. Where to start?! Eating is something that the Chinese take very seriously. Whereas small-talk in the UK revolves around the weather, in China people will open a conversation by asking what you ate for lunch. Unsurprisingly, this is one part of the culture that Matt and I have loved ‘like a fat kid love cake’ (50cent, 2003). Matt has written about some of the more unusual and funny things we have come across at mealtimes (BBQ pig uterus anyone?), but most of the time we tend to eat fairly non-bizarre and very delicious food.

In the first 3 months we developed a habit of dining out every evening; too-easily blamed on the fact that our kitchen supplies were still in a shipping container in the middle of the ocean. When you live in the heart of the former French Concession within walking distance of about 2000 restaurants spanning every cuisine you can imagine, why would you buy a chopping board?

The fierce competition in the Food&Booze industry means that restaurants appear, disappear and are replaced overnight (literally), so there is always somewhere new to try out – although I’m sure guidebook-publishers find this to be quite irritating.

Lunch breaks- Perhaps a less obvious ‘high’, but one that has completely transformed my work day for the better. From the hours of 12.00-13.00 you won’t find anyone at their desk as everyone – without exception – is out enjoying lunch. If you’re reading this in the UK, you’re probably thinking: “What! you mean there is an alternative to scoffing a sandwich while hunched over your laptop?!”. I know, I found this odd too, but I’m now a complete convert.

The ‘Lows’…

Getting sick- Given that I’m here to work, I probably shouldn’t be taking about how sick I’ve been, but I think it’s an important thing to talk about as it’s one of the things that’s taken me by surprise. On reflection it shouldn’t have been so surprising, as I catch the metro each day along with millions of people and their germs (most of which I have never built up immunity to); but it was. Speaking to other expats I realised that this is a completely normal side-effect of moving to Shanghai which made me feel better. And looking on the bright side, I probably have an impressive immune system now.

The pollution- Ahead of the recent G20 Summit held in nearby Hangzhou the government ordered 255 Shanghai-based industrial facilities to shut down for 2 weeks. Soon after, social media was flooded with photos of the sky and the hashtag #G20blue. Blue sky is big news here.

The surprise…

I love my commute! Yes, the Shanghai metro in rush hour is like a proverbial sardine tin. Yes, it’s sweaty, pushy, impossible to sit down and a breeding ground for the flu virus. Sometimes it actually does smell of sardines and tins. But for 45 minutes, twice a day, I can pop my earbuds in and zone out to a podcast and (most) discomfort fades into the background. Even better, the metro stop closest to work is in the basement of IFC mall so I get to wander past Hermes, Tiffany, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and MiuMiu on my way to the office: Heaven.

The thing I miss most…

I realise that a good daughter would write ‘my family’ under this category, but to be honest I see my parents more now than I ever did living in England, as we have switched our weekly phone calls for FaceTime.

What I actually miss – I can’t believe I’m admitting this – is Sainsbury’s (sorry mum). Before we moved to China, Matt and I would spend Sunday morning writing a menu and doing a food shop, able to tick everything off our shopping list under one roof. It doesn’t exactly work like that in China and while the supermarkets are very good, not being able to read the labels and the difficulty in finding that one ingredient you need (turmeric, Worcestershire sauce, jellied eels) can make it tricky.

The thing I don’t miss at all (that I thought I would)…

Easy. TV.

We do have a TV and are able to stream a limited list of English-Language channels (BBC1, ITV, ITVextra, HBO, the channel that shows back-to-back CSI), but they are not on-demand so the shows that we receive during the evening are 8 hours behind. No-one likes to settle down on Friday night with a glass of wine only to watch Bargain Hunt. The upshot is that Matt has almost finished his second painting, I’ve read 5 books and we actually talk to each other over dinner. That said, it is nice to to have a DVD shop round the corner so I haven’t had to give up on Grey’s Anatomy (yes, it is still going).

The things that have been pretty tough…

The language- I’ve purposefully not put this in ‘The Lows’ category, because the language is part of what makes China so unique to a Foreigner. The writing is beyond beautiful even in its simplified form and there is an intelligent simplicity to the sentence structure which makes me smile. But I would describe my relationship with the Mandarin as Love/Hate. Matt has found it a bit easier than me; my brain is so far refusing to combine individual words into practical phrases which means that my attempts at speaking Mandarin are met with mixed success (sometimes I get milk in my coffee, sometimes I don’t – although I swear I say the same thing!). 

For those unfamiliar with Mandarin (the standard form of Chinese), it’s a ‘tonal’ language which means that you can pronounce ‘ma’ in four different ways and it can mean four different things, ranging from mother to horse! This, combined with the absence of a roman alphabet, means that the methods you would use to translate French to English don’t exactly apply here – you can’t just look up a word in a phrase book.  Therefore it’s common to get a phrase 90% right but still have people look at you as though you just asked them if they ever hugged a horse’s entrance,  which you may have done as 10% is a lot in a tonal language. There are apps which are designed to scan and recognise Chinese characters, but some of the translations you get are nothing short of priceless – actually, this mis-translation is one of the more charming things about living in Shanghai, and if given a choice I don’t think I would change it.

Making friends- This links directly to the point above about language. The easy thing to do is to make friends with other native English speakers; however, the risk here is finding yourself in an expat bubble with a pre-determined set of friends. The harder thing to do is integrate with local people, which requires the other person to accommodate your inability to speak Chinese. Luckily I’ve found myself in a team with some amazing colleagues whom I now count as good friends, and who are an invaluable source of support for all the things that I don’t understand and can’t work out. I would say that this is one area of our new life that Matt and I are still working out.

The summer heat- Imagine opening the oven door to check on the Sunday Roast and being blasted with a wall of intense and humid heat. That’s kind of what it’s like walking out of your apartment every day during June through September. To say it was uncomfortable was an understatement; Matt has learned never to wear light blue shirts in July and August. Around five or six weeks ago it started to cool down (into the mid-20’s) and last weekend I packed my summer clothes away. Hello beautiful, wonderful, chilly November 🙂

This has turned into quite an epic piece of writing. I could easily go on but I’ll stop there! If you have any questions about life in Shanghai – for either Matt or myself – then leave a comment below; we love to hear from you!

– Emma

18 thoughts on “Six Months in Shanghai”

  1. Great article Emma! It really brings back memories. Totally agree with your highs and lows. Another ‘high’ to add would be tailored clothes. If you haven’t been already, get yourselves down to the fabric markets.
    Btw, I have a funny image in my head now of you travelling on the Metro with ‘earbuds’ in! 🙂

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    1. Thanks Jen! I’ve not been to the fabric market yet, but I’m going to a caileigh dance in a few weeks so I plan to get a dress made; I’ll let you know how you get on. Did I use the wrong word for those little headphones that you put in your ears?! What are they called!! haha

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  2. What a lovely blog, this is my favourite so far, almost feel like I’m there with you (luckily for you I’m not). I am left with one very important question though…have you ever hugged a horses’ entrance?!??! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emma, stumbled across your blog on LinkedIn… What an amazing experience you’re having and so brilliantly described 🙂 All the best to you and Matt xx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Em and Matt! I love your blogs, I mostly read them at work, hunched over my lap top with a sandwich in my hand!! So pleased you’re both having such an amazing, memorable time x

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  5. Emma once said “I love writing”… we laughed at the time about this… but now it is like a self fulfilling prophecy haha! Love the insights and sharing of your world. So glad you are having the best time ever! Love to both x

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    1. Jess, I was only telling Matt that story at the weekend! I feel like I’ve now redeemed myself, but it remains the most cringeworthy interview moment I’ve ever experienced. I was glad to have you, Laura and Deb to laugh about it with- so funny! Hope you’re well X

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