"So, You Moved To China?"
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
What's In A Name? Shanghai, By Any Other Name Would Be Just As Terrifying
It's true, I moved to China. Coming at you from the café in my condo's lobby in Shanghai, China - I can't believe I'd ever say something so protentious - but I'm grateful to be here. The red bean cinnamon coffee (Ka Fei) is starting to kick in and I have about a hundred memories and ideas circulating through my head, so I'll try to stick to the important stuff. Like how my breakfast this morning (Bao Zi - giant soft vegetable dumpling...not the exact translation) was 2RMB, or 50 cents Canadian and mighty delicious.
I'm trying to condense this week into a story that can withhold anyones attention span, but in a country like this, it's almost impossible. Every day is a blessing; a spit infused, shit smelling, emotionally overwhelming miracle. Just getting here was a feat. Two days of ugly-panic-crying, rancid B.O, people pointing and yelling at me, "Passaporty!", "Ni Hao!", more pointing, more yelling. I'm thinking to myself, can no one tell that I'm clearly not from around here or speak mandarin fluently? Sadly, no one really cares. Everyone here thinks you can understand them and they talk at you, not to you. My advice? Learn a few key words just to scrape by. And tolerance is key when people cut you in the queue.
This first week in China has flown by like those bloody mopeds that I have to dodge every time I walk outside (seriously watch your back). Within this week I've been awestruck and absolutely amazed by this country and its people. That being said, don't be naïve like I was. Everything you've heard about China is correct. Listen to your friends, your favourite travel bloggers, the YouTube videos you binged (Attaché is the best), everyone. Even in a major modern city like Shanghai, there are essentials that you will not be able to get your hands on and there are differences that you may not be able to cope with. For example, after I landed at Pudong International after a 14 hour flight from Toronto, I was off heading towards the washroom when a woman, short from hitting me aggressively grazed my arm, waving a napkin in my face. She'd snagged it from the Starbucks. "toilet!" she yelled nervously as she flailed about and I'm thinking.. No.. No way is there no toilet paper in an international airport like Shanghai Pudong. To my surprise, she was right in giving me that napkin and I thank her for it. Not only was there no toilet paper, there were no toilets, just holes in the floor. Another thing, the pollution here is worrisome and most people don't leave their homes. Which might actually be a positive thing for newcomers like me as with a population of 28 million (Compared to Torontos' 4 million) it doesn't really feel it. Every morning I check the air quality via a pollution app, it's average measurement is 126 AQI, FOUR TIMES the world safety regulation. Once again I found myself ill prepared, and I had no masks with me. Thankfully, a kind likeminded expat I met on the speed train gave me an extra pair. I've been too embarrassed to wear them as of yet, but I'm confident I'll rise to the occasion. Everyone's eyes are burning anyway, it's not like they can see me. That's a joke....kind of. I notice the black water washing from my hair when I shower, you better believe that's in the air. Although that part makes me anxious, I still smile from ear to ear when I see the infamous pearl tower through the endless sea of people. That is until I can hear the unmistakable phlegm build up from a man coughing up tar from his cigarette, or the air, or both.. No shit. But that'll break anyones spirit I tell you.
For the duration of my stay in China, I'll be living with a host family and again, I thank my lucky stars for the family that has taken me in. The family is quite wealthy and they seem to be well known. On my first day in China, we all dined at a private restaurant located in a majestic ancient garden on the outskirts of the city. We were accompanied by a well known Chinese painter and his work was recognizable but I couldn't put my finger on where I'd seen it. He asked for my birth date in Beijing time and the family sat around reading my moon charts. He then went on to say my moon chart was very lucky and that I would be a great teacher of sorts and that my spirit was clean and kind. I usually take these things with a grain of salt, but something about him and his gentle demeaner made me believe in my described 'fate'. Maybe it was the robe he was wearing.
I noticed over my shoulder there were a few servers peering through the window into our private dining quarters, giggling to themselves. I figured it was the famous painter, but he reminded me of how different I seemed to them. "Your complexion and length are mysterious to them, they are here for you". He explained. Although no one in the family speaks a word of English we get on with body language, pointing, and a hand held battery operated real-time translater. Unfortunately the translation can be deceiving. "The Pigeon Ate My Sister and Then Some" when all I wanted to say was "These potatoes are delicious". My host mother, gracious and gorgeous, works as a face recognition technician software developer, very Chandler Bing of her. This woman is wonderful, very hospitable and a lovely mother. Aside from the two of us, there are two children, a host grandmother, a host father, maid and nanny or Ayi, as they call them here in China. The house is quite full and the majority of the day is planned accordingly around meal time. My GOODNESS is food worshipped here. With that, they are strict on keeping with the traditions of dining etiquette. If I didn't have culture shock on anything else, it would at least be on the way I eat. In this house the Eastern way of living is undeniable and impossible to ignore. I grabbed a glass of water and in the distinct way I described before - you definitely know what I'm telling you in Mandarin and if not I'll speak louder - my host grandmother was very stern on the fact that that glass was not to be used again. "Glass - Baba"... Baba means father in Chinese. Every person in the household, including guests, have their own dishes. Lauren's bowl, Lauren's chopsticks, Lauren's mug, Lauren's towel and Lauren's washing bowl. Did I forget to mention we wash our clothes by hand? Instead of being put off by this new adjustment from my very relaxed western lifestyle, I decided to take this opportunity to take a shopping trip.
I took to the side streets off People's Square to purchase my own unique dishes for the house. In my own taste - pun intended - these are the dishes I'll be using for the remainder of my trip. I have to keep reminding myself that none of these angry remarks come from malice, but tradition and respect. When in Rome.
I'm just dumbfounded by the culture. It's futuristic, beyond its years, but horribly maintained and can be disgusting. I'm enthralled by the constant change just from street corner to street corner. Everyone is health crazy, but smoke like chimneys from their early teenage years. You can spit and shit in units over here on the streets but god forbid I use your mug to pour myself a glass of root tea. The West Lake area is surrounded by ancient temples, tea houses and a massive buddha that looks over the Culture Square.
The history behind the lake holds an ancient love story that took - wait for it - a tragic toll leading to a cursed bridge for all those who cross it; go figure. The streets are lined with red lanterns gracefully stitched with gold threading that shimmer in the reflection of the water. But with such beauty comes a bit of a punch to the gut.
I've been scammed for the price of sweaters - which taught me the art of bargaining (My chopsticks were 40 rmb down to 20 rmb, which made grandma very proud) - I've been denied coffee because I couldn't speak the language, I've been laughed at for not having an umbrella in the rain, and my only friend at the moment is the house nanny who can get by with quite a bit of English. She is the soul of what is keeping me from breaking down in my loneliness. Something I have learned is that loneliness is very very real, when no one understands you. Ah being 13 again. I've also come to learn there is a difference between compassion and hospitality. I've always said there was a difference between being nice and being kind, but this was a whole new ball game. In my experience, when you're stressing out over your lost visa page in the subway system, or you desperately need a phone number to call your host mom when you're lost in the city square, all I can say is good luck. But if your stomach is growling and your evidently shivering in the wind, someone will hand over food, fasten your coat, tighten your scarf or offer you a seat on the subway. Which in return you can offer a nod and a "Xie Xie" (Thank you, pronounced Chien Chien .. For you frog eating frenchies)
Whoever said this city was modern and boring clearly only spent a few hours in the airport or maybe grabbed a quick brewsky in the Former French Concession. My Shanghai bucket list is ENDLESS. From the Cherry Blossoms in Yu Garden, the Lantern Festival during Chinese New Year, the constant new foodie tours (Untour Shanghai is 6 years strong and the BEST), the water town gardens, to the market square bird singing competitions (??), I'll never run out of things to do. And although there is no sign of hitting up a pub with a mate, watching any of the playoff season, or catching the Game Of Thrones finale (actually shattering), I'm content. My time on this side of the planet is limited so I'll do my best to make amends with myself. I will never fear a new world or the idea that I will succumb to abnormality.
Check in next week if you'd like to know how I keep from getting poisoned by everything.