Leaving a place you’ve lived is a bittersweet feeling, at least for me. While excited for the adventure that lies ahead, there’s a sentimentality for the experiences and people who shaped my life there. We have just departed Shanghai, after two pretty incredible years. This was my first stab at living abroad and I think it was a resounding success! There were some challenges to expat life in China but many wonderful aspects too.
Things I’ll Miss:
I have made some lifelong friends in China, and while many of them have also moved on to new adventures, I will always look back fondly on our time together. From spa days and margaritas to exploring lesser-known parks and temples, these moments left an indelible impression on my Shanghai experience.
Before moving to Shanghai, I wasn’t a fan of “Chinese” food, the bland over-salted dishes served in the West. But real Chinese food turned out to be an absolute treat! The cuisine is so varied, from the numbing heat of Sichuan to the subtle sweetness of Shanghainese, that my taste buds were tantalized from day one. I discovered a hidden passion for all things spicy as well as a newfound love of Hunan spareribs and crispy lotus root. More than anything, I’ll miss those succulent soup dumplings.
Rock Star Treatment
Non-Asian foreigners are still a novelty in China, especially far from the big cities. The more un-Chinese you look, the more attention you will get. As a blonde with fair skin, I’ve had my photo taken more times than I can count, often with visibly excited Chinese who perhaps can’t wait to show their families in the village the strange creature they’ve seen. I know some expats dislike the extra attention, but I’m not going to lie – I got a big kick out of it. As someone who was teased in school for being pale, it was flattering to be on the receiving end of so much praise.
I am really going to miss walking around Shanghai because every day was a new adventure and I never knew what I’d see. Someone could have parked their motorbike on the sidewalk to sell cages of bunnies off the back, while a family had set up an estate sale on tables nearby. Groups of ladies often organized dance parties in parks and men napped in some highly unusual places. Laundry was hung from every available surface, with racy underpants displayed for all the world to see. A bulldozer sometimes rumbled down a quaint backstreet on the way to a construction site and workers could often be found climbing precariously up bamboo scaffolding.
As exhausting as bargaining with vendors can sometimes be, there is something deeply satisfying about getting them to lower the asking price. I don’t think the clerks at Banana Republic will be as appreciative of my hard-earned haggling skills. But if I ever need to buy a car, the sales guy better be on his toes!
Shanghai has some Western-brand stores like The Gap and H&M, but I thought it was much more fun to have clothes made at the fabric market. Each stall displays example garments styles out front, though I found things often turned out best when I took something from my own closet for the seamstresses to copy. After the style was agreed on, ladies would take my measurements and tell me to come back in one week. Not everything I had made was a winner, but the experience of choosing the fabric and chatting with the sales girls more than made up for any disappointment with the finished pieces.
Miming My Way Through Conversations
Mandarin is an intimidating language, and rightly so. I failed miserably in my halfhearted attempt to learn it, but did gain enough of a vocabulary to get through daily encounters. My first trip to the tailor was particularly entertaining, as I had to explain the work I wanted done to someone without a lick of English. A visiting American friend was duly impressed with my ability to have intricate framing done with the Chinese word for “this” and lots of pointing. It’s amazing what a smile and some hand gestures can accomplish!
Babies in Split Pants
While more common in rural parts of the country, there are still quite a few baby butt cheeks on display in Shanghai. I have yet to figure out how the parents keep from getting wet on all the time, but the kids are adorable nonetheless.
What I Won’t Miss
Vietnam has a reputation for having fearsome traffic, but I can say with experience that it’s got nothing on Shanghai. This city has the craziest traffic of any place I’ve ever been. Cars turning right never stop and just blow full speed around corners even if they technically have a red light. This makes crossing the street a challenge, even with a pedestrian crosswalk and green walk symbol. Taxis are among the worst offenders, brazenly crossing over three lanes of traffic to make a turn and honking the horn to let you know they mean business. Many drivers have a special talent for weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds while talking on the phone and smoking a cigarette.
Shanghai’s air pollution is nowhere near as bad as Beijing’s, but it is still a troubling issue that negatively impacts the quality of life here. Some days the pollution was so thick I could barely see anything out the window! That’s when I’d stay inside and catch up on my favorite TV shows. On a so-called “blue-sky day,” however, the city is absolutely gorgeous!
Blowing one’s nose into a tissue is considered rude in China, but spitting seems perfectly acceptable. Many people spit unabashedly, from middle-aged women to trendy young men. Time and place seem not to matter much, either. I’ve seen (and heard) people spitting in shopping malls, train cars and even airplanes. ‘No Spitting’ signs are popping up in metro stations, but this well-ingrained habit may be hard to break.
The Song “The Rose”
On street corners across town, men sell records from portable carts. Every cart plays the same two songs, over and over, and one of them happens to be ‘The Rose.’ After two years, I never want to hear that song again!