First Impressions: Shanghai / by Heather

I stood in the middle of the aisle, staring all the tanks in front of me. Turtles scrambled over one another and frogs squirmed lethargically. Eels writhed around in an open tub and fish of all different shapes and colours swan back and forth. Well, some of them did. Others bobbed upside down like fetid apples at the top of their tanks while their live comrades gingerly avoided them. It was then that I noticed a woman standing near the largest tank that had several particularly big dead fish floating in it. She had something on her hands and so took a moment to stick them inside the tank and wash them. As a fine film of whatever was on her hands rose up next to a dead fish, I thought to myself, ‘I think I’ll stick to ramen tonight,’ and continued my grocery shopping.


Yes, I was just doing a bit of browsing at my local grocery store, Carrefour, here in Shanghai. French-owned Carrefour is a pretty normal store, complete with household goods, pantry items, and its own aquarium section, where you can pick out whatever aquatic animal you’d like, alive or prematurely dead, for dinner. This in and of itself isn’t particularly strange, at  least for anyone who has experienced Asian wet markets or even our own lobster and crab displays back in America. But it was a bit surprising to one minute be picking out peanut butter and turn the corner to find a large menagerie of half-dead sea and amphibian life. But to me, Shanghai is a lot like Carrefour….saturated with foreign influences, fads and economics, but holding its quirks and roots around little corners, ready for someone to find them.

It’s officially been one month since I arrived in Shanghai. It’s certainly been an interesting month. I had heard a lot of different things about Shanghai before I left, mainly revolving around health and sanitary issues. And I will admit, this was the view my first morning in the city:


So yes, the air quality is not stellar. But it does change from day to day (we have had several days with blue skies this past month, thank you very much) and thus far it hasn’t given me the black lung.

Shanghai itself is a bit underwhelming, I feel, when you first get to know it. Sure the city is HUGE and the amount of varied skyscrapers they have crammed into each square mile is impressive. However, most of Shanghai sprung up over the last 20 years or so, leaving the small historical and cultural sections of the city- like its quaint lane houses- literally overshadowed by newer developments. Compared to the rich and colorful cities of old in places like Europe, Shanghai is just ‘another big city,’ as people told me prior to my move.

But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, past posh expat oases and all the malls, there are many remarkable things to enjoy. One of these is the privilege of being a fly on the wall in a city that is buckling at the seams to keep up with and surpass the rest of the modern world. There is a strong middle class amoung the locals, a new capitalistic souvenir from embracing foreign ideals and business. This is demonstrated through an obvious amount of wealth of the city from what stores are most prevalent, to the outfits that people wear. Every day on the subway is like a form of window shopping (so many cute shoes!) and my flat is surrounded by a ridiculous number of designer stores that I will never go into.

One rainy day I found myself umbrella-less and chose to use a folded up Ikea bag for cover. As I scurried under my bag down the street past everyone else with their very stylish and fashionable umbrellas, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that in Thailand, they might appreciate my bag-umbrella more (a popular form of cover there was a plastic bag over the hair). While I have met many friendly locals, I definitely feel that more of the people I came across in Southeast Asia were open and down-to-earth. But of course, this is only Shanghai proper and I have yet to venture out into the rest of China.

The faint twinge of elitism and snobbery aside, Shanghai is a deservedly proud city with a quick pulse, the old and new writhing together, learning to adapt and survive, even if it does mean putting a wet market in the basement of a designer mall. Small artist communities are nestled amoung construction sites of new high-rises. Clean, wide, tree-lined avenues have offshoots into narrow alleyways where street vendors steam bao for locals and laundry hangs out of windows. One of the best new attributes is the subway system, which is phenomenal and well-laid out, ever expanding so that a stop is never too far away from each corner reach of the city’s domain.  And though it can be a struggle to escape the crowds, once you zen meditate your way into the current of people, it’s easy to feel like a small part of Shanghai’s life blood, flowing under the city through its expansive veins.


Another perhaps somewhat surprisingly enjoyable aspect of life has been being surrounded by and slowly learning Mandarin. Before I knew I was coming to China, Chinese had always sounded to me quite harsh and staccato, a language seemingly reserved for angry yelling tourists. But once I knew Mandarin was in the books for me and I really started to listen to it, I found myself being drawn to its singsong nature and alien pronunciations. And now that I am actually learning it, my official prognosis of Chinese is that: it’s not as hard as everyone makes it out to be. This flies right in the face of everyone who told me with wide eyes, ‘good luck,’ and ‘wow, that’s going to be so hard.’ But I stand firmly by my belief that while there is certainly a lot to memorize in Chines (which may seem daunting), the actual language structure is really straight forward and understandable. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I definitely don’t think I’ll be very proficient anytime soon, but the road there is a little less bumpy than it originally seemed.

And so, life here is good thus far. Between the modern amenities and familiar capitalistic environment, adaptation has been easy. I am extremely lucky enough to live in a reasonably well-made building with a large flat on the 29th floor. There’s a balcony where my partner has planted a little garden and I hang up our laundry to dry (which does, admittedly lead to the tiny fear that one day our clothes will all fly off our balcony and out into the sky). Every evening, when the air becomes cooler and each skyscraper lights up into a full spectrum, we gaze out into the bustling world from the tranquility of our little nest.  One of my favourite nights so far here was during a massive thunderstorm, when huge bolts of lightning were ripping across the sky over the city and thunder boomed so loud it shook the bones. I watched it all from my balcony, soaking up the nature coming down to us from above, the city lights below, and the spirit of Shanghai slowly sinking in.