China is a big country. Its size and range of climates rivals that of the US, so I keep comparing locations to places I know. (That may not seem like a revolutionary statement, but for people from European countries that you can drive around in a day, the scale is difficult to grasp.) Weather-wise, Shanghai is a bit like DC.
Shanghai is split into two parts: Pudong and Puxi (“pu-shi”). They’re east (“dong”) and west (“xi”) of the river (the Huangpu River) that bisects the city. From what I’ve seen in person and read online, most interesting things happen in Puxi. Pudong contains the towering financial district, the pharmaceutical park, the suburbs. Puxi, the historic center, has downtown, the Bund (a walk along the river which looks out at the skyline – the financial district), People’s Square, the Shanghai Museum, the French concession, the universities, etc. Thus far, I’ve spent nearly all of my time in Puxi.
Shanghai isn’t nearly as crowded as I thought it would be. My only previous experience with Asia was in Hong Kong, where B. lived in Jordan – one of the densest places on the planet. Instead, Shanghai has a lot of people spread across a big city, with big roads and big sidewalks. I have yet to feel crowded.
Shanghai’s roads are terrifying. There are tons of cars and buses and taxis. The traffic rules seem to be mere suggestions, and they use their horns more than New Yorkers do. There’s an equally large swarm of bikes, electric bikes, and mopeds. They function as part-pedestrian (honking at people to get out of the way on the sidewalks), part-vehicle (everywhere on the roads), and, as far as I can tell, the only rule they follow is “don’t get killed”. Even that rule gets violated with alarming frequency.
How about the food? I’m something of a picky vegetarian, which is my shorthand way of saying that I eat what I like, and I happen to not-like things that taste and/or texture like meat. Chicken soup is fine, as is, say, beef with broccoli (so long as I can pick out the beef). Mushrooms and certain textures of tofu are not. I wasn’t sure how China would feed me. So far, the answer has been overwhelmingly well. Ironically, my biggest challenge has been at the vegetarian restaurants, where they specialize in convincing “meat” and “seafood” mimics and mushroom-based dishes.
Shanghai, like many big cities, is what you make of it. They have everything from local Chinese food and markets, to Coldstone Creamery and Marks and Spencer, to glitzy malls full of Gucci and Prada. Things used by the locals are cheap – a subway ride costs about fifty cents, a 10-minute cab ride costs 2-3 dollars. Things meant for the expats are expensive – at least what I’d expect to pay in England, if not (much, much) more. And all those luxury goods? Despite the fact that they’re made in China and bought by the (wealthier) locals, they’re super expensive. The name brands cost significantly more here than in the US or UK.
It’s possible to work for a big western company, live in an expat community, shop in expat stores, party in expat bars/clubs, and have an entirely western life in Shanghai. At the other end, most of Shanghai's residents live a very Chinese life. It’s a spectrum, and I imagine our place on it will shift as my Mandarin skills improve.