Saturday, January 11, 2014

One Year in Shanghai

One year.  One year ago, B. and I moved halfway around the world.  One year ago, I stepped off a plane and entered a country where I couldn't speak, couldn't read, didn't know anyone but my husband.  Anything was possible; nothing was certain (except, thankfully, B. had a job and we had found a place to live).  Before landing in China, B. and I had traveled together (see: the archives and the map) and lived together sporadically (which is to say, we lived in different countries, but when he was in my country, he lived with me); this would be our first time really setting up a home together.

One year later, how's life in Shanghai?  A glance at the archives tells me I haven't really posted about Shanghai since first impressions.  Here are some reflections on year one in Shanghai, with the benefit of a dose of hindsight:

It's only been a year, but I feel a lifetime away from the girl who first stepped off the plane at PVG.  Thinking back, I can conjure those early feelings -- the excitement and bewilderment at living in a new city, a new culture.  The isolation and dependence of being surrounded by a language I couldn't verbally or visually understand, the frustration of trying to set up a life -- cell phones, bank accounts, internet, electric bills, navigating restaurants and supermarkets, etc -- without being able to communicate.

The first few weeks drove me stir-crazy, and then I felt the shell begin to crack (shell of isolation, not my sanity!).  Freedom came first in the form of my iPhone, equipped with translator apps (Google Translate, Baidu Translate), dictionary apps (Pleco), Shanghai subway apps, and mobile maps.  I worked with a Chinese tutor to learn pinyin (the anglicized version of Chinese) and some basic phrases, immersed myself in a university Mandarin class to begin speaking and reading and writing, and then drowned myself in an intensive Mandarin summer program in Beijing.  

I dedicated six months purely to learning the language.  Studying Mandarin is like learning two languages simultaneously -- the written characters give only basic clues on pronunciation, and the oral sounds tell you nothing about how they're written.  It's been frustrating, fun, and absolutely worth the investment.  Living in China, the feedback cycle from the classroom to real life is incredibly quick.  I'm more functional in Mandarin now, after six months of study, than I ever was in Spanish, which I studied in school for six years (and I was a pretty good student!).  I'm nowhere near fluent now -- I doubt I'll ever reach that point -- but I get around pretty well.  My first friends in Shanghai were made in Chinese class, forged in the hours spent struggling over tones and characters.

One year in, the culture and cultural differences here, too, have become less opaque.  B. and I have benefited immensely from the kindness of good Chinese friends, who helped us get settled and have made us honorary family members.  We've tagged along for holidays, made jiaozi (dumplings -- like pot stickers, but boiled instead of fried) with their parents during Spring Festival, even visited the graves of their ancestors during Qingming Festival.  I've now completed a year of holidays here in China; as they cycle through again, I'll know what to expect and where and how to celebrate.  The excitement and bewilderment at living in China is still there, though my senses have become tuned to it on a subtler frequency. 

What's life like for us?  It's pretty good.  We live in a great two-bedroom apartment in central Shanghai, across from a park where B. likes to play basketball, close to the conveniences of the shiny expat-heavy areas but far enough away that it feels like we're really living in China.  Our apartment has a traditional Chinese aesthetic -- in part because it was furnished by our traditional Chinese landlord, and in part because we've accented it with tea, plants, and calligraphy.  For a city of 23 million people, Shanghai can be awfully small: we discovered a college classmate living in our building, four floors below us, and we often meet new people who randomly know our existing friends.

The economics of Shanghai work in our favor.  We've been enjoying the benefits of living in a place where labor is nearly free.  Items bought on Taobao (Chinese ebay) are delivered quickly for a dollar or two.  Restaurant food can be ordered for delivery for a nominal fee.  Water, electricity, gas, even subway and taxi fares are cheap.  We have an ayi come weekly to help clean, as is common in both expat and Chinese households; others have ayis who come more frequently to cook as well.  We'd need several times our combined income to have the same standard of living in NY (we've calculated that fact, not just projected it).

The scale of Shanghai also works in our favor.  Need to buy... just about anything?  Electronics, tea, eyeglasses, curtains, custom-made clothing, light fixtures, plants, whatever.  There's a multistory building somewhere in Shanghai filled exclusively with (electronics, tea, eyeglasses, curtains, custom-made clothing, light fixtures, plants, whatever) vendors for your negotiating pleasure.  We like to frequent the tea markets, where we sit, drink tea, chat with the shop owners (good Chinese practice!), and bring home new teas to drink with friends. 

We buy food from the local wet markets, outdoor streets and courtyards with stalls selling fruits and vegetables trucked in from farms ringing the city (also: chickens, pigeons, fish, turtles, tofu, fresh noodles, etc).  All of our produce is seasonal -- a real change for me, after 26 years of living in areas where nearly everything is available year-round.  It's required some adaptation of my recipe repertoire.  The availability of ingredients and cooking equipment have required changes as well -- I've been learning to use local ingredients and recipes (although, ironically, most of the English-language Chinese recipes found online use ingredients that are difficult to find here), and learning to do without some of my previous staples.  Ingredients that the locals use are relatively cheap; anything used only by the expats, while generally available somewhere, is significantly more expensive than back home.  Unfortunately things like cheese and chocolate fall into the latter category.  And we don't have an oven.

Living in China has its downsides, of course.  A big one for me is how far we are from our loved ones back home.  While email, Skype, WeChat, Facebook, etc keep us pretty well-connected, it's not the same as being there in person.  When I lived in England, I could run home to NY for crazy 3 day trips.  From China, that's not possible.  B. and I welcomed our first nephew to the world in May; the kiddo was seven months old by the time we physically met him.  The air pollution is another concern.  While we take steps to minimize our own exposure, it's not an environment we'd want to raise a child in.  Someday, those two factors will weigh heavily on our decision to move back to the US.

I've moved on to life after language school now, with funding and a postdoc position at a university in Pudong.  I spend my days there, mixing chemicals, trying to make cancer drugs.  One of the most interesting parts of the position is the fact that I'm the only foreigner in the building, and that most of the students and researchers I work with have never left China.  We communicate in varying mixes of Chinese and English, as they practice the English they learned in school growing up and I slowly acquire a scientific vocabulary.

The next year will hold more adventures still.  Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. I cannot imagine such a brave adventure. I'd probably adapt to the food and cooking adventures w/little fuss, although I would miss cheese and chocolate. It's amazing how small the world can be. It throws me a bit for a loop how often friends from one part of my life overlap w/another circle independent of me. Enjoy your adventure!