I’ve been in Shanghai collectively now for 5 years. When we moved here for our first assignment in 2007; I started a blog and named it The View From Here. It seemed appropriate for a number of reasons; but particularly because my new apartment was on the 58th floor of a high-rise. The name was also meant to serve as a reminder for me. I knew that I would eventually fall out of awe with my surroundings; and I wanted something that would keep me present in my experience.
Expats face a great deal of challenges. We learn to live out of suitcases and tread the waters of transition for months on end; all while navigating a new culture. If we have children, we have the added weight of helping our little people process through the loss, grief, and fear associated with such a massive transition.
We are more susceptible to depression as we grapple with feelings of displacement, home-sickness, and a whole host of other challenges. One of our most difficult challenges is maintaining a healthy level of awe. We all go through this. After a few months of excitement; the routines set in, the newness fades, and the things that once entertained us now likely annoy us.
Our ability to thrive will depend largely on how well we adjust and adapt to our new surroundings, as well as how well we master being present in the moments that surround us.
Our outlook, attitudes, and how well we are able to explore and embrace our new countries of residence can make or break our time spent on assignment.
With so much pressing in on us, it’s no wonder the path to assimilation can look more like a crash course than an easing- in. There’s an unfortunate irony to this whole process too. As we try to blend in and start living life in our new normal as quickly as possible; we may actually undo the sense of awe that makes our transition more bearable.
It’s in our haste to assimilate, that we run the risk of becoming numb and losing sight of what makes our new homes so interesting, unique, and enjoyable.
Even in a rapidly changing and dynamic city like Shanghai, life begins to feel mundane and normal after a while. Many of the things I initially found amazing and even taboo or off- limits, have become part of my daily life.
I had to get creative after a bout of “winter blues” this year. To rekindle the wonder; I started to compile a list of unique things I see in Shanghai on a regular basis. Reflecting on these things has been a great way to reset my focus onto where I am and what I have the opportunity to be a part of. It’s also been a fun reminder that the life that’s become so “normal” to me, is actually quite extraordinary.
Things Seen in Shanghai on Any Given Day:
If it’s under 70 degrees, you’re likely to see children so heavily dressed, they look like the snow suit laden little brother from A Christmas Story. If you happen to have a child with you who isn’t dressed similarly, be prepared to get some stern looks and maybe even a little unsolicited “advice”.
Monstrous globs of rubbish (Styrofoam, boxes, recyclables, you name it) moving ever-so-slowly down the middle of the road. You know someone has to be on a bike somewhere in the midst of it all, but you can’t see them. The reality is- they probably can’t see either.
Kids peeing on the street or in the garbage can (with the help and guidance of an adult of course).
Stray dogs. Stray cats. Pet crickets.
Large groups of people dancing in public parks.
Morning tai-chi in the park.
Workers dressed in matching company uniforms doing warm-up dances outside their workplace before the start of their shifts.
Pop-up Mahjong games. If you can fit a folding table, you’re good to go.
People wearing pollution masks and respirators.
Grown people wearing matching pajama outfits in public.
Scorpions on sticks.
Uighur flat bread in portable ovens.
Street vendors roasting sweet potatoes in old oil drums. They may not be the safest to consume, but they’re sure to make your stomach grumble.
Couples in matching tee shirts.
Stores dedicated to selling these matching tee shirts.
Motorbikes with families’ of 3-5 people teetering from all possible angles. Gravity doesn’t seem to exist here at times.
Clothing hanging from lines out windows, inside storefronts, on cars, on power lines, or anything else that seems suitable to hang ones wet clothing on. Don’t forget the lucky red undies.
What those of us in trendy parts of the West like to call “pop- up restaurants”.
Street-side wet markets selling hairy crab, frogs, and “what-the?” in colorful plastic buckets.
Smelly tofu (literal translation). I place this under the list of things “seen” as the stench is so great you can almost see it. You will most definitely see me fleeing its reach.
Split pants. What kid needs a diaper when they can just have a split in their pants and squat as they need?
Ducks hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a shop in the middle of the city…seemingly kept as pets.
Grown adults walking hand in hand with their parents.
Grown friends of the same gender holding hands.
Men carrying their partners’ purse.
Screaming people. Arguing people. People fighting over anything from who pays the bill to who’s fault an automobile accident is. Loads and loads of screaming people.
People sleeping anywhere at any time. You will see them on motorcycles, in parks, on benches, and my personal favorite- beds at IKEA. (Since writing this, I saw a man sleeping on his motorbike that was stopped at a light.)
Spitting, spit, and more spit. The sound effects are particularly charming when one is “clearing” oneself of pollutants while you’re attempting to enjoy lunch alfresco.
Excessive personal grooming. And this isn’t always a personal process. While it’s more common to see a man digging to the tip of his brain with his finger, you’re almost as likely to witness a woman clearing out her partner’s ears or plucking his grey hairs.
The “Beijing bikini”. It’s ok if you have to look it up. You’re probably better for not knowing what it is. Picture hellish heat and men rolling their shirts up just below the nipple line.
Men standing around on a hellishly hot day in their not so “tighty- whities”.
People washing their hair or brushing their teeth on the sidewalk.
Elderly folks heading to the public loo with portable toilet seats on stands. Because squatty potties.
These are just a handful of the interesting things I see on a regular basis. As I thought about what to include in my list, it occurred to me that I needed to include it all. I don’t think I’d like Shanghai as much if it looked and acted like any other cosmopolitan city. The same quirks that drive me to shake my head (and maybe occasionally curse under my breath), are the same quirks that add to its character.
Anyone can live in Shanghai, but I’ve found that thriving here requires a certain level of abandon and acceptance. You have to grab the package, tear into it with curiosity and wonder, and take it all in. To truly understand and appreciate this city, you must take it as it is- the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly.