I said it in my first post, but this city really becomes something else at night. This might be my own biases coming out though. Some of my favorite memories from Shanghai will be associated with its nighttime, and the people I met while exploring the streets.
That’s one of the most important parts of my experience, now that I’ve had some time to reflect on it. The people are what kept me so interested and curious about the city. There were the Shanghainese who’d been there since forever, and then there were the foreigners like myself who had all come to this place for a wide range of different reasons.
The group of individuals who fall into the latter category really really intrigue me. Because I feel like you need to have a certain type of personality to step away from communities and cultural systems that you know. To interact directly with a new space is a big step and it always made me wonder why each foreigner I met decided to do it . Some of us came to Shanghai because of business, others (like me) because of education, others because they simply felt like it — and yet now they were all here together, grappling with similar changes.
I remember talking to my study abroad program director about this. He’s an American who has lived in Shanghai for the past twelve years. He’s gotten married there, had his kids there, everything. As someone who has seen the city change for over a decade, I wanted to know what his thoughts were on the expatriate community in Shanghai.
He commented that there seems to be a growing sense of temporality. Foreigners don’t often come to Shanghai for years at a time anymore. The span of visits are skewing closer to months, sometimes even weeks. And yet, there is a sense of entitlement that grows stronger over time — especially among foreigners who consider themselves “veterans” of the city. Certain sections of Shanghai such as Jing’an or the Bund are known as the typical haunts for expatriates, and some of them seem to take a greater claim over those spaces than they actually should. Referring to parts of the city as “your” sections when you’re not even a permanent resident of the country seems off to me, and my program director agreed .
He also brought up the culture of complaining. This is something I’ve not only seen in Shanghai, but during my time living in Nigeria. Among expatriates, complaining about societal differences with people who understand can be very cathartic. The complaints can be anything from language barriers to climate difference to unstable internet connections. I have a love/hate relationship with this kind of mindset. Venting about setbacks that stem from cultural differences with people who understand those frustrations can be relieving. It can even be healthy…to a point. If all of your conversations with other foreigners revolve around the things that you dislike about the spaces you find yourself in, then there needs to be a stronger evaluation of why you feel the way you do .
Because if there’s one thing that I hope I made clear through my posts, it’s that culture shock and differences aren’t going anywhere. They still pop up for my program director, and he’s lived in China for over a decade. It is still important to acknowledge the privileges that you hold along with the setbacks that you deal with. For my case, I had to deal with this the first time while I was in Nigeria. I’d be the last person to say that Nigeria’s unstable electric grid is an acceptable situation, but I also acknowledge that due to the connections and resources available to me and my family, I wasn’t suffering from those obstacles the same way the average Nigerian citizen was .
So I understood where my program director’s frustration was coming from when he talked about the flippant way in which a lot of foreigners treat living in Shanghai. To expect the environment to perfectly fit your needs is a pretty ridiculous thing to hope for. It doesn’t mean that every complication and moment of confusion that comes with living abroad has to be dismissed as unimportant whining, either. There’s a balance somewhere in this, a balance I’m still trying to find myself.
It’s an important balance to figure out too. For example, when I get back to campus and I see all of my friends again, and the inevitable question “How was Shanghai?” pops up, I can’t just say “it’s super different”. I could say “it’s great” and let all of the other nuances slide by, but I feel like that would be dishonest.
Shanghai was great, for sure. It was also intimidating. Quiet, fast, confusing, exciting. And it was a home for three months. I didn’t fit perfectly into the city, and I never expected to. No place ever really fits you 100%. But I got close to coming to an understanding, and finding that balance that I talked about before. When I return to Shanghai I’ll learn more, I’ll share more, and the city will change again.
Oh yeah. I took a bunch of great pictures, too. I hope you learn something from them and the words I’ve put up here over the past few months. Until next time.