Chinese Whispers


Before we moved out to Shanghai, we heard all kinds of rumours about what it might be like out here. Now that we’ve finished our first term, I thought I would blog about a few of them, and let you know how true or not they turned out to be. Now, obviously, this blog has a huge caveat in that it only reflects our experience in our small part of Shanghai, so it’s not a ‘China is like this’ blog since I am in no way qualified to talk about that, but if you are thinking of coming to Shanghai, here at least is what you should and shouldn’t believe.

Cliché: Spitting on the streets is commonplace and acceptable.

True? Yes and No. You’d think from some of the sites we read that everybody spends their time lobbing saliva all the time in every direction. That’s not quite true, but there is certainly none of the social stigma around spitting that we have in the UK. It’s not entirely uncommon to walk past a blob of spit in London or other cities, but it’s relatively rare to actually see someone do it. Even rarer is the sound of them hocking themselves up a nice juicy globule. In Shanghai, neither is uncommon. When people spit, they do it openly and loudly and neither of those things is particularly pleasant. However, nobody spits at anyone (at least not that I’ve seen) and so while it’s fairly unedifying it’s also relatively easy to turn a blind eye to. The noise, meanwhile, is something I hope I never get used to. There’s no getting around it; it’s disgusting.

Cliché: The pollution is so bad you can hardly see 10 feet in front of you.

True? No. Or at least, not yet. We’ve been in Shanghai for 130 days and 120 of those have been perfectly clear. 8 have been a bit on the misty side and 2 have been noticeably bad, the worst so far being the day we left when the AQI reached 250. This, compared to elsewhere in the world is relatively painless. I wouldn’t recommend a sprinting competition with any asthmatic friends, for sure, but thus far the pollution level has been extremely accommodating. Now, we’ve also heard that it gets worse in winter, and winter has only just arrived, and plenty of people who’ve lived in Shanghai for longer than us have said that this Autumn has been unusually clear, so perhaps we’ve just been lucky. People do wear masks, but apparently the particles are extremely small, so just wearing the surgical mask isn’t going to help. At some stage soon we’re planning to buy our official pollution masks and will soon be walking the streets channelling this fine gentleman.


I want that coat, too.

Cliché: The roads are madness.

True? Oh yes. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There are a billion people in China and 24 million of them in Shanghai. We have been told by more than one person who’s lived here for a long time that cars will run pedestrians over if they are in the way; it’s cheaper for drivers to kill someone than it is to pay the insurance costs of their medical care. This is a sobering and deeply unpleasant thought, and one that doesn’t take much believing once you’ve seen the way people drive. There appear to be few rules outside stopping at a red light, and even that isn’t always adhered to. Buses and Taxis will maybe stop for you (with extreme prejudice and reluctance) on a zebra crossing, “right of way” is viewed the same way as a lot of people in the west view Feng Shui – a charmingly naïve quirk from foreign lands. Being a passenger in a taxi at the start of the year was a genuinely unsettling experience and to this day it’s not something we’re entirely used to. Cycling to work requires extreme concentration at all times, and walking is relatively safe but not comfortingly so. Having said that, it means that we are not getting complacent. Hopping across the road when the signal is on red or the traffic seems quiet is easy enough in the UK. We don’t do that here. Stopping, looking and listening has never seemed so important, so if you are reading this blog and worrying that we are walking to work each day through a Motocross rally site, don’t. I mean, we are, but we’re being careful about it!

Cliché: There is all kinds of weird food available

True? Well, yes – but fortunately it’s not all that’s available. Have we eaten dog yet? No. Are noodles all we eat? No. There’s a blog here about the food we tend to eat, and really it’s all there. One of the many perks of living in Shanghai is that your culinary experience can be as ‘authentic’ or ‘expat’ as you want it to be. There are Domino’s and McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and Starbucks and all that crowd available at nearly every junction on the roads, so you don’t have to look far for a taste of ‘home’ but those places are also nestled between Chinese restaurants and street vendors so you can just as easily get stuck into the local culture.

Cliché: The streets are busy all the time

True? No. If you go to the Bund in Golden Week, you’ll find plenty of people – but even then, not so many that you can’t move comfortably. There are 24 million people in Shanghai, but it’s also a very big place, so they are fairly well spread about. If you go to the French Concession, or Liujiazui or Nanjing Road, you’re unlikely to feel isolated; but I haven’t yet seen anywhere so busy that it’s made me uncomfortable. It’s certainly less busy than Central London, so it feels quite easy to handle.

Cliché: Once you’ve moved abroad, you won’t want to ever come home.

True? Let’s see.




Author: PS

English teacher in Shanghai.

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