I was so nervous about moving to China. I was worried about a wide range of things: the minutia of day-to-day life just as much as I was worried about the economic and social development of the country.
I was worried about finding an apartment. I was worried about getting food poisoning. I was worried about the traffic.
I was worried about living in the colossal China of the US narrative, which is only mentioned in the media as a vaguely-scary economic up-and-comer that is so vastly different from ‘Our Freedom.’ Pundits use this image like a literary foil; look how much better our protagonist looks next to this other character! China gets lumped in as a BRICS country, with India (been there, don’t need to go back) and Russia (no thanks).
I was worried sick in the airport, so much so that I uncharacteristically did not enjoy my McDonald’s breakfast. I only eat it when travelling; normally, I am so excited to get going that it is a great reward just before the long-haul plane ride.
All of this worry happened mostly before I got to China. Random people in totally unrelated areas of my life threw advice and warnings at me like my kids throw bits of paper in a classroom ‘Snowball Fight.’
“Have you ever been to China?” ” Are you sure you want to live in such a big city?” “Don’t you know that XYZ is so different in China?” “Make sure you don’t eat any meat there!” “Don’t you know that you can’t flush toilet paper there?!”
Some of the worry carried over into our first days in the country, not necessarily helped by the fact that we stayed in a hotel directly next to the railway station (busy), spent most days downtown (busy), and had to find an apartment (busy busy busy). For what I believe is the first time in my life, I found myself having night terrors. Not about the usual spiders or bats or unknown primal threats. About the lights turning off in shopping centres. About being stuck in a traffic circle with swirling mopeds all around me. About subways that stop and you can’t get off. About bits of paper with English letters on them, and the struggle to help a three year old learn to write them. Weird night terrors, I know.
I’m not sure why the image of China in my head was so drastically different from what my experience has been so far.
Our first taxi ride from the airport didn’t help my worries. The elevated roads in Shanghai are massive. The electrical grid is massive. The construction projects are massive. The road itself is massive. It rises at least a hundred feet into the air. Coming across the lit up bridge from Pudong to Puxi, with the bund and massive skyscrapers in the mist and haze lit up with giant adverts, was intimidating.
But the image of China that my frist month has slowly melted into is much, much different from both my initial impression and my pre-transition worries.
The weather is oddly cold at night. Long sleeves are definitely necessary, but during the day it can be hot and humid. It rains 2-3 times per week, with at least one gully-washer. Usually, when I’m trying to get to work or on my way home. It makes the pavement shine and the massive Xujiahui intersection even brighter, somehow. It might be the shiny glare reflecting the lights back up at us all while we wander around, avoiding umbrellas to the eyes.
Before it rains, the air becomes heavy and thick with humidity to the point that it’s hard to move around very quickly. But then, people in Shanghai walk slowly and meander. The distances that one has to cover to get to a subway exit, or a shop, or to transfer lines on the subway are lengthy. My feet have never hurt as much from walking in my life as the first two weeks in Shanghai. Not even Rome compares, the previous title holder.
People stroll here, even in intense traffic and massive busy intersections filled with silent, electric mopeds that seem to have no concept of a red light. I’ve begun to stroll in crosswalks, too. Giant tipper truck coming at me? Eh. Two mopeds in different directions? Eh. Shiny new Mazarati turning right downtown? Eh. Crossing a road in Shanghai is oddly Zen.
It’s so much greener than I ever thought it would be. So very much greener than Seoul. When I glimpsed China in 2013 from Pudong Airport, it was bleak and wintry looking. Prairie-like. Oddly similar to Colorado in some way.
Shanghai as I now know it has trees everywhere. At night, the streetlights are swallowed in thick and shuffling leaves. There are butterflies everywhere, lacy see-through wings outlined like stained-glass windows in black. In Korea, I don’t remember seeing a single one (I once thought I did, but it was a candy wrapper caught in an updraft outside my office).
There are huge parks. Outside my office window bamboo grows densely, swaying in the winds. There’s a wide variety of birds. I even saw a blue and yellow one that seemed to hover in the air, sizing up a discarded apple core.
There are some stray dogs and cats, but often they are well cared for. A tiny kitten sleeping on the sidewalk, on a chair that someone put out for him, stuffed with the food all around him to the point of narcalepsy. Fat kitties sitting on tables at a noodle cafe, eyeing the patrons. A massive orange tomcat sleeping on a refrigerator in a bar.
Smiles are everywhere. People are very quick to smile. They bridge the language barrier to compliment your clothes, your height, or your hairstyle. It’s remarkable for a big city; London is less than a third the size of Shanghai and that never happens. I used to wear a perma Bitchface on the night bus home after work. Smiling on the Tube? What is this affront to urban solitude? There are beggars, some of whom are persistent, but generally people are kind to them and pretty generous with their change.
The food is abundant and tasty. There is Starbucks in every neighbourhood. There are craft breweries and cheap student bars. I ate street food last night for the first time, and only had a little bit of a stomach ache. I have found the best way to eat soup dumplings and my chopstick elbow is fading as I adjust. Convenience is everywhere.
Our neighbourhood is quiet at night. I feel safe walking anywhere I go, even alone. The local street BBQ stand lights up late at night and sends a halo of smoke and fog around the head of the guy cooking. I’m sorely tempted to eat there someday.
And hey, I’ve lived in six countries in my life and in three of them you can’t flush toilet paper! Who cares?
The night terrors have faded, and I’m feeling more and more at ease in the city each day. By the time we’ve been here a month on the 22nd, it will be beginning to feel less like the China of my worries and more like a new home.