Often I get asked, ‘how’s life in Shanghai?’ ‘Why Shanghai?’ ‘What are you (with the implied what the heck are you, a white girl) doing in China?’ Obviously I’m not here to find myself a petite, subservient Chinese wife. Nor am I an overseas Chinese returning to my homeland. So people are all the more intrigued by my presence, and are curious to know the answer, but as with almost any question in China, the answer is long and complicated and people rarely want to stick around long enough to hear the whole answer.My standard educational history/interview answer to the why China? question is: in college, I took courses in Chinese language and history, tutored Chinese students in English, and spent 7 months in Hong Kong, so I was already familiar with Chinese culture. Then as graduation neared, I evaluated my options and found nothing intriguing Stateside, so I thought I’d follow the big opportunity that is China and go there to see what’s possible and improve my Mandarin along the way.Â As for the answer to the why Shanghai? question: 1) My friend Irene invited me study language at SH Jiaotong Univ, 2) I’d already spent significant time in HK and knew I didn’t want to be there, and 3) The best opportunities for business and employment with a foreign company are in SH.
These are all valid and honest and pretty good reasons (I believe), but there are also deeper issues here.Â I have a certain need to be surrounded by a foreign culture.Â I need to learn about other cultures.Â I need to find out how other people live.Â I want to learn what other societies and other governments do better, and this type of stuff can’t all be taught in an academic environment.Â In some ways, I am a true wanderlust.Â I need to be out and about, out of my familiar environment.Â Traveling helps me clear my head, helps me see myself and my life with a refreshed view.Â This concept of voluntarily leaving my own culture and familiar surroundings may sound absurd to the provincialite, but to those who know what I mean, its a common feeling.Â The more removed from your own culture you choose to place yourself, the more profound your life experience will be.Â From this perspective, China actually sounds like a reasonable choice: culturally very removed from the US, yet relatively easy to travel in, as well as already possessing some ability to communicate.
When you put the standard reasons and the deep emotional reasons together, what the heck is the white girl doing in Shanghai? makes sense. Â I came for adventure, opportunity, life experience, and to become fluent in Chinese (so if anyone can recommend a good Mandarin teacher, please let me know).
As to the question, ‘how’s life in Shanghai?’ or ‘how you like SH?’Â What am I going to say?Â It sucks.Â I hate Shanghai.Â And I cry myself to sleep every night hoping that my mom will let me come home?Â Heck NO.Â Sure there are good days and bad days and SH is far from the perfect city, but that’s true for anyone, anywhere.Â Some days I do think, what the heck am I, a white girl, clearly in the tiny minority, doing in a city of 17 MILLION PEOPLE, where I don’t really speak the language and don’t have any family?Â What was I thinking when I decided to move to China?Â I have no purpose, no business here.Â What am I doing?Â But other days… it seems completely natural to get up and take the bus to work and meet friends for dinner or attend a networking happy hour event.Â I can do all the same things here I’d do in the US or any other country.Â I’m just as much a part of the city as any recent Chinese immigrant from the countryside.Â Of course I look different, and people notice and comment as I walk down the street, but that’s all part of the experience.Â That’s part of the adventure I came for, of the life experience I came to get.
Sure, China’s not for everyone, but with the right attitude and a deep commitment to the language, culture, and people, China’s an exciting place to be during such a dynamic and fast-paced time.Â Best of luck to my fellow half-pats and ex-pats!Â I hope you enjoy your time here, I know I am!