Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Settling in Shanghai, easier said than done

After a couple of posts covering the quirky aspects of my stay in Shanghai, time has come to release the truth: it's not all that fun.

First of all, ni hao everybody, as this is one of the very few Chinese words I managed to grasp before starting the course.

When I've arrived in China, end of July, I took all August as a holiday-adjustment to the new reality, and although it's been great traveling to Beijing and Qingdao and exploring Shanghai itself, the first signs of what I was going to face shortly had started showing up.

First and foremost, the biggest barrier was (and is) the language. Not just because Chinese is very difficult, but also because nobody speaks English. Or French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese, for that matter.

I agree that I am the foreigner, meaning that I have to adapt, and locals don't have to feel compelled to study another language just to make tourists or expats feel at home. Also true is that in Italy is not that common to find locals with a proficient level of English either, except in very touristy areas, but this applies to Shanghai too. 

What is the problem of not being confident in Chinese? For a Westerner like me, used to completely different writing characters, is impossible even to look up in the dictionary when in need to translate Chinese to English.

Going shopping for food is still a disaster: there is literally everything on sale, some things I have never seen before, and names and descriptions are only in Chinese, making it impossible for me to buy them. Admittedly, with my great regret as I'm quite open-minded food-wise and I love trying anything new. Well, almost anything.

If you are wondering about the public transport, yes, the metro (very well organised, 13 lines that reach pretty much every corner of the city) is bilingual, meaning that the stops are written also with English characters, but the workers are still monolingual.

The linguistic hindrance entails much more than just grocery shopping, of course. A couple of examples? Getting the mail, understanding the bills, reading building announcements and block rules. Or answering to the lady who came to read the business gas metres and ask for the money missing from last bill.

All these difficulties notwithstanding, I have always had the impression that life in China is made very easy, little hassle and relaxed.

I am now on my third day of Chinese class, tomorrow will be the fourth one, and I already know several words, I can make sentences just swaping the terms and changing their order and, most of all, I can do all this also by writing with Chinese characters.

This does require every-day after-class review and studying at home, but it's way less difficult than I had ever thought. After a month and a half of China, and almost two weeks living by myself in my own place, the initial frustration is gradually giving way to a greater appreciation of a totally new lifestyle (it is what I was looking for, isn't it?), discovering unknown social mores and small idiosyncrasies that make the Sleeping Dragon an invaluable mix of tradition and modernity.


RNSANE said...

I found your article most interesting. I've always wanted to visit Shanghai but, since my nursing job of 21 years ended abruptly in massive budget cuts and retirement left me with an annual income of $90,000 less a year, my travels have been curtailed. A few years ago, I was in Japan on two occasions. for very brief stays, to teach forensic nursing. In the cities, at American hotel chains, of course, staff spoke English but, out and about, sightseeing, it was sometimes difficult to navigate because written charaters were only in Japanese. Where signs were posted in English and Japanese, we could manage. People were most friendly, though.

AngelaCorrias said...

Sorry to hear that RNSANE, I know how tough it can be as when I was living in London I couldn't travel much due to the fact that the city was way too expensive and I didn't have much left at the end of the month!

Life in Shanghai, on the other hand, is much cheaper, that is why I can enjoy it better, and this is also why I can't wait to be more confident with the language!

People are quite friendly here too, although sometimes they can be a little rude. Let's say that they don't care much about being polite...

Sometimes I feel like China is developing very fast and people are struggling to catch up, and of course this applies also to learning other languages, as the average of people who actually speak a foreign language is really low.

Although, I'm very curious to re-read this post of mine next year, to see if my initial impressions were right :)

RNSANE said...

So you are really planning to settle in there, then? Good for you. I am actually hoping to go to India for six months in December. I have so many friends there and I can live on my social security ( $1300/month ) and use my $2330/mo pension to try to pay off some of my debt before returning to the San Francisco area to get a much smaller place to live. I've done 78 cruises with Royal Caribbean and have become friends with many of the Indian crew. In 1997, I spent ten days in Mumbai at the home of a bartender friend and his wife...and, now, many of my crew friends have invited me to stay varying amounts of time with them, all over the country. I have one frequent flyer ticket left so I think that is a way to enjoy on last vacation, get myself less in debt, say a fond farewell to some dear friend, and explore a country I've grown to love.

AngelaCorrias said...

I'm not planning to settle in Shanghai forever, just six months/a year. Initially the plan was six months, now I admit I'm thoroughly enjoying it and I might extend the visa for another six months and make it a year. After Shanghai I'm moving to the Middle East for some time.

I think your plan is great! I would love to visit India, I will certainly go before leaving Asia, and Delhi is only five hours flight from Shanghai. For me traveling is the best way to spend money, so your plan is exactly what I would do myself!

Carrie said...

Jia you, jai you! Your post brings me back to my own first days in China. What a weird, wonderful and crazy time that was! Every day was an adventure - some good, some bad, but no less than thrilling.

I remember that the first time my ears 'tuned' into Chinese, I was in a bomb shelter in northern China. It had been turned into an underground shopping mall and I was getting my nails done. The woman who was helping me was chattering away to me in Chinese and that's when I realized I could understand a little of what she was saying.

This happened about 3-4 months after my arrival in China and obviously it has still remained in my mind as one of my defining moments abroad. I know there will be just as many special moments for you as well, Angela. Best of luck to you and all of your endeavors, and remember that I'm just across the pond. Cheers!

AngelaCorrias said...

Carrie, ni hao! I totally know what you mean by defining moment abroad: after every class I go to the shopping centre across the road and I practice with the girls in the stores! I asked literally *everybody* what their name was!

They looked quite amused actually, but they understood ;)

A trip to Taiwan would be very nice, and if you come to Shanghai let me know as it will be great to meet up after so long time of cyber talk!

John said...

Your blogs arouse my interests in travelling !

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