My Shanghai story is similar to many great adventure stories in that it was entirely unexpected.
When I originally set out to teach English in Asia, I set my course for Taiwan. I had been accepted to receive training and employment with HESS, a well-known brand of English-cram schools located throughout Taiwan.
After I completed my TEFL training with HESS I learned that I was assigned to teach English in Luodong, a small humdrum town located on Taiwan’s east coast. I was pretty bummed (and even more discouraged when my guidebook described Luodong as “small and dull”) as I was hoping to be stationed in a major city like Taipei or Kaohsiung. However, fate intervened as HESS was also looking for a teacher to teach at their newest branch in mainland China. I requested a change and found myself headed to Shanghai, one of the biggest cities in the world.
“The Journey Not the Arrival Matters”
My arrival to Shanghai was more of a chilly welcome than a warm reception. I had arrived in November on one of the coldest days of the year with nothing more than a jean jacket. Since I was originally expecting to stay in tropical Taiwan, I had packed nothing more than light layers.
While Shanghai greeted me with a cold shoulder, Selena, one of the secretaries from the
school who had been sent to pick me up from the airport, was warm and friendly. Her English was limited (still better than my non-existent Mandarin) which made our conversation awkward at points as we struggled to understand one another. Language snafus would be a common theme during my time in Shanghai. Sadly, my attempt to learn Mandarin was feeble and the only phrase I ever did memorize was, “Ni hui shuo yingyu ma?” (Do you speak English?)
The ride from the airport to my hotel in Qibao, a western suburb in Shanghai where I would be working and living, was also longer than expected, and I got a glimpse into just how big and sprawling of a city Shanghai really was. My overall impression of Shanghai upon my arrival was that it was cold and daunting.
“When you move to another country, you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse…” – Bill Bryson
Living in another country is entirely different from visiting as it brings a whole new perspective and series of challenges and frustrations. Everything from opening up a bank account to finding an apartment was made more difficult and daunting by language and cultural barriers.
Even doing errands that would be considered routine at home, like grocery shopping, was anything but routine. Going grocery shopping at Tesco (which for some weird reason always played the Plain White T’s song “Hey Delilah”) always involved a chaotic mob of people, ladies shouting in shrill Mandarin to sample the newest brand of frozen dumplings, and carcasses of ducks and pigs hanging to and fro in the meat aisle. What was novel at first became routine over time although there were some things I could never get used to.
“The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth.”
The first three months of living in Shanghai were the most difficult for me. I was homesick as I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years away from my family and my boyfriend. Learning how to be a teacher was also very challenging.
During the first few months of teaching I forgot flashcards, taught the wrong lesson, and had difficulties controlling my students, who reminded me of rabbits on crack. In fact, I actually did have a student named Rabbit, and he was terrifyingly large and prone to angry outbursts in class.
Being exposed to germy kids and a new and more polluted environment meant I also got sick quite often. Within three months I had caught bronchitis, pink eye (twice!), and had an allergy attack that left me so teary eyed I could barely keep my eyes open.
After the initial three month adjustment period, I spent the next nine months doing my best to explore Shanghai. Frustrations and annoyances still happened regularly. At the six-month mark, my iPhone was stolen on the bus and I had such a first-world fit that I almost left China. Being in a long-distance relationship also meant I had a lot of relationship woes. And there were some days I just missed home and being around the familiar.
While homesickness and personal challenges set in from time to time, I persisted and stayed course. I’m glad I chose to stay because for every annoying or frustrating experience I had, there were also plenty of great experiences and opportunities for personal growth.
One experience that stands out is when I became a private English tutor to a wonderful
family who lived in my neighborhood. Lily and her daughter Anna made me feel like a part of their family as I played games and shared meals with them. Lily even took me to the pharmacy to buy bamboo extract for a raspy cough. Lily’s mom, a kindly grandma, always insisted on feeding me rice crackers. She would also speak to me in Chinese and have Lily translate. Most of the time she wanted to talk about American politics and how much she liked Obama.
After spending a year in Shanghai, I found many things to love. I fell in love with soap making. I fell in love with strolling through the French Concession and window shopping at the lovely boutiques. I fell in love with sweet potato lattes at the local coffee shop. I fell in love with Yang’s Fry Dumplings. I even fell in love with the Family Mart jingle (Asia’s version of 7-11) that played every time you walked in.
Living abroad can be very challenging, but it is also one of the most rewarding experiences you can ever have.
Stay tuned for Part II of Traveler’s Diary – Shanghai where I give advice on sights to see, food to eat, and tips and tricks if you plan on visiting Shanghai.