Shiranghai: A Reflection

I’m back in the States now – I’ve been back a little over two weeks but they’ve been a busy two weeks. I’ve barely had time to catch my breath and really reflect on my Shanghai experience, but the question, “How was Shanghai?” comes up in every single conversation I’ve had since coming back. Everyone should just read this blog entry, so I don’t have to retell the same story. Just kidding.

So, how was Shanghai?

How can I explain how incredible the past nine months were? I struggle to put it into words, even now, looking back. For the last nine months, I (inconsistently) blogged about what I DID in Shanghai – all the sights I saw, the friends I met, the food I ate. Between my last blog entry and my leaving Shanghai, I met up with tons of friends having goodbye dinners, went to Guilin for the weekend (it was hot, humid, and gorgeous), and scrambled to pack up nine months of my life into three suitcases.

But I rarely wrote about what, exactly, had made me fall so hard in love with this city. Of course, there were the people, all the incredible people I met from all over the world; the abundance of delicious food to no end; trying a crazy new sport and exploring a gorgeous city from the French Concession to modern Lujiazui. The thing is, Shanghai was so much more than that to me. Here are the three REAL reasons why I loved the last nine months so much:

1. I lived in China for the first time in my life. When you grow up in the U.S., it’s not that weird to have never lived in the country of your ethnicity. All the same, living in China was an incredibly special, meaningful experience for me because I’m Chinese. I didn’t experience much culture shock – after all, my family is Chinese. I learned more about why the people there are the way they are, culturally (i.e. lingering effects from the Cultural Revolution); I finally put all those years of Chinese school to use by speaking the language more than I ever have in my life. I learned more nuances about Northerners vs. Southerners; visited clients in different cities that I’d never otherwise go to; ate food from more regions of China that I’d never even heard of. I saw some incredible nature in Yellow Mountain, Guilin, Moganshan – scenes that simply took my breath away. I come away from Shanghai feeling incredibly proud of my Chinese heritage: regardless of what political tensions or social stereotypes remain from the rest of the word towards China, I’m deeply glad in my heart to have spent this time learning to love the country and the people of my parents, my grandparents, and so on.

2. Like Miley Cyrus, I got to see the “Best of Both Worlds.” I was certainly considered an expat, but I also made friends with many Chinese locals through work and random things (see: hockey and tour guide). This meant that I could generally know what was going on, language-wise, wherever I went – maybe not perfectly, but certainly an overall idea. This also meant that I explored restaurants in both the local and expat scenes. I could go to karaoke and enjoy both Chinese and English songs, and be comfortable in crowds of both all-Chinese and all-expat friends. In addition, for the first time in my adult life, I also forgot about “race”. Isn’t that funny? I went to a place where everyone looked like me, where I suddenly was no longer a “minority”…and I completely stopped thinking about racial stereotypes for the nine months I was there. It’s hard to explain, but at times I feel like it’s difficult in the US to feel totally American – for example, why “Asian-Americans” and “African-Americans” who have been in the US for generations still labeled with the Asian/African hyphens, but white Americans don’t get hyphenated into “European-Americans” unless they’ve just recently immigrated? This was the type of question I was honestly glad to be away from (even though I know can’t be avoided forever). But anyway, by being both Chinese and an expat in Shanghai, I got to avoid being stereotyped – I didn’t get stereotyped as a Chinese, and I didn’t get stereotyped as an expat (for the most part. Ironically, I did jokingly get some “You’re so American” teasing – ironic because back in the US, I get its “You’re so Asian” counterpart). So you see…I enjoyed the best of both worlds!

3. I lived an incredibly hedonistic lifestyle, and learned from it. I had only one complaint coming away from Shanghai, and it was at myself: I’d lived an utterly, 100% hedonistic lifestyle and failed to do anything “productive” during my time in Shanghai. When I told my friends in China, I got blank stares. When I told some friends in the US, I got “#firstworldproblems” and “Come on, just enjoy it! You have the rest of your life to be productive” responses. Shanghai was probably some of the most fun nine months of my life and I don’t, for a moment, regret any part of it. But this was my life in Shanghai: Work, go out to lunch, work, go out to dinner, go out to play. Weekends, go travel, go play, go explore. Work week again: repeat! Was it fun? Yes. But as sad as I was for my time in Shanghai to end, I was also ready. The habits I’d built in Shanghai – I lived in a service apartment, had cleaning twice a week, ate out every single day, etc. – are (in my mind) nonsustainable and not representative of my long-term real life. Being out all the time took away from self-reflection, time to think about next steps in my life (Career progression? MBA?), and energy to think about topics I was truly passionate about. Playing was fun, but to me, life is so much more than that. This was evident even in the cultural difference being in Asia: Asian people generally don’t talk about their feelings/emotions that much, so hanging out was mostly just hanging out rather than having deep heart-to-hearts (for those of you who know me well, you know how much I love heart-to-hearts…!). So for these reasons, I’m totally at peace with leaving behind my time in Shanghai – even though it was still hard to leave.

Chase keeps saying how happy I’ve been lately, and it’s true: I was happier in Shanghai than I ever was in NY, and these reasons above all play into it on a deeper level. But I’m also happy now to be back, if only for a short bit; to reflect and be grateful about these last nine months; to think forward about how how the next year or two of my life will be different as a result of what I’ve gotten to learn from this experience. I’ve already started to get involved in a volunteering cause that’s important to my heart. I’ve been lucky to see Chase again and to meet up with my friends. And I’ve finally gotten this chance to sit down and reflect about my Shiranghai experience.

Thank you so, so, so much to all my friends back in Shanghai for making the past nine months so amazing. Thanks first and foremost to my company and coworkers, especially for just giving me this opportunity. Thanks to F4, H&N, the Azures, Greencourt Buddies, and many more people I met along the way. Thank you guys for making this period in my life one that was so special – I’m forever grateful to all of you!

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P.S. Some stats –

  • Cities visited: Shanghai (inc. Qibao, Sheshan),  Hangzhou, Suzhou (and Tongli), Guilin, Shenyang, Harbin, Qingdao, Yancheng, somewhere in Zhejiang, Beijing, Anhui/Huangshan, Wuzhen, Moganshan
  • Countries visited: China (obvi), Korea, HK, Taiwan, Japan
  • Fave food: Too many to list. Only one instance of food poisoning utterly trumped by all the amazing food
  • Fave place in Shanghai: Shaanxi South through Jingan area
  • Fave landmark: Even though I went there every day, I still love the Lujiazui area. I just remember walking out of work the first day, stopping in my tracks, and marveling at how beautiful the Pearl Tower looked in the sky.
  • Fave activity: Walking through the French Concession on weekends and just seeing how pretty Shanghai is
  • Fave song: I became obsessed with Hong Ri, an old Cantonese song
  • Fave random: I learned the Xiao Ping Guo dance
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