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by Sanaa Siddiqui

Tales from China: London to Shanghai

In July, I left the comforts of my home – and, actually, the comforts of my country – to become an English teacher in the world’s most populous city. While the travel guide, Mandarin phrasebook and Skype calls with current trainers loaded me with useful information, there were some lessons only Shanghai could teach me.

When in Rome…

Or, you know, when in Shanghai. I’m from the UK, and there are several aspects on life where I’d like to think I know better. For example, the weather. I got out of the subway station one day to find the streets flooded with rain. All the locals were waiting in the subway for the monsoon weather to pass – a sign that I should have followed. But I assumed the British in me could handle rain, and stepped out to continue my ten-minute walk.

I drowned.

I’d never experienced rain like this. It was relentless, like someone was repeatedly chucking a bucket of water over my head. It rose past my ankles, ruined my shoes, and halfway through my journey I realised – the locals know better. But this story leads me nicely onto…

The people:

I was warned about the general rudeness of China’s citizens. I was also warned about the phlegm-spitting, the public defecation in parks, and gawping at foreigners as if we’d recently escaped a freak show. But no-one prepared me for the random acts of kindness. As I was wading through the water, a commuter hurried by, clearly in a rush to work. He saw me struggling, stopped and returned to hold his umbrella above my head. The man then guided me through the street, pointing out the shallowest areas of the water and walking me to my destination – in the opposite direction to where he needed to be. Only after saving me from drowning and getting me to my destination did he offer a smile and leave for work. I couldn’t catch his name, what with the language barrier – but kind, well-dressed commuter man, wherever you are, thank you.

The size:

This might seem like an obvious one, but China is massive. I don’t think the size is a matter fully understood until you GET HERE – and the skyscrapers never end. We went on a trip to the beach during my first few weeks in the country. It was a 3-hour drive, and we never left Shanghai. The buildings remained tall, but grew more and more scattered. The view transitioned from urban jungle to natural jungle – and yet, we never exited the borders of the city.

The culture:

Exhibit A: the dance groups that sprout up late in the evenings. They don’t need a hall or a rented room to practise their moves – no, the pavement will do. Or a public square in the nearest park. Or a patio floor outside a shopping centre. So long as they have music, they’re happy.

Exhibit B: the aversion to cold water – the locals believe that cold water is bad for your body. Waiters will always offer a sweaty, dehydrated me some warm (verging on hot) water, mixed with the juice from a particularly bitter lemon. Thanks for nothin’, pal.

Exhibit C: haggling. Even if the price of something – anything – looks good, it’s not to say it can’t be better. China’s well-renowned for its fake markets, and you can make everything work in your favour if you know how to bargain a good price. It’s an art form, and people are considered strange if they DON’T bargain for better.

The unpredictability:

I never know what to expect in China – and as it turns out, neither does anyone else. I’ve received letters from the housing agency about amendments that need to be made to my shared 5-bedroom apartment. By “amendments”, they mean ‘unnecessary renovations’ – transforming a 5-bedroom into a 3-bedroom by knocking down a few walls. The notice given to pack our items and prepare for potential homelessness? 3 hours. I’ve been on coach trips with work colleagues only to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere because the driver didn’t know directions. I’ve been invited to check out an apartment – and ended up hanging on for dear life as the landlord whizzed me through the bustling streets on the back of her scooter. I’ve had people approach me and request I hold their baby, just so they can get a photograph of a foreigner with their child.

It’s a very ‘ad-lib’ lifestyle that extends past Shanghai and into the whole of China. Which is a good thing; there’s nothing like “living in the present” when you don’t know what each day will throw at you.