In the Garage

First Impressions of Shanghai

November 04, 2014 | 7 Minute Read

I've been in Shanghai for a little over a week now. I haven't even scratched the surface of this enormous city, but I do have my first five impressions. So here they are:

1. Shanghai is like living in the future.

Or Blade Runner. Seriously. This is what the city looks like on a beautiful sunny day fairly free of smog:


The skyscrapers are so high, and everything is just so futuristic and shiny. The Oriental Pearl Tower (the TV tower thing on the left side of the photo) sort of reminds me of what Disneyworld thinks the future should be like in Tomorrowland. If you don't know what I mean, take a look at this picture I took in 2009 from Hong Kong Disney's Tomorrowland. The Oriental Pearl Tower totally belongs in that weird idea of the future. Next time I get around to taking a picture of the city at night, I'll be sure to post it since I'm positive it will definitely look like Blade Runner.

2. Shanghai is vast.

OK, this might be because I'm used to living in tiny little Düsseldorf. But the amount of time it takes me to take a regional train from Düsseldorf to Cologne is about the same time I need just on the subway to get across town. And it's about just as far! I had to go from the Pudong (eastern side of the river) to the Puxi side near the Shanghai Zoo for a health check. It took me over an hour to get there with the subway and had I taken a cab, probably would've needed just about the same because of traffic.


Speaking of the health check, this brings me to the next point:

3. You think Germans are efficient? You obviously have not been to China.

Germans are not necessarily efficient, but precise. Anyone who has experienced German bureaucracy knows it's painful. It consists of going to whatever office (like the aliens' office) and parking your ass on a chair for about three hours before you're called to the front of the line, only to discover you've just waited to make another appointment for the future. You could've saved this time had you called in advance and gotten lucky that they answered your call. That's German bureaucracy.

Chinese bureaucracy? My first experience was doing the health check, so I went to this little health center out near the Shanghai Zoo. It's full of foreigners who want to work here. You fill out some paperwork, get called into a room where they asked me if I was pregnant (no), and then said, "Room 113, please." You go into Room 113, have your height and weight measured, get handed a cotton robe to change into and a key to a locker for your belongings, and then get told what room is next. And it just keeps going like that, but with extreme efficiency. Each room was for a specific test -- figuring out your pulse, blood work, x-rays, etc. And everyone just sits patiently in a line and it moves. Each doctor in each room just does what they need to do, no questions asked, done.

I was in the line after an Indian woman about my age, a Frenchman, and an American woman was behind me. There were also some Indian men, a Japanese woman, and a Taiwanese man, amongst several other people. We were all bewildered and impressed at how efficient the whole process was. I probably got the most thorough health check in my life and it took at most an hour. Supposedly the process can take longer on busier days, but even so, it was faster than anything I've experienced in Germany in terms of bureaucracy. The only problem I encountered was that the nurse/doctor who was taking blood couldn't find a vein in my left arm unlike everyone else. You could see she was slightly annoyed, but she managed to find one anyway.

Conclusion: China is more efficient than Germany. We'll see if that impression remains.

4. I confuse the hell out of everyone because of my language (in)abilities.

This one just makes me laugh. I knew I would have some difficulties starting out because I never use my Mandarin. My Cantonese is a lot better, but the problem is that whenever I want to say something in Mandarin, I resort to Cantonese. A great example is when I went to the drugstore the other day to buy some face wash. I don't how to say "face," "wash," or "soap" in Mandarin, so when the sales lady asked me what I wanted, I sort of made the motion of washing my face and said, "Wash face," in Cantonese. Then because all skin products here have a whitening agent due to beauty standards, I added in Mandarin, "I don't want white!" How you say "whitening agent" in Cantonese or Mandarin is beyond me. To say the least, the sales lady was a bit confused.

Apparently people also give me quizzical looks when I talk to Christian in the street in German. I had to giggle with my friend Ningxin, whom I met in Germany and speak German with, because we noticed people raising eyebrows. We thought people might think we're Vietnamese since they wouldn't really recognize German, but we're two Asians conversing.

With Ningxin

Then again, confusing people with what language I can speak is sort of my life anyway and has been for at least the last eight years. People in Germany always look shocked when I speak German fluently. Maybe not so much in Düsseldorf since there are so many Japanese people around, but I've definitely experienced this surprise firsthand. It comes down to the fact that the expectations are completely different -- in Europe, the expectation is, "You don't have to speak my language because you don't look like me." In Asia, the expectation is, "You should speak my language because you look like me." I think this is a topic that will come up over and over again, but I'll devote another blog entry to it at some point in the future.

However, I've been learning words really quickly and every day I care less about weirding people out. I just point to what I want to order and say, "I want one of these," or politely explain that I don't know what they're saying when they speak too quickly. Just listening to it, seeing it, hearing it, and trying to speak it every day is letting me make improvements I never would otherwise make.

5. Food is cheap and plentiful.

Going hand-in-hand with this observation, I'm going to say this now -- I think I'm going to gain weight this year. There's just so much delicious food everywhere and it's cheap!

I haven't gotten sick of eating Chinese food every day for every meal yet. We'll see how long it takes. After two weeks in India and eating Indian food for every meal that whole time, I couldn't eat Indian food for five months afterward. Actually, I haven't even really eaten Indian food since then. So, we'll see how it goes with Chinese food. But here's some hot pot for you to drool over:

Hot pot

My last thought about my first impressions is that it's interesting what sorts of things I'm looking for now as an adult seeking employment versus a student fresh in Berlin. For one, I know I wouldn't be able to live off döner if I moved to Germany now or the Chinese equivalent. While walking around the neighborhood that Christian and I will be moving to this weekend, I was excited about the fact that there's an organic supermarket nearby. Yup, student me wouldn't have cared so much. Adult me got really excited. How things change.