At 17 I had already moved to the UK, taking advantage of that European school system year that sent me into University a year earlier than anticipated. I had started University and after 9 months was craving to learn more about the world, but I was trying to go for the antithesis of what I knew.
I had the urge of getting to know the world in a completely different way than the one I saw advertised. I didn’t want to get to know it as a tourist, “money saved in the bank, HQ camera ready, sticking only to English-speaking groups and waiting 3h to hop into the most touristic attraction ever”. No. As an outsider myself growing up, I understood the importance of fitting into the local community, of trying to understand the way people lived where they did, the way people grew in such places and why they took the decisions they did. If I had to travel, I had to follow the same principles, I had to chase to understand the life of a local, eat foods I never ate before, get to know people I would have never thought I would be, and going through the pains of the local, not the luxury of the tourists.
The idea sounded appealing enough for me to chase people around asking, if anyone knew of anyone working abroad “How big is the language barrier there?” “How much do they earn?” “How hard would it be to get an internship SOMEWHERE?” “Would they be open for me sending a CV?” “How hard is it for someone visiting for the first time?” So many questions were burning inside, I had to find the right, most objective answers, I had to find out.
After my first year University results weren’t great, I still didn’t learn the English I had potential to learn, I was still struggling to understand the northern UK accent and Coventry all around me. The only thing I was certain of was, that I needed to work somewhere abroad. I needed to work as far away as I could and as close as possible to one of the next emerging markets: China. Application after application, I got an offer from the Benelux Chamber of Commerce for an unpaid internship in either Beijing or Shanghai. I accepted the offer for the Internship in Shanghai (as it was more international than Beijing, or at least I thought so at the time), I had to accept, the Chamber had a brilliant reputation for internships, but it was unpaid, risky, how would I manage to pay the next 3 months of my life?). I betted my game and bought 1 return ticket for myself, Barcelona El Prat – Moscow – Shanghai Pudong Airport.
I had no idea where I would stay, where the hell would I earn the money, or how would I pay it back if I had to come to ask for help to my parents. My parents were already so against the whole idea, but they also knew I had decided it and had already actioned it, so bearing in mind how painful that day would have been as a parent, they came to the airport with me, hugged me, kissed me for one last time before I embarked into the adventure: Shanghai.
As I always say, Shanghai is like Marmite. There’s the people who will love the place, and then there’s the people who will dislike it.
At first, as many tourists I visited the most iconic places in Shanghai, such as the Bund, the Pearl Tower, or Yu Garden. Maybe what made my experience so challenging was the fact I was travelling by myself. And although I always recommend to people to go solo, China is not the safest place to go when you’re travelling alone.
After the first month of being a top tourist, life in China started to feel more monotonous, days at the office were long (People in the office worked +10h straight, and you feel bad when going home at 6pm. so you stay until late to be more socially accepted). Plus, Shanghai is not the most picturesque place at first…although having parks, pollution is so high, you live in constant fog, days are grey, oxygen is scarce in the air, making it difficult for you to enjoy a “break” from work in the morning. It’s not an ideal way of living, many of the expats I met told me nobody lasts more than 2-3 years working in China.
I was looking for a room but prices near People’s Square were very high. And landlords would ask for paperwork, which meant I had to get registered in the council. It looks pretty straight forward, but people at the council did not speak English, which made everything 10x harder. After going from one office to another, police and workers would not understand what I wanted, and the ones who did would send me to all the wrong places to get permits. This made me realise I would need help of someone who spoke Chinese, so I kindly asked a chinese woman I met at the hostel I was staying the first week I arrived to help me.
Once I had her help, workers would ask for money in order to get the papers, some would ask me for 200 RMB, others would say is 500…and if I complained, they would rise the initial amount, sometimes they would twice it. Making me understand that the more I complained, the more I would have to pay sometimes. So I learnt when is best to stay quiet and just give them the money.
After a harsh time finding a place to stay, I was still by myself, my only friend was this Chinese woman who was so kind and committed to help me, she would show me the city, she would try talk to me (although her english wasn’t great), but she would do all what she could to cheer me up and make me feel OK. That really showed me her friendship values and how caring human beings can be, regardless of where you are, kindness is present all around us. She was 30ys and she would sometimes come crying home, concerned about her family not accepting her because she still wasn’t married.
In China a woman who isn’t married by 30 starts being seen as a “residue” in society, and worthless to their family. That’s why some will try to find a husband, even if there’s no love, just to be accepted. She asked me to go to the Marriage market with her, a market full of CVs of single people looking for a partner. Surprisingly those CVs did not contain any picture of the person, only details such as birthdays, height, weight, hobbies, and income. It didn’t catch me by surprise to find the most acclaimed halls were the ones exposing CVs of men with higher income.
Food wise, unsurprisingly I suffered food-poison twice, the oil they cooked with made me fall ill, and the way they would cut, clean and open fish in the streets made it very difficult for my recovery, as the smell would come straight into my window. Hygiene standards are different, and that is just the truth. I saw them cleaning fish and other foods with dirty water sat in the streets, the smell of rank food was a “normal” daily thing walking home, I saw many families showering with the same bucket of water, and many others with food residues in the corners of their local shops. Spitting in the floor is another custom I had trouble coping with, and gagging even in the middle of the conversation. Some would take pieces of food stuck in their teeth and throw it somewhere near, and then cleaning their hands with the ends of their shirts. I was dazzled by some habits, but at the end I comprehended it was the way they lived, not better not worse than westernised countries, just different.
The most challenging night was still about to come. I met a couple friends in an online Expat group, we decided to go out and took a taxi to take us to a very nice restaurant we were recommended to go to in WeChat. However, the taxi driver stopped mid-way and pulled his mirror with such strength it came off, whilst we watched the man started yelling at us in Chinese, yelling and pushing both of us intending for us to pay the damage. Amazed by the situation, we tried to get out the taxi, only to realise he had locked both back-doors. He drove us to the Police station, high-fived the police guard and spoke with him to what appeared to be “we were thieves and had to pay for his broken mirror”. NONE of them spoke English, so there was no way to communicate and tell them we did not do it. The police were all ganged-up with the taxi drivers and started laughing and speaking Chinese. At that point I understood we would not be leaving the Police station until fees were paid. We were finally let go at 7.00 a.m. with a bitter-sweet taste and a ravaging feeling of injustice to see their corrupted system would always benefit the local authorities.
But it wasn’t all bad times, being Western also has its benefits in China. When going out, we would get VIP Access, and all-you-can-drink bracelets. The reason behind is that in China, having western people in your Club shows signs of wealth and reputation, if your Club is full of blondes, you’re seen as the “cool” club to go to, even for Chinese people, who would book VIP tables and buy many bottles and food just to “show-off” their wealth in front of others. They would always be surrounded by very young girls (by very young, I mean VERY young), which kept them company.
If you are thinking of places to go out, check Perry’s (my favourite) it’s a playful, casual bar where people don’t care about appearances and drinks are cheap. They do drinking games, and people are open to chat and have fun. If you’re more into the chic, appearance club, check M1NT and you’ll walk thorugh “tank” walls full of sharks, and surrounded by transgenders in super high-heels walking around with fire and exentric dresses. Other places are Hollywood, and Bar Rouge (amazing views to the bund), pretty cool places. The craziest place of all is The Mansion, a house-party like venue, with many rooms to get lost in.
Other “to-dos” when you go to Shanghai is WeChat. It is extremely important that you download the App. As WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other Western Apps are blocked in China, the only way you’ll have to communicate with people is WeChat, not only that, but people who know people, will add you to Expat groups, Go-Out groups of all kinds, where promoters will share location, events (like pool-parties) and discounts and where you’ll meet up with people who are as lost as you, and as willing to go together as you.