Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Shanghai answers: Advice for newcomers (Or, 1 year in Shanghai complete!)

We've been here for one year...quite the milestone!

My Chinese is not as good as I expected. My experience with tai chi is still 0. We haven't saved up nearly as much money as we anticipated. But overall, I'm pretty happy with "level 1 intermediate" Chinese, a decent social life, and a job that is actually on my career path. Oh, and a dog that I have an unhealthy obsession with. I think my 1 year ago self would be quite pleased, if a bit concerned about how easily I've adapted to riding my bicycle like a local.

Quick aside to actual Shanghai newcomers:
For those of you who don't know, I work for a community center for expatriates, overseeing their charity programs. Helping people to adjust to life in Shanghai is what we're all about and I love it. It can be so easy to live here, with a bit of support and guidance, especially in the first days. We have a half day orientation session for newcomers that is FREE and includes breakfast, lunch, and childcare. Check it out.

In descending order of importance, here is some of my advice after 1 year in this grand city.
I study on the train. People talk about me studying. I eavesdrop. Free tutoring.

Learn Chinese

You don't need to. You can survive with next to no Chinese, especially if you have a smartphone. Between maps, translation apps, and English customer service from many vendors, you will get by. Most people don't speak English, but in expat-heavy areas, many staff will. Places like banks and post offices, in my experience, often have a token English-speaking employee. 


I have found, however, that learning pinyin (a system of transcribing Mandarin words in Latin characters) at the very least simplifies life in Shanghai. You can avoid completely mispronouncing names of people, places, and products. You can also read out translations from dictionaries/translation sites. While the characters look familiar, you do need to study with the help of online videos or a tutor to get the pronunciation correct. For example, "zh" is pronounced like the letter "j" and "x" sounds like "sh".


I do strongly recommend learning more than just pinyin. Being able to communicate in the local language, whether it's ordering a beer, telling people where you're from and a bit about your family, asking prices, getting directions, or even just asking someone to wait a moment while you grab someone who speaks Chinese can make a huge difference in your experience in Shanghai. It also really comes in handy when traveling to other cities where English isn't as prevalent in signage or customer service. 


Plus, it's really damn satisfying to eavesdrop or complete a conversation with no gestures or confused looks!
Is it possible to overuse this photo? Less than 3 months old...

Invest in appliances

One of the biggest mistakes I made when moving here is not buying an air filter immediately. The air quality tends to be good in the summer. But come October/November, Shanghai is a dirty, disgusting smog pit from factories making Christmas items and the air getting more dense with cold. And you want to be ready.


After the first week of eye watering air poison, I found myself with a throat infection  requiring antibiotics. Two friends also got infections that week.


That freaked me out enough to invest in a simple air filter. It was about $150 (1000 RMB from Carrefour but you can buy the same model on Taobao for 800 RMB). I leave it on every single night. If the air quality is above 200, I turn it on during the day, as well.


In the dirty air season, I needed to replace the filter every two months for less than $12 a pop (75 RMB on Taobao). Definitely worth it.


I could feel a difference right away. My throat wasn't sore when I woke up. The weird coughs went away. It's not that expensive of an investment for a big payoff.


The other appliance I obviously needed to buy sooner (read my blog post about the weather if you're not familiar) is a heater. Since that post, I have acquired two oil heaters that I intend to use as soon as the weather drops below 10 degrees. I suffered through winter last year and I will not do it again. This stubborn Canadian relents! Shanghai insulation (or lack thereof), you win this time. 
Valentine's Day burritos and beers


Stop cooking so much

I enjoy cooking. Our kitchen is no longer in a cupboard. I insisted on cooking basically all of our meals with very few exceptions for the first 6 months we were here. I packed lunches for the Irishman. I made a lot of crappy imitation Chinese noodle dishes in an attempt to save money.

I realized in the end that my husband's $3 work lunches cost almost exactly the same as me making his lunch. When he started buying his lunch at work, it eliminated the daily struggle to firstly get him to remember to bring the lunch (usually me getting out of bed to put it in his bag or shouting from the bed, "If you forget your lunch, I WILL divorce you!" which had mixed results) and secondly, to have the Tupperware return home. Actually, if you factor in the lost Tupperware, I'm certain buying his lunch is cheaper. 

Once I chilled out a bit about food, our diet got much more diverse and barely cost us more. Local street food and restaurants aren't that plentiful in our neighbourhood but I can still get a big steaming bowl of hand stretched noodles with fresh veggies and meat for $2.50 that always hit the spot. Ordering off Sherpa's (an English-language food delivery service that picks up at TONS of restaurants) can be inexpensive and easy. With happy hour free delivery, we can be super lazy and each order from different restaurants. 

Speaking of delivery...
Pup and decorations both delivered. Shanghai style.


Getting stuff delivered

Almost everything in Shanghai can be hand delivered, often with cash on delivery and very low (or no) delivery cost added. Amazon does cash on delivery. You can get tickets, groceries, booze, furniture -you name it. Sometimes within a couple of hours. I've got the number of a guy who will come by within 15 minutes to repair bicycles or scooters. Our dog gets groomed by people who come by the house. 

If I got a dog walker (who would obv come to the house), I could stay inside indefinitely. 

I spent a lot of time in miserable fluorescent lit supermarkets until I got a job. I hadn't realized that Tesco does groceries and household items for basically the same price I was paying at the shop. They bring it to my door, I pay by debit card at the door, and I save myself the hassle of trying to balance cheap wine, oatmeal, soy milk, tinned tomatoes and whatever other heavy items I have on my bicycle.

Fields (use referral code FDRD73F5AC92 to get a 50 RMB bonus!), Kate and Kimi, and City Shop are great expat (read: expensive) options for home grocery delivery, especially for organic produce and imported goods. Taobao has tons of food sellers --it's the cheapest place I've found for buying Heinz baked beans for our weekend Irish-style breakfasts! But Chinese language only, unlike the options above. 

I still favour my local wet market for veggies and the dude in the truck on the corner for my fruit. But my days of waiting in line at checkouts are now few and far between. 



Sometimes it can be frustrating to live in Shanghai. Even expats who have lived here for years encounter cultural blips and frustrating misunderstandings. Bureaucracy, face saving tactics, people trying to take advantage of foreigners...there will be very bad days. But, one year in, I can say that it really does balance out. Many of us have job opportunities we couldn't dream of back home. People are typically very friendly and welcoming (and get a good laugh out of a foreigner speaking Chinese). I can go places that remind me of home and then turn a block and be in an old-school Shanghai alleyway complete with cats, street vendors, and laundry flapping in the smoggy breeze.

Newbies, an open mind, a Chinese tutor, and an internet connection will get you very far in the city that is increasingly feeling like home for me. 

1 comment:

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