Editor’s note: Sophia Sou is an American teaching English to students in China. She has agreed to share some of experiences there.
With over 24 million people in one of the world’s largest metropolitan city, Shanghai is a place made for major city lovers. A sense of urgency and pretentiousness lingers in every corner and conversation throughout its five popular neighborhoods among expats and young locals: Xijiahui (徐家汇), JingAn (静安), HuangPuQu (黄埔), PuDong (浦东), ChangNing (长宁). The city struggles between old China and modernization existing simultaneously. In what seems to be in every corner of the city are Skyscrapers, shopping centers, cafes, and banks. Shanghai is not a place for foreigners to come and explore Chinese’s ancient history and culture. Instead it is a reflection of China’s interpretation of westernization.
Although, born and raised in the United States, I can speak Mandarin fluently with a semi-Northern Chinese Accent, as if I was from Beijing. At home my family and I speak Fujianese with some Cantonese mixed in here and there, rarely do we ever communicate in Mandarin. To top it off, my parents were born and raised in Vietnam and have never step foot in China. It remains a mystery how I acquired to speak Mandarin so authentically while living in the projects of East Los Angeles most of my life. For the past two months every Chinese person I have met in China, who finds out I was raised in the States, immediately asks me: “how did you learn Mandarin”. My usual response is: “I’m still trying to find out the answer myself. Maybe I watched one too many Chinese series while growing up.” They would usually chuckle and stare straight into my eyes, somehow thinking the expression of eyes can give them a better answer. The moments that proceed after this introduction can go two ways: either they are immediately intrigued and want to add me to their WeChat to become friends, or they are speechless. Welcome to China, where the first 30 seconds of meeting someone you will be asked: where are you from, who are you, what are you.
The first month to two months in Shanghai everything will seem fresh and exciting. Everyday seems to be an adventure, from crossing the street, going to the supermarket, opening a bank account, to trying out Shanghai cuisine (Xiaolongbao and Shengjianbao buns). At some point, all of these activities lead me to disappointment with this city and understand why China is still a developing country.
It is impossible to walk through the streets of Shanghai without smelling cigarettes, seeing middle age men spitting on the floor, toddlers urinating in public. Of these three scenarios, smoking is the most difficult one to bear. Second-hand smoking is common practice here China, especially since indoor smoking is allowed practically everywhere except schools, markets, and hospitals.
Over the past decade agricultural, water, and air pollution have been major issues of China. The thought of using: recycled gutter oil as cooking oil, discarded spoiled meat, fake bowl of wonton soup, three times the amount of pesticides on crops, and metal contaminated water, are some the realities of China’s underground food production practices. The Chinese government has policies and regulations on food safety in place. Unfortunately, implementations still lack creditable oversight leaving room for greedy individuals to take advantage of innocent lives. A local friend of mine born and raised in Beijing, claims that over the past several years as China rise up in global power and increase in wealth, wasting food has become the norm representing luxury and class. The idea that “we are wealthy now and can afford to waste food.” Just over twenty years ago, China was just scraping to get back as food was scarce nationwide. Today the younger generations of Chinese citizens don’t even bother to pack their leftovers to go. Thus, some find it acceptable to dye spoiled pork meat as beef and call it a day.
If you need to open a Chinese bank account I highly recommend you bring a friend that does speak Mandarin to avoid frustration and misunderstanding for both parties. Unlike major banks in the US, China’s five national major banks are not interconnected. What that means is if you travel to a different city or province and use your ATM card to withdraw or deposit money you will be charged a fee. Lost or stolen bankcards will need to be reissued at a branch in the city where you originally opened the account. Best of all, if you are a foreigner you will need to wait one week from the day you report your stolen card at the branch in-person. The Chinese government strives to protect its local businesses and own market. Which some argue is why networks such as: Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are banned in Mainland China.
Compared to other regional Chinese cuisine Shanghainese food are not the tastiest, and definitely not the most organic calorie friendly (such as Shanghainese pork buns and braised pork meat). Water pollution and the lack of safe farming practices make me question the ingredients in restaurant dishes and grocery store produces. It is my fourth month here in Shanghai and I find myself more cautious than ever before: with the water I drink/use to cook with, the food I eat, and the air I breathe. Things I never I thought I would wish while I was in the States, clear blue sky, bright sunshine, clean air, and safe water.
Despite environmental pollution, Shanghai is a true international hub. Western products, produce, and people can be found throughout the city. It is probably one of the most developed and cultivated cities in China making it easier for Westerners to assimilate.
Every morning before I leave the house in addition to checking for the weather I also check for air quality—particle pollution level (PM2.5). These particles are so small they can only be detected by an electron microscope. “Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes (airnow.gov).” Sometimes I feel as if I live inside of a hazy bubble and dying for some fresh air.
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