Shanghai is often described as ‘The Paris of the East’; a multifaceted city that both clings to traditional Chinese culture, and simultaneously collides with that of the occidental world. Indeed, one side of Shanghai matches the fast pace of the elevated motorways that snake through its multitude of sky scrapers, and that of the Maglev, the highspeed train that will deliver you from the airport to central shanghai in 8 minutes, at 400km/h. By night, it is a city of hedonistic escapism with bottle service clubs on the famous Bund (外滩) that stay open until night turns to day. By day, it is the business capital of China that boasts the same opportunity and affluence. There are shopping malls housing every western high fashion brand under the sun, except unlike Europe, in Shanghai its affordable. China is home to a very significant number of the world’s millionaires and it could not be more evident when watching girls purchase Prada, Chanel or Gucci handbags with the same type of nonchalance I might attach in deciding to buy Tesco’s Finest, or opt for something a bit pricier, and in quantities I could only justify on my annual trip to Costco.
Yet, the charm of Shanghai, is that directly opposite these shopping malls are the small streets and intertwining lanes where locals mill around, and men and policemen sit and play Mahjong all day, smoking, much to the delight of the audience they have gathered. A far cry from the expense of the western restaurants across the street, here you can buy a bowl of hand pulled noodles for 70p. As day breaks, and in the nightclubs of the famous western Art Deco buildings of The Bund the party continues, the small lane streets open up to the hustle and bustle of locals doing their daily food shop at small street stands, whilst old women engage in their daily practice of Tai Chi. Despite Shanghai’s modernity, when you pull back the curtain of Shanghai’s modern façade, tradition is paramount and family is the pinnacle of daily life. This has lead to intense pressure to marry. In one corner of People’s Park, located in the city’s main square, you will find a ‘Marriage Market’ (结婚介绍集市). Here, grandparents and parents meet in order to advertise their single children with boards expressing name, age, height, weight and income, even flat or car details, in order to find a match for their ‘aging’ children – 27 is considered the age one should be married by, after which you become a leftover woman (生女). As the day ends, these old women (阿姨）convene again to engage in their ritual of ballroom dancing or group exercise in parks or streets, the ballads of which have created the comforting soundtrack to my Shanghai evenings. Cities as large as Shanghai, where you become one of 23 million, can be a very lonely place, but becoming witness to this tight knit community, it is easy to forget this sense of isolation.
As a western student on planet China, this melange of two cultures makes Shanghai an ideal and accessible place to study in. Home to 300,000 foreigners (老外), it is easy to quickly be assimilated into the expat’s lifestyle. As a city, it doesn’t come without its annoyances, It’s dirty-seeing phlegm theatrically spat from the man or woman next to you only to land dangerously close to your right foot, and a refusal to understand your desperate attempts at Chinese, are both part of a daily reality of living in China. However, these small annoyances that I love to passionately hate are far out shadowed by a passionate love for the city’s quirk.
You often hear that China is the future. This might be true – China should be your future not simply because of its business potential, but due to its unique culture, because I know when I leave, I will being saying goodbye but it won’t be forever.