Arriving alone to a new city can result in culture shock
that hits you like a train. It is very easy to become overwhelmed, particularly
coming from the west to a city such as Shanghai and not only being unable to
speak the language but not even being able to sound out written words on
account of the characters. In addition to this, such an experience is akin to
creating a totally new life in which you not only need to familiarize yourself
with new surroundings and normalities, but also begin your social network
completely from scratch. It can be a daunting prospect but also a very exciting
one if you are prepared to jump in and let the tide carry you along. From
previous experiences I have come to believe that the two most important things
on entering such a situation are to make friends and start to learn the
language as soon as possible.
It was this belief that saw me scouring the internet on my
first morning in Shanghai, tracking down networking events, sports clubs,
social groups and Mandarin schools. If you take your time, know what you are
looking for and understand which opportunities will be most fruitful, you can
have an absolute ball. What's more you will be having so much fun with your new
friends and acquaintances that you will be too busy and wrapped up in exciting
new experiences to allow culture shock to set in at all. Suddenly you have a
phone book full of amazing people keen to invite you to events and parties and
show you their favorite bars, shops and sites. Very quickly your weekends and weeknights
will fill up and you will begin to wonder how on earth you are going to fit it
all in! In addition to this, as you explore and become more familiar with your
surroundings, you start to identify a few key locations, like that bar that
serves your favorite cocktail, a particular street with a certain restaurant,
or just knowing where they keep the tuna in your local supermarket- life
suddenly feels a lot more comfortable.
On the subject of learning the language, I have really
landed on my feet here in Shanghai having managed to track down a lovely girl
who runs a small independent Mandarin school and does 'survival lessons' one on
one for a very reasonable price. She now comes to my apartment every Monday and
Thursday after work and seems impressed by my progress which is encouraging!
The most rewarding thing about making this effort is that you are able, for
example, to get in a taxi and speak with
the driver, however briefly, or make yourself understood at a basic level in
the local market. I find that this ability to communicate and feel at home in
such situations really helps 'decode' your surroundings and suddenly everything
doesn't seem quite so alien anymore. Another positive aspect is that people you
meet are often impressed by the fact that you are attempting to learn their
language, (particularly in China as the natives seem to recognize that Mandarin is pretty tricky for a western girl like me to master!) and this is an
additional help in building a rapport with new acquaintances.
I think it is also important to get your social balance
right. It is very easy to join a sports club made up mainly of expats, have a
fantastic time and feel very comfortable very quickly, however it could mean
that you are missing out on huge aspects of your new city. It is notable that
the places my Shanghainese friends take me are very different to those that the
Gaelic football team populate and it is absolutely fascinating (and a lot of
fun!) to be fortunate enough to be able to explore both sides of the city.
Additionally whilst the locals are keen to help me with my Mandarin and love
practicing their English on me, sometimes it is just nice to sit down and talk
at a million miles an hour with the expats and not worry about your
pronunciation or word choice.
Perhaps it is because I have been eager to meet people and
so have made a particular effort to attend events, but Shanghai seems pretty well
set up with opportunities for networking and making friends. I have also
experienced very directly the old adage that one meeting or opportunity
inevitably leads to another. Last Friday night for example I found myself at an
exclusive candle lit rooftop birthday party with a group of wonderful
Shanghainese girls, simply because I had found myself talking to one of their friends at
a networking event. She was keen to take me under her wing, show me her city
and get me involved with as many social activities as possible. I was very
happy to accept. This weekend they are demanding that I go for a 'crazy'
karaoke experience so we will see how that goes with my dubious singing skills!
I have found it fascinating that my colleagues often seem
surprised when I tell them that I have made friends with locals and as well as
expats. There seems to be a stereotype here that westerners will stay socially
within the 200,000 or so strong expat community so I am glad to have
unwittingly broken that mold!
Such a mix can also be very practically useful as I found
out in my second week here when I had to rope some of my friends to accompany
to me to the local hospital after unfortunately falling foul of a particularly bad bout of food poisoning. As
I sat down in front of the consultant, a look of panic came over his face as he
fretted about the language barrier but then disappeared just as quick as he
realized I had brought back-up! Within 40 minutes of arriving we were able to
leave, medicine in hand, having successfully navigated all of the various
procedures and tests- something i I would definitely not have managed alone.
The experience provided an interesting insight into the Chinese medical system
which I found to be very efficient, if hap-hazard at points! Their go-to cure
seems to be to put the patient on a drip which is an interesting cultural
nuance! As was having to sit on a stool in a busy corridor with my hand though
a window into a laboratory so that I could have my finger pricked to give a
blood sample for testing. Despite being a bit uncomfortable, the whole
experience epitomized for me my Saltire experience so far. Living and working
in Shanghai is allowing me to see and experience so much more of this city and
it's people than I could ever dream of doing if I was simply here as a tourist,
ticking off a list of Lonely Planet's 'Top ten things to do whilst in Shanghai'.
My internship and assigned project are challenging and therefore providing me
with a completely new set of skills and knowledge, however I also feel that I
am developing a host of very practical life skills through the necessity of
adapting to a totally new life.
By way of summary I will draw on an African poem I once
read, in which the author asserted that he was a 'nomad' and therefore 'home'
for him was wherever he traveled. It's a romantic notion, but perhaps not an
easy one to identify with immediately. Personally for example I find that I
have a strong emotional connection to Scotland and wherever I go still consider
it fundamentally as my 'real' home. It's the comfortable familiarity that I
mentioned before and the friends and family that I have there that mean it
continues to hold a strong emotional pull. That said, through this experience
of starting over in Shanghai, I'm beginning to understand what the author is
getting at. I think that adapting to a country such as China and creating a
sense of familiarity and comfortability can seem like a big challenge, but if
you are willing to put yourself out there and really take ownership of the
task, it can be endlessly rewarding and allow you to grow immensely as a
person. By taking note, not of the glaring differences, but the little
similarities, and realizing the potential of each opportunity and invitation,
you can side-step the dreaded culture shock and, in a very short space of time,
unwittingly begin to fall in love with a place that once seemed a bit
overwhelming and perhaps a little out of your comfort zone.
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