On a misty and cold Sunday evening I arrived at Putong Airport, Shanghai. After months of sweaty heat in Singapore, the coldness of Shanghai winter struck me in the face.

Before I left Singapore, I figured Shanghai would be about the same as Singapore: a big cosmopolitan city, except for the fact that Singapore has 4 million inhabitants, while Shanghai has 13.5 million. But that is not the only difference between these two cities. Shanghai and Singapore are in fact like two different worlds to me.

In Singapore, the people are friendly and the atmosphere is relaxed. You feel peaceful at all times, and when a bunch of birds start chirping down at Orchard Road, people turn their heads to see what is going on. When I walk to school from my apartment in Shanghai, people push me on the side on their way to work. Dozens of taxis are blocking the street, honking at each other while the drivers are screaming out of their windows. An old lady with a hunched back tries to cross the street with her walking stick but is enclosed in between rushing motorcycles and people on bicycles. A man is selling fake DVD’s on the pavement, while another lady is going around with her cart full of oranges and apples, a few cents a piece. While I am trying my best to get to the other side of the street, a man on a bicycle with about a hundred living ducks bound around his back almost clashes into me. I rush to the pavement. The ducks are screaming their lungs out. Nobody turns their head.

It always takes a few days to get accustomed to a new city. It is like meeting a new friend; you get to see their good sides and their bad sides, and in the end you try to figure out what kind of person you are dealing with. Shanghai is a tough one to understand. She is a young girl on one hand; an old lady on the other hand. Whatever Shanghai is, she is moving and changing at a fast speed. It is almost unbelievable to think that only thirty years ago this city played a big role in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution; a time when a lot of the culture of China was devastated and ‘capitalism’ was a dirty word. Now, one of the main streets of Shanghai, Nanjing Road, is filled with flashy stores and brand names in big golden letters; Louis Vuitton, Prada, Armani; it is all there. While walking on this street, you see the Chinese elite passing by; young couples with shiny shoes, tight jeans and big sunglasses, carelessly carrying around their small Chihuahua dogs. When you make a turn into any of the smaller streets that border Nanjing Street, you will find old men sitting around at a small table playing old Chinese board games, people hanging around the street wearing their pyjama’s and putting up their laundry to dry at the electricity cables above the pavement.

I have been going to Chinese class every morning, and slowly but surely I am getting confident enough to try out my Chinese on random people on the street. Actually, in Shanghai it is a necessity because most people do not speak a single word of English. Although nowadays Shanghai is a city that is flooded by westerners more and more, the Chinese people sometimes still look at you as if you were an exotic animal. After looking around at a market, I sit on a bench near the pavement to check my Lonely Planet for some nice spots. An old wrinkled Chinese lady passes me by and stares at me. I look back at her, and smile. Immediately she relaxes and slowly seats herself next to me. She glances at my book and after a short silence she begins to talk to me in Chinese with a crack in her voice. “My child, can you read those small letters? I remember I could read small letters like that – but not anymore, I have gotten old.” I look at her for a moment – old skin, deep wrinkles and coarse lips, but still has a twinkle in her eyes. “You are not so old!”, I tell her. She smiles. “I am eighty!”, she laughs and starts to cough. A man who sells bottles of water glances at us from the pavement. “I am twenty-two,” I say. The lady rubs her hands and her eyes drift away. “Still so young,” she sighs. The water-man approaches us. “Can you understand her?,” he asks me with a big smile. I nod. He yells at his friend who is selling cigarettes, a few meters away from us: “Hey! She can understand the lady!” The friend also joins, and a random couple that walks on the pavement stops to look at us. “Where are you from?,” asks the water-man. “Holland,” I say: “I am Dutch.” The cigarette-man looks amused and asks me again where I am from. The water-man answers him before I can speak. “She is from Holland. She can understand this lady. She is Dutch!” The cigarette-man looks at the water-man, then at me, and then again at the water-man. The couple is still staring at all of us. Suddenly they all begin to laugh, even the old lady next to me starts giggling and shakes her fragile body. I look at all of them and start to blush: “Why are you all laughing?!” I ask. “Your Chinese sounds so funny!” says the old lady with the twinkle in her eyes. I laugh. I feel like a monkey in a zoo. I get up, greet the people, and walk away. They all greet me. While I am walking away, I quickly glance over my shoulder to see if they are still there. The old lady, the water-man, the cigarette-man and the couple are all still there- still laughing. I smile and keep on walking.

Being in a culture so different from my own brings back memories from the time I spend in Japan – you can feel so ‘lost in translation’ on your own sometimes, walking by yourself on a big road surrounded by neon lights, karaoke bars, and people selling food that you have never seen before – fried chicken claws and whole Beijing ducks. I feel like I have gotten to know the Chinese people a bit better in the last few weeks, and I see now that I was prejudiced before; as westerners we often think Japanese and Chinese are one of a kind. I found this really untrue. Japanese people smile at all times, they strictly follow the rules of politeness and hospitality, and they seem like a warm people. Truth is, that this friendliness is not always sincere. Many Japanese I have met seemed warm on the outside but turned out to be cold on the inside. Chinese people are truly different: sometimes they could care less about the unwritten rules of politeness. If you wait for your turn in China, your turn simply will never come up. You learn to push your way through a crowd without saying ‘excuse me’, you learn to run for a taxi and push away the lady that wants to jump in first, you learn to bargain with a straight face and being scolded at for being a ‘cheap foreigner’. Taxi drivers here will scream at you when you don’t pronounce the road you want to go to in the right way, or if you are heading to a place they don’t feel like going to. But underneath this scolding, pushing and spitting, the Chinese actually turn out to be a pretty warm people. As soon as you tell the screaming taxi driver: “Hey, I am sorry, my Chinese just isn’t that good..”, he suddenly loosens up and starts to smile: “Don’t apologize! Your Chinese actually is pretty good, don’t worry kiddo!”. When you tell the angry shops clerk you are just a student and just cannot afford a bag that is that expensive they start to smile and start to talk to you with a warm glow on their face – eventually you will walk out with the bargain you wanted. They may seem cold on the outside, but they are in fact warm on the inside.

I feel like I have learnt to have an open mind to new cultures- but maybe I should be a bit more vigilant sometimes. Last week I went for a Chinese ‘pressure point’ massage in my street. Since it was a full body massage, I was partly undressed and felt totally relaxed. The fact that my masseuse was a man initially did not really bother me. I just drifted off a bit until he started to massage a very important ‘pressure point’, somewhere between my inner leg and groin. I did think it was a bit odd, but I assumed it was a traditional Chinese massage so I guessed I should be open-minded about it. Later when I told my friends, who all took a same sort of treatment, they all started laughing out loud: “Your groin is not a pressure point!” I felt my cheeks beginning to burn: “It is not? Are you sure?” Yes. They were sure. Next time I might ask for a female masseuse instead…

It is easy to make friends in Shanghai. Any foreigner stands out in between the Chinese masses, so it is easy to make contacts. Also, most foreigners in Shanghai go to the same bars and clubs – the ones that are mostly unaffordable for Chinese. One of the most glamorous ones is called Attica. It seems like this club is filled with handsome western man who are so rich and pretty they are bored with themselves and it is obvious – it shows in the expression on their face, in the way they hold their cigarettes or fancy cigars and carelessly blow out the smoke. Chinese girls with long shiny hair and hot pants stand by their side; happy to have found a rich waiguoren (foreigner). At the ladies room these Chinese girls squeakishly gossip with each other about their new boyfriends, frequently using English terms to sound as hip as possible while sipping on their trendy whiskey mixed drinks. Some books have been written about Shangainese girls like this over the past few years and to me it was surreal to actually see it all happening right in front of my eyes. It is the adoration of anything foreign, anything materialistic, no matter how boring. After drinking a few beers for 60 RMB a piece (6 €) and then drinking a glass of water for 45 RMB (4,5€) I figured I had seen enough of Shanghai’s ‘glamour’ and headed home. I guess glamour means something different to every person and every city.

My stay in Shanghai is already coming to an end – I am flying out to Singapore again to have my last nights in my small and hard bed at good old Prince George’s Park Residence. Last days to walk around in the warm and humid ‘Lion’s City’ before I head home to my own cold and wet Holland. The coldness doesn’t matter so much though. As long as we stay warm on the inside, I guess we’ll be okay.


Manya Koetse, Dec 2006