I arrived in Shanghai on Sunday night. I meandered through the flocks of touts to the MagLev train. The touts were trying to hustle me to ride in their taxi into town. They approached competitively in groups of 3-5 almost demanding to take my bag and lead me towards a taxi. They wore differently designed badges that all claimed they were all Pudong Intl Airpot staff.
The MagLev is the only train of its kind. It floats above the tracks and glides along at speeds of up to 430km/hr. My ride only hit 300km/hr but I felt the thrill. Tellingly, there are no seat belts on the train. I assume that belts would just make the post-crash clean up even messier, by multiplying the body parts that would need to be picked up by 3 or more.
The MagLev didn’t go all the way into the city center, but it dropped me off right above a metro station. Shanghai is incredibly well connected and its metro system is easy enough to use for someone who doesn’t speak mandarin. It has been my main way of getting around until it shuts down at 10:30pm.
As the year has gone on, I’ve gotten more and more relaxed (or lazy) about locking down a place to live. When I left the US for Rotterdam, I arranged a whole month’s sublease of an apartment. Leaving Singapore for Shanghai. I only had two nights booked into a youth hostel.
I looked around the city at different places. Although three and a half weeks is an awkward period, not quite long enough for a month long lease and too long for paying a nightly rate, even at cheap hostels. I completely underestimated the trouble I would have with the language barrier. I tried, but failed miserably at finding anything promising.
I found some good options on AirBnB, but they were expensive, much more expensive than apartments in Shanghai need to be. The housing market is extremely liquid here because ex-pats are constantly shuffling in and out.
Social media turned out to be my best real estate agent. My first night here I posted a picture on Instagram of the Shanghai sky-line. I quickly got a response from LidaBeau, a Bowdoin classmate who posted, “Bruuuuceee! My brother lives in Shanghai you guys should hang.” A couple nights later we met up for burgers and beer. It turns out he is leaving Shanghai for the next two weeks on a family vacation to Florence. I got a post house-sitting in his apartment. Its a fully furnished place with a kitchen, laundry, a spectacular view of the Shanghai skyline, and an overly talkative house-maid.
The housemaid was yapping away at me this morning. The three occupants of the apartment—who are all away for the next two weeks—all speak conversational mandarin. LidaBeau’s brother, Sam, said she probably wont even recognize that I wasn’t one of the regulars. She might not have, but she took a good look at me when I returned her chattiness with silence. I just sitting on the couch with my tail between my legs, giving universal signs of un-comfort. Eventually I figured I’d type an introduction into google translate.
That wasn’t my first struggle-filled interaction with a native speaker.
I’ve been lucky to hit the ground running with some nice friends and good company. They invited me out to dinner and told me it would be best to take a cab from where I was to the restaurant. Usually to get around, you can find the contact card of the establishment or print out the address to hand to the cab driver. Sam told me to just tell the cab driver the cross streets and he’d know where to go. Shanghai is built on a grid.
I knew a few things about pronunciation—X is ‘Sh’ Zh is ‘J’ etc. As I was walking to find a cab, I mentally prepared myself to speak the cross-streets: Shaanxi and Huaihai. I knew Lu is the word for road. I practiced, practiced, practiced. Then hailed a cab. He rolled down the window and all of a sudden an invisible giant kicked me in the gut. I couldn’t get the words out. I stuttered and spat them out. Luckily the cab driver was a team player and helped me out, taking his best guess at what I was saying. We ironed out the quirks in my speech and signaled comprehension to each other by repeating the street names back and forth to each other three or four times over.
I got in the cab. Then the driver started laughing hysterically. I joined in but only adding only a bashful chuckle to his cacophony. Then he gave me a lesson in pronunciating different words as he signaled with his hands to suggest pitch and what not. When he was bored with that, he turned up the opera music on the radio and sang along until he dropped me off and we parted.
It’s the little things.
The first photo is the view outside of the apartment. You can see blocks of old style Chinese houses being torn down and replaced by large scale apartment complexes. Below is a close up of a demolished house. The new tallest building in Shanghai is rising up in the distance. I asked Sam, who has watched Shanghai build itself for the past two years, how long it would be until all the remaining old style neighborhoods would be replaced by high-rises. Five years he responded without hesitation.
The crazy thing is that cities the size of Shanghai develop every year in China.
Cities of over 20 million people develop every year in China.
Today I did a Huangpu River tour. It was cool to see the city from the water and get a better sense of the city’s layout. However, the boat was pumped full of elderly people from coach-bus style ship and show tour groups. The boat trip made me feel like I’ve been at it for a very long time and I’m feeling a little bit worn.
In terms of livability, though. Shanghais got it going on. It’s easy and fun and theres lots going on to see, hear, smell. Theres a big ex-pat community, too. It’s a fresh change from India, but still has plenty of exotic weirdness.
Over and out.