Most people become inundated with negative images and reports of China. We have this idea that China doesn’t care about people, intellectual property and wants world dominance. The American fight with China is much like the cold war with the Soviet Union. Now instead of a wall dividing East and West Germany, we have a virtual fence fortified with trade wars and human rights violations. So when a fellow teacher and friend told me he was moving to Shanghai to teach English, I thought, “Why would you ever go there?”
Fast forward three months later, and I found myself on a flight from Bangkok to Shanghai to follow a man I met in Cambodia who was originally from Chile. He convinced my young self to move to Shanghai to be with him.
I arrived in February wearing flip-flops. My skin glowed from spending six months bronzing on the beaches of Thailand. In my pocket, I had about ten dollars. In my heart, I had a pounding expectation of new love and the unknown.
My first impression of Shanghai was the constant stream of bicycles. Thickly wrapped locals buzzed around in the cold weather honking incessantly. Navigating the congested streets felt reminiscent of playing a video game. Above me skyscrapers blocked the sky, making the sun invisible behind the gleaming steel.
Shanghai was a mix of the new and old. The past merging with the present to form a city in a beautiful transition. Next to the farmer pedaling a crate of mandarins was a brand-new Mercedes with tinted windows.
Some women wore the latest fashion while others stepped out of a photograph taken ten years ago. Even the quietest street buzzed with activity — sidewalks filled with pedestrians and sellers. Walking was never a stroll but rather a journey.
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My first order of business was to buy a pair of shoes. The first two shopkeepers gaped at my giant feet and shook their heads. I had average-sized feet by American standards, but most stores in Shanghai didn't go up that high. Finding shoes wasn’t my last difficulty or cultural faux pas.
When we signed our lease on our apartment, I bowed to the agent. The cultural practice followed in Japan and S. Korea, not in China. The real-estate agent looked confused. I remember I sent back green tea because the leaves floated to the top. Chinese tea culture doesn’t include a filter.
But these were smaller differences regarding the more significant cultural differences. The first year seemed like I lived in a glass jar, surrounded by 22 million people. I was a part of the massive sprawl, yet completely separate from the madness.
The cliche that food brings everyone closer together is true for how I found a bridge into Chinese culture. Most cultures love their traditional food, but for the Chinese, food is not only nourishing but tells a story. Not just any story but one of the town’s essence and history. If you took away Chinese food from a Chinese person forever, life would have no meaning.
Our food bridge included Lewis, one of my students, who came into our home weekly for language exchange. He would bring steaming bowls of xiao long bao (pork dumplings) or fried noodles in a salty-sweet sauce. Sometimes we enjoyed hot pot at a local restaurant. We satiated ourselves on boiled meat and vegetables.
Over food, we shared ideas and culture. Lewis hardly ever let us pay. Chinese culture dictated that whoever did the inviting, paid the tab. We began inviting him to western restaurants that served nachos or burgers so we could convince him to let us pay.
American dishes paled in comparison to steaming bowls of eel noodles or lion’s head meatballs. But in the end, it didn’t matter what we ate; we exchanged ideas and culture.
As the years passed, the strangeness of Shanghai dimmed, yet the excitement remained. As I grew to understand the city more, I began to transform. Traveling and living in a new place is as much about the discovery of geography and inhabitants, as it's about self-discovery. I would even conjecture that one’s DNA changes. You start to view yourself and your homeland in ways you never expected.
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I remember one of the first times I came home to visit after a few years away. I arrived the day Michael Jackson died. In the shuttle bus from the airport to my mom’s house, the other passengers discussed his passing.
First, I marveled on how I could understand their conversation in entirety; a fact that hadn’t been true for two years. Then the discussion struck me as sad. But not for the apparent reason.
I had viewed my hometown as an island in the sky that never changed. I had expected to return to an unaltered landscape, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. People, like me, were precisely the same, yet completely different.
As I spent time with family and friends, I missed Shanghai. I yearned for the tangy smell of fried dumplings and the constant rainy drizzle that made an umbrella a requirement. Shanghai had become home.
My friends remarked on how healthy I looked in my Zara jeans and hat. I had lost thirty pounds and rarely drank. But the differences were felt more than seen. Living in Shanghai taught me to scratch below the surface and to expand my tribe. My country and culture no longer defined me. Otherness was just otherness.
Years later, I would return to the United States. I found integrating back into society much like my early days in Shanghai. This time the streets quieter, shops emptier, and I wondered how they could stay in business. Gone were the smells of stinky tofu and hailing a cab in seconds.
But I could find my shoe size. I no longer stood out in a crowd. When I talked to people and tried to connect, Shanghai was now a part of that connection. The experience added a richness, a deepness that wouldn’t have been there otherwise — my love affair with Shanghai a part of my DNA.
What surprising love affair have you had? Let me know in the comments below.
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Amber Roshay is a freelance writer and co-founder of Pen and Parent. She's been published in Motherly, The Write Life, and more. She specializes in parenting, health, and education. When she's not writing, she's chasing her kiddos.