Monday, May 26, 2008

The Highs/Lows of Expat Life

It's hard to believe that 6 months have past living in Shanghai. There have been "bad China days" (as many expats would say) and days where I'm amazed by what I've experienced in this rapidly developing country.

Here's a quick rundown of what I've seen so far:

-Censorship: Blocked Web sites have included..wikipedia,, some Taiwan sites, occasional Web links on the news Web sites such at the New York Times and CNN

-Polution: Can I look directly at the sun most days through the haze? Yes!

-Grocery shopping: A one hour grocery trip now takes about 3 hours or more. I need to check out 4 grocery stores to find the more Western items. Things that are hard to find at times include, sour cream, cream cheese, canned black beans, and chicken sausage. I cannot get red pepper flakes, buttermilk (I miss buttermilk pancakes!), cheese curds, or hot italian sausage.

-Mold: There isn't any installation in my apartment. Most new high rise apartments are built using concrete for their exterior walls. The warm heat inside and cool, humid air outside created the perfect conditions for mold to take over our walls this past winter. To make it worse, our property managment kept scaping off the mold off our damp walls and it kept coming back for 2 months. Mold isn't a health concern here so they didn't take us very seriously until...we got my husband's company involved to help us find a more permanent solution to the problem.

-Smoking: A nice relaxing brunch on Saturday or Sunday morning interupted with smoke being blown in your face. In general, many more people smoke here than in the U.S. They may not have a obesity problem, but they've got a smoking one.

-Spitting : This is no regular spitting. Before someone spits here, they make sure that they've completely cleared out their throat in the loudest way possible. People spit inside grocery stores, constantly into garbage cans everywhere, and out of cars onto the sidewalk without a second thought.

-Pushing: You can't leave any space in line or you'll risk someone getting in front of you. I've even had to throw an elbow here and there. With both the spitting and pushing, I constantly remind myself that this is the norm here.

-Food poisoning: Luckily, Josh and I haven't had serious food poisoning...yet. Josh had it the worst one time after eating food at a cafeteria. He had stomach cramps for several days and a fever for one day. I got the shivers and felt nausous for a day after eating at a microbrewery for lunch.

Enough complaining, I know. Overall, this has been a great experience and I look forward to the next couple of years. To counter the lows, here are my highlights:


-Navigating a new environment : It's always fascinating to walk the streets and observe daily life in the city.

-Learning a new language: I would consider this both a high and a low. I've quickly learned that picking up Mandarin will not be easy. Weekly lessons with a tutor have been fun and frustrating at times. I'll definitely keep practicing and taking the lessons though!

-Travel: I've really enjoyed trips in the region (Taiwan, Malaysia), within China (Qingdao, Guilin/Yangshuo) and near Shanghai (Hangzhou, Suzhou). It's gotten me more interested in photography with all the things that we've seen -- whether if it's kids having fun at the park, breathtaking landscapes, or capturing what I perceive to be funny poses by the Chinese for photos.

-Restaurants: While grocery shopping can be tough, there is no shortage of selection when it comes to restaurants. Some of my favorite places are Din Tai Feng for the best broth filled pork dumplings, and Paul, a French bakery with mouthwatering macaroons.

-Meeting fellow expats and local friends: We've met expats from the U.S., Australia, Europe, Brazil, etc. to join us in our exploring and they've continuously offered us support when we needed it. Our Chinese friends have helped us learn more about the culture and not to get ripped off when we go bargin.

-Shopping: There appears to be an endless amount of stores here. I'll just say you can find all sorts of boutiques and department stores. Getting custom made clothes at reasonable prices is a plus, too. Josh can't get enough of his fitted dress shirts.

Most striking

-The abundance of labor: I've never seen so many people working in hotels, restaurants, and retail stores. No excuse for bad service! (I think the excess of labor keeps some processes from becoming more efficient, but that's a whole other subject for another post.)

-The rapidly changing landscape: Neighborhoods disappear and high rises seem to go up at a constant pace.

-The gap between the poor and the more affluent: Many people here in the city still live in terrible conditions with luxury hotels/highrises just next door.


-People freely going through your items at IKEA or at the grocery store. If you're not looking, they may even take something out. Be watchful!

-Chinese people don't exercise the same way people do in the U.S. Parks are filled with people strolling around with some women in uncomfortable high heels. There are hardly any runners. I've even seen women wear high heels on a hike before.

Well...this is a brief glipse into my life here at this point. It'll be interesting to see how my perspective changes in time. I look forward to learning more of the language to increase my freelance opportunties with local publications and to send stories back to the U.S.

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