It was such an adventure for us to travel to/from Shanghai.
We visited because Mister (my hubby) was invited by a non-profit organization to speak about ozone pollution in China. Though he’s been doing this work for 28 years, this was the first time he was invited to travel abroad to share his expertise and I was ecstatic he invited me to join him.
In a follow up post, I’ll write about how our trip to Shanghai spoke to parts of my soul, but this first post is dedicated to the things I learned from visiting this very large, I mean very large city.
CHINA IS A DEVELOPING COUNTRY
We were picked up from the bustling international airport in Shanghai and had a driver in a Rolls-Royce waiting for us. Even though I’d looked at the hotel’s website and wasn’t sure about what we might be experiencing, my hopes peaked when we were collected in this swanky ride.
And then deflated quite a bit when we arrived at our hotel an hour later.
Despite our ideas of what Shanghai might be like – thank you Crazy Rich Asians – we learned that China is in fact a developing country. I don’t completely understand how the list is determined, but it has to do with the economic status of that country. You can read more about it here.
We would not have believed this had an organizer of the event not verified this with us. He is credible too as he’s from Beijing, where they organization is headquartered and where he’s lived his whole life.
It makes sense though. New only comes when it’s necessary. It seems that maintaining and updating to keep up with trends is not a Chinese thing – at least not out of the downtown areas of Shanghai.
Other than the incredibly stunning international airport, efficient subway system and the Starbucks and fancy mall near our hotel, we did not get the impression that it was of importance for them to have the newest, shiniest, trendiest anything throughout the city.
Our experience with the Chinese money – the “renminbi” or the “yuan” – is that they are not interested in anything other than their money or their credit cards.
There was no interest in American money. They have no place for it in their everyday living.
We had such a frustrating experience with the hotel not having many English-speaking hotel attendants (though the website tauted that there would be plenty). Them not accepting Mister’s travel/business American credit card later in the week after accepting on our first night in the hotel led us on an adventure through back alleys to find a currency exchange machine that was connected to our bank.
CHRISTIANITY TRULY IS HIDDEN
Other than the hint of a Bible and a couple of crosses at a performing arts district in the mall near our hotel, we saw NO signs of Christianity. And only a few Buddhist Temples and just a few more statues of Buddha were more prevalent.
At the last-minute we decided it would be best to take my Bible on my phone and use the app in our room or on the plane while traveling to/from China. The absence of Bibles, people praying and meeting places were clearly absent.
ENGLISH IS NOT SPOKEN IN VERY MANY PLACES
In the area where we stayed all week – about 9 subway stops and an exchange station from the major shopping district (Nanjing Road) – we encountered very few English speakers and many unwilling to even try.
We were outnumbered and my translation apps only worked on Wi-Fi. And since it would have required my purchasing a PVN for the time we were there to have access to private, secure data, we opted to refrain.
This meant we had to rely on any hints of English, animated gesturing and a lot of aggressive pointing to make our point.
Fortunately every sign, subway stop and even many of the stores there are clearly marked in English. This meant that the two of us – no Mandarin speaking folks – were able to navigate the Nanjing Road.
That was a huge part of the adventure.
It’s not completely fair to say that many do not speak English in the city of Shanghai because it is such a tourist filled city that we weren’t sure how many folks were from China or other Asian countries – though there were a lot of people.
I was disappointed in the shopping experience because we wanted to bring back more articles of clothing, toys or even a Starbucks Travel Series Mug with the Chinese characters, but alas – they were all in English.
We left with many hotel toothbrushes, chopsticks and a few goodies for our young adult children.
BLACK FOLKS ARE SUPER RARE
While in the city of Shanghai, I saw four other black folks all week; and I left our hotel everyday. This is not counting the other half-dozen or so that we saw at the airport on either side of our travels, but the point is, for the amount of folks visiting and living in Shanghai, people looking like me are rare.
So very rare so that at one point on the Bund – which I’ll share about in the second post about Shanghai – a man walking with his friends, hand signaled to us that he wanted to take a photo of me.
This was after he bumped into his friends from walking and staring over his shoulder in the opposite direction. He yelled out at me (not exactly catcalls) and then made some sort of sign language I did not understand. He wanted a photo, so I spun Mister around and we smiled for the camera.
Maybe it’s the responsibility I felt in that moment to positively represent all black folks or something, but my assumption was that whoever he was, I was a sight he had not experienced in person and he was momentarily captivated, shocked or amused.
The language barrier makes it impossible for me to know for sure, but I’m going to assume the best and hope we left them with the most positive impression.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERSONAL SPACE
I’d read about this before we left, but until we hopped on and off the elevator throughout the week, I did not believe it was true.
Example: There were three of us on an elevator we’d seen hold up to 15. On one of our last nights, the two us and a stranger on her phone were riding on the elevator, fairly spread out when two young ladies hopped on in deep conversation – turns out, about what they would be eating later that evening. One of the two women was so close to me that I just leaned into her leaning into me and read over her shoulder without budging – she did not even look up at me; not even bothered.
There’s no such thing as waiting “fairly” in line (first come, first served means nothing here). People waiting patiently and somewhat quietly, but in a quick minute I went from being 10th in line but would turn my neck to find myself in the 13th or even 16th position. And you know what, those in their 60s and older were the worst offenders.
When out on a night river cruise seeing the lights on the Bund River, we were constantly nudged, shoved, pushed and really the problem was our own. It’s just not what we’re used to. The queue situation is very different in China and working to refuse to take it personally is a part of surviving with a good attitude.
BREAKFAST INCLUDES CORN, PEAS AND CARROTS
Rice with every meal. Which I guess I anticipated but when it got to breakfast and I was looking for something I could pour some syrup over, maybe quite possibly even a slice of bacon but there was no such thing. Plenty of white rice (not even fried, can I get an amen?) forced to submit to our international experience.
I lost a few pounds while walking all over tarnation but it was mostly because we could not drink the tap water (didn’t even brush our teeth with it) and because the food was not what we expected. At one point, we were having an authentic Chinese meal and we were giddy.
We looked at one another and said, “we’re having Chinese food, in China!”.
Y’all, maybe it was this trip, but the food did not wow us this time.
PUBLIC RESTROOMS ARE…MINIMALISTIC
I’d heard and read about the public toilets – known as “squatting pans” – before we got there but expected them to be far worse than the ones we found in the Nanjing Shopping District.
We had to walk a long way to find one and when we got there, I was halfway prepared. I had flushable wipes (though they were to be discarded in the nearby wastebasket) check! But, I’d forgotten to pack hand soap + paper towels to dry my hands. So I rinsed them, then air dried them and then used hand sanitizer too.
There are restroom attendants for both women and men. Most likely to keep the wastebaskets empty and the rooms clean. They saved themselves a lot of time however since there was no paper included in the experience.
I’m not going to talk about what would happen if you needed a longer, ahem, stay for different kind of business. That is something I will my body not to participate in while in public here in the states, I certainly could not even begin to wrap my brain around the logistics of doing that while hovering over a hole in the ground.
Too much? I just want you to be prepared…
A win? These particular potties – which I needed to visit twice in our 11.1 mile walk – were FREE!
TEXANS COULD (ALMOST) SQUEEZE INTO SHANGHAI
In 2017, the population of Texas and Shanghai were listed as 28.3 and 24.18 million people, respectively.
Take a moment to think about that. Our entire state could almost fit it’s people into the city of Shanghai. It blows my mind. It felt like Shanghai had a lot of people in it while still feeling huge.
The subway entrances/exits were always bustling, the amount of mopeds, buses, bikes and cars were daunting at times. People everywhere all of the time. Moving, going, busy.
Older people – in their 60s, 70s and 80s seemed to be employable or willing to work and humble about what they were “qualified” to do. We saw very few homeless and weren’t convinced they weren’t simply taking a nap between meeting a friend or another shift at their job.
It’s a bustling city with so many, many people and deemed very safe. I never felt in danger.
We were so amazed by all of the construction and high-rise buildings. All of those people have to live somewhere, right?
SMILING IS SHOW STOPPING
On our one free day of touring the city, I began to make it my personal mission to smile at and get people to smile. Of the hundreds of folks I made eye contact with that day (over 11.1 miles and 26, 084 steps) I can proudly say that I got just over a dozen folks to return my eye contact and my smile. It seemed amusing to them and was heart warming to me.
We quickly adapted to the culture around us and while talking to one another we whispered and talked and smiled, but when we looked out on the world around us, there was far less comfortability.
SMARTPHONES ARE SERIOUS BUSINESS IN SHANGHAI
I don’t know if it was my foreign travel eyes or not having my own cellular data while traveling in China, but the use of smartphones was at a level I do not think I’ve ever seen here in the states.
Maybe we trade our cell phone obsession (at this level) in for obsessing over things like celebrity, paparazzi and fame, but I was so shocked at how seriously they were tied to their cell phones.
Please hear my heart – it’s simply an observation, one that I’m convicted to be checking myself for as we return to our routine and rhythm here in the states. I’m not trying to judge them or their culture, but it was something that took me aback from the moment we lined up in customs in preparation for stepping out of the airport into the city.
There were so many other thingsI learned while traveling to China. My mind was constantly, actively alert to the environment around me. I did not take very many photos and apologize for the quality of the photos I did take. I no longer have my fancy-pants camera I once did and my iPhone was on its last leg and not updated before we left.
The benefit? I was able to be very in the moment and do recall our experiences very vividly.
Though there were a lot of differences and tons of culture shock for us, we would be interested in a future visit to China. With experience under our belts, we would do a little more work to manage our expectations and more clearly communicate questions and hopes in advance.
Since it was a work trip, I really feel we got a more authentic feel for the city than if we’d only gone to the touristy spots and places where English was more readily spoken – the more modernized places.
Stay tuned for the next post, “Ways Shanghai Spoke to My Soul”, coming soon.
And thank you for joining us on our trip overseas.