Why Shanghai?

A lot of people have asked me why I decided to move to Shanghai. A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea of myself making a home here. But, things have a funny way of working out…. Some of you might be wondering the converse, though — why not Shanghai?

When I first came to China, I chose Hangzhou (over Shanghai) for a number of reasons.

  1. Climate. Hangzhou is not too cold in the winter, and the winter doesn’t drag on too much. [Shanghai’s climate is virtually identical to Hangzhou’s.]
  2. Environment. Hangzhou is surrounded by green hills and wooded areas, and, of course, it also has the famous West Lake. [Shanghai has parks, but it is still the big bity. Concrete jungle.]
  3. Size. Although its population is close to 7 million, Hangzhou is a “mid-sized” city in China. In addition, the actual area the city covers is not really that large. Living there, you really feel that it’s not a big city. [Shanghai’s population, on the other hand, has topped 20 million. It is huge in all senses of the word.]
  4. Language. Hangzhou has its own local dialect which is virtually incomprehensible to those merely versed in Mandarin, but the dialect is not as widely used as you might think. Since Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and also very much a “college town,” Mandarin is very widespread (if not always standard). This makes it a better place to study Chinese. [In comparison, Shanghai dialect is much more widely used in Shanghai, and knowledge of it is much more integral to success there. Also, there are many, many Chinese people that speak good English in Shanghai, which doesn’t help if you’re trying hard to learn Chinese.]
  5. Girls. Believe it or not, Hangzhou’s reputation for beautiful women was not a factor in my choice of Hangzhou. Furthermore, after being in China a while, I think it’s all a load of crap. Many places in China are famous for this reason (Hangzhou, Suzhou, Sichuan, Dalian, etc.). It’s just a variation on the “the grass is always greener” phenomenon. One thing Hangzhou does have going for it in this category is that it’s a college town, so there are tons of college-aged girls. [Shanghai women know how to dress well and wear makeup. They are hot, hot, HOT. It seems like the hottest ones are often either working girls or out for money, though.]
  6. Pollution. Pollution is a huge issue for foreigners in China, so I wanted to pick one of the cleaner Chinese cities. Relatively speaking, Hangzhou fits the bill (there are some nightmarish cities out there), but it’s by no means pristine. [Shanghai does not at all seem more polluted. I guess it’s because factories are largely located in the countryside (like right behind ZUCC).]

For the reasons above, as well as the fact that I never felt like a “city person,” I chose Hangzhou over Shanghai. It was an excellent choice. My number one goal here in China is attainment of a high degree of fluency in Mandarin, and Hangzhou has been a great place to pursue that dream. As my language proficiency pushes into the “advanced stage,” though, I have had to re-evaluate the situation.

As a university English teacher in China, I can’t justifiy the use of Chinese in the classroom, so my job (with the exception of the minor “foreign teacher liaison position”) was conducted entirely in English.

I’ve never been good at befriending my students, and I always found the language issue problematic. They want to practice English, I want to practice Chinese.

As my Chinese got better and better, I just felt that if my aim was mastery of Chinese, the most logical way to further my goal was to find a job where I could use Chinese on the job, all the time.

Thus Shanghai. Hangzhou has very little call for foreigners that speak Chinese. The fact that jobs in Shanghai pay way better is a small added bonus, but far from a driving factor for me.

Often in jest, expats in China sometimes refer to foreigners living in Shanghai as having “sold out.” I’m sure many do come here for the pay. You can earn a Western salary here (if you’re lucky). And I remember when I first came to Hangzhou and met other expats who had been here longer, I learned about the phenomenon of foreigners abandoning Hangzhou in favor of Shanghai after they’d been in China a while. And I remember thinking to myself, “Not me! Hangzhou is the city for me.” Whatever “the real China” may be, Shanghai is most definitely not it. So I can’t help but ask myself, “have I sold out?”

The answer is, of course, NO. But I have to make sure I keep focused on my goals. I wouldn’t be the first disillusioned Westerner to embrace the mystic, ascetic East for whatever reason, in all its third world charm, merely to get caught up in this new red capitalism. I wanted out of the rat race, not merely into a new “race.”

So I guess that about sums it up. Yes, my girlfriend also lives in Shanghai. And yes, that was also a factor (and a catalyst). But of course it wasn’t that simple. And I will definitely miss living in Hangzhou.

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