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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Hi! John

    I would like to know if chinese girls in China are very much keen to get to know westerners? I know many of them always want to move to the west.


  2. Let me take a moment and rub your face in it.


    I’m joking of course.

    But yeah, if you wanna get a job speaking Chinese you gotta go to Shanghai or Beijing. So does this mean that we can add to the list a feral sinologue who does a mean Shanghai accent. We already got Brendan doing Beijingrer and myself doing Tianjinyan, why not a Sanghaiyan?

    (How do they say that in Shanghainese anyway?)


  3. Yeah, don’t you live in Tianjin, Adam? Not exactly roughing it it Gansu, that. 🙂

  4. ala Sahei-nin kuonin nong!

  5. Brad,

    Ala? Nong si Sahei-nin? Haha.
    Xiaxia nong.

  6. Joyce,

    I’d say some of them are, some of them aren’t. It doesn’t seem to be hard for Western guys to find girls to date here, whatever their motives.

  7. Adam,

    Ah, but you’re still teaching in English, right? Tradeoffs, my friend… 🙂

    I don’t want a “Shanghai accent,” although I wouldn’t mind picking up some Shanghai-hua. I definitely want to be able to understand it at the very least. As for speaking, I just want to speak very fluent Mandarin in the southern style (e.g. no erhua!), without the atrocious pronunciation butcherings that abound here. (Yes, it is possible!)

    As Brad demonstrated, “Shanghai-ren” is “Sahei-nin” in Shanghai dialect. (Is that what you were asking?)

  8. Hi John. Great site. I am curious about your new job. What will you be doing? I don’t remember you writing about it previously. Congrats!

  9. That was kind of my reasoning for moving to Beijing; besides the Beida thing, and the whole thing with me being miserable in Harbin, I just kind of decided that I am and always will be a city boy, that Harbin was too damn cold, and that I really liked Beijinghua.

    Anyway, sorry I’ll miss you when you’re up in Beijing this time around, but I’ll probably be down around Shanghai sometime later this year, or whatever. 来日方长 and all that.

    Got your email about the Beida program – will dash off answers this evening; right now I’m heading out the door.

  10. Great Hangzhou/Shanghai comparison. It’s funny how a lot of expats seem to fight moving to China’s “international” cities.

    My big step up on the China development ladder was from Zibo to Hangzhou, and I think that’s good enough for me. Of course, now that I’m travelling around Yunnan, I’m contemplating never ever returning to the East Coast again! (they can keep their factories, I can see white clouds and blue sky! hahahahaha)

  11. Da Xiangchang Says: January 15, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Hangzhou’s blah, though I got to admit I didn’t see it during the summer but rather in February when everything was cold and gloomy. I saw Paris in February too, and it looked like shit. But it appears to be that downtown Hangzhou looks like any other Chinese city, and a lot of the grass was cordoned off with barbed wire!

    Shanghai’s infinitely better, but there’s only one Shanghai. However, there are a lot of other cities in China I liked, though I haven’t been to nearly as many as John has. My two favorite cities in China are probably Nanjing and Suzhou. Nanjing because it’s a perfect blend of old and new, and Suzhou because it’s the only big Chinese city that seems relatively clean and has a small-town feel to it. So those two cities are my favorite. A lot of the interior cities of China, however, are something out of Mad Max!

  12. Good luck with Shang hai hua. I know Chinese (non-Shanghainese) who have lived in Shanghai for 10 years and still have great trouble with it. Most of the Chinese I know say that Shanghainese is the hardest dialect in Chinese to learn. You never know though… Go to some remote hill town in Jiangxi and you’ll think you’re hearing Led Zeppelin III backwards.

  13. I am likely to move to China – in Hangzhou.
    If wanted guidance on housing. I am looking for a one bedroom service apartment for about one year…excellent condition.

  14. Kourisone Says: May 16, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    I’m moving to a suburb of Shanghai called Jinshan…I’ll most likely be staying for a year…just wondering if I need to bring any jackets for the winter season coming up.

  15. Great site, good comments would be great with more pics. http://www.ddsclub.com has great pics

  16. Hello John . . . Since you’ve been to many Chinese cities .. have you been to Wuxi? (1.5 hours by train from Shanghai). I’ve accepted employment there ( it has nothing to do with teaching english and it is a chinese run company).

    Wondering what your opinion of it is? Liveable? I briefly visited shanghai last week when I visited China. . I was in the tourist district . .but I must say I felt a little overcrowded! At least Wuxi is a somewhat more manageable size for me. I think I’ll also start a blog if I have time. “A foreign animator in China” would be a good name.

  17. I’ve been here in Shanghai for year, live in a nice apartment on the 30th floor with a view of Lujiazui. I’ll be heading back to the East Coast of US in a month and I must say I’m already missing Shanghai (I’ll be back!). This will be my first time going through reverse culture shock 🙁

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