Having lived in China when I was younger, there was only one thing I anticipated about Shanghai: it would be radically different from anything I remember. I would return from summer holidays and I would observe the streets as if for the first time, cataloguing new buildings or changes to the neighbourhood.
Almost two decades later, the ride from the airport into the city was the unchanged. Except this time, I was alone, twenty years old and I struggled to remember basic Chinese words to give instructions to the taxi driver or even make small talk. Shanghai was very different from what I expected. Despite all the modernization and westernization, most people still do not speak English. And, to my surprise, the locals still engage in traditional group activities in the nights and early mornings such as dancing, taichi and street water calligraphy. The sense of community and tradition remains steadfast, even amidst all the change.
Upon arriving, I procrastinated packing by embarking on a reconnaissance mission. My first impressions of my new neighbourhood were not flowery. At first, it seemed there weren’t many restaurants, grocery stores or parks. The dormitory is surrounded by big, three-lane roads, massive electronic stores and residential areas. In fact, at first it seemed as if there were only electronics stores around the dorm. However, I failed to notice the large residential area located behind the dorms, largely inhabited by local, low-income residents. The surrounding buildings accentuate the stark contrast between the local residential area and the new residential building for expats, Chinese middle class families and business (and now, students). Yet none of this is surprising in the context of Shanghai. Especially on the Puxi side, most the buildings are new and communities have just barely formed in this part of town. Temples can be seen by skyscrapers just as banks can be seen beside discoloured brick houses with colourful laundry hanging from every window.
In the small streets leading in and around the residential area, there are small hidden stores and restaurants; small stores where the owners know the clients, the clients’ parents and their children. It can be a little daunting to wander into these intimate places. It’s almost as if you’re intruding on their private lives. Of course, many places welcome curious or lost foreigners. It usually involves a lot of mutual staring, pointing and smiling.
This small community has provided a small gateway to a genuine part of Shanghai’s life and culture; one that I otherwise would probably not have deliberately ventured out to find. It’s not a glamorous or unique and it’s definitely what you see in travel guides but it’s reality.
It’s too easy to forget that Shanghai isn’t all like the financial district or the foreign concessions. Our expectations can be formed from media in our homecountry, but even within Shanghai, it is possible to form expectations undeserving of the city.