In The Art of Travel Spring 2018, 8. Bubble, Shanghai by William Denning1 Comment

This weekend, I was eating dinner at Bordertown, one of two good Mexican restaurants in Shanghai. What we love most is the guacamole which we describe as ‘good for China’. The phrase has become commonplace when describing Western food in the city. Sometimes, it’s excellent, even for the states. You’ve never had a burger unless you’ve gone to Beef and Liberty. Or a milkshake.

Not a single Chinese person works at Bordertown. Most of the staff seems to be from South America—one of the waitresses may be European and a Korean guy works behind the bar. They know us there, we come in at least every couple weeks with a big group. We are known, quite possibly, for the moaning noises a couple friends make every time they see a bowl of guacamole for the first time in over 10 days.

This time, I was watching a man, white, probably in his 40s, make his way around the restaurant. He talked to the wait staff, pushed his way in and out of the bar, and made conversation with the expats who would come in. This was the man who owned Bordertown. I’d seen him there before, but I was never quite sure who he was. When we came in early, it was someone else who was perched at an adjacent table, adding up all the receipts, a different person waiting tables. He normally just hovered around the bar and talked.

This weekend was the first time he actually approached our group. He asked where we were from, what we were doing. He told us that he didn’t know that NYU had a campus in Shanghai, questioned us when we said it was a full campus.

Are you sure about that? Yes, yes we are. We go there.

A whole campus? Not just studying at one of the local universities? Yes. Our own campus.

He had lived in Shanghai for 20 years after opening Bordertown. How’s his Chinese? Bad. He’s never tried to learn the language. Too hard.

He knew how to say one thing, I don’t speak Chinese. 20 years and I don’t speak Chinese. Couldn’t read it though, couldn’t recognize the characters if they were tattooed on his wrist.

The English speaking community hovers through Shanghai like a spirit. It is connected by word of mouth, by expat blogs, by a VPN where all of the foreigners could live in a cyberspace inaccessible by the rest of the country. In this way, who needs to learn Chinese? Many of my friends are perfectly at ease without it.

Yet, this community is not a Shanghai community. It’s a separate network of internationally minded people. French guys, German businessmen, Italian models, American MBA students, but I’ll be damned if I meet a Chinese guy at the bars we go to, a Chinese guy who grew up in Shanghai and never left the country.

Maybe it’s because of the VPN. Maybe it’s because of the vacation-like study abroad mentality. But people have made Shanghai their playground. This is, of course, intended. In order to make it an ‘international city’ police turn their backs on expat activity. If they didn’t, less people would come.

Sometimes, you walk into a restaurant, like Bordertown, and you wonder if you’re in China at all. Sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes you feel at home. But theres always a moment where you look around and you wonder about the Chinese. You wonder where they go, why they’re not here. Who was this made for? And why?

The picture above is of The Bund, the former British and American area of settlement in Shanghai. A row if distinctly Western architecture lie along the water, which were the first colonial breech into Shanghai around the turn of the 20th century.

(Image: The Bund, Shanghai; Source: nbbj)


  1. Hey William, I can really relate to this post. I’m drafting my bubble piece on food and drinks in Prague, and how I am actively seeking a bubble. I’m a big fan of food and being without my favorites in a land of fairly bland food has been tough. It’s crazy though how many little nooks there are like this, where everyone including the staff is foreign. There’s a bar in Old Town Prague, the tourist center, called the Dubliner that is exactly this way. I am pretty astonished because as a tourist, I think it’s one thing to seek a bubble- this is temporary and you don’t want to shed your ways. But to live in a place and try to establish almost a low-quality replica of home? It is really so strange, especially considering how welcoming a lot of European cities are to (white, Christian) immigrants. In America we segregate communities on purpose and one of the effects has been vibrant immigrant communities, like those we know of in New York. But here it seems like a choice of the (again here they are mostly white, Christian) immigrants to establish a permanent bubble.

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