Going native

By Qi Xijia Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/21 18:28:39

Long-term expats in Shanghai share the secrets to their cultural immersion

Moving to a foreign country can be a very stressful experience. Everything is unfamiliar: the language, the customs, the climate, the food … Sooner or later, however, most newcomers tend to adapt and settle in well in their new home. Some even manage to localize without even realizing it. All expats in Shanghai have gone through these various stages of adaptation and inculcation, and despite the city's historic reputation as an internationally influenced metropolis and despite the occasional criticism that "Shanghai isn't real China," many foreign residents here tend to "go native" by learning the language and customs of the Chinese.

The Global Times Metro Shanghai recently interviewed a number of long-term expats living in Shanghai to find out more about how living in China has reshaped their habits, attitudes, personalities and outlook on life in general.

Korean-Canadian Cindy Lee has been studying in Shanghai for almost two years, certainly not a long time compared with the average expat yet just long enough for her to adapt to many Chinese customs that she ordinarily wouldn't have back home.

Moving from sparsely populated Canada to overcrowded Shanghai, Lee said that prior to her arrival she literally had no idea what rush hour was.

After having numerous cars and buses nearly crush her while crossing a street, getting squished in the subway's shoulder-to-shoulder morning and afternoon commutes, and having to leap out of the way of scooter on the sidewalks, Lee said that she has become more careful but also more aggressive about "pushing back."

"But I would never do that in Canada and I hope this habit doesn't come out when I'm there," she laughed.

Another cultural difference that Lee has quickly adapted is using her smartphone as an all-purpose device, including as her wallet. She has become so reliant on Chinese phone apps to make payments that Lee did not even realize until many days later that she had lost her plastic bank card.

"I am still debating whether I should report it lost, because I honestly have no use for it for now that I have become dependent on Alipay and WeChat Wallet," she said.

However, if her phone ever runs low on battery or loses power, or if she loses the whole phone, Lee admits she will be in dire straits.

"In Canada if it ran out of battery I just can't make calls. But in Shanghai, no phone means no money! Especially if I'm going out and will need to take a Didi (taxi-hailing service) home, I make sure my phone is 100 percent charged before leaving," she said.

"I don't particularly like being attached to my phone, or having to physically push people around in subway stations. However, the fact that I rely on my phone for everything like my Chinese friends and that I can manage being on the metro during rush hour makes me feel like I can survive Shanghai," Lee added.

Not even realizing it

Mustika Nasution from Malaysia has been studying in Shanghai for three years. She admits that it took her two whole years to overcome her cultural shock and learn the customs and habits of the Chinese.

"At first, I was not used to sharing food, but now I like it so much because we can socialize and taste different kinds of food at the same time," she said.

Cyril Saidah from France has been in Shanghai for six years and has also finally gotten used to food sharing as well as the unending rounds of drinking and toasting throughout dinner that Chinese men typically do.

"I like to share multiple dishes with my Chinese wife because it enables me to try different foods and because it's more convivial," he said.

As for language, Nasution said that she didn't even realize that she was speaking Putonghua in the Chinese mainland way until her friends back in Malaysia pointed it out to her.

"Malaysians normally mix different languages in a single sentence, but after studying here for three years I started saying full sentences only in Putonghua," she said.

Many of Saidah's foreign friends in Shanghai speak fluent Putonghua and he recently realized that some of them even use Chinese facial expressions when speaking the language.

"It's very funny and they don't realize it," he said. "When they talk Chinese, they mimic facial expressions that 'real' Chinese people make when they speak."

Australian-American Jay Thornhill runs a startup company in Shanghai. He has been living in the city for nine years - "eight more than I originally planned," he laughed - which has given him plenty of time to re-evaluate his attitudes and habits that were shaped by growing up in American culture.

Such flexibility and willingness to learn new customs, he said, has allowed him to dispose of old characteristics that no longer suit him.

"Culture to a person is like water to a fish. The fish doesn't ever think about the water; but you take the fish out of the water and suddenly water takes on a whole new meaning," he said sagaciously.

Not losing your cool

Thornhill used to live in a "pretty dangerous part" of Los Angeles, California, where one hears gunshots quite frequently. Going out at night was especially dangerous, which forced him to "walk tough" so as to not appear as an easy target to criminals lurking in the shadows.

Shanghai's low crime rate has helped him lose that tough facade. "It is such a safe city that you don't ever have to worry about strangers at any time of night. I'm able to relax and feel fine no matter who is around me," he said.

Living in Shanghai has also taught Thornhill to be more open to differences of opinion and to stop expecting things to always be the way he thinks they should be.

"You have to tolerate that people and businesses won't always follow the same rules. And it can be frustrating, but you learn to be patient and shrug it off instead of losing your cool," he said.

Based on his experiences and observations, Shanghai has become way more expat-friendly over the past decade in terms of hangouts, businesses and services for the foreign community.

"Lots of foreigners in China are finding ways to make life here easier and more convenient for one another," he said, crediting industrious and innovative expat entrepreneurs for helping build their community.

"Shanghai isn't always perfect, of course, but if you can tolerate the noise, the crowds and a bit of chaos, you can make this place your home," he said.

"I like change, and this city changes so fast that I can stay here for a long time and still feel like I'm always somewhere new."


(From top) Many foreign residents in China tend to "go native" after learning the language and customs of the Chinese. Photos: CFP


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