For expats, is Shanghai too Western or too Chinese?

By Sabrina Samra Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/6 18:23:39

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Shanghai, more so than any other Chinese city, is known for its cosmopolitan character and intricate blend of West and East. Though new studies suggest that Shanghai's foreign community has been decreasing in recent years due to socioeconomic reasons, this doesn't take away from the numerous Western influences that has been imprinted on the city. Nor does it detract from the fact that Shanghai remains one of China's most comfortable destinations for expats.

But it is important to note just how vast Shanghai is - often cited as one of the world's largest cities by landmass and population - with 16 districts and 210 townships and subdistricts throughout the 6,341 km² municipality ranging from hyper-modern to backwater.

An expatriate work colleague who lives in Qingpu District's Zhujiajiao "ancient town," where few foreigners reside, wakes up every morning to old fishing boats passing by the river. But technically he's still in Shanghai, just a subway away from downtown. Indeed, there are still parts of Shanghai's distant suburbs with no Western blight, but while those of us living in the city center may call that "real China," perhaps the truth is that places like Zhujiajiao are "real Shanghai."

This argument is supported by Patti Waldmeir, Shanghai correspondent of the Financial Times, who wrote a special report examining "Inside the Outsider's Shanghai." Waldmeir found that "on the face of it, Shanghai looks like a modern, even Western, city. But step into a Shanghai office and western expatriates immediately realize just how far they are from home." In other words, Shanghai may be whitewashed on the outside, but its roots and identity are still Oriental.

Nevertheless, most foreigners tend to find Shanghai the least Chinese city, which emphasizes the confusion behind its perpetual identity crisis. The new Shanghai Michelin Guide, for example, gave its highest ratings to the city's European and Cantonese restaurants while veritably ignoring Shanghainese cuisine. It's true that Shanghai is a migrant city, but this can't justify overlooking local eateries.

The 2016 World Population Review revealed that Shanghai currently has over 150,000 "officially registered" foreigners. Western restaurants and bars, retail stores, international schools and entertainment venues are opening at a rapid pace, far surpassing any other Chinese city. Arguably this integration of West and East that has created Shanghai's economic success.

A March 2016 article by BBC asked of Shanghai, "Is this China's best city for expats?" It went on to discuss the city's unparalleled popularity, but, due to various factors such as pollution, also a high turnover in the city's expatriate population. Environmental campaigns initiated by Western superpowers are calling on local governments here to crackdown on polluters, which leads me to wonder: do our Western values have a lasting effect in Shanghai? Or will our imprint eventually be erased and replaced?

Even in downtown Shanghai, where Western influences are at their most obvious, it becomes quickly apparent that outsiders will never be insiders in China. All those luxury stores might be selling "our" fashions, but Chinese managers run those stores much differently than in our home countries; most can't even communicate with English-speaking customers. Nevertheless, this doesn't take away from the fact that, as Waldmeir states, "sustaining a Western lifestyle in Shanghai is far easier than any other Chinese city."

Ultimately it's true to say that Shanghai provides a better cup of coffee, a better hamburger, a better cocktail and better shopping than anywhere else in China. But then again, there are many foreigners who come to China to escape such commercial trappings. Like my friend in Zhujiajiao, who prefers to live in a very "Chinese way," which he can do quite easily in the Shanghai outskirts without having to relocate across the country.

For me, now in my second year living in Shanghai, I feel a nagging desire to get out and explore other parts of "real" China, where I will be forced to learn Putonghua (or a local dialect), eat only Chinese food and socialize only with locals. I've always described Shanghai as a London with Chinese characteristics, but perhaps we should start describing it as Real China with some Western characteristics.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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