Opening your doors helps make Shanghai international
Published: Feb 12, 2017 06:13 PM
Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

I invited our new Global Times Metro Shanghai intern, Cindy from Canada, to have dinner at my home on the first working day of the Chinese New Year. I told her that I would treat her with the same traditional geniality we Chinese people treat guests during Spring Festival. She happily accepted my invitation after spending a lonely holiday week in the city (see Cindy's TwoCents "Lonely expat gal attempts to endure an empty Shanghai" 2017/2/2).

I also invited friends of mine who are from other provinces in China. My teenage daughter asked why I would go through so much trouble preparing a table full of food, just as I'd done in my hometown during the holiday, rather than use my free time to relax. I explained to her that we, as a local family, should help outsiders feel less lonely here while also giving them an unforgettable opportunity to experience local culture and traditions.

In recent years, whenever my family and I go on overseas holiday, we always try to book an Airbnb (international homestay network) in order to get to know local people and glean some insight into their lives, which often proved to be even more interesting and enlightening than just visiting touristic hotspots.

Thus, I prepared dishes with strong hometown flavor and cultural significance. Over our feast I introduced some background, history and anecdotes about Spring Festival for our guests. But I was quite surprised when one non-local friend told me that this was the first time that she had been invited to a Shanghainese family's home since first arriving in the city in 2015.

I said the honor was all mine, but in fact I felt a bit sad that this young Chinese woman felt that our Shanghai isn't as open and inclusive to outsiders as the city always claims to be. For centuries Shanghai has bragged about being China's "melting pot," where locals and international guests can live and work harmoniously without cultural barriers. But the reality is that non-local Chinese often find this city even more difficult than foreigners to acclimate to.

Similar to the job markets in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, which attract large numbers of outsiders, both white and blue collars, local residents often view anyone not born and raised in these cities as "migrant workers" and seem to hold them in a haughty disdain. Which is quite ironic, as hukou holders are often the ones who most rely on the services, products and labor of outsiders.

The counter argument to this is that migrants consume cities' limited educational, medical and social welfare. There also tends to be waves of crime and misconduct committed, more often than not, by non-locals, which results in heated debates about whether big cities in China should set up more restrictions against who they allow in.

This phenomenon also applies to international cities such as New York, London and Paris. The most vocal sociopolitical arguments tend to be whether or not they should open their housing and resources to outsiders, and if so what kind of criteria should be applied. The current refugee crisis in Europe has further fueled the immigration debate.

A recent Bloomberg article stated that Airbnb's popularity is surging in China after teaming up with Alibaba and a number of local governments, including Shanghai. Chinese homestay apps such as Xiaozhu and Tujia are also promoting a "sharing-based" business model, which helps visiting outsiders immerse themselves in local households rather than stay in isolated hotels.

I remember back in 2010, when Shanghai hosted the World Expo, "model local families" were selected to greet foreign guests and show them around. So why not treat our compatriots with the same welcoming warmth? But being more welcoming doesn't always have to be about business or commercialism. Simply inviting a non-local friend or colleague over for dinner can make a huge difference in how that person views our city, which in the long-term will further contribute positively to Shanghai's international reputation.

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