Settling in Shanghai, easier said than done

After a couple of posts covering the quirky aspects of my stay in Shanghai, time has come to release the truth: it's not all that fun.

First of all, ni hao everybody, as this is one of the very few Chinese words I managed to grasp before starting the course.

When I've arrived in China, end of July, I took all August as a holiday-adjustment to the new reality, and although it's been great traveling to Beijing and Qingdao and exploring Shanghai itself, the first signs of what I was going to face shortly had started showing up.

First and foremost, the biggest barrier was (and is) the language. Not just because Chinese is very difficult, but also because nobody speaks English. Or French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese, for that matter.

I agree that I am the foreigner, meaning that I have to adapt, and locals don't have to feel compelled to study another language just to make tourists or expats feel at home. Also true is that in Italy is not that common to find locals with a proficient level of English either, except in very touristy areas, but this applies to Shanghai too. 

What is the problem of not being confident in Chinese? For a Westerner like me, used to completely different writing characters, is impossible even to look up in the dictionary when in need to translate Chinese to English.

Going shopping for food is still a disaster: there is literally everything on sale, some things I have never seen before, and names and descriptions are only in Chinese, making it impossible for me to buy them. Admittedly, with my great regret as I'm quite open-minded food-wise and I love trying anything new. Well, almost anything.

If you are wondering about the public transport, yes, the metro (very well organised, 13 lines that reach pretty much every corner of the city) is bilingual, meaning that the stops are written also with English characters, but the workers are still monolingual.

The linguistic hindrance entails much more than just grocery shopping, of course. A couple of examples? Getting the mail, understanding the bills, reading building announcements and block rules. Or answering to the lady who came to read the business gas metres and ask for the money missing from last bill.

All these difficulties notwithstanding, I have always had the impression that life in China is made very easy, little hassle and relaxed.

I am now on my third day of Chinese class, tomorrow will be the fourth one, and I already know several words, I can make sentences just swaping the terms and changing their order and, most of all, I can do all this also by writing with Chinese characters.

This does require every-day after-class review and studying at home, but it's way less difficult than I had ever thought. After a month and a half of China, and almost two weeks living by myself in my own place, the initial frustration is gradually giving way to a greater appreciation of a totally new lifestyle (it is what I was looking for, isn't it?), discovering unknown social mores and small idiosyncrasies that make the Sleeping Dragon an invaluable mix of tradition and modernity.


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