10 Key Lessons Learned in Shanghai

Within the span of two months, I’ve transformed into a local.

The only differences being the shock of blonde hair, physical stature taller than the norm, and curious habit of speaking in English interspersed with mispronounced Mandarin.

Alright, so maybe I’m not a local. But I like to think that I’ve adapted relatively well! At any rate, I’ve experienced quite a bit since my wide-eyed arrival.

Here are 10 lessons learned in Shanghai:

1. Look before crossing the street.

That is, unless you’ve got a death wish or enjoy seeing your life flashing before your eyes on a daily basis.

2. Never betray your bing lady.

Yes, she does see you hiding your face over there at that other bing stand. You’ll be rewarded with withering service from then until eternity.

3. Always ask service workers if they’re locals.

Expect an outpouring of enthusiastic response — most will be native Shanghainese. Practice saying “It’s so [positive adjective] here!” in Mandarin as your go-to response. Smile and nod.

4. Write (写) your Chinese characters (汉字) 20 times a day.

And then 20 more times. Repeat every day until fluent.

5. Become a tea drinker.

There’s no need to mess around with strainers or steeping; Chinese style is to simply chuck the leaves in the container, add hot water, and go. Make sure to invest in the good stuff (ie. longjing//龙井, maofeng//毛峰, or biluochun//碧螺春) from the shop down the way — you’ll need the caffeine for when you 写汉字.

6. Get used to being called a lao3wai4 (lit. ‘old foreign’).

You’ll get stared at on the subway and ripped off at the fruit market, silk market, etc. You’ll be in the background of approximately 10,000 covert photos. Deal with it.

7. Don’t queue up.

Lines are for chumps or laowais.

8. Bring a pen and patience.

Chinese bureaucracy is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. (Tip: don’t queue up for these sorts of things either)

9. Do not convert to USD.

You’ll end up paying double what you should and still think it’s a steal.

10. Appreciate good air quality days.

A hazy smog of air pollution puts you in a fog mentally. Use the good days as an excuse to give thanks for the little things. Like bing and green tea.

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai from September 2014 to July 2015 while studying Mandarin at Fudan University and teaching English. Since then, he's continued writing and working in Ventura County, California.