10 Key Lessons Learned in Shanghai


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

The only differences are the shock of blonde hair, physical stature and skin tone, and the 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 the mega-city of 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. Don’t get mad if you get withering service for a while — you earned it.

3. Be extra friendly with the service workers you see frequently.

For starters, smile and ask if they’re locals; everyone you meet has a backstory worth your time. Don’t be surprised if you get an outpouring of enthusiastic response — people all over the world take pride in representing their hometown. Practice saying niceties like “It’s so [positive adjective] here!” as your go-to response and don’t lie. Make eye contact, say thank you.

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; on-the-go style is to simply chuck the leaves in the container, add hot water, and dash. When you’re not in a rush, 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//老外 (lit. ‘old foreign’) literally every day.

And don’t forget that you are one. 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. You’re the outsider, white boy. If you don’t like it, then examine why it bothers you, think honestly and critically about whether or not you’ve made other people feel the same way, correct your actions first (ie. stay in your lane), and then communicate your feelings politely. Don’t get even more racist about it.

7. Hold your own in the queue.

…cause people are gunning for your spot and lines are for chumps or butt-hurt laowais anyway.

8. Bring a pen and patience.

Chinese bureaucracy is on par with German bureaucracy and unlike anything you’ve experienced before.

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 and the opportunity to explore the world’s largest city.

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai while studying Mandarin and teaching English. He moved home to continue writing and working and then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.