Cultural Revelations

OK, it’s been a while since I’ve typed a real post on my ‘Hai Life Observations, and I do apologize – but it’s kinda hard to live it in full and type it at the same time. (no snip there, i’m just sayin!)

Soooo, ya’ll know my love for intellectual discourse especially when it comes to, exchange of cultural perceptions et al. And ya’ll know of my likes and gripes about the ‘Hai…. but in all honesty, Shanghai is oddly, both an easy and tough place to live. Easy because well there’s not much to worry about. You go about your day and no one really bothers you (aside from metro riders who rub up against you) – and crime is seemingly non-existent. However, tough, resulting from the misunderstandings that come from culture clash, and of course language barrier.

I do feel bad that I’ve sort’ve depicted this Lord of the Flies-esque picture in the minds of you readers out there, because it’s really not ALL bad here. (Yeah, I know I’m trying to do some damage control here, but hey, I’ve been abroad for one year and I guess been feenin’ for an America-fix.) What it comes down to is gaining understanding of their innerworkings – the how’s and why’s of the things they say/do. Think about it, this country has been held in isolation from the rest of the world and has only in recent decades, open its’ tight and still-monitored doors… Thus, understandably, Shanghai and well, China as a whole has come and still coming a LONG way from its’ revolutionary times and this city is seriously gaining ground on the international playing field. (I’m learning by the day here…)

For one thing, The World Expo will be hosted in Shanghai from May through October, 2010 and is expected to welcome approx. 70 million visitors – the largest number in the history of the world’s fairs!! The thought of cramming MORE people in this city is NUTZO! Here’s a little excerpt:

World Expositions are galleries of human inspirations and thoughts. Since 1851 when the Great Exhibition of Industries of All Nations was held in London, the World Expositions have attained increasing prominence as grand events for economic, scientific, technological and cultural exchanges, serving as an important platform for displaying historical experience, exchanging innovative ideas, demonstrating esprit de corps and looking to the future…

Expo 2010 Shanghai China will also be a grand international gathering. On the one hand, we shall endeavor to attract about 200 nations and international organisations to take part in the exhibition as well as 70 million visitors from home and abroad, ensuring the widest possible participation in the history of the World Expositions. On the other hand, we will put Expo 2010 Shanghai China in a global perspective and do our best to encourage the participation and gain the understanding and support of various countries and peoples, in order to turn Expo 2010 Shanghai China into a happy reunion of people from all over the world.

Saying this reminds me of a recent convo I had with some fellow expat friends here – it comes back to ones’ mindset when making a conscious decision to experience life abroad. I wish I could be quick to agree with those who say, “Well if you don’t like it here, then go home!”  Because some days I see it this way and others, not so much. Why must it be “Be or Bust?”  It’s only NATURAL to seek (and sometimes, long for) a little bit o’ home comforts when you’re thousands and thousands of miles away from home. So why should I be reprimanded just because I whole heartedly miss the people and places that I’ve fostered such great relations with?

Secondly, I had a great dinner a few weeks back, with my local lawyer couple-friends (who I befriended upon arrival via another friend – networking skills blah blah); You’ll remember Jeffrey and Hua helped me out tremendously (ie. dealing with the shady sheisters of my pickpocket episode and assisting with the apartment hunt etc). Anyhoots, lovely, worldly, open-minded folks they are, we got into great discussions on certain cultural differences between the East and West. Everyday things that happen were explained:


For instance, “maybe/about.” I’ve noticed that the Chinese hardly ever give a definitive answer to anything that you may ask them. Instead, “maybe, about….” is more like it. “I think… maybe….”  “I think….it will be about….”  Depending on the circumstance, I admit, these responses have aggravated some nerves of mine. But now, with Jeffrey and Hua’s explanations, I totally “get it.”  You see, back in the day when emperors took reign, the lay people were just that – lay and afraid of being “wrong.” This also explains the big thing about “saving face” here – The worst thing that you can do to a Chinese here is embarass them / call them out for being incorrect aka make them “lose face” in front of others. So back in the day when an emperor asked for an opinion by a lay, the lay would reply something along the lines of, “Well your highness, I think we should turn left, but then again, maybe the right side might be ok too. Maybe.”  To that, the emperor may respond, “Really? Well I think there is no question for the fact that we should most certainly turn right.”  The lay would then cover up out of fear of being be-headed (or equivalent), “Well sir, but I did say that maybe the right would be ok too.” Ta-Da!

This totally dinged in my head and explained for why I am hardly ever given an exact answer! For instance, while negotiating a new contract, I kept pushing for an EXACT number of classes that would be required of me. However, the interviewer would only respond, “I can only tell you the maximum that we maybe require you to teach, but can’t give you the exact yet. But it will be about X number, something like that.” I was growing dizzy. I kept pressing for exact and he kept not giving it. Finally, the interviewer said, “I think this is a different culture thing.” GO FIGURE! Why can’t I get an exact number of classes, so that I KNOW what I’m getting myself into and what is required of me??!!  But sigh…its maybe/about…. At last, Jeffrey and Hua Chen spoke: “We think Westerners are INflexible in this way. They always want a rigid answer.” Hmmmmmmmm… (Mind you, they both work in international law. In fact, Jeffrey works for a firm with Spaniards, so they are just as confused/frustrated at times when collaborating work with westerners.)

As a piggyback story, ya’ll know how crazy detailed I am when it comes to contracts and notes, with the little bit o lawyer in me that comes prepped with my red pen and highlighters. Going back and forth on every friggin detail, I was having him edit the contract before signage, when it finally came to a point where he had it and explained that I would have “his word.”  Aye!  Being the jaded Westerner I am, I wanted everything to be in writing!!  But again, this was another “cultural difference” battle: Word vs. Writing. Apparently, “word is bond” here. SIGH. I mean, I do recall my current boss mentioning a couple times to me, “Mimi, you have my word here” and in the end, I did have her word. SIGH. Have I become this jaded Westerner where I can’t even TRUST a person’s spoken promise?!?!— Though, at the same time the Chinese can be shady, lying sheisters too.. Le Sigh…..can’t win.

Hmmmm, now let’s see what’s next.


Oh this is a goodie. It’s AMAZING how limited number of accidents happen in this city because drivers are all MANIACS on the road!!! Speeding, weaving, cutting off, brushing pedestrians – you name it, they do it! With that said though, they can be categorized as rather good drivers for being able to weave out of NEAR DEATH accidents of all sorts here!  Sitting in the front seat of cabs is guaranteed to give you multiple heart attacks, and the freedom of honking is taken to a whole different level over here. See, in the West, we tend to honk when we’re pissed off at someone for cutting us off, etc… but here…. it’s more of a sign of “being polite.” Yup, ass backwards if you ask me. But here’s their logic: They honk incessantly to let the other car know that they are riding up from behind and/or about to pass them and/or at people to say, “moooooooooove bitch! get the way!”  Generally speaking, cars DO NOT slow down for pedestrians here; nope, but just the opposite. This goes back to the reason being that there are just sooooo many damn people in this country — there is NO acknowledgement of personal space here! NONE! So yeah, honking is there way of saying, “excuse me… i’m coming in!!!”


Now, if I were to publish this post any time prior to last night as I had originally planned to, I would not have needed to put “assault in public” as a category. However, as my FB Status Message indicated 22 hours ago:

just witnessed ridonkulousness! – upon return to ‘hai, off the metro… saw some chic on the ground in the middle of the street, bent over as if she’s been hit by car. NOPE! some dude is kicking her, pulling her by her hair to stand up, then lands a punch in her face!! a crowd grows and NO ONE does/says a damn thing! i had thought of crossing the street to say/do…but then again.. i’d be just a crazy “lao wai”

This was soooooooo ridiculous!!  I woke up this morning, still in awe; this also prompted quite a few remarks from friends on the IM, email and post comments section. Of course as Westerners, we know this ‘ish would NOT be tolerated on our public streets, and are immediately appalled that this would happen with little/no interjection. But this is when we must stop and look at things from the locals’ perspectives. This country is rooted in a sort’ve “selfishness” and being territorial when it comes to family and close friends. Strangers — they don’t have the time of day for… well not so much in Shanghai it  seems at times. Countryside, perhaps. But Shanghai is a beast of a city in its own right. As much as I try to wrap my finger around it, it doesn’t matter because it’d be like me making up excuses for the masses here. Now granted this particular incident was of SUPER RARITY (first that I’ve been here), we also have to admit, it’s not like ‘ish like this doesn’t go down on our Western soil. I’ve got a good friend who once worked at a shelter for battered women in LA….. one woman’s husband was an LAPD-wife beater. So yeah, let’s not go there right now. Either way, it’s bad and shouldn’t happen….and people shouldn’t just stand and watch. I know, I did …but really… I would’ve been easily been taken in cuffs to a prison and without a translator. Frankly, that’s not my cup of tea.  I’m not even a fan of some public bathrooms, let alone a jail cell over here.

OHHHHHHHH so many observations on the daily and soo little time to capture them all in writing…. but in all seriousness… this city is amazing in its land mass size and astonishing on how relatively, well things run here — given its size and population.

The METRO SYSTEM alone is about to turn impressive overnight.. I see it with the construction everywhere!!! – as close as my neighborhood corner!! Check these stats:

Shanghai will boost the number of Metro trains 150 percent by 2010 to handle the expected 70 million visitors to the city during World Expo.

The city will have about 200 more Metro trains within this year.

During the Expo, Shanghai will have 200,000 more visitors per day and 400,000 on the busiest days. The subway system will be expanded to 400 kilometers by that time and will shoulder nearly half of the flow.

The Shanghai government invested 30 billion yuan (US$4.22 billion) in Metro line construction each year. The Metro will consist of 35 to 40 percent of the city’s transportation annually once fully developed.


Similar to the Great NYC, Shanghai has its pockets of “neighborhoods” that make life for an expat a relatively easy adjustment. The bohemian/artsy, East Village-esque, “Taikang Lu” is one of my fave chill spots; then you’ve got the plentiful international cuisines and night spots in the “French Concession” and European-esque, “Xintiandi”; cool uptown, “American Concession”-in the making where my friend Sean runs, AWESOMELY DOPE creative complex, comprised of fusion restaurant, recording studio, art gallery and film forum called,  The Factory definitely reminds me of home – sucha great hang-out spot… vibe is correct on all accounts here!!


There’s PLENTY AROUND!  I just wish I had more time to explore and delve into them. Looking forward to more free time to do this next year.


I can grab dinner on my corner for 60cents usd! Stir-fried noodles, fried rice… kebobs etc.


Umm I have a maid, tailor and Mandarin tutor. Maid comes once a week for $4.40 usd. (My share is just a tad over $1usd) and 90min with a tutor costs me $10usd.

FOREIGN FACE – having one gives you some perks at times. But of course, other times, you get ripped off. But isn’t that the way it is in most foreign lands?

FREEDOM - I know this is a puzzling one. But in some respects, some would argue living in China has granted them more “freedom” for the reason of being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Folks walk out into the streets in their pajamas, scream, shout…and no one cares/dares to stop you. Surely, you may get stared at as a foreigner doing “local things”… but you’ll eventually get a cracked smile as warm welcome gesture. And again, with a foreign face.. they definitely don’t want to stand in your way. Reason? I don’t quite know just yet.

So there ya have it. I know I was all over the place and you may still be left scratching your head…(probably my least organized entry)  but just hear me out…and/or wait till we speak in person in the summer. I just needed to post something up…and this type post was long over due.  :-)

. . don’t burn the day. .


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