Shanghai at first glance: Big, bright and beautiful with a hint of madness

Culture | by Nicole
Posted: July 10th, 2012 | Updated: July 10th, 2012 | Comments
Yu Yuan Every now and then, we at China Travel and Intern Diaries, a series of China escapades as seen through the eyes of the newest kids in town. Already out and exploring Shanghai, Nicole Greenhalgh gives us her first impressions of the city.>>> What were my first impressions arriving in Shanghai? There are a million words! Humid, loud, busy, beautiful, enormous, modern, exciting, buzzing, bright, lively.... As a new tourist I stand out like a sore thumb; wide eyed and excited, staring at street signs with obvious incomprehension, stepping tentatively onto the Metro whilst the locals leap on board to catch the remaining seats, communicating with hand gestures to shop attendants who laugh at my painfully limited Mandarin (It's all about trying though, right?) and showing taxi drivers my little card with my address in Mandarin characters, because I just cannot explain how to get there. More after the jump.... There has been no one so far, however, that has taken advantage of my obvious vulnerability. In fact, what has stood out the most to me in Shanghai has been the surprising level of kindness. From the lady who shared her umbrella with me to cross the street, to the woman in the local shop who asks after my daily activities and how I enjoyed them, to the man in the street who downloaded an app just to translate his directions into English, most locals have gone out of their way to help me. Myself and my fellow interns have ventured out to Shanghai's most tourist-filled (but no less fantastic) places, like Nanjing Road—a stretch of shops and street food galore, a bizarre mash-up of massive Western stores and local market stalls and a stream of excitable tourists, ourselves included. A walk to the middle, between both East and West Nanjing Road, found us at People's Square. It was here, whilst I sat on some steps outside the Shanghai Art Museum, that a man approached and asked to practice his English with me. He explained that he was an English teacher here in Shanghai, and that he loved music. At this point, I kid you not, he sang a full five English songs to me, including a loud and painfully out-of-tune version of "My Girl" by the Temptations, causing even the locals to laugh and take pictures. Once I had managed to stutter out one of my only sentences, "Ni de Yingwen hen hao" ("your English is very good"), he clapped his hands and told me that we could be "Shanghai friends." It was only as I left, over half an hour later, that he carefully gave me his business card and offered me a job "anytime, whenever you want" as a teacher at his school. Whether he was completely genuine or not, he certainly brightened up my day. A short Metro ride has been able to take us almost anywhere we have wanted to visit in these first few days, in a rather more clean and air-conditioned style than the London Underground or the New York Subway. The amazing thing about Shanghai is the extreme diversity you find. I've spent one hour sat on the luxurious rooftop bar at the Bund and an hour later I was in a small restaurant that seats ten, pointing at a menu and hoping for the best. The same can be said for pricing, where a convenience store will charge you the equivalent of 50p for a beer, and the bar next door will charge you £4.00, just because it can. I guess any traveler can tell you it's all about being "savvy", as my mother would say, and knowing when you're paying over the odds. The food, as expected, is fantastic. As a true food lover, I can say with a hand on my heart that I have ordered food that is so delicious, I have (shamefully) ordered another. We eat at the little places on the small streets that are packed with locals; a sure sign of good food. The great thing about Shanghai is it's ability to push you into using your Mandarin. Whilst there are plenty of English speakers in the most touristy areas, the quieter places rightfully have very few. Though I often resort to pointing and smiling, I do try to communicate in my broken and impossibly basic Mandarin, often to find that, actually, they could speak English and just found it amusing to watch me try. I'm learning from my mistakes, in particular when I accidentally asked for the 40th floor instead of the 14th. That was one long, hot elevator ride... but this is what visiting new places is all about! So what are my first impressions of Shanghai? It's big, beautiful, and buzzing. It's become Western enough for expats and travelers, but remained traditional enough for locals. It's "China for Beginners" as my buddy from Xi'an tells me, and it's completely unlike any other place I've had the good fortune to visit. I love it, and the exploring is just beginning.
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