Amelia Chappelow

Nov 30, 2014

8 min read

Things I’ve Learnt After Living in China for Two Months

One Step At a Time. New Life Motto.

Yes, after two months, getting around the city has been just so impressive! I love all the options and having a two year old in tow most days, I need to have these options to be flexible. So we walk (with the pram), we taxi (easily, and I’ve recently learnt to ask my apartment’s receptionist to call one for me, so we’re not waiting on the street) with the pram or the baby carrier, we train (with most subway stations having some sort of access for the pram, after I found an app that helps locate which exit to look for) and now, after two months: WE BIKE. I was scared about riding with the traffic (even walking and crossing roads in the first week I was here) but with time, I see the patterns and who gives way to who (or not) and really it’s what guide books (or online tourist sites) have suggested, you just continue at your pace and people move around you.

So bike riding (just the classic fixed gear bicycle for us) was the natural next step for us, and as Shanghai is completely flat — like amazingly so — it’s just so easy to get around. It takes me less that 20 minutes to get to all my places and I’ve ridden everyday since I got my bike (almost two weeks now). When cars come too close, it’s much scarier, but no one is travelling at any great speed. I like to take the quieter streets along the Former French Concession, as when my boy is in his carseat we can chat and sing and it’s just been great. The weather is getting colder soon, so we’re making the most of it.

We’ve started learning Mandarin (or Hanyu — but I don’t yet know how to add/type the inflections or tones onto the vowels here) and at first I was excited to start to see the patterns from just things around town. ‘Lu’ is ‘Road’ for example and that’s a GREAT help when finding your way. I have a long running sense of direction (long running annoyance to my Husband, because I am the best know-it-all of locations in any location) so ‘Lu’ is just natural to me now after 2 months. But after learning ‘Ni hao’ (Hello) & ‘Xie Xie’ (thank you), I asked a Chinese friend what Yes and No is, thinking that would be the most natural next step in my language skills. But no, there’s no no. There’s Yes — ‘Shide’ or ‘Dui’ (correct!), but no direct no… there’s ‘Bu shi’ which is ‘Not Yes’… so the PosiTina Turner in me REALLY likes that I’m rarely saying no to anything.

I learnt Japanese at High School so feel excited to know another language, and whilst I’m not fluent in Japanese, I can understand so much from my classes (thank you now & forever Mrs Blandford, and sorry for being such a clown at times). But Mandarin is so very different, the four tones make it tricky to read pinyin (the English words, not the Chinese characters) but my main mouth issue is the overuse of j, sh, xi, xu, qi, zh, and then sometimes they are sound very similiar… so when I study (read the pinyin) I can work out what the sentence means but when my teacher speaks, I get confused. I’ve had 3 classes though. Three. But my ‘I Should Know Everything’ brain is just being bossy here. The other thing though, I really like all the short cuts in Mandarin… “Just keep it simple” says my teacher, why say “Let me introduce you to Vincent, he’s my husband”, just say “This is my husband Vincent”… and that ‘Ta’ can me ‘He or She’ is just so very helpful. It also explains why Chinese people have said to me (in English — so very skilled) “My wife, he is from Beijing” or “My son, she is two years old also”.

And lastly, on the language, there are Chinese words to describe the level of happiness or terribleness instead of gestures and facial expressions. I am very theatrical with my face and with my arms and hands. I often mime out ‘playing on the internet’ with pretending to type hands etc and can (at times) be flamboyant. So this makes it harder for me to flourish in my communication when I can’t speak the language… and also to understand what Chinese people are saying and if they’re happy. My son gets a lot of attention and people talk to him, but they don’t smile but I think they’re saying lovely things about him… so for a while he just blew raspberries at people not understanding that they’re being affectionate. We’ll learn, I’m sure. Again, it’s only been two months of living here!

“Oh, I just thought this would be like that because…” NO, this is China and that’s the wrong way to think. Anything you’ve previously learnt in the Western World, you may as well just chuck it out the window. Sometimes this is a very good thing, sometimes it’s a very weird thing and sometimes it’s just baffling why ‘things aren’t what they seem’. I have this problem solving approach unfortunately, so I’ve been like ‘why is this’ and ‘Huh’ and ‘How come’ a lot… which hasn’t been the best for me. So maybe after 2 months I’ve realised that my normal way of life is kinda boring anyways, and now I can embrace a weird and wonderful and a philosophically different way. I’m starting to feel amazing and going with the flow really helps. A friend said to me that there is no ‘right or wrong’ way, the Chinese way is just ‘different’ to Western way. And so it should be, and that is one of the great reasons why I love being here, to learn the difference. To be different with this new philosophical way.

There are just daily examples, but my mobile phone contract was one of the biggest things I assumed. I never got a bill in the post, so the phone stopped working. But when I signed up, the man told me a bill would come. Now I have to go to the mobile shop, punch in the number into an ATM type machine and then pay. The other day I got a message and asked a Chinse friend to translate, and she said “oh you don’t have credit on your account” (even though it’s a post pay plan) and she paid via an Alipay app on her phone, and I gave her the cash. There is no consistent or regular way, and I’m letting my reasoning (and problem solving self) go. Extending my belief. Expanding my disbelief?

Maybe because we’re newbies, and just learning the ropes of this city and country. Maybe it takes ages to make stuff happen because we’re who we are (but it didn’t take a week and a half to buy an ironing board in Australia)… or maybe things are just slow moving here. Or you just need to REALLY plan ahead. I am waiting on a postage item I bought (via Amazon) in September that hasn’t arrived, and the HR friend at my Husband’s work is still trying to work out where the package is). A letter I sent my Mother in Law took over a month from Shanghai to Brisbane, and we’ve since heard that there are many different postage options. We opened a bank account with the help of a Chinese colleague and spent probably close to two hours sorting out the details. And please don’t talk about how I paid my rent on Tuesday (I tried to online bank it at home, gave up after half an hour of clicking around the website — was it ‘Transfer’ or ‘Bank Transfer’ or ‘Interbank Transfer’ or ‘E-Payment’ or ‘Pay Bills’ as everything looked the same), as I needed lots of help from my Chinese friend to get that set up.

Online shopping is huge in this town. HUGE. Taobao, YHD, Sherpas, Fields, Kate & Kimi and they’re places where you can get daily deliveries. I can order groceries before 5pm and it arrives between 6.30–9pm that same day. There are over 20 million people living in Shanghai, and you can wander the streets and be like “Where would I buy a sketch pad for my son?” and go to the obvious (or you think obvious) places… but the best place is online, always online. Everyone is shopping online, not wandering the streets. However if you know which ‘street’ sells what (there’s an art supply street, a hardware & tools street, a hairdresser street etc etc etc) you’ll be able to window shop… but most people are online day in and day out buying shit. On Singles Day (11/11 here in China) there was a spending spree that would put Western Christmas Time Lovers to shame.

Of course, there are lots of hurdles about an Australian buying stuff online (not all local websites use Paypal) but I have bought a few things via cash on delivery, but hopefully in the next few months, I’ll find out what’s the easiest option. Because it’s really hard doing bulk buying grocery runs on your bike or in a taxi.

So! I feel it takes someone like me about 2 months to kinda ‘get’ Shanghai. I do love researching and talking to people and finding stuff out in my everyday life, so that has helped glean a bit about daily life here. It’s an absolutely beautiful international city as well, and you can forget it easily when you see eels and crabs and baby turtles at the train station footpath, for sale. The challenges (and funny weird stuff) really make it hard but it’s so delightfully weird and I’m just so excited by being here. So that’s good. Having never visited China before, I just didn’t know. So I’m glad I love it enough to keep on keeping on. And yes, as my friend Sherry says “One Step at a Time”.

Executive Audio Director & Showrunner ♡ Now in New York ♡ Alum: Spotify, triple j & ABC Australia

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.