What I Know After Living in China for 5 Months

Things are picking up pace and almost making sense here in Shanghai.

Together with my Husband and two year old, I moved to Shanghai last September. Yesterday was our 5 month anniversary, and so why not recap all the things I’ve learnt while living here, because the Chinese lucky numbers are 2, 5, 6 and 8. And maybe 9 as well. Actually I think Chinese lucky numbers are every number except for 4 as it sounds like “DEAD” to quote my Mandarin teacher.

Speaking of luck…

It is lucky to wear red, but not all white. 88 is very lucky and 99 means forever and ever. While some superstitions have been relaxed with modern and western living, there’s still an uncomfortableness about certain numbers and colours. My friend tells me when her boyfriend wore a green beanie, she just felt uncomfortable, and didn’t know why. Then later she remembered that when a man wears green hats; he has a mistress. Or so the superstition goes for her.

I actually LOVE the lucky numbers here, because 6 & 8 & 2 (and sadly 4) are my lucky numbers, or my ‘even’ numbers dream team. For my entire life, or since before I was 6, I’ve been in love with 6. SIX. It just looks so lovely and amazing. And even. I’m not obsessed about that many things in this world (and definitely not obsessive compulsive but I do like a bit of order in a Virgo way), but I love 6 and even stevens. So too do the Chinese, apparently! You’ll see 2 or 4 or 6 red lanterns out for Chinese New Year decorations, because the pairing is comfortable and balanced. You can see why I’m in love with all this Virgo-esque balanced even keel of life! Maybe China is a Virgo like me, and that’s why we are a perfect match?

Christmas time was a blast (and it’s still being celebrated in February, as decorated trees are left up in some stores) and now it’s almost Chinese New Year here too, so that means the Year of the Horse will come to an end, and the Year of the Sheep or Goat begins. I asked my Chinese friend which is it: Sheep or Goat? She says it’s the same. Sheep, goat, ram, it’s all the same. Hmmm, maybe? My husband and I often say to each other, maybe everything we’ve ever been taught in the Western World is Wrong?

So, the Year of the Sheep approaches! Apparently, Sheep children are lazy and slow and are followers, not leaders. Another Chinese friend is very happy her boy was born in the Year of the Horse (2014); very strong! There’s a piece I heard on the radio here in Shanghai about planned pregnancies around this coming year, and how hospitals have been SO busy these last few months as everyone has their babies before the Year of the Sheep begins. A community type announcement from a doctor reminds us that superstitions are just that, and you should plan a family around you not the years. Especially to give hospital staff some space and not cramp resources.

I’m a little daunted about Chinese New Year celebrations, only because I’m a terrible gift giver, and there’s plenty of gift giving by the looks of things. Fruit, food, money. The Money bag is Hongbao, and there is etiquette around that too of course, that puts me in a numbed panic. You put clean and crisp new notes into a red envelope (NEVER a white one) and 200 is too small a number, 400 is too much like a being dead (again, according to my language teacher, the number 4 sounds like death) and so then you’ll have to give 600 or 800. Which is sometimes too much for people who aren’t family or close friends. The Hongbao is for weddings, for holidays, or special occasions and I’m sure people are’t expecting me to slot right into a cultural history of tradition and knowledge, but I was told I need to give my housekeeper (Ayi) a Hongbao, so I’m hoping 200 is ok for her and won’t get her feeling uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable even thinking about it. (I actually gave her 200 from us and 100 from my son. I’m still uncomfortable.)

But I’m REALLY looking forward to the New Year celebrations in town though, as already there are so many beautiful decorations and some fire crackers. Most people go home to their families in other parts of China (our Ayi has travelled 3 hours today I think) as Shanghai is quite a diverse city, so it’ll be quiet around town and shops close down for the week. But I think noisy too because of the firecrackers & fireworks! I can’t wait.

Accessing the Internet outside of China should never be taken for granted. Constantly here in Shanghai, there’s a log in and log out, a flip of a switch, an unplug of a router. Every day, there’s a little dance back and forth with a VPN, a wifi drop out, a 3G dip and an internet drag of data. On our mobile phones and our desktop computer. All technology is tricky. You will start to think you have a technology curse! You will start to say ‘Damn, every time I need this quickly, it doesn’t work’ as you’ll need your phone to show the taxi card address, and it doesn’t load quickly enough while the driver is confused and you keep saying ‘Wait a short time’ over and over in Chinese. It’s intense. (I’ll write more on that taxi card business later)

Social media is ok, we use Wechat, but apparently that’s monitored by the government! During the Occupy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, it would take over a minute for a photo to load and send, and I was told that’s because the government was screening all photos. When the Sony Hack happened last year, all the VPNs and connections were weird and lagging and it made me *this* close to giving up … giving up loading my Twitter and Instagram … feeds. Not giving them up for good! But in January, there were real VPN problems and people had to find other connections or just look at Chinese websites for a while.

The thrill of a bargain runs deep here in China, and I’ve noticed (after a new Australian friend asked me if I minded telling her how much we pay our Ayi) that Chinese do not mind talking about money or knowing about money and how much (or little) things cost. There’s status with money, of course, but since the new iPhone 6 & Plus were released, I have seen SO many of them. Everyone (even the HR women at my Husband’s work) has the new version. And when I look around a cafe, mostly half the people have an iPhone 6. A phone that’s not even 3 months old, and was released LATE in China too. Everyone has them. Maybe they release them later here so people can save them, for I’ve heard people don’t use credit cards that often. They do ask for advances on their wage though, we got one to cover our rent when we first arrived as including the bond we had to pay 4 months work at the start!

So when I was in Sydney, I got a Wechat from my Chinese friend wondering if I can pick up at iPhone 6 Plus for her husband, and she’d pay me back. I got one ok, and she was so ecstatic, worked out the savings she’d made compared to buying it locally. We both exclaimed (in front of other iPhone owners) the savings and just that thrill of a bargain or a better deal is just crazy to see. It’s quite intense also.

Cafes have set lunch or set dinner menus, to save you time for choosing your meal and to save you money. Of course I’m skeptical all the time about how much it does save me, but today I bought a coffee for 38 kwai, and it came with a pastry that’s usually 18 kwai, it’s a brekkie set between 7am — 10am and usually the coffee is 40 kwai, so I don’t know why that’s a saving for them to have a set… I guess it gets people trying their pastries and they ARE delicious. It’s a French cafe in Shanghai, of course everything is delicious.

In Shanghai, the wintertime is cold, as expected, but it’s definitely within the winter months. We arrived in Spring and it was glorious and consistent temperatures each day. You knew what to expect and I gave up looking at the weather apps. And coming from Melbourne, I am addicted to my weather apps. Melbourne, as we know, has four seasons in one day. But Shanghai is absolutely cold in winter with some sunny and warmer hours in the middle of the day, and you give up the “What Should I Wear to Prepare for Four Seasons?” type pondering, and you just wear your light down jacket everyday. (That I bought locally, and it fits this short, petite armed woman like a dream. Love you Chinese sizing!) There are no leaves on the trees, so it makes the streets a bit grey, but the skies are endless. I found wintertime in the UK like living inside a tupperware container and a bit claustrophobic, but most dies the skies are white and not heavy clouded. It might be the different in atmosphere due to the pollutions… which then leads me to the sadder part of Shanghai…

The pollution is real, and you can see it, and I get a little hypochondriac about tasting it, breathing it, eating it and digesting it and carrying it in my blood. I have complete mood swings over the reality however, which I didn’t expect. I listen to the doctor who shares advice for my son’s mild asthma, and we follow it and monitor two air quality apps but decide the US Embassy is the correct figures. So I wear a mask while I’m riding my bike when it’s over a certain number. My son has started to like wearing the mask, so that’s ok too. But, sometimes my attitude about it just changes so quickly, and sometimes I couldn’t care less, we aren’t going to live in China longer term, and does the mask do anything anyways? Even if it’s a high quality one? So I swing between huge anxiety about living here, to a general Oh Fuck It attitude. It’s just so strange, and I discuss this with my friend who has just moved here like us… and she feels the same. One minute all the worries, the next, oh well.

And then, there are beautiful clear days as well. Just stunning, and so liberating bike riding through the city streets. Amazing. Contradictions in China? Always.

I still don’t understand: recycling. I see cardboard collectors on the street (with lots of cardboard all folded up on the back of their bikes), but in my apartment we just put all the rubbish near the stairwell on our floor and it gets collected maybe 3 times a day. Do the cleaners & apartment employees sort it out? I keep forgetting to ask my Ayi or my Chinese friends. There’s always too many things to ask friends (like should I get a filter for my bathroom taps now I’m using kitchen water filter so much), so lots of day-to-day stuff takes the back seat.

It is creepy to say please and thank you too many times, I’ve been told by my teacher. I say ’thank you’ and ‘sorry’ a lot in my western life, and this too is creepy in China and apparently I should never really say ‘I’m sorry’ in Chinese unless it really is my fault. This is helping me say ‘sorry’ less, but instead I say ‘Excuse me’ a lot more in Chinese… but that also can translate as ‘I’m embarrassed’. But I don’t really feel embarrassed all that much, so I’m now trying to say nothing. I also spoke (in English) to my husband really bluntly ‘Get a tissue’ for my child’s runny nose, and the waiter nearby jumped and said ‘Oh, certainly’ and quickly gave me a napkin. So I’m practicing being blunt and assertive now, as it seems to be expected as well.

I know a bit more Mandarin, and people are astonished by this. Impressed, they praise and compliment (all in English) my ability and I feel so not worthy of it. It does make me determined to keep learning and to be better.

So ‘One Step at a Time’ is still my mantra, even after 5 months, but it’s all not as overwhelming and strange as around the 2 or 3 month mark of living in China.

I’m starting to skip instead of step slowly. I feel more confident each day.

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

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