Shanghai: A Refuge of Familiarity

How It Started

The first time I went to Shanghai, China I was in somewhat of a slump. I had been back in China for just about three weeks and was bleeding funds staying at a damp hotel while trying to figure out how to sort out a normal living situation while butting my head against the wall that is the absurd up-front payments for a flat (in cases, over half a year’s worth of rent due at signing). I was questioning whether a return to this country was a mistake. I missed the straightforwardness of Moscow, my cozy flat in Strogino with a sofa, video games, and a functional kitchen. As I rolled around beneath overly starched sheets in that hotel, I found myself wondering what in the name of blithering faffs had led me to decide coming back here was a good idea.

Shanghai China Flowers
These were nowhere in sight at the time.

Not only was I responsible for myself (something I have yet to master) this time around, but I am traveling with my girlfriend; I was the one who had proposed our stint in China and could see that the standards of you name it (cleanliness, social behavior, etc.) clashed with her Russian sense of propriety. Her homeland is clean, efficient, and restrained. Huzhou, China is none of those. The glamor of living in a new place, the adventure of exploration and travel…fell flat. And I felt more than a smidge of disappointment for putting us in this situation.

And the Escape…

Thus, the decision to go to Shanghai for a week, a chance to get what I came here for: new places, people, experiences. Half of the city thrilled me. The other half depressed me. I switched between a sense of wonder and disillusion with such a frequency that I lost track and at times was baffled as to which one I was currently experiencing. I was surrounded by an ancient culture with museums and parks and historical sights to visit, to feel a connection with a past that reached thousands of years back, even unto antiquity. And then there were the Zaras, H&M’s, and McDonalds’ on every corner. Red SALE signs and posters of models in ridiculous poses hawking Western clothes produced in Chinese factories. Difficult to maintain a sense of wonder when every city you go to spouts out the same chains. So of course I went into Zara and spent more than I should on a coat. I was cold. Whatever.

Don’t know what it used to be, but now this is some hipster zone.

Though the first visit left me with a mixed bag of results, I have returned several times since. And I am glad I have. The later trips saw me in a much more positive and receptive frame of mind, one more conducive to finding the novel and intriguing. A mindset that didn’t expect anything from the city and thus was all the more ready to form ideas and insights. And the knowledge that I had a flat to return to afterward might have helped. One with a PS4 and Bloodborne waiting for me.

Globalization: The Line Between

At its most general, Shanghai is best summarized in the same way I would speak of any modern, large city. There are people from all over the world blended together with the local way of life. In Istanbul, it was Turkish mixed with internationalism. In Stockholm it was Nordic mixed with internationalism. Moscow. London. Amsterdam. Just be careful not to blink while taking a walk in any of these places or you might accidentally wind up in a Starbucks sipping vaguely coffee-flavored syrup.

One such blend.

The point is that in any city I visit now, there seems to be a dilution that occurs as globalization becomes more and more the standard for modern society. And while this does make for added convenience in some aspects, the effect on one’s experience of a city as an entity under this paradigm is curiously bifold. It can at times seem to hide the aspects of a city that make it special, and at other times it can point them out with blazing clarity.

The Back and Forth

As much of the basis for global standards are derived from traditionally Western ideals and practices, this effect can be lessened in European countries. However, in a city such as Shanghai where the traditional culture and modern practices come from vastly divergent sources, an almost schizoid effect emerges. One can get off a modern subway train and walk past advertisements for the iPhone whatever-just-shut-up-and-give-us-your-money only to emerge with the grandeur of an ancient temple with roots from two millennia past standing above you, turn right and there is the gaudy façade of a shopping mall with people jostling past each other for questionable deals on questionable goods, go the other direction and you are met with a vendor street lined with stalls peddling trinkets, amulets, Buddhas. Make your way past that and you have to backpedal to avoid accidentally setting foot in an Armani store only to find that you wheelbarrowed through a Burger King and into a small hole-in-the-wall establishment where an elderly man is quietly serving tea to his sole customer, a young monk with a shaved head and prayer beads looped around a wrist.

Still haven’t gone inside it.

The constant switch, often without much warning, between Eastern and Western can be jarring but exciting. The result is a place that feels rife with possibility. All manner of cuisines, goods, people are thrown together. Of course, the overwhelming majority of locales and individuals are Chinese, but there is no sense of isolation in this city, a sense that is reinforced often in the places I had been before in China. Not that isolation is in itself bad, in small doses. If I wanted to be fully awash in connection to people I could have just stayed in LA.

 The Nooks and Crannies

There are countless hidden spots to find, away from the hustle of the tourist areas. Blends of Eastern and Western that have emerged into a new synthesized aspect. Factories converted into design buildings. Small restaurants with upper rooms that allow for a sense of privacy unrivaled anywhere else I’ve been. Historic residences. Low key museums. Exhibitions. Indie capitalist collectives. Variety.


I’ll Be Back


Shanghai provides a unique opportunity. The chance to see and learn more about a culture vastly different from what I am used to while not losing a sense of knowing what exactly is going on…can be hard to find. I love Shanghai. Though the air can occasionally turn poisonous. But that it has the exotic, the new, the unusual, as well of bastions of familiarity is a combination that to me is attracting. And demands a return visit.