The first challenges
When I went to China end of February this year, it was my first time ever being in Asia. So everything was new to me from the moment I left the plane. The first challenge started when buying a metro ticket. Was it Changshu Road or Changshou Road, I was wondering where to go. I admit, after a few Chinese classes, the difference becomes a little clearer but at this specific moment I thought this is a joke.
The challenges continued when I went to the supermarket for the first time. Knowing other European major cities tells you that there are always supermarkets. In China, supermarkets are less common and most supermarkets are run by western companies, which gives me the impression that supermarkets are not really part of Chinese culture. Later I found out that Chinese people like to buy fruits and vegetables on the streets of their neighborhood or on markets. A Chinese friend later told me that every neighborhood usually has some local markets in addition to the street dealers who cruise around. However, Jackie, the coordinator who welcomed me made me familiar with my neighborhood and showed me the location of a supermarket. I went in and felt like in a lottery game since I had to choose products based on the appearance of the package. I picked a pack of simple buns because I thought on my first day, nothing can go wrong with this. Sure it can, it had a filling of red bean paste, a totally new flavor for me which I thought is very strange for a bread. Today, I love it and eat it every day.
Every day a nice surprise
The following days went liked this, everywhere I made a little try but I can say, most of the time, it was a great surprise and I soon discovered a lot of things that would become my favorite food. Today, I always eat 豆少包 (Baozi, a steamed bun filled with red bean paste), 黑米糕 (Hei Mi Gao, a dry cake made of black rice flour), 馄饨 (Hun Tun, Google translates it as ravioli; it is kind of a big filled noodle served in a soup or with peanut sauce) and eggplants in many variations and pay my purchases the Chinese style using the mobile phone and a QR code.
Even the rice tastes so much better here that I enjoy eating a lot of plain rice. With that however, you should be careful when eating out with Chinese people and you are invited since eating rice, since there are several other food items on the table, is seen as an insult to the host. You would express that you either did not like the dishes he ordered or it was not enough, in both cases it would show that the host was not able to treat you well. Therefore, rice is often served last and is eaten plane which is quite unusual to western people who would like to mix the rice with sauce, vegetables and meat.
Although Shanghai offers you hundreds of western restaurants to eat upscale pizza, pasta, burgers or steaks, western food became totally unappealing to me. Before I came to Shanghai, I studied in the Netherlands and have fallen in love with their cheese. I expected that this would be a problem. Although cheese is available at supermarkets or shops that sell imported food, I never bought it and do not even look forward to eat it once I will be back in Europe. Furthermore, I have been introduced to so many Chinese dishes. Although I had been a little picky in Europe because I avoided fish and seafood, I ate nearly any kind of these dishes here and really liked it. In fact, it is so much easier to enjoy this type of food since it is allowed to pick a whole crab with your chopsticks, take it in your mouth and anything that cannot be eaten can simply be spit out, even in high class restaurants. After enjoying several kinds of blood pudding, pork brain, frogs, pork intestines (which actually smells exactly as you would expect it), I can definitively say that I am no longer picky.
I have finally arrived
But it is not all about the food. The first time taking the Shanghai metro during rush hour was an incredible picture since I am from a smaller village with a bus arriving only twice per hour. I went down the escalator to the platform and saw that the entire platform is crowded with people. It looked like there is a concert going on. Surprisingly, the people are all standing in line until the moment the train opens its doors. Then the war begins. While this can be tough on the first days, you quickly get used to it and I found out which areas of the 300 meters long platform are less crowded. In addition, it does not matter not taking the first available train since the next one will arrive two minutes later and all in all it does not make any difference if you arrive at 8.59 or 9.01 in the office. Now the rush hour is part of the morning routine and I enjoy to be surrounded by so many people having their phone in front of them that during the 10 minutes subway ride I can choose from approximately 10 entertainment options to watch.
All in all it takes up to 2 months to get fully used to the new environment. But as soon as you learned some words at your classes and can actually start buying all the stuff you need on the street, you will love the smiles and little chats you get from the shop owners or street vendors. Just this morning I lined up at my favorite Baozi place and the shop owner yelled at me that my favorite fillings (red bean and black sesame) are sold out. When I go to my favorite Hun Tun place, I already get my plate without needing to say much making big eyes among the Chinese customers that a Lao Wei (foreigner) is a regular and last weekend, I forgot to bring money when I wanted to get jian bing (煎饼 a sort of savoury crepe), so the lady making it offered me to pay tomorrow when I grab breakfast again. These little moments make you feel home and tell you that you finally have arrived.
Now, I have been here six months and I still do not miss home or anything from Europe because I really feel that this place is now my home and I am very sad that I have to leave it soon.
Interested in knowing more about Chinese culture, and living abroad? See our post on how a gap year in China can change your life, or about Cheryl’s experience as a intern in Shanghai. Want to know more about Chinese history, read our post on ancient Chinese legends.
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Dominik Krause (marketing intern)