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Settling in an Unsettled City

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"Normalcy" and "routine" may be hard to come by in Shanghai.

When I moved to Shanghai at the end of my three-year stint in the UK, I honestly thought I was prepared. As someone with low-key anxiety and obsessive tendencies, research keeps me level—and the amount of time I spent doing research before I got on the plane was ridiculous. And what did I learn? Quite a bit, actually. Enough that when I arrived and met up with my fellow new-hires for orientation, I knew more than most of them about how to find and do things in Shanghai.

But my research didn’t prepare me for what I found in the following months; you can’t count on anything in this city to be the same tomorrow as it is today.

As a former English teacher, current geography teacher, I admit I’m prone to hyperbole. The above statement could be perceived as a gross exaggeration, but in this case I am not overstating the seriousness of the issue. Case in point: one thing I have tried very hard to do in Shanghai is buy my produce from local wet markets. (Similar to farmers' markets, wet markets sell meat and produce.)

As a cook and shopper, the experience is very rewarding; you buy straight from local vendors and the produce is usually fresher and in better shape than what you buy at big grocery chains. You strike up a rapport with your favourite vendors than can result in a series of fun (if not awkward) cultural exchanges, and little freebies like some extra heads of garlic or a handful of spring onion stalks in your bag at the end of the transaction. No chef worth their salt will say no to extra garlic, but I digress.

The wet market I frequented was about a 200-metre walk from my compound, through a narrow gate to a building nestled beneath the Metro train overpass. Within this dank, squat little building was a lively market containing four different vegetable sellers, a grains and pulses vendor, two fishmongers, a hand-pulled noodle stall, tofu, freshly made dumplings, and side-by-side pork butchers that I had to switch between on a weekly basis because they were both such nice ladies. My weekly visits were always a joy, and when I left to go home to Canada during the summer holidays I assured my regulars that I would be back in August.

Fast-forward seven weeks and I’m walking through the sticky Shanghai heat, jet-lagged and a little bit hazy, and I come to the narrow gate. Blinking, I look around...the wet market and the entire building that housed it has been reduced to a pile of stinking rubble. The connected buildings are also gone, without even a hastily posted sign explaining where the businesses they housed have relocated to. Inquiries with multiple shops and stands in the area as to where the market went lead no where. No one knows, and if they do, they aren’t telling.

Shops are shuttered, street vendors are rousted by police and city blocks are torn down without any formal notice on a daily basis in Shanghai.

This is by no means an isolated incident; in Shanghai, well-patronized restaurants owned by foreigners and by mainlanders close without so much as a week’s notice, only to pop up again somewhere else, or never to be seen again. This past summer a well-loved and quite famous street in Xuhui district, Yongkang Lu, was shut down by the district governor, apparently for being too noisy and too high traffic for a supposed residential street. This street was home to many, many bars popular with the expat community and left many a foreigner without a familiar, comforting place to spend their evenings.

Shops are shuttered, street vendors are rousted by police and city blocks are torn down without any formal notice on a daily basis in Shanghai. It can be a very unsettling experience for everyone. So what is a lowly geography teacher (or anyone, really) to do?

I’ve learned that adopting a somewhat devil-may-care attitude in this city can be helpful, but not always realistic. I’m a nester; I find the places that make me happy and I visit them frequently, returning to the same locale week after week to get a taste of normalcy in a city that behaves in a decidedly unusual fashion. I suppose it’s best, then, that you create your own nest in your home. Many foreigners come to Shanghai and settle for living quarters that are ramshackle and questionable in taste, though you can mostly thank the Chinese landlords for that last part. My advice would be not to settle. Try to find an apartment in a section of the city that has a sizeable or well-established expat community.

It’s there you will find two important things:

1) Most real estate agencies will have at least one agent who speaks passable to fluent English. These agents want to build up a large foreigner client base and will usually go out of their way to help you do anything from negotiate with your landlord, to arrange for the sacred fapaios (a.k.a. rent receipts). Do them a favour and throw some business their way if you’re satisfied with their service.

2) The quality of the lodgings will usually be a little higher than the more local areas. Landlords who like to rent to foreigners (because we are paid more than many locals and we can generally sign contracts for long periods of time based on our work contract length) will usually add some comfortable touches to their spaces, such as fancy Japanese toilets or underfloor heating. They may even provide Western-style mattresses on the beds, and good sleep makes a world of difference to anyone’s disposition.

Shanghai has been my home for almost three years now and I’m pretty happy here. The city has taught me a lot, and I’m looking forward to learning more.

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Laura Winberg

Laura Winberg is a Canadian-trained high school teacher specializing in IGCSE and IB Geography. After teaching in the UK, she moved to Shanghai to work at an international school. You can usually find her seeking the best xiaolongbao in the city and planning prom for the umpteenth time in her life.

Website: teach-travel-live-eat.tumblr.com/

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