By Alex Phillips
Summary: Expat Alex Phillips shares his adventures moving to Shanghai to learn Chinese - he tells how he chose his language school and where to live to his cultural impressions and practical advice for others moving to or traveling to Shanghai.
My first experience of living in East Asia came as part of a university exchange year, studying at Kanazawa University, Japan. It was great; I became fluent with the language, made some wonderful friends and went back to the UK vowing that I would return as soon as I could. However, a part of me had always regretted my decision not to choose Chinese.
During my final year of university I had a chance to weigh up my options. I had always intended to return back to Asia, but my idea of going to Japan began to evaporate. Instead, my focus sprang towards China and its exciting, vibrant and affluent financial capital, Shanghai. After much deliberation, I took the plunge and set off for Shanghai aiming to supplement my Japanese with Mandarin Chinese.
As with any trip abroad, preparation is of prime importance and if you want to study Chinese in Shanghai, it pays to be well researched. There are many Chinese language schools in the city and the quality can vastly differ. On top of this, your options are further increased with Shanghais' Universities and easily found private tutors. Shanghai is definitely a city consisting of choice. However, too much choice is not always beneficial and schooling dilemmas can cause a few headaches. I advise that you choose your school after attending one of the free trial classes, which are offered by most language schools and institutions.
I had been recommended Mandarin House by a family friend, who was the principal of an English language school back in the UK, so I decided to enter their class for total beginners.
The school itself is located in the very heart of Shanghai, close to the famous pedestrian promenade, Nanjing Road and the iconic Bund Area. Inside, the school has a sleek, modern and professional feel. Here all levels of tuition, ranging from absolute beginner to advanced Chinese, are offered. However, if you were unsure of which class in which to enrol, there is a very short placement test when you first arrive. Although being a beginner, I immediately entered Elementary 1.
The course was based around Mandarin Houses' own self-developed textbooks and due to the small class sizes (my class was usually around 6-10 people); the teacher was helpful and attentive. Our beginner class was Monday-Friday from 9am-12.30pm and classes consisted of grammar instruction, pronunciation and speaking & listening exercises. In the afternoons there was also the opportunity to study Chinese characters. This is definitely highly recommended as Hanzi (Chinese Characters) are not only an integral part of the Chinese language but the classes give you the opportunity to re-visit vocabulary from the morning exercises.
I felt that class progression was great and within a couple of weeks I was able to communicate with local Chinese and express myself at a basic level. This came in handy for ordering food at a restaurant or trying to barter with the shopkeepers at market stalls.
The school was a great way to meet people. Our class was small and everyone got on tremendously well. We would arrange to meet up outside of class in order to see the local sights whilst practicing our, all be it very basic, Chinese. I found it was a really great way to try to speak with some of the locals; being part of a group perhaps inspired me to be more confident and feel less ashamed about making a mistake. Our class was also very diverse, with people coming from all over the world. This was great; there were some who had been living in Shanghai for years and others who were completely new to the city. We found that we would help each other out regarding matters not just class related; we would share tips about the local lifestyle and would advise each other about the best amenities around. For a country that is so culturally different from the West, I would say it is important to find people you can identify with, friends who can help you find your feet in a brand new country and its culture.
In my experience, Shanghai is the ideal starting point for China. It has a wonderfully international vibe and there is plenty there to ensure your transition from West to East is as smooth as possible. It has a strong expat community and it is very easy to keep up to date with local events through the numerous English language magazines. In a way, Shanghai's affluence has made it more attractive to foreign visitors, particularly to those who are not keen to be parted from western home comforts or those who struggle to grasp the language. English is written on road signs and at all metro stations ensuring easy navigation of the city. Large multi-national high street names can also be found in the citys' various shopping areas.
For an escape from the fast paced down-town, I would recommend visiting the French Concession for a stroll down Xintiandi; the newly renovated Shikumen style area containing trendy bars and cafes. The alfresco dining there really exudes a European feel and perhaps illustrates why Shanghai was once known as "The Paris of the east".
Shanghai's distinct blend of China's vast cultural tradition with the city's contemporary attitude ensures that there is something there for everybody. I would definitely suggest a venture into one of the close-by, ancient "water towns" for a change of pace from the energy of the modern city. However, on some occasions I did get the impression that the city itself sometimes did not provide a completely authentic Chinese experience and so cultural purists might have to venture further afield and perhaps would be better placed at the country's capital, Beijing.
To me, Shanghai represents China's future, not its past. Being a relatively young country in some respects, Shanghai has become the realm of the Chinese nouveau riche, where expensive western brands are flaunted as much as possible. However, attitudes are changing at a phenomenal pace and the current well-educated, responsible, young generation look set to continue China's leap into the 21st century. You get the impression young Chinese are fully aware of their role In Chinese society and are ready to take on the mantle of caring for the older generation when the inevitable population imbalance takes effect.
While Shanghai is the most expensive city in China, it is easily affordable to most foreigners. By western standards, living costs are very low with meals at local restaurants costing the same as a cup of coffee in the west. In my experience, Shanghai is best enjoyed away from the anglicised tourist areas, where bargains are plentiful. It pays to be a little adventurous and to explore some of Shanghai's lesser known areas with an open mind. In these areas you will be, however, limited by your Chinese ability. Restaurant menus and shop signs will exclusively be in Chinese and you will definitely need to speak Mandarin in order to communicate with the locals. It is also advisable to bear in mind that Chinese cuisine can be a lot more "colourful" than what is eaten in the west. It is not uncommon to encounter restaurants serving "Frog Hotpot" as their mainstay. Whatever you decide (or understand), it is a rewarding experience once you manage to order your food in any of the smaller restaurants; I would sit with great satisfaction waiting for my food, being able to observe the local culture, whilst knowing I'm spending a fraction of the price I would in the tourist areas.
As I was studying with Mandarin House, I was given the opportunity to use the school's accommodation. The school had private studios, shared apartments or home-stays, which are all now pretty much standard practice for all language schools in Shanghai. However, I chose to find my own means of accommodation in order to save some money. Though, retrospectively I think it would have been much better to choose one of the schools' options with support and maintenance readily provided. I felt a little lost when I needed to speak to my landlord regarding issues with my heating system as there is only so much gesturing one can do to explain that the air-conditioner has broken down.
In Shanghai, accommodation is likely to be the biggest burden on your wallet in and it is surprisingly expensive considering most other necessities are very reasonable. If you are travelling on a tight budget, it is quite easy to find a flat-share with other foreigners and expats in one of the local magazines or community websites serving Shanghai. I would advise you make sure you are fully satisfied with your accommodation and feel comfortable enough communicating with your landlord or real estate agent before committing to your accommodation. New arrivals have a tendency to move into any half-decent accommodation as soon as possible but Shanghai is not short on available accommodation so it is worth taking a little longer making sure accommodation is suited to your needs, and especially if you intend to be in Shanghai on a long-term basis.
Shanghai's extensive subway system makes anywhere in the city easily accessible. It is extremely good value for money and ensures you have no excuse not to explore. If you are able to find accommodation close to a station, navigating the city will be a stroll in the park. Signs at stations are clearly written in English and there are also English announcements on the trains. The rush hour in the Shanghai metro system is, of course, best avoided.
While Shanghai does have a modern, international vibe, it is still very much part of China and possesses the rich Chinese culture found everywhere in the middle kingdom. You cannot go to Shanghai expecting to live in the same way as those in the West. Many things in the city are distinctly "Chinese", reminding you that beneath the affluent high rise buildings of Huangpu, there exists a very robust culture, with its own values and traditions.
My visit to China made refreshing change from Japan. My biggest qualm with Japan was that sometimes people were a little too reserved in their pursuit of harmony. The Shanghainese, on the other hand, are friendly, lively and energetic. There is an anything-goes attitude and while the pushing and barging on the metro can be quite tiresome, the high-speed people are perfectly suited to their high-speed city. Unfortunately, this energy is not without its downsides and it was not uncommon to see heated arguments in the street, over seemly trivial matters.
Something that did immediately strike me was the tremendously erratic highway etiquette. Drivers in Shanghai seem to have little regard for the rules of the road and darting between lanes with little warning is common place. As a pedestrian, care should be taken when crossing a road, even if you have a green light at a crossing. Traffic lights seem to be mere general guidelines rather than strict policy. Trishaws and scooters can speed past pedestrians on pavements and so walking anywhere in the city can be quite treacherous.
There are a number of things to be wary of when living or travelling as a foreigner in Shanghai. There is, unfortunately, and to some extent justifiably, the impression that foreigners are very wealthy In Shanghai. This is partly due to the favourable exchange rate set by the Chinese government in order to fuel demand for Chinese exports. It means that you can be approached, when walking down the street, by locals who are eager to sell you their merchandise at inflated prices. Furthermore, a number of scams have emerged, primarily taking place at the famous pedestrian promenade, Nanjing Road, where foreigners are invited to a local tea house near by and get handed an extortionate bill after just a couple of drinks. It is important to be vigilant and if something seems too good to be true, it most probably is.
Also, while it might seem a relatively small matter, Shanghai's houses are built for summer and not winter. If you are planning to visit Shanghai in the winter, you need to be aware that inside, houses are considerably cold. Most houses contain a small multi-purpose combustion heater, which is able to heat a room for a short period of time. Heat retention is virtually non-existent and as soon as the heater is turned off the room drops in temperature.
On a final note, I would like to say that Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn. I did benefit from already having firm grasp of the Japanese language, particularly with comprehension of Chinese Characters. However, I found it very tough going and the slow progression was sometimes quite disheartening. My advice is to persist with language, practise is the key to learning Chinese; use it to speak to as many people as you can. Being able to speak the language can differentiate yourself from tourists and with it comes numerous benefits.
First Published: Aug 04, 2011