Thursday, 26 June 2014


Once I became aware of the growing importance of Mandarin Chinese (or Putonghua) and China’s positioning in the world, I flew to Shanghai beginning of this year to spend half a year studying it. I had made multiple trips to the city in the past and with the blessing of the company I was working with I had the opportunity to study and work from our offices there.

The historic French Concession. The gleaming lights. The beautiful elegance of the streets I had so fell in love with.  I couldn't wait.

However, as I soon found out, the advertorials and my brief weekend trip’s camera roll failed to convey how much in actuality it can feel much closer to the spirit and geography of the windswept plains of inner Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong.

In the claptrap taxi ride from the airport to the company flat where I was staying, with the windows sealed and the heat cranked up, the stench of tobacco and pretense stuck to the roof of my mouth. Shanghai’s weather is notoriously of two extremes. With temperatures often reaching to 40 degrees in the summer, in the winter, the merciless wind that rose high in the North China plains whistled down and lashed your face.

The flat was located in the Pudong area, a futuristic vision that from what I remembered overlooking across the river sparkled as the city’s new financial district on what were marshland and rice paddy fields some 15 years ago.

The taxi driver finally pulled up outside a noodle stand shop and opposite a crumbling brick row block of flats, which looked like small boats in a sea of rubble. My doe eyes soon became filled with disbelief.

“Are we here?” I asked, secretly wishing he had made a wrong turn or lost his way.

I crossed the road with my luggage in tow, and after a couple serendipitous misses from a passing by motor scooter, I walked slowly past the flat entrance, double-checking the address I had was correct. Residents and some onlookers must have picked up on my desperateness or my foreignness staring at me with their intense eyes. Now looking back it could have been both.

A flight of crumbling stairs and poorly lit hall after, the countryside felt nearer than the affluent commercial district, only a few streets north.

That evening, desperate for some contact and sense of familiarity I set out to look for a café or anywhere with public Wi-Fi. Only to discover few miles down the street was a series of high-rise buildings, a subway station and a Starbucks. Even the Intercontinental hotel was nearby. 

I had never looked more forward to an Americano before. The barista greeted me cheerfully and in English too. She then prompted to ask me where I was from.

“Wow,” she said. “You’re far away from home.”

Indeed I was.

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