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The Real China

When you live abroad, you want to be able to tell people what your adopted home is like…what it’s really like. You want to be able to speak with authority and authenticity. You want to make the most of the time you have in your adopted home because you know your time is finite but, all the new things to learn seem infinite. At least that’s how I feel.

And so, every so often I ask myself, is this the real China? And more and more, I feel like my answer is “probably not.”  And then I start to feel…I don’t know what the word is for the feeling but, it is the same feeling I get when I pass up street food. A little guilty? Slightly anxious? Sort of bad? Maybe it’s more like claustrophobic – like I’m living in some expat bubble and can’t get out. Close enough to see the real China but not really interacting with it. But really, between the pollution, the dead pigs and now a deadly bird flu, can you blame me?

But then again, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I am not Chinese, so I’m never really going to know China like a local. But does that make the China I live in any less real or my experience any less authentic? Instead, maybe we expats, have to remind ourselves it’s all real. Whether we live outside the city in an expat community or in downtown high rise, we are all living in China. Granted some of us may be assimilating more seamlessly than others but it shouldn’t cheapen our unique experiences. After all, what is the “real” US like? Is a Manhattan neighborhood any more or less American than a Nebraskan farm? It’s just different.

As I mentioned above, we’ve been hit with some not so pleasant news stories. Most recently, hearing about a 3 year old British boy who died because he was refused care at 3 local hospitals, has made me retreat into our bubble a bit. You see, apparently, not every hospital in Shanghai is equipped to save lives. If you can stomach it, you can read the article here.

So, I’ve been trying to re-examine all the things that are uniquely Shanghainese to encourage myself to step outside the bubble again; to stop and see the sights that have become so familiar to us now, we hardly remember they would not be found in our suburban Connecticut (below are some photos); to reassure myself that I am living in the real China.

And I’m trying to focus on the fun aspects of Chinese culture – like their holidays, one of which happens to be today – the appropriately named “May Day” holiday. It’s in honor of laborers worldwide.

Another holiday that recently passed was Qingming or “tomb sweeping day.” The tradition of going to ancestors graves to pay respects dates back almost 2,500 years. That fact alone is a good reminder that despite some of the negatives, the long held traditions here are impressive. As the story goes, one of the emperors of the Tang Dynasty felt that the wealthy citizens were holding too many extravagant ceremonies to honor the dead and so he declared just one day a year for this practice.

From our perspective, one of the more interesting aspects of Chinese holidays is how they adjust their working schedules to accommodate their holidays. For example, since May Day falls on a Wednesday, they work the Saturday and Sunday before the holiday and then take Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off. The same held true for Chinese New Year. They would work over the weekend to get the weekdays off. Seems like they are cheating themselves out of days off, no?

So, maybe the street food eating, mandarin speaking, expats with Chinese friends can tell you what China is  really like, while I can just tell you from the perspective of someone traveling in and out of the expat bubble. But maybe before our time is up, I will actually BE one of those admirable expats. But then again, I can’t tell you what it’s like to live on a Nebraskan farm so…

Below is my Shanghai.

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Down the road from Hunter’s school. Garbage on one end, fancy high rise on the other.
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Two wheelers
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Casual flower arranging in the street.
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Urban garden? (Couldn’t read the sign)
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Pig heads and whole chickens at the local grocery store.
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Hardware store (closet?). On the same block with about ten other places that look exactly the same.
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Hoarder turned saavy businessman?
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Think of all the electricity saved when billions of people don’t use dryers.
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Typical alleyway/street off of a main street.
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Contaminated water and pesticides sure do make the fruits look good at least.
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You know what they say, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia.
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Sadly, I cannot verify if Jin Ling is, in fact, the stewed goose king.
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Pay telephones! They are all over.
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Nanjing Road – popular shopping thoroughfare
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The green sign says, “Pretty House.” I thought that was funny.
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Fanciest Pizza Hut I’ve ever seen. The food MUST be good.
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Inside the Pizza Hut. The picture doesn’t do it justice. Think smokey urban steakhouse meets futuristic diner.
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Typical street corner.
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Behind our apartment.
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Typical street

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