Editors’ note: The “Life in” series provides readers a window into daily life in different places around the world by sharing the stories of women living abroad.
Verily contributor Paige Sheffield first visited China during her sophomore year of college and left knowing there was so much more to see. So after graduating from college she moved to Shanghai where she now works as a teacher and writer.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? What do you do professionally?
I grew up in a small town in Michigan and lived in Michigan until I moved to China in 2018. I studied journalism in college and still do some writing, but I am currently teaching English in China. I teach English and writing at a middle/high school.
When did you move to Shanghai, and what precipitated the move?
I moved to Shanghai in August 2018, a few months after graduating from college. When people ask me why I moved to China, I usually say “I don’t know” because there wasn’t one simple reason but more a convergence of circumstances and goals. Perhaps the simplest answer would be because I fell in love with travel—and China—during college and knew there was still much of the country I had not yet and wanted to experience.
Before I started college, I found out about an opportunity to participate in an exchange program in Beijing through the journalism department at my university. I had never left the country before (well, I’d been to Canada once), and I had a deep desire to travel. I did a lot of research on the program and became pretty obsessed with the idea of participating in it. I applied for the program during my sophomore year and was accepted. So at age 19, I hopped on a plane and traveled abroad for the first time to spend three months in China.
I became really fascinated with the country while there and only stayed in Beijing, so I felt like I still had a lot more to discover. During my junior year, I participated in an exchange program in Chengdu, China. It was a great experience for me; Chengdu is known for pandas, spicy food, and its laid-back lifestyle. People there have a reputation for spending their time drinking tea and playing mahjong. I never learned to play mahjong, but I enjoyed my time drinking tea, eating spicy food, and just immersing myself in that environment. I also made great friends there who I still stay in touch with and visit when I can. Chengdu is located in the southwest and is quite different from Beijing, so again, I felt like there was more to see.
I had more time to travel the second time around, so I went to several areas of China but still had never been to Shanghai. When I was applying for jobs during my senior year, I didn’t really like the idea of staying in the United States, as my experiences in college had made me fall in love with traveling. One of the friends I made in Chengdu told me she had moved to Shanghai and suggested that I should do the same. I also still wanted to study Mandarin, because I had studied it before but wasn’t very good at it. I applied for some jobs in Shanghai and in the United States, and once I received an offer in Shanghai that I liked, I took it.
What were some of your first impressions of Shanghai? Of China? Did anything surprise you?
I don’t know exactly what my idea of China was before I came here, but it definitely was not how China actually is. I think one thing that many Americans underestimate or don’t realize is how quickly China develops. When I was living in Beijing, entire buildings would disappear and quickly be replaced. On my last day in Chengdu, I tried to go to my favorite cafe only to find it was no longer there. When I left Chengdu, one of my friends said, “Aren’t you excited to see how your hometown has changed?” I was like, “Trust me, it hasn’t changed in this short period of time.” But in China, things can really change so quickly.
The first time I came to China was four years ago, so I feel like I’ve witnessed some of that development. In the United States, I still rely on cash and my debit card for purchases. But in China, today most people use mobile payments. It seems like anything can be accomplished by scanning a QR code. I’ve seen street musicians with QR codes that you can scan to donate money to them. I also don’t think I understood just how populated China is until I actually came here. It’s hard to comprehend.
What were some of the harder things for you to get used to in Chinese culture?
One thing that I struggle with is how homogeneous China is in comparison to the United States (generally speaking, of course). In Shanghai, there are a decent number of people from other countries so people are pretty used to seeing people who are different from them. In other places in China, however, people might stare at or take pictures of people from other countries, calling them “foreigners” in Chinese. This is not malicious, in my experience, but it’s still a bit uncomfortable for me sometimes. When I taught adults, some of them would ask me questions like, “What do foreigners think of XYZ?” seemingly implying that I can speak on behalf of everyone who was not born in China. The word “foreigner” is widely used here, and people from other countries tend to all be lumped together as “foreigners.” You’re either Chinese or a foreigner. Even my job titles have been something like “Foreign Teacher.” I never viewed myself as a “Westerner” or “foreigner” until I came to China, and now I often find myself referring to myself or other people who appear to not be from China as “foreigners,” which I don’t really like.
The other difficult thing for me is being a vegetarian here. Vegetarianism isn’t widely understood here, so people tend to be really perplexed about why I don’t eat meat and give me unsolicited health advice, saying it’s not healthy to not eat meat. Because vegetarianism isn’t prominent here, if I go to a normal restaurant and ask for food without meat, that can result in getting food with small pieces of meat in it or cooked in meat-based broth. People don’t understand why I won’t eat that food. It’s difficult because I feel like people are offended when I don’t eat their food, especially when I’ve spent holidays with friends and they prepare meals. There are a decent number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai though, and even when I’ve traveled to remote areas, I’ve been able to find lone vegetarian restaurants attached to Buddhist temples.
What are some of the aspects of life in China that you like most?
I love the Mandarin language. I’ve picked up some speaking habits while here—certain sounds that are not words but are commonly said in a certain way like “ahhh?” “ai ya!” and “emmm.” I can’t stop talking this way even when I speak English.
I love traveling in China as well. High speed trains make it convenient to travel to a lot of different locations, and because China is such a large country, there is so much to see and learn. Shanghai itself is also really interesting to explore, and again, public transportation is quite convenient and clean. A lot of international tourists might not be interested in Shanghai because it seems like a typical big city. I felt the same way when I first arrived. But after living here for almost two years and making an effort to explore a ton of different places, I really appreciate the contrast between traditional and modern, old and new, Chinese and international.
There’s a really nice mix of things here, and there’s always something to do. If you want to spend a day drinking Chinese tea, learning about Chinese culture, and eating dumplings, you can do that. If you want to eat tacos and drink craft beer, you can do that as well. Because I’ve been here for a little while, things can start to feel ordinary, but there are always little reminders that I am indeed living in China. Recently, I was walking along the river with a friend, and he said, “I almost feel like I’m in Brooklyn when I come here until I see the Chinese characters on all the buildings.” But I like that.
I like how I can take comfort in the things that are familiar to me while also being surrounded by things that are new, challenging, and exciting for me. One common sight that I really like is elderly people dancing in the park. Walk past any park and you’ll probably see a group of older people dancing. Some people complain that their music is too loud, but I think what they do is super cool.
I also find that people in general are very friendly to me. Especially if I travel to smaller towns, people will just be excited to talk to me and impressed if I can speak a bit of Mandarin. Once I got on a bus, and the driver looked horrified and said to another person: “How do I ask her what stop she’s getting off at?” I understood him, so I told him the name of the stop, and he was like, “Wow, foreigners can speak Mandarin now.” I know I mentioned being viewed as a “foreigner” as a negative thing, but it’s not all bad. A lot of people are friendly and accommodating to people from other countries. When I first went to Beijing, I traveled to the suburbs and got super lost. I asked a man for directions, and he wanted to help me but also didn’t know where to go. He basically spent the whole day trying to help me, and he also bought me snacks. Generally, I feel safer here than I would in a big city in the United States in terms of daily life activities like walking around the city.
What are some of the biggest differences you’ve observed between American and Chinese culture?
It’s interesting because people here will often say that Americans are more direct than Chinese people. I’ve found the opposite to be true, depending on the situation. I find the language to be more direct at times, and people tend to feel comfortable telling you what they think of you. For example, people have told me that I should wear makeup, and it’s not uncommon for people to call others around them “fat.” From my perspective, this is quite direct. At work, though, I find communication to be less direct than what I’m used to. “Saving face” is a big aspect of Chinese culture, and people try to avoid “losing face”—basically feeling ashamed and damaging their reputation. For example, if you ask someone for directions and they don’t know the answer, they might tell you the wrong way instead of admitting that they don’t know.
What has the experience of the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying public health measures been like in Shanghai?
I was not in Shanghai during the height of the pandemic in China, and right now things are relatively “normal”—with most people still wearing masks and temperature checks at some locations.
I first heard about the outbreak when I was at the Kuala Lumpur airport at the end of January. It was winter vacation at the time, and I had been traveling in Malaysia. My Chinese teacher sent me a message saying, “Buy masks. They’re all sold out in China.” I was like, “Wait? What’s going on?” I went to every store I could find at the airport and asked for masks, but they were all sold out. I flew back to China, but to Kunming, a city in the southwest, because I had planned to spend Chinese New Year with a friend there. I wanted to wear a mask but they were all sold out, and I left the one I did have (for pollution) at my apartment in Shanghai. Everyone else on my flight was wearing a mask, except the two guys sitting next to me. One of them coughed a few times. I was suddenly freaked out.
After Chinese New Year, I flew to the United States (I already had plans to go there as part of my vacation) and was surprised by how lax the screening was for travelers arriving from China. At the airport, I was just asked if I was feeling okay before they let me go. Since this didn’t seem sufficient to me, I avoided other people for a while after returning to the United States.
When I arrived back in Shanghai at the end of March—a few days before China closed its own borders—the screening measures were far more intense. At the airport in Shanghai, I waited on the plane for about two hours after it landed because we couldn’t all get off at the same time. After that, I answered some questions about myself and my travel history and was given a yellow code, meaning I was a moderate risk. I was then sent to an area designated for the neighborhood in which I live, where I was told to wait until we were taken to get COVID testing. I waited there for a few hours, then a group was taken to a makeshift testing facility (once a school gym). There were lawn chairs for us to sit on, and we were given blankets, water, bread, and face masks. I had the testing done, and then we waited at the facility for about six hours before getting the results. Luckily, everyone in our group had tested negative, so we got on another bus to be taken to our respective apartments to begin our 14 day quarantine.
The following day, a neighborhood volunteer and doctor came to my apartment to explain that I couldn’t go out. If I had to open my door to pick up a delivery that was left in front of it, I had to notify them. I could not step outside. They would be notified every time I opened my door. A doctor came to my apartment two times a day to take my temperature for the two week period. After that, my code was changed from yellow to green, and I was able to go out. Most people still wear masks and temperature checks are still fairly commonplace at many locations throughout the city, though not as common as they were when I first got out of quarantine.
Are there any aspects of life in China that have made you rethink the way you traditionally did something or thought about something?
In China, it’s common to hear people say “多喝热水 (drink more hot water).” This is common medical advice; if you’re not feeling well, drink hot water. It will fix everything. Coming from the United States, I previously did not see the appeal of hot water. However, I’ve grown to like drinking hot water. I once went to see a doctor because of stomach pains, and he just told me to drink hot water. I was a bit annoyed at the time, but I actually prefer relying on natural remedies before taking medication for discomfort. During the winter or when I’m not feeling well, you can now find me drinking hot water. I even have art on my wall that says “多喝水” (drink more water).
Also related to health, I feel like periods are less taboo here. That’s not to say that menstruation is viewed from a feminist angle. It’s definitely not. But I do like how people will casually say they’re on their periods and will cancel plans because of that, and this is viewed as a totally valid excuse and acceptable information to share. This can be problematic as well if people think that menstruating makes women incapable of doing anything, but I like that people don’t seem too embarrassed about their periods.
In general, I think living in China has made me more laid-back and has allowed me to be more present. Sometimes, strange or confusing things happen to me, and I’ve gotten a lot better at rolling with the punches. Compared with what I was used to in the United States, a lot of things happen at the last minute here. Because of that, I don’t follow as strict of a schedule, and I’m okay with things not happening exactly on time.
If someone had a weekend in Shanghai, what are three things you would recommend they do while there?
I would recommend going to the Bund, the waterfront area in the center of Shanghai, famous for its iconic skyline. I also recommend visiting the Former French Concession area, where a lot of the architecture still has a more traditional look to it compared with the skyscrapers in other areas. In the Former French Concession, there are a lot of cute cafes, restaurants, and shops. It’s a nice place for wandering around and taking pictures. For people interested in art, I recommend the China Art Museum, a spacious museum for Chinese modern art. I’ve visited several times and still haven’t seen everything there.
Shanghai is pretty tourist-friendly. It’s not so hard to get around, even if you don’t speak Chinese. When it comes to living in China, I wouldn’t want to live here without knowing any Chinese. That said, I know people who do, and they’re fine with it. At a lot of businesses, people will be able to speak English, and you can survive without speaking Chinese. However, I feel much more comfortable being able to understand and communicate at least at a basic level, in case I encounter some sort of unusual or difficult situation. I also view language as an important part of culture so I feel that learning Chinese has helped me have a better understanding of China than I would have if I lived here and couldn’t understand anything. I feel like a lot of what I’ve learned about China has come from learning more about the Chinese language.