Travel Blog: Shanghai-lights

Chope had offices in multiple countries and I was deployed to the Shanghai outpost to help the local team jumpstart their marketing efforts. My entry was a little bumpy: I was overcharged by the cab driver from the airport, he got lost trying to find the Airbnb (so the ride took two hours instead of one), it took me 40 minutes to find an ATM that worked in the neighborhood where I was staying, and my host owned a dog who greeted me with a series of staccato high pitched yaps whenever she saw me. That, and the grandmother living with them liked to hock loogies (which I later found was common among many Chinese). Once I survived the first night it got a little better. I made it to a grocery store the next morning, where I was accosted by a cacophony of different kinds of music and ads on TVs (very Chinese, epileptic seizure generating stimulation). While there, I figured out how to get my bulk fruit weighed and tagged all through hand gestures and mime and admired an array of locally flavored Lays potato chips. The store offered beef curry, cucumber, and grilled squid, among other flavors. I do love "foreign snacks" tailored to local tastes. Shanghai is like New York fused with Chinatown - on every street. The area where the office was located had multiple high-end, luxury stores; literally every posh brand you can think of is in Shanghai - and all the ones you'd never think Chinese people would go for like Abercrombie and American Eagle. What makes them all the more discordant, however, is that they're interspersed with cramped noodle bars. You have streets filled with people peddling grilled corn and yams on the back of their bikes, set against a backdrop of Hugo Boss and Prada.

The traffic was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was nearly mowed down by a moped going the wrong way down a one way street. Apparently there's a hierarchy in Shanghai: buses, cars, mopeds, bikes, scooters, skateboards, and then finally pedestrians. Here, walkers never have the "right of way"; even if the light is green, people do not stop if they turn right on red. Apparently moped/scooter people treat traffic lights as suggestions. My co-worker informed me that moped driving adrenaline junkies run right lights so often buses and cars will literally beep as they go through intersections (on green, mind you) to warn rogue mopeds not to crash into them. It's also fun crossing a street because you must look in every direction to avoid injury, because bikes/mopeds/scooters treat every street (both sides) as two-way. They also like to commandeer sidewalks as their own personal path. Despite all of this, I witnessed dozens of pedestrians walking while engrossed in their phones (my co-worker said they will watch movies while walking!), seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them. Paranoid about food poisoning, I religiously avoided all raw fruit and vegetables except bananas and oranges (and I washed the oranges with soap before eating). My co-workers took me to a traditional Shanghai restaurant on my first day and the food was actually pretty good, except for the chicken. It appeared to be fully cooked but the head seemed to look accusingly at me, so I declined. The other dishes, although incredibly oily, were much more palatable.

My co-worker commented that Shanghai is the city of contradictions and the more time I spent there the easier it was to see why. In Shanghai it's easy to completely forget you're still in China (most of which feels very much like a developing country), when you are surrounded by so many foreign brands. From Subway to Chanel to Haagen Daz you can almost convince yourself you're in New York. That is until you almost get spit on by a local or see a guy on a moped literally carrying 12 boxes all strapped together with rope on his back. Then you think, Right, this IS China.

I actually mastered the subway, which, thanks to my amazing co-worker, was easier than I thought it would be. She printed out a detailed map of how to get to the subway from my Airbnb (got lost anyway) and from the subway to the office. She helped me buy tickets and told me which direction to go, but it was more user friendly than I thought it would be because the stops were in English as well as Chinese, and the announcement for each stop was in both languages. I did experience the Shanghai crush a few times: other passengers would move and I moved right with them because we were all packed in like sardines. I felt like I was bursting out of the womb trying to get out at my stop. The two weirdest things I saw were: 1) a mini mart chain that sells sex toys. Right up front, next to these disgusting hard-boiled eggs sitting in what looked like a soy/dung bath. 2) they sell pig snouts at the grocery store in the prepared foods section. Nestled snugly between marinated mushrooms and some weird looking greens was a big bin full of rust-colored snouts. I nearly threw up all over them. They also apparently butcher cow carcasses in grocery stores; I witnessed a few employees hacking off pieces of a giant side of beef and tossing them haphazardly into the bins for customers to pick out a choice cut. Needless to say, I did not cook any beef while in Shanghai.

Shanghai is an amazing city, but I believe to get a truer "Chinese" experience you need to branch out where Western brands haven't quite dug in as much.