Panda and dragon walk into the bar and order wonton for three (a.k.a. breaking my stereotypes of China)

It’s been one month since I moved to Shanghai. New work, new experiences, new expectations. But most of all, it’s been about breaking the stereotypes and assumptions of how things are or should be. And that’s coming from someone who’s been on the move for the last 10+ years across 135 countries. These things never go away.

From the practical point of view I’m pretty much sorted. I’ve found apartment in a nice area (French Concession), got work and residence permits sorted, opened bank account (plus WeChat pay and Alipay, crucial) cashed my first salary, signed up for the gym, found out where are all the best shops in the neighbourhood to get western goodies like milk, cheese and good bread (@ the famous “avocado lady”, of course). And coffee, yes I have 3 solid choices within 5 minute walk from my house, not bad.

That’s practical side done. Now in no particular order some of the things I found interesting ( or disturbing)…

SCALE. Shanghai is the biggest city in the world (24 million, city proper, without counting suburbs, that beats Tokyo). So that’s more that 12x the size of Latvia, in one single city. Despite it’s size, it’s surprisingly navigable. From city centre to airport it is 45min in taxi for 25 Euros, or 1 hour on public metro for 1 Euro. That’s way better than London, which is 1/3rd of the size. Also commuting to work is quick and predictable. Door to door it takes me 25 minutes and metro has not been late once in a month. Transport infrastructure just works. I guess it has to, when you have 24 million people to transport. Shanghai metro is a surprisingly enjoyable experience (besides occasional public nail clipping escapades of fellow passengers).

PRICES. The food is cheap, but drinks are expensive. You can get noodle soup for 2 euros (15 yuan) in a cheap eat, or decent restaurant meal for 8 euros (50 yuan). Eating at expat place will set you back 12–15 euros (100 yuan), but even that is supper affordable. But when you add drinks, it changes quickly. Coffee routinely costs 4–5 euros. And glass of wine can set you off for 7–8 euros a piece. That’s not fancy glass of wine, just basic stuff, like house chardonnay. Food generally costs the same as drinks, so if you are not a massive drinker, then it’s amazing value.

Tailored clothing is cheap, but imported brands are expensive. I’ve had couple of trousers made for 30 euros a piece and shirts for 15 euros, but if you go in the shops, most clothing costs the same as in Europe or even more. Shirt in Uniqlo would set me off 45–50 euros, but I can get 3 shirts custom made for that. Lesson, branding comes at a premium here.

Taxis are cheap, flights are expensive. Most taxi rides in the city will cost you 3–5 euros max, but budget flights from Shanghai are limited. You do get good direct connections, but rarely can you get a one way flight under 100 euros, even for budget airlines, due to taxes. Unlike in Europe where Ryanair will pay you to fly with them.

CALENDAR. At the end of January China entered a new year, year of a rooster, based on Chinese Zodiac signs. What I found peculiar, is that of the 12 animals, 11 are real, like dog, monkey, tiger. And then there is a dragon, as the 12th animal. Of course, dragons are not real, like Santa Claus, Big Foot or Trumps tan. But no one questions what the hell dragon is doing among the other animals, because dragons are cool. You don’t fuck with the dragon. This ability to seamlessly merge reality and fiction to create new alternative reality is fascinating.

NUMBERS. Chinese are very pragmatic and non-religious but at the same time very superstitious, which is cute. Number 4 in Chinese (Sì) sounds very close to death (Sǐ). So no-one wants to live or work on the 4th floor as that is bad luck. They literally hide the floors on elevators, no 4, no 24. Funny, because it’s just a button, the 4th floor still exists. So when you’re officially on the 5th floor, you’re really on the 4th, the death floor. Building of 27 floors, would have 31 floors in the elevator. Whatever works, I don’t judge.

FOOD. This is one of my big surprises. The food is good, I mean you can get any cuisine imaginable and generally for reasonable prices. There is so much good Japanese, Italian and Thai, I can’t get enough of it. I eat out most nights and have tried some 15 or so places in my neighbourhood already, but there is still long way to go. Cooking, like in the rest of Asia, is more expensive than eating out. Well, at least cooking that I like. It’s only reserved for social occasions, but not as a weekday evening routine.

PARTY. Shanghai is a surprisingly promiscuous city. Concentration of 400,000 expats, many of who are in their early 20’s, huge offering of restaurants and bars, plus sense of adventure, being far away from family and others who might judge or otherwise restrain you mean the relationships here run a mile wide and an inch deep (I’m generalising, of course). But if you want to have fun, this is a place to be. Not for me anymore, been there, done that, but good for you to know, I guess.

INTERNET. This is one of my unresolved pain points. Coming from Latvia which has 3rd fastest internet in the world to China is a challenge. Baseline internet is slow by global standards, mobile 4G is slightly better. Add to that VPN (if you want to access Gmail, Google, Facebook, Instagram or Medium, for that matter), which slows your speeds further, plus drains your battery like a motherfucker. So you constantly need to switch on and off, meaning that my mobile use of Facebook and Instagram has dropped off significantly. Not because its inaccessible per se, but it puts hurdles in your way to make it a hassle. I guess that’s the whole point of the great firewall. Positive outcome of this is that I have more time to think and read, more blank space, more observing, time that previously was used up by constant social feed immersion.

WORK. I’m back at Mindshare, Shanghai is my 4th Mindshare office I’ve worked at. It’s a huge place, 500 plus people, one of our biggest offices globally. The work rhythm here is quite different from Europe. Most people start work around 10:30am and occasionally would work until 10pm at night, but normal is to finish around 7 or 8 pm. Overall it’s only slightly longer hours than Europe, it’s just shifted by 2 hours, everything starts and finishes later. Except lunch, my Chinese colleagues religiously eat lunch at 12:00 on the dot, by my logic it should be around 14:00 or 15:00. I can’t say that I’m used to this routine, as I’m a morning person. I like to come in at 9, 9:30 and get things done while it’s still quiet. I try to leave by 7pm, but often it’s hard as that’s when the meetings and discussions are in full swing.

PANDAS. Have not seen one yet, apparently they are all in Sichuan province, which is some 2000km away from Shanghai. China is a big place.