A Coming of Age Story: My Roaring 20s in Shanghai

While most people go through the follies of their youth in their college years, Alayna’s coming of age came a bit late. But she has no regrets because while ya’ll were getting tipsy off White Claw seltzers at your boyfriend’s frat house, she was sipping Prosecco at The W, part of a luxury hotel in China’s biggest city.

View of the Pearl Tower from Pudong Financial District.

When I decided to move to Shanghai in 2016 at 24 for a one-year teaching contract, I never once thought that this one year would turn into two years, let alone three. I actually lived in a city called Weifang the year before this. That was a rough year, and I was ready to call it quits and turn my attention to Korea or Japan. However, I ended up getting a job offer at the only school in China that I applied for and after visiting the city for a weekend trip and loving it, I figured I’d give China another shot.

I called this thriving metropolis home from 2016 to 2019, and those years were without a doubt, the best part of my 20s. So many of the formative experiences of my adulthood happened there. One thing to understand about me was I was a total youth group kid in high school and college. I went to a Christian university and didn’t start dating until I was 24. I didn’t even drink until I was 23. My time in China (both in Shanghai and Weifang) felt like a do-over- a chance to make up for all the experiences I missed and the mistakes I should have made in college.

It was in Shanghai where I fell in love (lust) for the first… and the second..and the third time. It was where I got drunk for the first… and the second… and, hell, probably closer to the 100th time. It was where I ran my first Spartan Race (a series of obstacle races) and got my first six-pack… well.. not really, but I was pretty fit.

It was from Shanghai where I could hop on a plane to Southeast Asia for less than $300 roundtrip and knock six more countries off my bucket list. It was where I developed a deep love of KTV (karaoke television) and hot pot, and more importantly, where I developed some of the most impactful friendships of my life. It was where I gained a sense of independence- and not just the living on my own and paying my own bills kind of independence- but the independence that comes from the anonymity of a big city where no one knows you, or your past, and you’re finally free to define yourself for you and no one else.

We spent many late nights at KTV. Sometimes we’d stay out til the subway resumed service at 6 AM.

Shanghai is the most vibrant, and arguably, one of the safest cities in the world. Nightlife rages on through all hours of the night, and as a 20-something, attractive female you’ll always find a club where you can get in for free. You’re bound to experience at least a few nights that will bleed into the early mornings as you make your way home by the light of the rising sun. And even if you decide to throw in the towel early, you can feel safe enough to make your own way home with little fear of harassment. You can spend countless summer afternoons at swanky hotel pools with swim-up bars, and there’s definitely no shortage of boozy brunches with free-flow cocktails for only $20.

You can have as many flings and Sex in the City type moments that you would want, and with the help of Tinder, meet people from every corner of the globe. Of course, you can do that anyway at any bar in the French Concession (a popular tourist destination) on any night of the week. These multi-cultural friendships (or whateverships) come in handy, especially at trivia nights where it is a truth universally known that Americans suck at geography, and you have to have at least one European for every American on the team if you hope to win.

The one thing, unfortunately, I’ll always regret about my time in China is that I know none of the Chinese food I eat here will ever compare.

Don’t get me wrong. Shanghai wasn’t perfect. Most people you’d speak to who has had any experience living in China will tell you that they have a love-hate relationship with it. While they hate the bureaucracy and red tape that comes with… well… everything, they can at least appreciate how efficient the processes are. While they may get frustrated with the ever-changing AQI and air pollution, they know that the days that actually are clear are the nicest ones of all. They’ll acknowledge that the occasional raids the police perform on expat bars and restaurants where they lock everyone in and make them take drug tests, are reminders that, oh yeah, we do live in a communist country, are stark and sometimes scary. They’ll also acknowledge that, overall, day to day life is pretty enjoyable, and as long as you don’t have cannabis in your system, it is easy to forget, once again, that you live in a communist country (that is until they start checking work visas).

Ultimately, Shanghai is a place full of contradictions, and it truly is unlike anywhere else in the world. The city, with its neon, brightly lit nights that never end, has a way of drawing you in with open, idiosyncratic arms.

Mahjong never goes out of style.

It’s a city that is both ahead of its time and still deeply entrenched in old-world traditions. As Shanghai residents, from the most tech-savvy entrepreneur to the vendor of that humble shop on the corner that sells the best baozi (a type of yeast-leavened filled bun) in the neighborhood, eagerly embrace the newest innovations, it is easy to understand the city’s early adopter reputation. Yet, as you stroll through the park on any given afternoon, you’ll still find people coming together in tight-knit groups, from elderly women meeting for their daily dance and gossip sessions, or men smoking cigarettes and playing game after game of mahjong and chess, all while lamenting over the fate of their unmarried, 20-something-year-old children.

As an expat, it’s a place where you can feel deeply connected and yet singularly set apart. It is a city where you can easily meet a different person from each continent in the span of a single night, and yet just as easily fall into an expat bubble where your friend group is primarily made up of those from your own home country. Shanghai is a place where you can meet friends for life and yet be caught in a never-ending cycle of ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’ as those friends come and go like a revolving door. It’s somewhere where the community is not simply found, but forged, and where you can easily settle in, but may never feel fully settled.

Ringing in New Year 2019 at the swankiest party in Shanghai.

When 2019 came to a close and I packed up three and a half years worth of possessions and memories I accumulated, I felt like I collected a whole lifetime’s worth of experiences. I knew I was ready to move on, but I still felt like my time there wasn’t finished. As I cried in the didi, a local taxi, on the drive to the airport and boarded my flight on that late November afternoon, I felt that even though I was supposedly moving back home, I actually felt like I was leaving my real home behind.

1st Person Essay by Alayna Wood shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

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Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.