Enough laowai living: It's time to go local in Shanghai
By Emily Ford
I'M at home watching the BBC, eating a Marks & Spencer's sandwich, when it dawns on me that I may not be living a particularly authentic Chinese life. To be fair, Shanghai doesn't make it terribly easy. For all the splendor of its tai chi and teahouses, there is a parallel universe inhabited by the city's 200,000-plus expats, or laowai, which is almost impossible not to fall into.
Recently, I have started to worry that if I continue in this way I will end up a resident of Thames Town, the slightly creepy replica English market town west of the city, with its pubs and mock Tudor houses.
"What is the point," I think, "of being in China and living the same life as I did in London? I should just go home and save myself the plane fares."
I am also spurred in part by the financial apocalypse that was Christmas. Another drawback of living in laowai land is that it is vastly more expensive, from yuppy cocktail bars to overpriced salad chains and markets running two-tier pricing systems, one for Chinese and one for foreigners. Even taxi drivers sometimes suggest I pay more, on the basis that I am European, and therefore rich. "Enough laowai living," I think. "It's time to go local."
My plan falters early on when I am unable to find coffee in my neighborhood cafes and end up in Starbucks. "No matter," I think defensively. "I can still order coffee the Chinese way."
"Yi bei meishi kafei jia niunai (A cup of Americano with milk, please)," I say to the barista, who has spoken only perfect English to me every day for six months. She looks at me puzzled, before yelling to her colleague. "Jimmy, one white Americano!"
At lunch, I eschew the fancy Western bakery and go to the convenience store instead. What look like dumplings and unidentifiable things on sticks float in little pots of bubbling, brownish-colored liquid. It occurs to me that I would not know how to ask for convenience store food even in English.
"I'll have one of everything!" I say. The assistant beams at me. Convenience store food, it turns out, is surprisingly delicious. "I wonder what else I'm missing," I think.
Emboldened, I decide to take the bus home after work. I have never seen a foreigner on a bus in Shanghai before, partly because taxis are so cheap and also because the timetables are written exclusively in Chinese. "This is the real test," I think. "This is when you know you're local."
Several buses pass in the 10 minutes I spend squinting at the timetable. Eventually, I spot two characters which I am fairly sure from part of my address. I catch passers-by looking at me with what I assume must be unadulterated admiration. "Yes that's right, I'm a foreigner," I think proudly. "And I'm taking the bus."
Even though I am less than a mile from home, I feel bold, intrepid even. I remember a story I heard about a fake bus in Shenzhen, where criminals dressed as conductors robbed passengers blind before dumping them on the edge of the city. The only problem was that by their nature the bus passengers did not have much money and so the criminals made an average of about 50 yuan per trip.
"That could happen to me," I think bravely. "But you have to live your life."
I wait for 20 minutes. A taxi driver pulls up in front of the bus stop and looks at me expectantly. "It is rather cold today," I think. "I could just get in this taxi and take the bus another time."
Just as I waver, the bus arrives. I pay the two yuan and am allowing myself a small twinge of smugness when I realize the bus is turning the wrong way onto the highway. By the time it finally stops, I am on the other side of town.
"Well, at least you tried," I tell myself as I flag down a cab. "That's the most important thing, after all."