Day 9: Three Years In Shanghai

The Master said: At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of righ.”  ― Confucius, The Analects of Confucius

I just recently read a post How To Manage Your Love-hate Relationship With Shanghai written by professional professional and executive coaching. The author’s argument has to do with the fact that Shanghai is a great city, and therefore life in Shanghai is all about keeping expectation in check. You can have them all. So balancing between the love (or hate) for your work, focusing on the aspects of the city that you enjoy despite their natural yet paradoxical co-existence with so many annoying things about the city (e.g., crowded subways, unhygienic street-scape, among the 101 things that someone has come up with the list).

This post reminds me of what I always want to blog about: my three years in Shanghai — and I want to do so with the linguistic precision and brevity that Confucius did two thousand years ago in the epigraph above. When I first arrived in Shanghai in the summer of June 2013 (on the evening 21st first day of the month to be precise), I never thought that I’d be spending more than a year in Shanghai. I knew that I always had a soft spot for the city, but having been to Shanghai almost every year for almost a decade I knew how expensive the city could be and I did not think that I could live comfortably in Shanghai with a rather modest student budget that I had (since I didn’t get any scholarships or fellowships to support my research at all).

Having spent a lot of time between 2006 – 2013 learning about Shanghai, I thought, and did in fact going around the world telling people that, I was a “Shanghai expert.” What happened was that, during the first week of being a resident of the city, I couldn’t even direct my good colleagues to a right bar! Wasn’t being able to go to a right bar one of those basic skills that a good urbanist should have? Jane Jacobs would say so about that — so would I. So, I was deeply embarrassed by such inability.

Then, it got worse. I didn’t realize that the city had changed so much over time, and that there were so many things that I thought I knew, such as places where I thought were perfect spots to eat, which turned out to be just so-so. There’re so many areas that I thought my knowledge as an expat was adequate, but it was apparently not, and what happened afterwards was me constantly making a fool of myself. Because many people thought of me as a “Shanghai expert,” they came to me for advice, and no matter how much I tried to tell them to not listen to me so much they still wanted to listen to me and took my words seriously. So, yes, I had written a book and a number of important writings about Shanghai, and it’s deeply embarrassed to learn during my first few months in the city that I did not know anything at all that would make my life in Shanghai meaningful.

Up to the present, it’s been more than two years, and it seems to be the case that I have committed my third year to this city already. So, here we go:

The first year, because I let my self-imposed immaturity and arrogance lead the way. I constantly stumbled and felt. Was not helping was my deliberate refusing of helps from others — because I thought I knew it all, already. I couldn’t be more wrong. The second year, I began to understand how things worked around me. I semi-adopted a when-in-Rome attitude. While keeping my own sense of moral integrity at bay, I learned the rules from within, how to break them, and broke them without breaking apart the system at large. I still stumbled and felt, but I had friends to help me get up and running again. Third year, I am beginning to feel the current, and the cosmology of perceptions and sensible impressions around me. While, I may more comfortable than ever, deep inside of me there’s a deep sense of loneliness, which the urbanity of Shanghai has constantly bestows on me.


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