Jennifer: Adventurous Appetite
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Shanghai, etc.
My name is Jennifer Stevens and I’m originally from a small town near Tampa, Florida. It’s not a place you’ll find in guidebooks, but I’m glad my parents still call it home. I personally left for a big city experience right after college, and have since lived in Washington, D.C., Seoul, Bogota, and now Shanghai, as of July 2014.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I originally started blogging as a lifeline to home. I was a full-time writer in the States before I moved to Seoul, and teaching English to Korean kindergarteners seemed like perfect blogging fodder.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
I think the entry that best represents who I am (a food-obsessed traveler) is “The Things We Do For Food”, which I wrote while backpacking in Southeast Asia. It details a frightening motorcycle trip through the city of Saigon, just to try a dish that Anthony Bourdain ate on his show, “No Reservations.”
The most helpful post I’ve written is “How to teach abroad”. It’s a thorough explanation of how to teach overseas (both ESL and at international schools).
Tell us about the ways your new life in Shanghai differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
This is my fifth year living abroad, so I think it’s hard to shock me anymore. I was actually excited about moving back to Asia after two years in Colombia, as it actually feels more like home to me than anywhere else.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Shanghai? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I had traveled to Shanghai while living in Korea, so I knew more or less what I was getting into, but of course you can never be fully prepared. I wish I had taken some time to learn basic Mandarin, and I definitely wish I had packed more shoes.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
I have so many, but I’ll share something that happened on my third day in Shanghai:
I had gone to dinner with some new coworkers, and was trying desperately not to fall asleep at the table (jetlag is a killer). I excused myself after a mere hour of pleasantries so I could crawl back into bed. But when I arrived to my apartment complex, a security officer started talking to me. It seemed like he was trying to tell me something important, but I couldn’t understand. So he started following me—to my building, into my building, into the elevator, then to the 7th floor.
The elevator opened to several other security guards, all wearing concerned faces. My apartment door was opened, and they appeared to think someone had broken in.
My fears were confirmed when my English-speaking neighbor came over to see what the commotion was about. He provided much-needed translation and told me to survey my place to make sure nothing was missing.
I went in and saw my camera, my laptop, and the pile of money the school had given me were all in tact. “I must not have closed the door properly,” I assured them.
But this did not appease the guards, or the two policemen that had joined them. “They want you to check again,” said my neighbor. “They really think someone broke in.”
I asked why, and my neighbor looked down at the floor, shuffling his feet. “Because your place is trashed.”
My face felt hot and I knew I was turning red with embarrassment. I looked back into my apartment – at the clothes scattered on the floor, the piles of shampoo and conditioner bottles, the electric cords and converters strung over the couch. I begged my neighbor to explain that I had just moved in and was still unpacking.
After a lengthy exchange between the men, my neighbor turned to me and said, “They understand. No robbery, this is just normal for you.”
The heat found its way back to my face as I stared into the wide eyes of the police officers. But I knew there was no use explaining. I would forever be the unkempt foreigner in building 34.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Shanghai?
- Learn some basic Mandarin before you come. While it’s true that Shanghai is very international, most people do not speak English. I would suggest basic greetings, numbers, and directions (right, left, straight) for taxi drivers.
- If you are not a patient person, take up yoga or meditation. I’m serious. Shanghai is a busy, bustling city that is quite frankly overcrowded. And I say this with no disrespect, but the Chinese people can be quite pushy. It will certainly test you if you can’t find your happy place. Learn the art of Zen before coming, and you’ll learn to laugh of most everything.
- If you’re planning to stay for a full year, pack for it. Shanghai sees all four seasons, and it’s not necessarily easy to find appropriate attire. True, there’s a Forever 21, H&M, Zara, etc., but the clothes are often much more expensive than back home. And as a size 8.5, it is also near impossible for me to find decent shoes, particularly boots. When in doubt, over pack.
How is the expat community in Shanghai? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community in Shanghai is huge; apparently there are around 200,000 of us. So between meetup.com, okdealclub.com, and of course internations.org, you can easily find like-minded people to do stuff with. I was lucky and got hired at a pretty large international school, so I had instant friends.
How would you summarize your expat life in Shanghai in a single, catchy sentence?
I’ve never been one for headlines or catchy phrases, but to me Shanghai is a city of contrasts: Traditional alleyways shadowed by a futuristic skyline, an angry taxi driver in the same lane as a grinning, toothless man on a bike. The city will irritate you and charm you in the same day. And there will always be incredible food to eat.