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Mary Anne: Ephemera and Detritus

Both names of this entry in our Recommended Blogs for Shanghai are somewhat misleading: Mary Anne’s blog is neither simply Ephemera and Detritus, nor “a totally impractical guide to living in Shanghai”. Any newcomer to expat life can definitely profit from reading the musings of such an experienced expat and blogger – and might come across a recipe for a delicious dish as well.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Shanghai etc.

My name is Mary Anne Oxendale and I’m originally from an island off the west coast of Canada that no one has ever heard of, even though it’s nearly the same size as Ireland. I haven’t lived there since 2002, however, when I moved to Central Anatolia, in Turkey, to teach in a primary school. After 6 years in Turkey, I moved to Shanghai in early 2009 with my partner for work.

When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

I’ve been blogging on various platforms since around 2000, but I only got my own domain name in early 2010 after about 6 years of nearly daily writing on LiveJournal. I initially did it as a way to keep in touch with my family and for them to see, close up, my life abroad. It was mostly diary style writing for a long time but now I’m writing about a broader range of topics, including cooking in China and travel in Asia.

Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

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?

I came to China after 6 years in Turkey, with 2 months of very low budget traveling through Central America in between. When I first came to Shanghai, it was so easy compared to where I had been! I had very little trouble adjusting - in fact, I found it a bit worrying how smooth the transition had been. Shanghai is extremely cosmopolitan and has about 200,000 foreigners living here. There are quite a few import grocery stores and a lot of shops and restaurants have services in English. I can’t say I have experienced culture shock here, though I did in Turkey, even after 6 years. I was a lot more immersed in the language and culture there, whereas Shanghai keeps me at arm’s length.

Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Shanghai? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

No, our decision to move here was quite spontaneous! While we were in Central America after leaving Turkey, we were doing a massive job search online, trying to figure out where to go next. As teachers, our careers are pretty flexible, geographically. I found a university job by chance in Shanghai, and soon after he also found one. The conditions and salaries were good so we accepted- and a month later we were in China. I wish I had had a chance to study Mandarin before arriving though, as it’s been hard to find time now to study. I’ve picked up enough through self study and a summer intensive course to get by on a daily basis but I would love to be able to delve deeper - something that’s difficult to do when you work in a 100% English speaking environment and go home to an English speaking partner!

Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

A few years ago we were in Yangshuo for the May Day holiday and decided to rent bicycles to ride around the countryside, which is the stunning Karst landscape you see in many pictures of China. We got a map from our hotel and set out.

About 3 hours into the ride, we were meant to be crossing a bridge that would take us in a loop back to town... but the bridge (which was on the map) hadn’t been built yet! It was still just a concrete foundation at either side, nothing more! We had to decide whether to turn back and cycle three more hours in the heat or to find another way back, perhaps further up the river.

After pushing our bikes through the very narrow lanes of the tiny village where the road had come to a sudden stop, we saw that there was an embankment at the back of the village, and a highway running above it. Even though it was very illegal, we pushed our bikes up the steep embankment and rode on the 8 lane highway back toward what we hoped was Yangshuo town.

Unfortunately, the highway just led to a tunnel under a mountain, with the next exit a county away! We lifted our bikes over the wall at the edge of the highway and down the embankment, through another village full of perplexed inhabitants (we were well off the tourist trail by now!) and asked them where the nearest road leading back to Yangshuo was. They swept their hands vaguely in the direction of a road we could see up ahead, so we followed it-- and followed it for several hours until we reached the next village, exhausted and sun burned.

We stopped for water and directions and found out we had gone quite far off course. The local Communist Party official insisted on loading our bikes into the back of his car and driving us back himself. It turned out that we had somehow ended up over an hour’s drive away from town!

Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Shanghai?

  • It’s probably more expensive than you think it will be, many times more expensive than other Chinese cities besides Beijing or Guangzhou. Rents are high, unless you want to squeeze yourself into a small, basic place further out. It’s a huge city so further out can be really far...
  • Learn some Mandarin before you come, so it feels less overwhelming: taxi phrases, vegetable market vocabulary, that sort of thing. Taxi drivers generally don’t speak or read English, and if you’re like most people living in the city you’ll be using them fairly regularly to get around as they’re very affordable and reliable. Knowing how to tell them where you’re going is invaluable!
  • Don’t be afraid to try the food. A lot of foreigners here avoid eating the local food as they’re afraid of getting sick or afraid they won’t like it. I’ve had no problems at all, and I’ve tried everything from street cart fried dumplings up to fancy white-linen restaurants serving cuisine from all over the country. Shanghai has an amazing food scene.

How is the expat community in Shanghai? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

There’s a really big expat community here but I’ve had a hard time finding like minded people as they’re frequently families with children (sent over on huge expat salaries, living in expat compounds, socializing with similar expats) or single men keen on dating local women or young recent graduates keen on getting a start in business. In Turkey, I knew a lot of artists, journalists, photographers, writers and musicians. Here, not so much. I’m slowly building up a circle of friends, several of whom I’ve met through my blog.

How would you summarize your expat life in Shanghai in a single, catchy sentence?

Calm in the eye of the storm. Shanghai is crazy but it provides us with the tools to be calm and comfortable in the midst of its chaos. A nice balance.

David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

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