Ni Hao, Y’all: A Southern in Shanghai Introduction


Things are better. Yeah, that’s a good place to start: Things are better.

Southern in Shanghai
The author’s first trip to Shanghai in 2009.

When I first came to Shanghai and began the conversation that surrounded the creation of this column, my mind was in a different place. I’d been half drowned, shoved around, lied to, financially hamstrung, and left to fend for myself in one of the largest cities in the world. And to top it all off: I couldn’t communicate any thought beyond a simple, “Hello” or “Thank you” without relying on charades or the occasional middle finger. The only reason I wasn’t a homeless (but fully employed) laowai was thanks to the compassion of a stranger–a new coworker of mine from the U.K. who had once found herself in similar straits.

Story continues below.

Avoidable–completely avoidable straits. But that’s putting the cart a little before the horse, I think. Suffice it to say that I was able to get things back on track: I got paid, found an apartment, purchased a metro card and a pillow (no small feat, I assure you), and I learned–and am still learning–that China is not a place to be taken lightly. Safety and security are volatile things. Whatever I was promised–whatever I thought I knew–all of that had to change the moment I stepped off the plane. It didn’t. I’ve suffered, but I’ve learned.

And that, I suppose, is where this column will begin: what I’ve learned. But I don’t plan on just giving it to you; there’s not much fun in that. The plan, at least for the moment, is to examine Shanghai (and to a lesser degree China) through the lens of…well…me. My lens. The lens of experiences I’ve shaped over the course of my life living in the southern United States plus some occasional moves abroad.There are, I’m sure, more than enough outlets online for anyone looking for a simple travel blog. They went here, did this, got the T-shirt and a whole bunch of pictures. That’s not what I’m shooting for here. I want to keep this interesting, so I’ll write about what I know and how that fits in/works (or, more often, doesn’t) here.

I’ll do some comparisons, try to put things into context. I’ll tell some stories. I’ll talk a lot about myself. I hope that’s alright.

Little Rock, looking east from Capitol building.

Speaking of me: I’m James. I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas, and I’ve been teaching at various levels for the past five years–English as a Second Language, College Composition, English Literature, and College Preparatory Writing. This experience has imbued me with the power to tell my students not to begin sentences with conjunctions while disregarding that rule myself. I’m here in Shanghai until at least the summer of 2015 teaching Chinese high schoolers why literature–American and British–is important. I’m also writing as often as I can, trying to learn more about this place, and planning for whatever comes next.

I want to be absolutely clear here at the outset: I’m not an expert in much of anything. I’ve traveled and taught and written. I’ve worked a number of odd jobs and odder hours since I was 14. I know how to bullshit, bait a hook, and use alliteration, but beyond those, I don’t lay claim to much. So, if my words don’t jibe with your experience or knowledge, then I apologize. I’m coming at Chinese culture as a complete outsider. I’m open to learning though, so if you ever have something to contribute, feel free to add your voice to the comments section down below. I’ll check in on it and get back to you. Maybe we can teach each other a thing or èr.