Life in the Concrete…Village
You can’t make a small town seem big but you can make a big town feel small.
By Jessica Hwang, Colgate University
“When you move to China, are you going to live in a village?”
No one really knew what to think after learning I was moving to Shanghai. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to expect, had never lived anywhere but in a small town in suburban New Jersey, and the closest I’d ever been to Asia was Chinatown on Canal Street.
I now know that Shanghai has a population of 23.47 million people. That is three times that of New York City and 5481.7 times that of my hometown. That’s no village.
My dad’s company relocated him to China when I was in eight grade and as much of a shock moving from suburbia to metropolis was for a measly middle-schooler, living overseas didn’t actually seem all that different. I had never attended high school back home, so I really have no basis for comparison on that front. But I do know that in terms of everyday life, living in Shanghai did not seem like the adventure I expected. My parents liked to say that it was just like living in New York City. That became our go-to comeback to curious friends and relatives back home.
“It’s just like New York. ”
Shanghai is a big city. With big cities come metros and shopping centers and tourists and foreigners. Most expatriates lived in housing developments that were mostly home to westerners, and attended international high schools that never required you to dig up a lick of Mandarin. There are metro stops on every corner and imported foods stores everywhere else. And for those moments when you’re craving a taste of home, or any other country for that matter, there are endless, affordable, and authentic dining options wherever you turn. It’s just like New York City. I could have actually spent my five years in China living a purely American life.
But I didn’t.
My friends at home and I would email, and high school in China and high school in New Jersey sounded one and the same. There were classes you hated and classes you loved. Junior and senior year came around and we all began the trudge through SAT’s and AP’s and “oh god,” the Common App. At the very root of things, stuff was the same. It took me a while to realize the little bonuses living in China gave me access to.
For one, there was more diversity. Though most of my friends were from neighboring or even the same states I was from, they had lived everywhere. They had seen the world, and saw it a little different than I did. For people like me, who were expatriate newbies behind on their worldly personas and probably the equivalent to a college freshman lost in the library for the first time, there were field trips. Not ordinary field trips. Like any other, they involved students being dragged into museums; the difference was that these museums were two thousand miles away. In real Chinese villages. Teachers immersed us in culture through hypereducational field trips that didn’t actually feel all that educational because we were all busy rock climbing and biking through rice fields spending maybe a little too much time and money in local street markets. And when we got back home, easy as it was to focus on school and friends and forget that you lived in a completely different culture, there were always reminders, whether you noticed them or not.
I didn’t notice them. Culture shock came and went and before our new cabinets were stocked with plates that weren’t made of paper, I had gotten used to the confusing signs, the spitting, the crowds, and the old men who left the house to stroll through parks in their nighties. Pretty soon pajama people were all a part of the scenery, chinglish became a second language, and figuring out bad translations was just a game. Looking back, I can’t see how I thought my life was normal. Only in China do you have to worry about an appointment you made for a one-dollar haircut getting scooped up by a spoiled Pomeranian, go to a restaurant and order “Blend of British on Rice Set,” or pass a stall selling fresh buns, fried dumplings, and the occasional small-questionable-deep-fried-bird-on-a-stick on your way to school.
For some reason it never occurred to me to think about this stuff too much while it was actually a part of my life. Maybe it was because I was distracted by the onset of high school, or because I learned to take it as just another part of everyday life (because it was just like New York,) or maybe it was because it’s easier not to think about what that fried food stand was selling.
Whatever the reason, how little I thought about it then didn’t stop the lasting impact it has had on me until now, even if it’s just having a story to tell or a substantial photo collection of badly translated signs and menus. Plus, I can’t deny the repercussions of living overseas on my life in college. What do you mean I can’t just jaywalk? Yes I have to coordinate calls home with time zones. No Mom I haven’t had lunch it is one A.M. And only for an ex-international student would the college registrar be able to say where they’re from better than they can. It’s the underlying uniformity of a city and it’s “only in _____’s” characteristic of small town communities that make Shanghai seem small. Such a big city could be overwhelmingly foreign, local, or strangely familiar. Sure, it might not be home in five years, but, in the moment, what it is to you is all on you. For me, it was home. Small, a little strange, and home.
So yes. Yes I guess I could say: I lived in my own little village.