Last September I was offered a job in Shanghai. Even though I didn’t really know anything about China, I wanted to move there because I kept seeing photos of amazing places on the Internet – you know those virals, ‘Places in the world you won’t BELIEVE exist’ – and the most bonkers-looking stuff was always in China, plus it’s where they filmed Avatar and that certainly looked like a nice place to live, before the humans invaded and chopped it all down anyway. I was already in Beirut, which I had left London for two years previously, and so I packed up and moved to a country I had never visited before on the other, other side of the world with no friends or savings and hoped or the best.
I reasoned everything would be alright because moving to Lebanon had worked out nicely. Actually, it had been easy, because living there was like being on holiday all of the time, and you don’t really have to acclimatize to being on holiday. In spite of the fact that it’s the capital city of a country so perpetually on the brink of war – its buildings eerily pocked with bullet holes of battles past –Beirut is slow and sleepy, fulfilling some of the most welcome Mediterranean clichés. When I conjure a mental montage of my two years there, it’s all freshly squeezed juice on the balcony, rooftop yoga classes overlooking the sea with the next door neighbor’s flock of doves circling above us, and weekend hikes through olive groves, all to the soundtrack of the call to prayer drifting languidly through the city.
We invented a phrase for this sort of thing: ‘hilariously nice’, because sometimes you would look at your friends sunning themselves on a rock in a river, reading a book and drinking whisky looking like they were existing under a giant, live-action Instagram filter and it would all just be so pleasant that it was kind of ridiculous. And that was my life most of the time, so it didn’t really matter that my work life was a bit rubbish, or there were daily power cuts, or fortnight-long water shortages. That’s the price you apparently paid for the good life.
I have been conditioned to achieve, though, and so when Asia beckoned, I gave it all up for a job that I hoped I would find more fulfilling. But much like a child who inserts a battery into his ear just to see what will happen, I have a sense of adventure, but not much sense.
It may not surprise you to hear that moving to China is nothing like moving to Lebanon, because it is an obvious thing to say, but it managed to surprise me, because I was deeply ill-prepared for any of it – in fact, I couldn’t even use chopsticks before I moved here and had to get my flatmate at the time to teach me.
Shanghai, the most populated city on the planet, is – unbelievably – nothing like the lush habitable moon of Pandora, nor does it have any of the ramshackle, postcard charm of Beirut. It is instead this huge, heaving beast of a place, with cold hard edges jutting through an almost permanent, polluted haze. There are people everywhere, 24 million of them in fact: people who spit in the street, people who smoke on the toilet, people asleep in the most surprising of places, and people who don’t speak a word of English, because as it turns out, there are places in the world where people don’t. You can’t buy the things you want in the supermarket, instead you are affronted with several aisles devoted to different types of soy sauce; or wet markets touting baskets of sad-looking toads. I described it to my new colleagues as like an alternate reality – they all thought I was joking, but I really wasn’t.
Then there was actually being allowed to live there. After 18 months in Beirut without a formal job contract, visa, rent deposits or even a bank account, I was suddenly jumping all manner of bureaucratic hoops. I found myself being screamed at by a policeman for not registering at the local station when I had arrived in the country (nobody told me that I had to, but then again, who would have told me?), donning a kimono-style hospital gown for a physical exam in an experience resembling The Crystal Maze, piling up paperwork in Hong Kong for my employment permit, putting down three months’ worth of rent deposit for a flat, and handing in no fewer than twenty four passport photos for various bits of documentation. Stuck here, alone, with no financial wriggle room to do anything – not even to chicken out and fly back home – I began to wonder what I’d done and wished I could take it back.
I invented my own hashtag, ‘#TrappedInShanghai’. It used to pop into my head every time something went wrong, floating around my brain in a neural newsfeed – such as when the ATM swallowed my only working bank card two weeks in, or my computer broke (as a freelance journalist, my means to an income), or my phone stolen. #TrappedInShanghai, trending. I didn’t know what I got myself into, and worse, I hadn’t even tried to find out. It turns out hoping for the best isn’t really a good life philosophy.
While the culture shock of moving to China is probably pretty unavoidable for most people, whether you’re mentally prepared for it or not, I’ve reflected that part of my initial misery was readjusting to a city environment. Because while it is true that when you are decontextualized from your regular environment you are bound to learn things about yourself, I have also unlearned things about myself. Having grown up in London, I always perceived myself as a city boy, and this is what I would tell people mainly because I thought it sounded cool. I actually once thanked my dad for not making us grow up in the countryside. And so it wasn’t just the fact that Shanghai was so head-fuckingly foreign – it was the fact that it was so big and so urban. It is, as the guidebook tells you, a ‘megacity’, and you don’t move to a megacity on a whim and expect it to all be alright.
So six months in, how am I feeling about it all? Well, I no longer hate it. In fact, I think I’m something approaching happy, and feel glad that I did it, in spite of how miserable I originally was, and how broke it’s left me. To conclude, I would like to profess something inspirational like ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ except that’s something that only shit people who think Jack Kerouac is great say. So while I would never recommend anyone followed my example, I would equally tell you that there’s nothing like being stuck in bloody China, friendless, locked out of your only bank account because you drank four gin martinis on an empty stomach and forgot your pin code two weeks in, that makes you feel you are at the very least doing a good job of keeping things interesting.