Hello! A quick introduction – My name is Anusuya Mitra, I am an Indian, and I work in PR with a global agency. Have been in this field for over five years.
Last year, I decided to get married and change countries. China has always fascinated me and I was more than excited to get away from Bombay, hopefully inflatable obstacle course for sale with a job. I got here about six months ago, in Feb, bang in the middle of winter! Smartly, I landed with one thick (and I mean thick heavy Mussoorie-type) woolen jacket, and knew it was a dumb idea the moment I stepped out of Shanghai airport and froze in the winter winds.
My Shift to China
Getting my agency to place me in the Shanghai office took a long time but worked out.
My role changed from PR, because I lacked a key skill i.e. speaking Mandarin, which inhibits me from interacting with the media (and to some extent clients).
However, long story short, after sorting out the paperwork – a signed contract, a work visa (Z type), residence permit – I took the leap, and am fast settling down in this fast paced, exciting city!
Making the move
1) Getting the visa: The biggest challenge while moving for me was getting the visa. I had to show a bank balance of ~3000$ minimum, a Chinese invitation letter from the authorities, and a full medical checkup (if going through an agent, be very careful of what form you fill out, mine was outdated the first time around, and I had to pay extra for the agent’s mistake and to fill the correct form).
The forms keep changing so it is best to read what’s marked out on the VFS site for China visas carefully.
For Indians traveling from India (unlike Singapore), you have to get an appointment for a second medical test in China upon few days of arrival. Basically get poked twice for blood tests (which was huge for a needle-phobe like me).
2) Accommodation: I got lucky in my move because one key thing – accommodation + house lease – were already sorted out thanks to my then-boyfriend-now-husband. My colleague experienced a lot of pain around this. She moved from Singapore to Shanghai, and had to first stay at a hotel, look for a house, go through various brokers and deals, find a place, get a lease in order followed by a residence permit to be allowed to have her stuff shipped in from Singapore.
The language barrier – You must know Mandarin!
Moving to China is a unique experience, because unlike Bangkok, France or Germany, even though you would be told that no one speaks English, it can be a shock in Shanghai that hits you – NO ONE speaks or understands a single syllable of English.
You won’t comprehend the depth of this reality till you experience it yourself.
Cab drivers, shopkeepers, gatekeepers, waiters, cops, garbage collectors – no one can communicate with you if you don’t have a very good grasp of the language (which is not impossible).
Of course, elite restaurants, expat hubs (bars, pubs), your colleagues and that RARE cabbie/ noodle-shop guy are okay with English, but overall this is a totally Chinese speaking country.
Nothing happens if you say ‘taxi’, ‘station’, ‘food’, ‘yes’, ‘what’ and so on, unlike in India, where even in the most rural area, words like cycle, scooter are known in English. The Chinese have their own word for everything – even brands such as McDonald’s, IKEA, StarBucks, Costa Coffee, etc have their own Chinese names.
The other challenge is that if you know the word in Chinese, you are probably going to say it wrong. Pronunciation falls flat unless you know the correct tone. For eg. For a street named Kangding Lu (Lu = road), one has to say it 3-4 times, emphasizing different parts of the word!
This 4-toned language is difficult to master, but possible if one is dedicated and invested.
I took one lesson (free trial) that convinced me that I needed to do this full time. French seems like a cake-walk now! So, it is possible to live without knowing the language fully, and getting by using Google translate or on a few phrases for shopping and traveling around the city.
But, it is a huge plus to know both English and Mandarin, as that opens up your career options.
Learning Mandarin needs patience, as it is way different from our notion of learning a new language. Mandarin (and Cantonese – spoken in north China and HK) are very tough.
In China, culturally I find many similarities to India.
Food is a big part of the daily life here, and families/ friends share their food.
Most cities in China have a one-child policy, with some exceptions, so kids are usually quite spoilt. Education is a top priority for both girls and boys.
Here the legal system seems to be quite strict and fast acting. Crime therefore is low. I, as a woman, feel safer in China, than I’ve ever felt in India.
Coming to alcohol, the Chinese, at least a majority, have a gene that cannot digest alcohol the way we can, so you won’t see much of the folks here getting wasted at bars on weekends (that’s what we expats do ). They are an active population and take their sport seriously, be it running, flying kites, playing badminton, swimming, etc…
Shanghai has lots of well-maintained parks, which are favorite recreation zones for families. It’s common to see various groups of middle aged to elderly women dance in perfect sync at dusk, after dinner.
Unlike in India, dinner time here is 6 pm, lunch at 12pm and breakfast at an hour when I’m dead to the world.
In formal (office dinners) meals, it is a ritual to toast a traditional alcohol.
If the boss toasts, it is imperative everyone else take a sip of their drink, and this has to be done every time a toast is called by the boss. It is offensive to decline to drink at such gatherings.
Newspapers/ magazines on stands here are in Chinese, barring a few special bookstores where you get English books.
Also, Vaseline petroleum jelly is unavailable. So get used to using lip balms for chapped lips (doesn’t work for me, esp in winters).
Must-see spots in and around Shanghai
There are lots of Buddhist temples in China though this is an atheist country, and if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen all. In Shanghai, some of the places to visit are Jade Buddha Temple, The Bottle Opener building (100 floors!), Yu Yuan gardens, Nanjing Lu (shopping), tourist spots like Tianzifang, Xintiandi, some tea houses, the nearest water town Qibao, and make the most of the street food!
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In Beijing, the Great Wall and Forbidden City of course top the list, followed by the Summer Palace. Other parts of China which I really want to visit include Xian (where the Terracota soldiers are), Nanjing (because of its history), Guilin (scenic beauty), Mongolia, among others. Also, pop in for a massage whenever you feel like it. There is a massage parlor every 10 meters here.
Chinese cities are developing at a pace that is unreal and super hectic mad fast. Shanghai is a shining example of this country’s pace of development, and the dedication to achieve international status as a cosmopolitan city!
There are lots of opportunities here as well for those aspiring to open their own business or teach English (very lucrative) or just looking for an adventure. This is a travel hot spot, and has plenty to offer to foodies as well.
Different parts of China have different dialects, rituals, foods, and characteristics, very much like India. A Chinese stint will only add to your resume and enrich your life. Give it a go!