Goodbye China

I’ve always embraced new experiences, new challenges, new cultures and lifestyles and moving to China for a year has probably been the boldest move I’ve ever done.

Bold but wise. Taking my chance to be an English teacher for young children in China is a daring move that I knew would get me on the right path to my goals. But more than gaining some professional teaching experience (which is already amazing!), I have allowed myself for the biggest doses of personal growth.

My time in China has been challenging, enriching and filled with memorable and special moments. I’ve experienced daily life through a different lens. I’ve pushed myself far out of my comfort zone and everything that I’ve ever known. I’ve had all my habits, familiarities and ways of thinking challenged. There is nothing more humbling and stimulating than throwing myself into the middle of a country and culture I know nothing about.

I have learnt to appreciate the beauty of connecting with someone with whom I speak zero mutual words with. I’ve learnt how to enjoy someone else’s company on the most basic fundamental human level. I’ve had to use all unimaginable resources to make myself understand and to be able to communicate. I’ve learnt how to push my limits and deal with it.

The most interesting part of my adventure is that for a year I’ve been experiencing the authentic and local Chinese life. Not the fancy and glamourous expatriate life that foreigners live when they move to major international Chinese cities like Shanghai or Beijing.

The first city I settled in when I moved to China was Fuzhou. Fuzhou is the capital of southeastern China’s Fujian province. This “small” city of 8 million inhabitants has remained quite traditional and very few people speak English. Compared to the madness of Beijing or Shanghai, Fuzhou is pretty chilled and relaxed. I like it for its temples, its green mountains surrounding the city and the beautiful urban sunsets I never get tired of. [Read more about the life in Fuzhou]

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In the beginning, it was really hard to get used to living in China and after two months I seriously considered going back to Sydney! The feeling of isolation and alienation was very strong. I felt completely lost and helpless not being able to understand my surroundings and not being able to do the most basic things by myself. Without the help of my Chinese best friend Yance, I would have never stayed that long! Adaptation is a long process and it took a lot of patience and wisdom to get through it and see the bright side of it.

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My teaching job helped me to feel better. Wherever you go, it’s not the place that matters the most but what you do. Doing something that I am passionate about every day reminded me of my goals and why I was here. [Read more about my teaching experience in China].

I held on to it and things started to get better. I met wonderful people along the way and I focused on the great sides of the whole experience, the big picture. I have fond memories of my time in China.

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The second city I moved to and where I currently live is Shanghai. When you say Shanghai, everyone thinks of the highly international city, the New York of China, its magical skyline, and its vibrant atmosphere. Which is all true. Every time I go to the city, I forget that I am in China. Everything is so international and open. I love the combination of the historic Shanghai and the strong European influences that bring an “air de déjà vu”. [Read more about the Shanghainese life].

But when you live in the suburbs of Shanghai, it’s a completely different experience. Living a Chinese provincial life has been my biggest challenge since I have been in China. It’s even more challenging than Fuzhou where I had an urban life.

For some reasons, I’ve ended up living in the most improbable place in China. An odd Dutch town of Shanghai called Holland Village. They have recreated a little Holland and all its charming treasures. There is a canal that weaves through the town and is bordered by beautiful weeping willows. A windmill stands in the middle of the river on a little island filled with trees and flowers. Along the main street, the building facades reflect the architectural style of a quaint Dutch village.

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It’s a strange sensation when you walk around. It really looks like Holland but something is missing. There is no life, no soul. Holland Village is mostly abandoned. There are very few, if any, places to eat or get a drink. No one is around except for newlyweds, using the windmill as a backdrop for their wedding photos.

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Although the scenery is picturesque and lovely, I can’t stop thinking that there’s something a little strange about it. It got me to do more research.

How did this Holland town come out in the middle of an old suburb of Shanghai?

I found out that in the early 2000s, the Shanghai government launched a renovation plan to develop and modernise a few suburban districts. Each of these districts was assigned a new town, each with their own country theme. British, Spanish, German, Italian. The place where I live has obviously been assigned with a Dutch theme. You can find today many districts in Shanghai with a complete European design.

The goal of bringing Europe to China was to unclog Shanghai’s urban sprawl and appeal the population to move to the suburbs. However, the Holland village project has not been successful as the place is mostly deserted, but the Dutch architecture remains.

There’s not much to do around but I enjoy the bike rides alongside the canal and wander in the park, watching Chinese oldies dancing and doing yoga.

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I’ve ended up living in this district because of the school where I teach. It’s a brand new school and the competition is less tough in the suburbs compared to the city. This school is actually an English training center designed for children aged from 3 to 12 years-old. The brand is called Cinostar and is present in major Chinese cities.

It’s been a unique experience to be part of the launch of a new school in China. I’ve experienced it twice and observing how Chinese people do business has been very interesting. It will definitely help me with my future plan when I open my own creative school.

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The first time I came to visit the school area, I freaked out. This part of the suburb is called ‘The Old Town” which says it all. Everything around is old and ancient. Like the people living there. There are no foreigners here, the area is typically Chinese and the pace is very slow. It does not feel like Shanghai.

Everything is authentic and very local. The little food shops, the hairdresser, the barber shop. The oldies sitting in front of their old shops smoking cigarettes. The kids playing around in the dirt, the multitude of empty shops selling bric-à-brac, food, animals, clothes, starving dogs rummaging in the bins. It feels like another period of time and we’re very far from the extravagance of the city.

Luckily the area where we live is more modern and lively, probably the busiest part of the suburb, close to commodities, restaurants, and shops. There are a few good places to eat and hang out. Our apartment is spacious and comfortable. I ride my bike every day to go to school, it’s a nice and quiet lifestyle.

Once a week we fulfil our need for excitement by going to the city which is about 45 minutes by train. The fancy Bund, the busy Nanjing road, the lively and lovely French Concession. It’s like living in two different worlds! The authentic Shanghainese countryside vs the flamboyant Shanghai city.

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I am leaving China soon and I feel very grateful for having had the chance to live there for a year, doing what I love and opening my mind in big to a different world. I have definitely learned more about myself and my abilities to adapt to a new environment. My Chinese adventure has been a whirlwind of emotions, the happiness of meeting all kind of amazing people, the fulfilment of teaching the love of learning to young children, the excitement of discovering something new but also the frustration of not being able to understand or communicate.

To me, this is what traveling is all about. Traveling is not just about going to fancy touristic places and taking beautiful photos. It’s about experiencing a different lifestyle, challenging myself to open my world to a new one. Live, eat, act like a local and see what the everyday life is about. The real life. What I love is the fact that travels consistently challenge me to rethink what I think I know. And it’s the biggest dose of personal growth I can get.

In a month, I am back in my country of heart, Australia, [Dear Australia] ready to start my new venture and still chasing my dreams, more than ever.

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If you’d like to discover what’s fascinating about China, read my article: 10 Random Facts about China you need to know! 

 

 

 

 

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Shanghai Mon Amour

Sunday 31st of December 2017, 5 am, Fuzhou, China. 

My alarm clock pulls me out of my sleep. I slowly open my eyes with a big smile on my face. It’s time to get ready!

I could not find my sleep last night. It always happens when I am too excited. Today, my friend Yance and I are flying to Shanghai and it is the most exciting way to end the year and start a new one.

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On the way to the airport, I am thinking about the NYE and the one before that. Two years ago, I was contemplating the fireworks over the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. Last year, I was in Auckland, unpacking boxes and drinking champagne with my ex-boyfriend in our new apartment. This year, I am in China, free as a bird, and I am going to spend NYE in Shanghai with my dearest friends. Life is truly unpredictable.

The icy air of Shanghai instantly freezes my face as I get off the bus. It’s much colder than Fuzhou and today is a bad day. The air pollution is quite high and a giant misty cloud covers the city. An unusual palette of colours gives the surroundings a vintage look and feel. Yellow, brown, grey, I have the impression to discover Shanghai through the reels of an old movie.

My first Shanghainese discovery starts at a lovely suburb called The Former French Concession (FFC). The French Concession is the area of Shanghai that the French government administered from 1849 until 1946. Time seems to move a little slower here and an air de déjà-vu brings me back to Europe. I love the gorgeous tree-shaded avenues, which invite lingering strolls and exploration. The architecture, the fine old houses, the many wrought iron fences and stair railings remind me of Paris.

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As we walk, I spot many restaurants, breweries, concept bars, boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. I am amazed by the beautiful streets, quaint and pretty with outdoor cafés sprinkled here and there. The French Concession is brimming with little treasures that are delightful for the eyes.

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A lovely window of a café catches my attention. “Pain Chaud“, a French bakery. My craving for French food pushes me to open the door. A familiar and exquisite smell tickles my nostrils. The myriad of pastries, croissants, croissants aux amandes (almond croissants), pains au chocolat and baguette sandwiches make the taste buds dance in my mouth.

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After feeding our greedy bellies, we are setting into our Airbnb where we will be staying for the next 3 days.

“What the hell,” says Yance at the doorstep once we’ve arrived. We look at each other, both wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. We’re standing at the door but the place looks like an old barn that is about to collapse.

We’re starting to ask a few people and look around, but for a moment we’re thinking that we got scammed! As the last attempt, I dive into a little street a bit farther away, when I finally see it. The wooden door, number 46 that we’ve been praying would exist. In our defence, how confusing is it to have two 46s in the same area?

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Filled with excitement, we open the door and the most charming vision enchants my eyes. The place is a cosy little loft with a very artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration. There’s a smart combination of hippie, natural and vintage style. The atmosphere is so peaceful and details like a turntable, a vintage retro projector, and a ceiling rocking chair make me want to live here forever.

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“They are here!!!” shouts Yance. We rush outside and run like lunatics to welcome our dear friend Christine and her boyfriend Jeff whom we haven’t seen for a year.

I met Yance and Christine in Sydney 3 years ago and they’ve become my best friends on this side of the world. How beautiful it is to meet up with your dearest friends in another country, and start the new year with a huge dose of friendship?

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The best thing about real friendship is that no matter how long you have not seen your friends, you always feel like it was only yesterday.

We start to talk like old times, catching up about our lives and what’s been happening with all of us. It’s good to hear Christine’s laughter again, she has the most infectious laughter and I like when she giggles.

We decide to go for a night walk and explore the surroundings. It’s really cold outside and the smell of some beautiful food makes us stop at a little street food stall. The shop is tiny and run by a lovely Chinese couple of oldies. I have no idea of what type of food it is but the old lady is talking about “Chinese pizza” with mince, spinach, pickled vegetables and it smells just like it. We order two and while the old man is kneading the dough, I am observing his every move. It does look like the making of a pizza but in the Chinese style. The best part is how they cook the pizza. The oven is a big barrel with fire at the bottom and the pizza is “thrown” on the side of the barrel for 5 minutes until it’s cooked. I’ve never seen that before and the result is pretty delicious!

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For our first reunion night, we set up a giant bed in the attic of the loft so we could all sleep altogether. It’s like a pajama party and we talk about everything and nothing until one of us falls asleep. I finally close my eyes after a big day, squished by Yance who’s literally sleeping across the whole bed we’re sharing, and lulled by the cute sound of Christine’s snores.

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Monday 1st January 2018, Shanghai, 9 am.

“Aaahh, aaaaaaah!!” Yance’s yelling brutally wakes up all of us.

Yance sometimes talks during his sleep, but this time he must have had a nightmare by the sound of it.

“Let’s go have breakfast, I know where to go!” I say all excited.

Of course, I had to take everyone to “Pain Chaud” and start the day with some delicious French pastries and coffees.

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After stuffing our faces with croissants and coffees, we decide to go to Tianzifang in the French Concession district, a must-see fascinating arts and crafts destination. The area retains an “organic and original” look and feel because of its untouched human marks. While much of the older homes and buildings have been replaced, the character of this old European district has been carefully preserved in its architecture and layout. The design is a Chinese-style Shikumen (stone gate) building fused with French Colonial architecture.

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I am delighted to discover the small laneways and green alleys begging to be explored. There are small galleries and craft shops on every corner. Artists can be watched working on their craft in their little studio.

Tianzifang is an artsy area, flooded with hundreds of bars, cafés, craft shops, design studios, art galleries, and boutiques.

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We are wandering in each alley, each shop, sometimes we’re getting lost in the multitude of laneways and boutiques. Food is omnipresent and the stalls are filled with a variety of local food.

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It’s time for a break and we all want a refreshing drink, something typical. We spot on the other side of the street a line of people queuing to get in a milk tea shop called Hey Tea. 

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The place seems to be very popular and even though there’s a line, we’re getting in the queue just out of curiosity. The drinks menu is quite surprising: cheese green tea, cheese ice blended strawberry. Tea with cheese? I have a mixed feeling about that but we are all keen to try.

The shop is so busy we have to wait for our number to be called out. After 30 minutes (we got lucky that day, I’ve read that it’s usually way longer!) we finally get our drinks.

The layer of cheese is an about an inch, a mixture of whipped cream and cheese (cream cheese, I assume), lightly seasoned with salt poured at the top. The cheese layer is fluffy, thick, creamy and rich. It is surprisingly good and quite filling.

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After getting our bellies filled with cheese tea, we are heading to Yu Garden to unwind from the busy city. Yu Garden has been built in the Ming Dynasty, more than 400 years ago. The unique layout, beautiful scenery, and the artistic style of the garden architecture have made the garden one of the highlights of Shanghai. It perfectly blends decorative halls, pavilions, glittering pools, zigzag bridges, pagodas, archways, and impressive rockeries.

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After a morning of walking around and exploring the city, we decide to have a massage. The idea of getting pampered for an hour sounds appealing to all of us.

Yance, who’s turned into our tour guide today, is already looking for a well-rated massage place on his phone.

In China, there are some really good massage places where you can stay for the whole day, have lunch or dinner and rest in your room while eating fresh fruits and drinking tea. It is pretty much like a hotel and I find the concept really smart.

Yance has found a massage place where they can have 4 people getting massaged in the same room. We get in pretty excited, get changed into a kitsch pink outfit and lay down on our comfy beds.

Four masseurs come in. Two women and two men. I ask to have a woman but I probably shouldn’t have. I did not know but the women are trained to massage men and the men are trained to massage women.

So this tiny Chinese woman is massaging me with the strength of a man and my sensitive body can feel every inch of pain.

My cries and yells make everyone laugh. The woman goes hard, she jumps behind me and twists my arms pushing her feet at the bottom of my back.

What the hell is that? I feel like doing sports combat on a massage bed and I am clearly not winning. After getting pampered (assaulted in my case) for a couple of hours, we are heading back to our Airbnb to get ready.

Tonight we are going to The Bund, a famous mile-long stretch of waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River. For a century, The Bund has been one of the most recognizable symbols and the pride of Shanghai. To the west of this stretch stands 52 buildings of various architectural styles: gothic, baroque, and neoclassical styles. It is often referred to as “the museum of buildings”.

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It is the perfect way to end a beautiful best friends reunion in Shanghai.

I got in touch with a friend of a friend from France who’s been living in Shanghai for 4 years. She is running a cocktail bar and lounge in the heart of The Bund. Her name is Lucile, “Lulu” to her close friends and the Chinese people who find it easier to pronounce.

The taxi drops us off in front of an impressive early 20th Century building. The sophisticated entrance and hall let us guess that we’re about to discover a special place. Little did I know that it would be one of the most glamorous nightspots of Shanghai.

Upon entry, I am struck by the kaleidoscope of art on the walls and the mix of styles that bring a very original and unique look and feel. The place sparkles with an eclectic decor, gourmet bites and a cocktail menu that dazzles the senses. The bold colours splashed on the walls mixed with masterpieces from a private collection give a playful, fun and chic atmosphere. Not to mention the peacock peering at you.

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I spot Lulu straight away and she warmly welcomes us. She leads us to a table and we all follow her, eyes sparkling and bursting with joy. She has reserved a table near the window with a spectacular view of the Shanghainese skyline. As we’re sitting down on stylish chairs and sofa, the waiter brings us 5 flutes of champagne, offered by the house.

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What a perfect start to the night. Canapés and gourmet bites follow the champagne and it’s like a succession of delightful delicacies. Tonight, we are the privileged ones and we are enjoying every second of it.

As if it could not get any better, Lulu takes us to the private balcony of the dining restaurant. I could not hold my joy and I let a scream of amazement. Standing here, in such a special place, makes me realise why Shanghai is called the Magical City.

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Besides the breathtaking view, it’s the atmosphere that strikes me the most. I feel like I am in a futuristic space city, ready to see a spaceship flying down the Oriental Pearl Tower. The misty clouds enfolding the buildings and the silence high up on the rooftop give an impression of solitude and mystery.

I can’t get my eyes off the Oriental Pearl Tower. Its architecture fascinates me. This 468m (1,536ft) high tower is the world’s sixth and China’s second tallest TV and radio tower. Built with eleven steel spheres in various sizes, hanging from the sky to the grassland, the body of the tower creates an admirable image. It is described in an ancient Chinese verse as “large and small pearls dropping on a plate of jade.” (大珠小珠落玉盘).

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Standing in front of such beauty with my dearest friends makes me reflect on my life. Who would have thought I’d be in China in 2018, teaching English to children and so far away from my comfort zone? At this very precise moment, I feel fearless, I feel powerful. I am the captain of my life, the master of my destiny, and even if I don’t know what the future holds, all my decisions, my actions define me and will lead me as far as I want to go.

Yance pulls me out of my reverie and after taking a hundred photos we get back to our table. The rest of the evening is a decadent feast for the belly and the senses ­– delicious food, surprising cocktails and to close an amazing night, Lulu orders a beautiful 2 tier cake stand overflowing with desserts including my favourite: a Pavlova, a meringue dessert with a crisp crust and soft, light inside topped with fruit and whipped cream. I could easily get used to getting spoiled like that. It is truly a magical night.

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It’s now time to head back home and we’re getting in the taxi, our minds filled with amazing memories and very content bellies.

Wednesday 3rd January, Shanghai, 5 am.

Yance and I wake up silently to get ready to go to the airport. Our Shanghainese trip is coming to an end and we have to leave our dear friend Christine and the charm of our cosy loft.

As we are about to walk out the door, Christine wakes up, still half asleep. We all hug, quite moved as we won’t see her for a while. Then we depart, leaving the warmth of the studio to a cold and windy dawn.

 

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