The Shanghai syndrome

“Do you have Nutella in Suzhou?”.

I kid you not, that is what a colleague who lives in Shanghai asked me once.

Local Shanghainese people share a characteristic that annoys the hell out of Chinese from any other place: they think Shanghai is a super cosmopolitan place and that the rest of China is the countryside. Basically everybody thinks Shanghainese are arrogant and snobby. That is the reputation they have.

The Bund in Shanghai. It was a national holiday so it was more crowded than usual.

The Bund in Shanghai. It was a national holiday so it was more crowded than usual.

Once I was flying back to Beijing after attending a job interview in Shanghai. Next to me there was a Chinese man who started chatting with me. When he heard that I lived in Beijing, he asked: “Which city do you prefer, Beijing or Shanghai?”. I was candid enough to answer the truth: “Beijing”. He spent the rest of the flight (about 2 hours) telling me why Shanghai is superior in all aspects to Beijing. Yes, he was Shanghainese. I don’t remember much of his monologue, but one of the reasons was that there were more restaurants in Shanghai, and more variety. Really? In Beijing I regularly ate Dongbei, Yunnanese, Sichuanese, Cantonese, Uighur, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Mexican, American, Russian and Thai food, among many others. I haven’t counted the restaurants in both Beijing and Shanghai, but for sure you  can find a similar variety. (Well, I’m not sure there are so many Spanish tapas restaurants in Beijing. In Shanghai they are a plague).

Houhai, in the center of Beijing. People swim here! (Even in the winter).

Houhai, in the center of Beijing. People swim here! (Even in the winter).

It seems many foreigners who live in Shanghai have been “infected” with this Shanghai superiority syndrome. Many of them believe that they would die if they had to move to any other place in China, because “it’s the jungle out there”. It’s totally fine that they love Shanghai so much they wouldn’t change it for anything, but are the other places really that bad? Is it impossible for a foreigner to survive “out there”?

Playing in the shore of Jinji lake, in Suzhou.

Playing on the shore of Jinji lake, in Suzhou.

Obviously not and just writing it makes me want to laugh. I have only lived in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou so I can only comment on these cities. Shanghai is a particularly good option if you don’t speak Chinese (although don’t expect taxi drivers or fruit sellers to speak English), you prefer to hang out with foreigners, you are young and you like fancy clubs. You can also do all of these in Beijing, but the drinks will be cheaper and you will find more rock bars. I find Suzhou (well, the Industrial Park) very suitable for families with kids, as there are many parks and it is not crowded at all. And yes, in Suzhou you can find Nutella and all the Western groceries you can buy in Shanghai. Because we have supermarkets with imported products. What a surprise! (And the cities and villages without those supermarkets can get imported products online anyway). I can think of other Chinese cities that seem perfectly fine to live in: Hangzhou and Xiamen come instantly to mind.

I visited Xiamen during Chinese New Year so it was very crowded, but I still thought it was a very nice city. This is the campus of Xiamen University.

I visited Xiamen during Chinese New Year so it was very crowded, but I still thought it was a very nice city. This is the campus of Xiamen University.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Shanghai. Well, except that rents are outrageously expensive. I just find it laughable that so many people are convinced that the civilized world ends when you cross the province border in Huaqiao. But you know what? Less people have stared and yelled hallo at me in Suzhou than in Shanghai!

 

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