Since I moved to Shanghai in September last year, I’ve lived in three different places. That was not my original plan, but sometimes it takes a few goes to get it right when you’re setting up in a new country.
My actual plan was to first live in a hostel for a few weeks while I looked for an apartment of my own. However, things didn’t exactly work out that way, and it wasn’t until January that I found myself fully settled. My experience may not be typical of a newly arrived expat, but it is worth telling by way of warning, if not purely for entertainment.
When I moved Shanghai in September it was only my second time ever in the city. I’d spent a week here last spring visiting my best friend Edward. This trip was the catalyst for my eventual relocation, and the youth hostel I stayed at then was to become my first abode when I finally took the leap.
Edward had also stayed at the hostel when he first moved to Shanghai four years prior, so he knew the manager quite well. In what seemed to be an enormous stroke of luck, the hostel needed a marketing assistant. As my background is in PR and copywriting, Edward recommended me for the job.
The manager and I agreed that instead of paying me a salary for the first two months, I would get a free room at the hostel. This sounded pretty sweet to me, so it was with a light heart that I set off from London with my one-way ticket to Shanghai.
After a couple of days settling in and getting to know the city, I had my first meeting with the manager, Lao Wei, who split his time between Beijing and Shanghai. A rather big problem soon became apparent: his English was as bad as my Chinese, to the point where we had to enlist the help of another staff member in order to communicate. On top of this, he was hardly ever in Shanghai.
By end of the first month, my ‘marketing’ work had consisted of creating a rather lame Facebook group for the hostel. A wall of tension built up between me and Lao Wei, as the hostel staff were no doubt reporting that I was spending less time on my work and more time on frivolous pursuits like bar-hopping and friend shopping.
Soon I was downgraded from my comfortable double room on the quiet top floor to a grimy single room beside reception, where every sound from the lobby echoed through the card-thin walls. And worse, after another few weeks of attempting and failing to communicate with Lao Wei, I was informed my marketing skills were no longer needed and I would have to start paying for my room.
Despite this minor hiccup, I loved living in the hostel. I had a ready-made social group, as the bar and entertainment room were always full of people. It was like being at college. However, real life isn’t college, and sooner or later the fun had to come to an end. In early November I decided to look for an apartment of my own.
Trawling a property website one afternoon, I came upon what seemed to be the perfect place. A 27-year-old Chinese guy was looking for a tenant for the spare room of his French Concession apartment. His place, in a leafy lane off historic Xinhua Lu, could be mine for just RMB1,700 a month. This was indeed a real bargain, so I got in touch with the landlord, whose name was Lin, and arranged to see the flat.
My first impressions were very positive; Lin seemed friendly (he promised to show me his favourite historical spots and restaurants) and the apartment was lovely. There was no communal area, but I figured that the sofa in my room could be used for impromptu flat-mate chats. I agreed to move in the next week.
But things were not what they seemed. From the friendly guy I’d first met, Lin quickly turned into an antisocial recluse. He refused to open his door when I knocked on it, and insisted that all communication between be via text. If I happened to be in the kitchen when he got home from work, he would either loiter in the hallway until I’d left, or scuttle off to his room without saying a word. In contrast to the happy, sociable room-mates I’d hoped we’d become, we were no better than strangers.
I’m not sure if it was shyness on Lin’s part, pushiness on mine or a mixture of the two, but living there quickly became pretty dire. After the social buzz I’d experienced during my two months living at the hostel, sitting alone in a quiet room every night was threatening to send me into despair.
So back to square one; I decided it was time to move on. I broke the news to Lin (over text, of course) that I would only be staying for a month. He wasn’t impressed, but there wasn’t much he could do, other than express his displeasure with a frowny emoticon. I felt bad for letting him down, as I’d initially told him I’d be there at least three months, but my happiness would have suffered if I hadn’t got out of there.
After enlisting the help of a realtor and viewing a few grim places, along with several that were way above my price range, I chanced upon the perfect abode on the 19th floor of an apartment complex just north of Jing’an.
After the suburban calm of the Xinhua Lu lane house, I was desperate to be back in the thick of the city, so this bustling area was ideal. My room-mates were a laid-back American personal trainer named Paul, a French computer technician named Thierry, and Paul’s dog Leo.
I moved in just after Christmas and have been here ever since. Some of my friends think I’m nuts to have swapped the tranquil leafiness of the French Concession for the chaos of Wuning Lu, but I didn’t come to Shanghai for peace and quiet!
It took me a while, but I finally found my perfect place in this crazy town.
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Keywords: Moved to Shanghai living in China
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