Shanghai’s Hidden Gems

When I left Minneapolis and finally said goodbye to the States, I spent a lot of time mentally preparing myself for the next six months. I’d been to China before, but this time I was going to enter an entirely new environment. I was going to spend the next eight weeks at a language program where I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t leave, and most importantly couldn’t speak English. I spent a lot of that plane ride trying to figure out how I was going to navigate China without knowing a lot of Chinese and without the luxury of speaking English. But the thing about China is that no matter how much you overthink it, the minute you step off the plane you have no choice but to find a way to snap out of it.

There’s something comforting about eating at the same small restaurant every single day for five months in a row. The restaurants are no bigger than the average master bedroom and seat no more than twelve people but usually there’s never more than four or five people eating at one time. There are never any new cooks, no foreigners, and whenever you walk in it feels like you’ve entered a space where time passes really slowly. My first time coming to China I ended up going to one of these this by mistake. I didn’t know how to say anything other than chicken, and the only man in Shanghai who understood my pronunciation of ‘chicken fried rice’ was at the small restaurant down the street around the corner. But at his corner restaurant I started to learn more about China from the people who ate there. There weren’t any expats or other study abroad students, just people who got off from work sneaking in a quick snack. They were all eager to talk to me about one thing or another, never shy. One thing I’ve noticed is that no matter the city, the community in these small restaurants (for the most part) remains the same.

Other than ordering a couple of dishes, I couldn’t speak any Chinese my first time in China which made my Beijing restaurant experience much more interesting. My roommate and I were learning Chinese and the husband and wife who owned the shop were eager to help. Every day my roommate and I would walk in, they would smile that we came back for the nth day in a row, make us dumplings and help us practice our Chinese. The small restaurant in Beijing also became an unexpected home away from home.

Fast forward to my time in Shanghai. Surprisingly, this has also been one of my favorite parts about Shanghai. Up to this point, I knew small restaurants were fun and something I consistently enjoyed going to, but I never really knew how much I liked them until coming back to Shanghai. Being far from home made it hard to find a sense of community, but the store owner smiling and throw you a light-hearted joke, or expressing concern because you haven’t shown up in three days became the closest thing to it. In Shanghai, my Chinese improved a lot and I was able to have more meaningful conversations. People didn’t hold back with their questions either. Some questions I didn’t have the answer to in English or Chinese. Other times people would explain their point of view on issues in China, America, or another place, but most of the time it was lighthearted and they’d always show me something new.

These places always led to funny interactions, interesting experiences, new faces, and new ideas. Overall, this trip had many ups, but to me, the most constant (not exciting, but underratedly interesting ) thing was practicing Chinese with the people at the corner dumpling shop. I always learned something new, got a WeChat ID, or ate a good meal, and I’ll definitely crave it when I get back to the States.