Interview with Jonathan Lau

One freezing, rainy winter evening last year I went to a film screening at Café Vienna and I got seated next to Jonathan. Since we’ve both studied anthropology, lived in Shanghai and were struggling with Mandarin, we had quite a lot to talk about from the very beginning. Since then he went back to California and he’s greatly missed. All photos inserted are courtesy of his.

Name: Jonathan Lau

Place of Origin: California

Time spent in China: 11 months

Once you invited me to a film screening, organized by a charity organization, at which you were one of the pillar members during your stay. Who are they and have you heard from them lately?

When I was in Shanghai I volunteered at a non-profit called Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB).  This amazing organization brings orphans aged 17-21 from rural China to Shanghai and trains them in French baking for a year, giving them practical skills for a better future.  I still get their monthly newsletter and the last thing I remember reading was Miss California swinging by the SYB baking center with the Pistachio Growers of American and a $50,000 check.  I think it is safe to say that they are doing very well since I left Shanghai.

You left Shanghai last July after spending almost one year here, studying Economics at Fudan University. Why does a young undergraduate of anthropology choose to read Economics?

I used to be a double major in Economics not too long ago before I admitted to myself that it was making me miserable.  However, it is hard to separate economics from culture so I often found it in my anthropology.  Not to mention, it helped make sense of the cultural shifts that I was seeing happen in China.

What was your first impression of Shanghai when you first arrived and how did your perspective change after one year?

Arriving at Pudong airport and driving to Fudan, I thought that Shanghai looked very much like Hong Kong.  A year later, I realized that only a few parts of Shanghai come close to looking as modern as Hong Kong.  Living in Shanghai, helped me see China as a developing country with a few cracks of modernity.

What was it like to go back and leave everything behind in Shanghai after this long break from home?

Towards the end of my stay in Shanghai, I was very ready to leave.  Being from California, the lack of clean air and good weather was really getting to me.  In addition, my life in Shanghai had become routine and I felt that I was not really growing much anymore.  However, when I got around to packing I started getting choked up.  There is something about putting my life away into boxes or suitcases that just makes me realize the magnitude of what I am leaving behind.

What was the most difficult to get used to, once you were back home, in the first few months?

Daily interactions back home in San Jose took some getting used to.  Suddenly, it was no longer appropriate to push past people on the street, sleep walk through my day or speak Chinese.  Reacquiring manners was quite difficult, I kept getting caught off guard whenever strangers talked to me on the streets and struggled to remember to say thank you to shopkeepers.   A friend actually laughed at me because of how awkward I was being around waiters.

What do you miss the most from Shanghai? 

It did not take much more than a couple of hours of home for the boredom to get to me.  Suddenly, there were no art galleries to visit, bars to frequent, events to attend or even metro to ride.  Leaving that Shanghai lifestyle behind was extremely difficult.

Once I heard there’s not enough hugs in this city. What do you think of the dating scene here?

I would be the wrong person to ask as I never dated or tried in my year in Shanghai. Though I did talk to a few expats and locals about it and the scene seems to be lively but lacking quality.

Was your stay here successful? Did you achieve what you’d set out back in 2010, before you moved here?

I came to China really with three goals in mind, to learn Chinese, make Chinese friends and discover what Chinese culture is.  I failed fantastically on the first two goals, most likely because they fed into each other.  However, for the latter I got much more than I bargained for.

3 things one has to pack when moving here

  1. A camera – Shanghai is an incredibly photogenic city, especially at night.  To not have a good camera to capture the beautiful though sometimes tacky lights all around the city would be a sin.
  2. A smartphone – Forget phrase books or maps! We are in the 21st century now! Bring your smartphone and preload it with a Chinese-English dictionary and relevant maps.  Watch out for the pick pockets though.
  3. Leatherman/Swiss Army Knife/Multi-Tool – Because everything in China is broken or near broken especially in your apartment. My Leatherman saved my life many times and allowed me to capitalize on the many opportunities for mischief.

3 things one should never attempt to do if they are newbies here

  1. Barter – No matter how much you have read about bartering you will get ripped off.  Best to go with a pro or local and learn first before attempting to do it yourself.
  2. Leave the city – Resist the urge to hop on the plane to Beijing or Tibet your first month here.  Shanghai is a magical place in its own right and there is no way to fully explore it in just a month.  My philosophy has always been to know your own backyard before even attempting to leave it.
  3. Work or Intern – Don’t jump at the first internship or job that you find as soon as you land in the city. Employers in China have a nasty habit of using somebody for all they are worth.  Take a little time and ask around to get know the employer situation before settling.

Something that really freaked you out in Shanghai

Once at a wet market, I saw these frogs being skinned alive.  The horrifying part was that after they were skinned, they were still alive! That box of skinless frogs jumping around was a pretty gruesome sight.

Did you find Shanghai expensive?

Shanghai can be expensive or as cheap as you want it to be, though I definitely lived on the more expensive side.  The expat lifestyle of your own bedroom and going out to bars will probably cost you many times the average income of a local.  However, for the same amount of money I spent in the US, I got much more bang for the buck in Shanghai.

What would be the best location for a single newcomer, whirling in the urban mist, desperate for a coffee and a quiet corner to read their paper on a Sunday morning?

It depends.  If you have an arm or a leg to spare, you can go to Dan Cafe in Tianzifang.  Run by a retired professor from Japan, Dan most likely serves the best coffee in Shanghai, but you are going to have to pay 45RMB minimum per small cup and the sky’s being the limit for how much you want to pay.

If you are not rolling in cash, I would probably go to GZ Cafe near the Nanjing Xi Lu metro station.  It’s a small cafe run by a very friendly couple in the middle of this side street/neighborhood of shikumen houses.  The coffee is decent and reasonably priced.  The best part though is probably the kittens that they have running around that you can pick up and play with.  They are very helpful on a lonely day.

If you could use one word to describe your experience of living in a far-away country, what would be it?

Magical – Everything from the people I met, places I went and things I experienced was inexplicably amazing.  There were just so many moments that just filled me with awe that magical is the only word which does justice for my year in Shanghai.

What Chinese word did you use here most frequently?

Dui, because I could enthusiastically say it in rapid succession whenever someone understood my terrible Chinese, which was always a great feeling.

Are you planning on coming back one day?

Of course! There is something about Shanghai that I just miss.  Perhaps it’s the grittiness of the city, oxymoron that is China, or speed of life, I cannot put my finger on it, but something compels me to go back.

Well, hope to see you again soon and thanks for the interview and the photos!

More on Jonathan on his blog: www.jonchiehlau.com

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