Shanghai Survival Tips

I don’t claim to be an expert on China but I have survived for four months now living in Shanghai so that has to count for something, right?  If I can download some useful information to visitors and expats coming here and save a life or two, I will consider this a worthy post.  Now, on to life in Shanghai.  This is a fascinating country in the throes of constant change.  I appreciate the history, culture and people.  I hope you will enjoy your trip or relocation here.  If you follow my tips, your experience in China may be better and you will have wonderful memories to bring home.  Pack that air mask and off you go!

Buses own the road-they drive fast and won’t slow down for pedestrians. Stay out of their way!

TRAFFIC Drawing on wisdom from Patches O’Houlihan  “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball”,  my new daily motto has become:  If you CAN’T dodge a bus, YOU COULD DIE, Shanghai style.

Cars park on the sidewalk because they can.

Yes, it’s nuts and crazy without any rules.  Pedestrians NEVER have the right of way here.  Ever.  Your driver (hopefully you won’t try to drive yourself) will go on the wrong side of the road when he is impatient with how traffic is moving.  And, he will do a U-turn almost anywhere even on crowded narrow streets.  I just watched a huge truck do a six point U-turn on a four lane busy road, holding up traffic just because he could.   Bus drivers are out to get you–stay far, far away from them.  Scooters and bikes (none have headlights) will be a more painful, slower death but if you’re nimble, you can dodge them.  I have had many a scooter rider actually touch me as they whizzed by and cut in front of me.  Don’t think because you have the “green walk light” that you are safe—this means nothing.  NEVER CHANGE DIRECTION.  There are scooters and bikes on the sidewalks too and they will mow you down if you suddenly move.  Most run pretty quiet so you can’t even hear them coming.  I have gotten into the habit of looking everywhere-front, sides and behind before I move in any direction.  So far, I’m still alive so my strategy is working! If you do get hit or are in a car accident, here are some words of wisdom—RUN!!!  You are on your own if you get hurt so try to find a cab to take you to the nearest hospital and don’t leave home without having directions (in Chinese) to a Western style hospital with you at all times.  There really aren’t ambulances so get a taxi.   If you are in a car accident, throw money at the taxi driver and RUN!!!  As the Laowai, you may be held accountable for any accident and may have to pay for it—yes, you weren’t driving but this is China and they could assume you have money.  GET OUT!  If you are on the highway/tunnel, you may not be able to run-good luck.  If you see someone hit or hurt and help them, you may be held accountable and may have to pay for their injuries even though you didn’t have anything to do with it because they assume if you help, you must feel guilty because you are responsible.  This is China!  It doesn’t have to make sense….RUN! GETTING AROUND

Riding the ferries takes courage but they are fast.

The subways are crowded and crawling with a million hacking people.  However, the subways are cheap, have English signing and can get you around quickly.  I use them every day-wear a mask and bring hand sanitizer.  You can buy a metro card at the staffed booth—a ride is usually 3-7 RMB ($1 US=6 RMB).  Green lights signal that a taxi is available.  There are usually no functioning seatbelts so brace yourself and hang on tight.  Drivers do not speak any English-I use a mobile app, Hi Shanghai Taxi!, and it has a list of all the restaurants, hotels, etc. with taxi directions in Chinese.  Works great!  I also learned quickly the Mandarin way to say stop, left/right, etc. and now I can actually speak to the drivers.  Taxi’s can be hard to get but try flagging them down on the street or at a hotel—then, give up after awhile and take the subway.  Don’t take the ferries—you may live but it will scare you to death as they dodge the coal boats running up and down the Hungpao River.  Just not worth it unless you want to be scared shitless especially at night as none of the boats use lights.  Really. MONEY/CREDIT CARDS/PHONES You’re going to need to LOTS of money to buy all those fake Prada bags and Mao pillows to take home.  We got an international credit card that didn’t charge transaction fees, which can add up quickly.  This way, we can go to any ATM and get out local currency (RMB) from our U.S. account.  If you are moving here, I would highly recommend such an account.  We got a local credit card account too so we could order online from China websites like Taobao and that had “Union Pay” access which lets us use it like a debit card.  Banks are everywhere and a safe place to exchange your money for local currency.    You will have to communicate while you are here so just go to any newstand on the corner and get a sim card to use while in China.  You have to have an unlocked phone (get this done with your phone carrier before you leave your home country), pop out your current sim and put in the new one.  Easey peasy!  Make sure you know if you have a micro sim or standard size sim card.  The vendor should be able to punch out the size you need to accommodate.  The SIM card should cost you 100 RMB for limited prepaid service.   WeChat is the hot social texting app here in China.  WeChat has become our “go to” for group chats and staying in touch in country and back home with our family. POLLUTION

View from my apartment on a “hazy” day-AQI 200+
Tale of 2 air filters-white two months ago, black now with air particulate matter. Cough, cough!

Yes, it’s that bad.  Our air filters in our super clean, never open a window ever, apartment turned black after 2 months and they should have lasted at least 6 months, at least in a first world country.   Bring air masks with you or go to any Watson’s (the Walgreen’s of China) and buy one immediately.  You never know when the AQI will soar and you should be prepared.  There are mobile apps to confirm that the grey sky you are seeing is toxic-anything over 150 is really bad so get out the mask.  Most people smoke in China because, really, why not?  Our lungs will look like tar after a short while so you might as well smoke too.  My friend who works here from the US gets 15% hazard pay on top of his salary.  I would expect we are losing 15% a year of our life expectancy so that’s probably fair.  At least I won’t have to worry about saving for my retirement. FOOD SAFETY

WP_20140123_017 (1)
Roasting nuts in an open fire on the sidewalk. Cool for photos, not so cool for food safety.

Never, ever drink tap water.  Buy the most Western branded bottled water you can find and use it for everything including to brush your teeth or wash off fruit/vegetables.  Never, ever eat street food.  I walk these streets daily and I can’t even begin to tell you the horror stories of non-existent food prep standards.  Every day in the paper you read stories about reusing old oil to cook, subbing out fox for donkey at Wal-Mart, etc.  There are Western groceries and restaurants that we frequent where we think it is probably better—City Shop grocery, Fresh Elements, Baker & Spice, even McDonald’s has some standards and Starbucks are everywhere.   My boss gave me good advice that you should only eat where it is crowded because the grill will be hot—in an empty place, the grill will be cold so your food won’t be cooked right.  Makes sense!  You cannot buy OTC meds here-none-so bring Tylenol, Stomach Stuff, etc. or you will be sorry.  Watson’s is the Walgreen’s of China but they only carry skin whitener (big here) and lotions/potions and nothing to help stop diarrhea, which you will get.  Just hope you don’t throw up in a potted plant at the airport like I did after eating something bad.  A moment I will never forget! BATHROOMS Work out those thigh muscles ladies because they still have squats in some public restrooms in buildings even in big cities like Shanghai.  Yes, a “squat” is a hole in the floor that you have to use.  Try doing it in heels and Spanx-I did but not by choice.  When you have to go, you have to go.  Always bring toliet paper/tissue and hand sanitizer with you.   If you have to go, try to find a high end hotel or mall.  Being a foreigner, they won’t question you and their bathrooms are quite nice.  The Hotel Andaz even has heated toilet seats in their lobby restroom—I love my Toto Japanese toilet!!! TAKE OFF THOSE SHOES Phlegm flies everywhere in China.  I had read about this happening but living here I have experienced dodging gobs of it–you hear it coming (cough, hack, cough) and then you RUN!  With all the pollution, I have to say that I understand why it’s going on all over town but perhaps a new habit of hacking into a tissue should begin.  You will also see cab drivers peeing by the side of the road everywhere and toddlers being held up to pee in the trashcans.  Yep.  That’s one good reason why there is a tradition here to take off your shoes as you enter your home because you have other people’s DNA all over your soles from walking the streets. GENERAL SAFETY You don’t need to carry your passport on you ever unless leaving the country or travelling within the country.  They will ask for it at a new hotel.  I leave my passport in a safe-all the hotels have them in the rooms and I have one now in my apartment.  Use the safe for anything you leave in your room like technology, etc.  It probably would be fine because theft is rare but it would be a pain in a foreign country so better safe than inconvenienced.  I do feel perfectly comfortable walking the streets at night alone albeit having to dodge traffic.  There is little street violence or crime.  Thom witnessed a pick pocket on the street but only once—just keep your handbag across your body and walk with purpose.  Always carry a map with you-most people will not speak English or think to help you if you are lost.  We try to always help Laowai’s who look lost but most locals will not, probably because they don’t speak English.

Pack your sense of humor and air mask and join me in China!

Some people might be scared off by all these warnings but it would be a shame not to travel to this wonderfully complex evolving country that is so rich with traditions, (and also superstitions), history, beautiful sights and interesting people.  Be forewarned, plan carefully and pack wisely.  Yes, you could die but are you really safe anywhere?  Life is short!  Keep your sense of humor and marvel at all the crazy things you will see if you get out and walk the streets of Shanghai.  I look forward to each and every day of my wonderful adventure here.          Join me in China!

10 thoughts on “Shanghai Survival Tips

    1. We love it here but hopefully with this post, I can assist others to be stay safe while they are here. I was so scared walking the streets at first but now love it, though I am always cautious.

    1. Please visit! Bring a friend–we have lots of room and would love to see you. We will make sure you are safe when you are here and enjoy all the wonders of China.

    1. Thanks! I’ve been accumulating these thoughts for awhile as I walk around. I’ve learned a lot and just wanted to share so others can not be frightened when they get here but be able to enjoy this amazing place.

  1. An entertaining list of the things to warn people about before they get to China! I have found though, that after a few months, this all becomes par for the course, and it is actually quite manageable and FUN to walk around and live in Shanghai. In fact, I have adopted some of the walking/driving/biking techniques of the Shanghainese without even realizing. Might share this post with my parents though before they come for a visit in April so that they are ready for all that is China!

    1. I agree that you do get accustomed to the techniques to get around after awhile and I am not as scared as before, though I am always aware of my surroundings and cautious in order to stay safe. I wrote this piece to help others so they might be forewarned and prepare so they can enjoy China more. No surprises! I hope your parents enjoy their visit.

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