Surviving Shanghai

By Alannah Williams

‘Woman chops off penis in Guangzhou province. Who wants this one?’ announces the editor from his office.

The same man walks into the conference room and throws a stack of newspapers onto the table. He begins to assign stories to the other journalists sitting quietly around the table. Lastly, he passes a story down to me, which I can only assume is the silliest story of the bunch because I’m their newest intern at That’s Shanghai Magazine and Online.

I soon realise most of my work will be rewriting soft news and posting it online. A sense of disappointment and frustration overwhelms me as I sink into my broken chair. I’ve travelled thousands of miles to rewrite a story about how the mayor went for a swim in a polluted lake this morning…

You see, most Australian toddlers go to English playgroups where they meet other English-speaking kids and learn to sing age-old nursery rhymes and finger paint. Not me. I went to a Chinese playgroup and learnt the basics of Mandarin, how to appreciate Chinese food, and of course how to hold chopsticks or kuai zi. From there I passionately pursued learning Chinese throughout my schooling, in the hope I would one day work in China.

So here I am at twenty-two-years-old, sitting in this slimy conference room in Shanghai about to begin my first tacky news story. After all, a story is a story no matter whether you write it in a dingy and crammed newsroom or whether you write it on your iMac in your air-conditioned office at home. I knew I needed to toughen up, and quick.

What I didn’t realise was how difficult stories about loopy mayors, the harmful effects of wearing Crocs and the crazed vampire-like blood drinks in China actually are to pull off.

I felt as though I was making fun of the Chinese by writing these stories, but apparently this kind of news happens every day in Shanghai. Almost daily, someone in China falls onto a metro train track, or a woman is arrested for killing her husband. It almost becomes a joke in the newsroom. Especially when the penis stories come up.

I also had to comply with strict deadlines, as the editor wanted one story posted every hour. I had to throw away the perfectionism within me and adapt a more aggressive approach to stories in order to finish them in time.

The pace of the office, however, was nothing compared to my time spent outside of the office. I spent my mornings and afternoons running through the underground tunnels of the metro system, trying to get onto trains during peak hour. The metro system and I had a rough relationship to begin with, when my arm was jammed in the doors as it was trying to take off during my first week of work. Only two minutes later I realised I was on the wrong train and the battle wounds on my arm were all for nothing. It makes a good story though (I keep telling myself).

There’s little time to relax in Shanghai, when workmates are forever coercing you to go out with them for a cheap bowl of noodles and a couple of bottles of Qsing Dao, and later some Baijiu, a strong alcoholic drink that tastes almost like petrol. My workmates invited me to a KTV karaoke bar, which was more of an initiation ceremony. Could this Aussie girl sing and make us a proud friend? Or would she disappoint?

Soon I’m standing on a disco flashing boom box holding a sequined microphone belting out Whitney Houston’s ‘I will always love you’ to all my new friends. Suddenly, everyone is on stage with me and I’m holding the sweaty hand of our IT support guy, who is closing his eyes and singing as loud as his lungs will allow him. Someone screams ‘Gan bei!’ which literally means ‘drink it all’, and I am forced to gulp down the remainders of my drink.

The reality of not wanting to feel alone in Shanghai meant it was easy to be caught up in the whirlwind night scene of going out with workmates, even on weeknights. After two weeks in the city I had almost forgotten why I came here in the first place. Of course I wanted to write fantastic stories that would please my editor, but I needed to step up my game if I was going to achieve anything in this city.

Thankfully, it wasn’t too late. I began writing stories for Urban Family Magazine, part of That’s Shanghai group. These stories helped to ground me and expose me to one of the best elements of Chinese culture—the family unit. Walk around any neighbourhood after 11.00 pm and you will see families spending time together, an act almost unseen in Australian culture. Children stay up late to join their parents and grandparents for meals shared around a table. Parks are full of families practicing badminton, dancing or watching opera singers who come to perform at night. Whatever they want to do, they do it together and it was my pleasure to document some of this in my story on ‘Shanghai Parks’ for the magazine.

It’s about finding a balance between working and partying and not letting the Shanghai nightlife tsunami swallow you up and spit you out. All too often you hear of young Western graduates and entrepreneurs living in Shanghai, searching for that ‘Asian dream’ or the next big start-up company to be a part of. They have their sights set high and after six months realise it’s never going to happen. They find themselves addicted to the nightlife like I did and never escape the trap. Luckily I was able to stabilise myself before it was too late and return to Australia feeling stronger both as a writer and as a person.

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