Unique sounds of dialect and familiarity with the city make Shanghai a home

ONE famous Chinese pop song laments: “Shijian dou qu na’er le?” (where has all the time gone?), and that’s exactly how I feel this week having passed my master’s defence and taken the obligatory graduation photos, complete with gown (although we didn’t throw our caps since we were using them to block the warm rain).

Time really has gone so fast, quite where I really don’t know.

I started my master’s journey here in Shanghai two years ago, not really knowing what the next couple of years would bring. All I knew was, somehow or other, I was going to learn a lot. Some things I learned from the classroom, and from the wise voices of our professors, but most I learned just by being here.

I didn’t just learn about this place, but also about China in general, even though many argue that Shanghai is somehow different from the rest of the mainland; somehow not as “authentic.”

One of my Chinese professors drilled that into me after returning home from my semester at East China Normal University in 2012. I asked if she could give me some more credits toward my Chinese major just from having lived here for half a year.

Juedui bu xing (absolutely not),” she said calmly but sternly, the way your mother would. “Shanghai isn’t the real China.”

That really stuck in my mind, and gave me even more motivation to explore this vast land. Now I’ve visited more than 30 of China’s cities and towns. Some have stuck in my mind as smells or colors or tastes, or all of the above, and some of their names have escaped my mind, not leaving more than a fleeting imprint on my memory.

I’ve walked around Hangzhou’s West Lake in the fog, sat with the monks at Shaolin Temple, cycled along Dali’s Erhai Lake, met the man who rediscovered the terracotta warriors in 1974, and tried my hand at making pottery in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province.

Right now I’m filming a reality show in Sichuan Province.

But, physically and mentally, I always end up back in Shanghai.

Part of it is the people, that’s true. Anyone who’s lived in China for any period of time will know that guanxi (connection) is everything here — it’s something that is built up over time and after dozens of social interactions, whether on purpose or otherwise.

And when you’re alone in a foreign land — by alone I mean without family and old friends from back home — you really come to rely on your new networks, even if it’s just knowing that someone is there if you need them.

Familiarity is also an old friend, and even though Shanghai — and most parts of China — change and develop at breakneck speed, you can still find the familiar when you need it most.

It’s those familiar things that make a place feel like home, at least for me. Whenever I come back to this city after being away, old sights and smells and smiles make Shanghai feel as homely as New Zealand.

Going to my local noodle shop and just saying “lao yangzi (the usual)” to a familiar face makes this place feel like home. Riding my bike from A to B without having to look at a map makes this place feel like home. And, dare I say it, hearing the unique sound of Shanghainese — even though I don’t understand more than a bunch of words — makes this place feel like home.

So now I’m at a crossroads. I’ve finished this little journey. I’ll get my master’s degree within a couple of months, and it’s time again for things to be up in the air. Do I stay? Do I go? For me the decision is made a little easier with the knowledge that my immediate family packed up and left New Zealand around the time I first came to China. Lately so many New Zealanders have left our little home for the brighter lights of Australia.

For me, New Zealand doesn’t have that feeling of home anymore. The last time I visited it felt weird, almost foreign, which is sad.

I’m not Chinese, and I’m not Shanghainese. But I am human, and that feeling of home — that feeling of being welcome and needed — is so important.

I definitely feel that in Shanghai.