Shanghai: My Time in the City told through its people (December-January 2017)

Fan got me into becoming a hired gun, a test-taker for wealthy Chinese. We were paid between $2000 and $5000 a pop to go to testing centers around Asia with fake passports and sit university entrance exams for them.

I had met Fan at a hostel in Shanghai three year prior. Then, he was studying to become an English tutor, something I was surprised he even needed an examination for; his accent was distinctly British, to the point that I couldn’t tell that he spent the first 22 years of his life in a small city in China (only attending British university for a couple years after this).

Fan wrote poetry and read philosophy in his free time. We talked about work and dating culture in China and the west.

I had found myself incompatible with a corporate life, wherein my personal quirks (ADHD, inability to adhere to a sleep schedule, desire to see the world) left me unfulfilled. Fan had much more negative thoughts on this, and wanted to find work as a tutor to make time to pursue his writing.

Dating was a new world for both of us; I had just discovered my sexuality while travelling throughout Asia, a world where I found I was quite popular compared to my mostly homogenous, white, homogenous-sexual dating scene in Chicago. Fan was similar, he had just moved into Shanghai, a far more cosmopolitan city than in Jixi or Nottingham.

I was only in Shanghai for a couple days, but we went out for a drink the night I left Shanghai (coincidentally the same night before I began my scam tour through China detailed in “How to run a scam”). After a pretty heated argument with the doorman of a club (foreigners are given free drinks all night at clubs to make it appear more international, but we were not given that in spite of my American passport and Fan’s British residency card. The doorman kept insisting “it’s not racism” without any explanation). We met some empathizing Finnish girls who ferried drinks to us and invited us out to karaoke after.

Now, two years later, we’d meet again in Shanghai. We shared details of our lives in the interim. Fan would tell me about his (relatively) new girlfriend, his attempts to write a novel, and his new line of work. I would eagerly ask to become a part of it.

Shanghai is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in China.

It’s developed rapidly; I remember driving on mostly dirt roads where no one obeyed traffic laws when I first visited in my childhood nearly 20 years prior. Within a decade, on my next visit, there were two subway lines and many skyscrapers and paved roads. Today there are 15 subway lines, large 6-lane boulevards everywhere, and in many parts of the city, the sky is obscured by the many high-rise apartments and office buildings. It’s developed rapidly; a friend told me of “millionaire grannies” who would live frugally on five-dollar a day meals, but who lived in apartments that had appreciated in price to be worth millions of dollars.

When I arrived, I attended an English-language exchanges to meet locals. I befriended a pair of girls, whose English names were Kate and Justina (I am just as bad as a westerner at memorizing Chinese names). They took me out to their favorite locations around Shanghai; bars, restaurants, Justina even treated me to her favorite masseuse. Kate was more traditional and reserved; her clothing and mannerisms reminded me of the foreign-exchange students I’d see on campus in my university years. She cried once at a bar. Her long-time and only ex-boyfriend with whom she’d separated a year and half earlier had told her via chat app that he had gotten married.

Justina was more extroverted and I really enjoyed our conversations. We’d talk and joke about cultural differences between China and the west or China and other Asian countries. She’d make fun of me for my love of Xiao Yang Shen Jian (Yang’s fried dumplings) and accompany me there. She struck me as more open and liberal; on our first meeting we played a game of truth or dare and when asked what was important in a sex partner she said cunnilingual skills. On one of our last days together before I left Shanghai she revealed to me that she was a lesbian, which I guess makes sense.

I met another girl named Ren Jie at a board-game event I attended. We went to hotpot afterwards where she told me she was from a city in the Sichuan province. I joked with her, saying “I heard Sichuan girls are very pretty. So umm… are you really from there?” She told me later that she was so astounded when I said that, everyone had always told her she was pretty.

We became lovers and she would invite me over to dinners prepared by her and her roommates. She told me she told me she liked me after seeing my deductive skills in a bluffing game we played, which made me like her more. She liked me from the start. She told me that her company, Baidu (The Google of China) was named after a poem about a man looking for a woman a thousand, hundred (bai) times (du).

Jie took me around to parks and other spots in Shanghai. We biked around the abandoned world-expo stadiums from years prior, and went to the zoo. One day she took me to her friend’s workplace, where they were prototyping an oculus rift game.

Trump had just entered office when I met Jie. I remember her asking if China ever could have a leader as insane as Trump. She told me “Only Mao.”

When I left Shanghai, she rode in the cab with me. She told me how much she’d miss me, and how much she enjoyed our month together. We’d keep in touch often, but a few months later she told me she was in a relationship, and it was getting serious.


While I was there, I hung out with a friend from my high school years named Johnny (not his real name). He had come to the states when he was 2, and had made it rich, claiming he had made millions after selling his startup. He treated me out to very expensive dinners and insisted on getting a table whenever we would go out to the clubs, which was nearly every day he was there. Johnny was a little peculiar though. Despite being fabulously wealthy, he was overly desperate for approval, insisting on bragging and boasting about his accomplishments, as well as constantly trying to name-drop and show off his knowledge. Johnny was not a stupid person, a graduate of a top school, and he was often very funny. I told him that as someone as wealthy as him, he should not be approval-seeking and should just lightly brag about his accomplishments, that this behavior would’ve been far more attractive to others. He disagreed strongly, even getting angry that I told him this. He told me he disliked my behavior when we went out, that I was too focused on girls and not on just having fun. While this may be true, in truth I never pursued any girls, just sat at the table that he had bought and the girls would always come to me.

I think he had a complex where he always needed approval, and that crossed racial lines as well. He would almost always want to show foreigners that he was not like other Chinese, that he was Western-born, a behavior that came from both the beliefs in China and the Midwest that whites were more interesting. But these were English teachers, or backpackers, people I felt like he should never need approval from. Those nights were often weird, but it’s pretty nice to be wealthy. Maybe one day I can be rich too.

While at my favorite fried dumpling restaurant one day, I met a Caucasian girl named Cate who had come from California to teach English in a church in Shanghai. I asked her if I could join her while scarfing down my dumplings and she obliged. She told me about how she was lost after graduation and God had sent her this way, to a foreign city that she ended up loving. She was always so positive in her attitude, yet soft-spoken. It always felt like she was hiding some darkness inside. She invited me to come with her to Hangzhou, a neighboring city to visit along with some members of her church from Argentina. There, she would tell me about her problems with stuttering growing up, how she started to listen to and learn to rap in Korean to get better. It was always pleasant to be around her, and I enjoyed our eclectic exploration of the city; we went to a random bar and played drinking games with locals, we climbed a mountain at night and got a great view of the city, we visited a temple and then got lost in the adjoining neighborhood where all kinds of almost random foodstuffs were there. We visited a neighborhood kept to look like it had in ancient times, where a young girl asked Cate for a picture with her in perfect English and then politely said thank you before disappearing. We looked for Hangzhou food at a mall where I tried some really, really stinky tofu.

I met Ling at a swing-dancing meet-up Fan invited me to. After meeting, she invited me to stay with her in her extra room. She was fascinated with foreigners. She told me she dated an English teacher for a while but she ended up breaking up with him because all he did every day was smoke weed. Still, she frequented salsa clubs and loved to dance and meet foreigners through that. She was more quiet and cold, it was always difficult to tell what she was thinking or feeling.

I went with her to salsa classes often, and really enjoyed the atmosphere. Our teacher was Japanese and had moved to Shanghai to teach salsa. He was handsome, and the many girls fawned over him. He told me he took a trip to South America in the last year, and he loved it. He couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, but once he danced, everyone would want to meet him and talk to him. He spoke Chinese, Japanese, and English fluently, but each (excluding Japanese I’d assume) worse than one of his frequent students (also Japanese), who would make fun of him for it. She also spoke Spanish, so like, super cool.

I haven’t been back since I left over a year ago. I haven’t seen any of those people since. I plan to return in a few months and see everyone again, but I’ll see how it goes.

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