It is pretty rare for me to say the words “I am not a fan of” when it comes to somewhere I have visited. In fact, I am pretty sure there is only one place I can ever remember feeling that way about in all my travels and that is Shanghai, China.
Before I explain, I will caveat this by saying my travel buddy and I did not have a lot of time in Shanghai and probably missed out on things that would have made us fall in love due to lack of knowing. Maybe we just had a bad experience that does not truly represent the city and need to try it again. I would never label a city as one that I don’t like or do not recommend. I am just stating that I did not particularly enjoy my time there or become a fan. Most of the time when I travel, I am wowed and constantly in amazement. That is exactly why I love to travel so much. Somehow, I just did not experience that here for the first time ever. In fact, I could not wait to get home.
Let’s begin with the bright side first.
We arrived during the chilly month of November and got to explore the city during some long layovers. I believe as Americans, we have this perception of China as a scary communist country where the government bullies other countries and gives their people little freedom. However, upon walking and driving around the city, we realized that Shanghai is not very different from other diverse and dynamic major cities in the U.S. This bustling metropolis and its over 24 million residents seem to actually be doing very well. From what we witnessed, Shanghaians drove nice cars, had the latest smartphones, dressed chic, and appeared quite happy, which was quite a refreshing contrast from what we expected.
We were delighted to find that the city, situated on the Yangtze River, was extremely modern and beautiful. Among the endless buildings and towers, there is a surprising amount of different architecture types, especially art-deco. Also, there’s a very prominent European influence in some areas, such as the Bund, a busy promenade on the river that offers fantastic views of the Shanghai skyline.
You can also find very traditional Chinese architecture scatted throughout, which is not only stunningly gorgeous, but it gives you a glimpse into the centuries of history that took place here. Our favorite was Yu Garden, where you can step back in time to appreciate ancient Chinese aesthetic elements of design, art, and gardening. We recommend a tour since everything was in Chinese with no translation whatsoever (as with most things here). Either way, we strolled through and enjoyed the scenery, as well as the shopping area found right outside of the garden with many markets and street vendors.
So yes, there were some enjoyable aspects. But unfortunately, the cons greatly outweighed the pros for us. There were far more things we did not enjoy or appreciate.
Here are the reasons I was not a fan of Shanghai:
- The pollution. Throughout this huge city, there is a thick smog you cannot escape. I got a taste of this when I went to Korea (where locals blame the smog and fine dust on their neighbors in China). However, actually being in the country of China itself was overwhelming, maybe even unbearable for people like me with breathing problems. I honestly felt pretty ill the entire time due to the air quality and stuffiness. No matter how great a city is, not having clean air to breathe can make it hard to enjoy. It also made it hard for sightseeing. We visited the Oriental Pearl Tower, one of the biggest tourist attractions and most recognizable landmarks among the Shanghai skyline. However, visibility was extremely limited due to the smog. It was disappointing on so many levels.
- The rudeness. I know this is a cultural thing. Believe me, I am Asian. I know how loud, pushy, and rude we can sometimes come off to outsiders. But what I experienced in China was on another, completely unacceptable level and left me appalled. A few examples:
- Everywhere we went, locals were blatantly staring, pointing, laughing, and even openly taking photos and videos of us right in our face. I am honestly not exaggerating. The weird thing is we are both Asian too, but I guess we look pretty different from the general Chinese population because we have darker complexions and larger builds. I understand those individuals may have never seen folks that look like us and were curious, but again, I believe this violates a very basic form of respect on a human level that should translate across any culture. Pointing at us and laughing when you’re two feet away from us is disrespectful, unkind, and completely uncalled for.
- Whenever we were lined up in a queue, people would just butt in front of us. In America, this is not tolerated. Everyone waits their turn. But in China, it’s so crowded that we had to wait in line for very long periods of time for virtually everything, so it was frustrating that people would just walk up and get in front of us all the time.
- Again, I understand the lack of personal space is common across Asia and that locals do not find it rude. But people literally putting their hands on us and shoving us out of their way really rubbed me the wrong way. This even took place on the airplane while waiting to de-board. I can’t stand invasion of my personal space or strangers touching me, so I was pretty irritated and ready to throw some elbows.
- The food. We were not impressed at all during our stay. I understand that American Chinese food is very different than actual Chinese food in China so I was trying to be open minded. Plus, we did not really know the best places to go. But regardless, we did not have a single thing we liked there, and instead just tried not to eat much. The quality and freshness were yet another thing we found disappointing. One night, we even tried to splurge at a high end Italian place we found along the Bund, thinking that as fancy as this place was, it had to be somewhat good. Our entrees tasted exactly like frozen lasagna and Chef Boyardee from a can. It was almost inedible. So you can imagine our shock when the bill for this restaurant was $100, the most expensive and yet worst meal of our entire trip. As a foodies, this is an unforgivable offence.
- Transportation. I have become quite accustomed to the crazy way that people in foreign countries drive, but like everything else, China takes this to another level. While the infrastructure itself was quite impressive, the Chinese do not seem to have any patience whatsoever. They drift between lanes as if they don’t exist, completely disregard stop signs and traffic lights to the point where I question why they even exist there, and also feel free to stop in the middle of the road as they see fit. Every cab ride meant me being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plus, we only had one cab driver who knew English and could take us where we needed to go. Otherwise, it was extremely hard for us to communicate and get around.
Needless to say, Shanghai just didn’t do it for me. And I am not even getting into other obvious things like the huge language barrier, very loud conversations, rampant cigarette smoking, and extreme crowdedness. I simply did not vibe with it. Maybe a big part of it was how exhausted we were from many hours of travel, which can play a big part in how you receive and enjoy new experiences. Or like I said earlier, maybe I just didn’t see and do the right things at the right times. I am trying to give Shanghai any benefit of the doubt that I can find. I am sure it is a lovely city, just one that did not land a spot on my favorite cities list.
However, I am a firm believer that one city cannot truly define an entire country. China is HUGE after all, and even though Shanghai is known as its most cosmopolitan city, maybe there are other parts I’ll enjoy more. So I do plan to eventually return to China to at least visit Beijing and the Great Wall. I may even return to Shanghai again someday just to give it another chance. But after this less than pleasant experience, I am in no rush.