Welcome to Shanghai!

On Sep 6, 2008, after an uneventful 6 hour flight from Delhi, we landed in the Pudong airport of Shanghai, which must be one of the biggest and prettiest airport in the world. It was spanking new, immigration was smooth (with some helping official getting us into the priority lane), and customs was efficient. We were apprehensive since we were carrying lots of spices and food items for our initial survival and were not sure how customs will take it, but there were no issues at all.

After an hour of car ride from the airport, we reached our destination, which was bang in the middle of downtown, so many skyscrapers surrounding our service apartment (later I was told this was not really the downtown, which is much more impressive than this one). My boss was right in saying that this was better than New York!

Before starting our journey from Delhi, I came to know that I will not be able to join immediately because of the paperwork that needs to be done. I didn’t believe it, but when I visited the office, I realized they were serious. I was supposed to get a health check done from a govt body, result of which is needed to apply for a work permit which is needed on the day of joining. This meant it will be couple of weeks before I could join! So much for my enthusiasm about joining.

Calling to India proved complicated and finally I had to IM one of my friends in US to call my parents and in-laws in India to tell them we reached safely! Since I didn’t bring my laptop with me, I didn’t have internet access which precluded any possibility of IP-phone calling. Calling via hotel phone proved impossible, even when the front desk tried the call to India. Apparently, calling from China to India is not easy in general, it is difficult to get connections and even when you do, it is tough to sustain them. Even when I took a China Mobile cellphone, the connection was sketchy and expensive (4.5 RMB/min).

Getting a cell-phone connection, on the other hand, proved very easy. I walked into a China Mobile shop (which was in the middle of a big mall), found someone who could speak English, and they gave me a pre-paid connection in 15 min, I just had to show my passport to them. For those in India, you can compare this experience with that of getting one in India, which requires address proof, identity proof, and so many other paperwork, not to talk of extremely crowded showrooms and sometimes-rude sales people. Of course, you have to pray that their activation system will work and your SIM will start working. No such hassles here! Also, since China Mobile is one of the two cellular provider here (China Unicom is the other one, both of these are state enterprises), there isn’t much to choose from (there is only one calling plan) and that is good for the consumer since too many choices with too many fine prints become a headache.

Our health check appointment was couple days after we reached Shanghai and someone accompanied us there. I was expecting (on the lines of my India experiences) a shabby govt building with shady doctors doing checks and conducting tests with no enthusiasm. Instead, I walked into a modern building with LCD displays, smart-looking doctors performing tests in the most efficient manner I have ever seen. There were so many tests to be done, but all the process was completed in under 2 hours (including the waiting time, we were one of the last set of people to be administered tests). Hats off!

Most of the evenings in our first week have been spent walking around in the area, visiting the numerous malls in the area. Electronics form about 30% of shops in this area (which is called XuJiaHui) and it was amazing to see those shops littered with all kinds of electronic goods, branded as well as local. Most other shops were international brand stores, and as my wife says, more for walking around rather than actually buying things.

We had a city tour on Friday, courtesy the relocation group Microsoft works with, Santa Fe. It was very good, very useful to understand where expats stay, entertain themselves, and shop. It was also a good way of seeing the city up close. HongQuao road and Gubei area seem to be most popular with expats, and it had all kinds of apartments, shops and restaurants which cater to them. We also visited a kindergarten school and I was surprised to find such a large American kindergarten in the heart of Shanghai (later I was told that there are many such schools here).

Language gap has been proving to be a problem from day one. This is in spite of the fact that most of the shops here display English signs, most products carry English names, and most people try extremely hard to help you. Couple of samples: it took us 4 days to find breakfast cereals in the local superstore because we couldn’t convey this to the salespersons here. Finally, I called one of my Chinese colleagues here and asked him to talk to the salesgirl and then I was led to the huge collection of imported and local cereals they had in the store! Similarly, when we tried to buy a Dove face wash, my wife did buy some cream but couldn’t figure out what it is for, since everything on it was in Chinese (which is strange, since most things I have found here has some English words which give away the secret). Buying a swim suit for my daughter at Carrefour proved problematic too. Taxi is very cheap, but drivers do not speak or understand English. So the way to use them is to write the destination in Chinese (many websites and SMS services will provide this service) and hand over to the driver. I am told it is safe to do so.

So far, our experiences with food items have been interesting, here are some samples:

  1. It is easy to find good vegetables here, at reasonable prices. And you can find many of the vegetables that you find in India, more than what we get in US.
  2. It has been impossible to find what we call curd in India and yogurt in US: what we get here as yogurt is a liquid, set yogurt is something that is likely to be close to yogurt of US but it was too expensive to buy, we will try again in future.
  3. Milk tastes funny, but we haven’t tried other brands to see if this is a brand-specific problem or region-specific.
  4. Bread also tasted different, mostly sweet. We may have to explore bakery and take fresh (and expensive) breads.

So far, after 1st week in Shanghai, our feelings are fairly positive about staying in this place for long term. We still have to work on many big-ticket items, like where to stay, which school to send our daughter to, and which hospital to have our next kid in. However, it seems like it will be possible to find what we are looking for, as soon as we know ourselves what we are looking for!

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