On the surface Shànghǎi appears more Western than anywhere else in China, bar Hong Kong. But don’t be fooled by appearances – even if the Shanghainese are known for their flings with things foreign, engaging in local life quickly exposes a culture that is deeply Chinese.
True, you won't be yacking with locals in Mandarin overnight, but learning the basics – or at least trying to – will take you a long way. It’s also great for your ego: you only need to master a handful of words before receiving lavish compliments about your language skills. On that note, it’s good form to return the compliment when someone speaks to you in English.
If you’ve been hankering to learn some Shanghainese, well, we won’t discourage you, but try to get Mandarin down first.
Eat Like a Local
This is actually a little trickier than it sounds. If you’re wondering how you could not eat like a local, you only need to step into a Western restaurant or bar any night of the week – in Shànghǎi, temptations to stay in your comfort zone are everywhere. Eating Shanghainese-style may require an initial leap of faith (you want me to eat what?), but be brave and travel your taste buds: with specialties such as freshly pulled noodles, braised pork belly and quick-fried shrimp, you won’t regret it.
Head out to the nearest park in the early morning and look for a group that seems to be moving in slow motion. That's the martial art of taichi (tàijíquán is its full name), and if you want to try to follow along, you'll usually be welcomed. You may not learn much if you're just in town for a few days, but you can kick-start a new interest. If you're in Shànghǎi for the long haul, there are plenty of places to study. Taichi can be knackering, and some styles – such as Chen style – are seriously gruelling, even if you're 100% fit. The elderly in China generally are admirably active and supple.
Shop Till You Drop
The Shanghainese are Olympian shoppers. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer the see-and-be-seen of megamalls or browsing in independent boutiques, creating your own individual style – no matter how crazy the look – is an essential part of Shanghainese identity. Guys, take note: many Shanghainese women expect their boyfriends to accompany them on shopping excursions and, just as importantly, to carry their purse or handbag.
Get on the Bus
The abundance of cheap taxis makes it all too easy to steer clear of public transport, but hopping on a bus is actually the best way to become part of the local fabric and you can see what’s above ground. You will also be a rarity, as most lǎowài (foreigners) avoid the bus because it's challenging to use, but it's true Shànghǎi. A sense of adventure (and the name of your destination written down in Chinese) are helpful.