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I’ve just been to Shanghai to get my scholarship from the Polish Consulate. I found my way round the Hangzhou railway station (not easy!), I got my ticket (you need an ID to do that. And not just the foreigners! – it’s to stop people from buying tickets in order to sell them off), I went through the security check (it’s almost like an airport!), took the bullet train (and managed not to die in a crash. It’s not as unlikely as it seems…), got to Shanghai (just 50 minutes!), found the Consulate (such a quiet little lane…!), waited for an hour (someone wrote the wrong name on a form, so they had to make sure there’s no mistake), got my scholarship for 4 months (yay! I’m rich!) and…

Off I went to explore.

And you know what?

I loved it. Even though I spent there only a few hours (so my opinion may not be reliable), it seemed to me like an altogether more interesting place to live than Hangzhou. The little streets I walked were lined up with quirky little shops selling quirky little things, the big avenues rose high up with skyscrapers. Everything seemed vibrant and full of energy. Compared to that, Hangzhou (at least the part of it where I get about) seems like an 8-million village. Yes, it’s clean. Yes, there’s the lake. Yes, there are hills to hike. But everything seems so… sanitised, somehow. The older areas are all touristy and showy, the new ones with their high-rise apartment blocks are dry and soulless. The shops are either up-market for the rich people or cheap and shabby for the low-class workers. What with its posters about “creating a civilised city”, Hangzhou seems to be trying too hard, to want to be something that it’s not. I never knew why people turn their noses at cute little towns designed to charm the visitors. Someone would always say ‘It’s nice for a visit, but you couldn’t really live here’. Why not, I’d wonder – being there just for a visit. Now, after 6 weeks here, I understand. For all its cleanliness, prettiness and niceness, it’s a city without its own character. It’s a city that’s putting on airs and watching you to see if you’re buying it. Middle-class desperately aspiring to be upper-class.

Shanghai, on the other hand, is secure in its own metropolitan identity. It’s self-centred, fashion-chasing, money-grabbing – yes, all of these things – but amidst all this it’s comfortable with itself. It’s okay with a bit of grit, with some litter on the pavement. If it’s trying to impress you with its grandeur, you feel like it’s doing it for its own pleasure, not to please you or anyone else. It lives its own life and – I suppose – lets you do the same.

So as I said, these impressions may be a bit far-fetched after just a few hours, but I’m writing them down while they’re still fresh in my mind. And yes, I do wish a bit that I had been sent to study there and not here, and I’m definitely going back. Rule of thumb: if you have to put up with the downsides of living in a big city, choose a city that makes it worthwhile. Shanghai, I think, would fit the bill.

PS1: And the people seem to dress more stylishly.

PS2: And the shopping seems to be better.

PS3: And they have 7-11 and Family Mart, whereas Hangzhou has only a cheap knock-off that is C-store with its stolen logo!

PS4: And I haven’t noticed any foot massage parlours (there must be plenty, only maybe not everywhere) – look out for a designated post to see why it’s a good thing.