What Makes a Shanghai Teen

By Lynn Yen 2023-02-23 15:59:03

Teens share what its like growing up in Shanghai


For the young generation growing up in Shanghai is a unique experience. Each is an individual, from all over the world, with a personal identity and unique path. These differences are what they have in common, weaving the fabric of the diverse cosmopolitan culture.

What bonds, connects and shapes a Shanghai teenager? Our summer interns Kateryna Gedz, Alex Xue, Ashika Govindan, and Tasha Williams share their experiences growing up in Shanghai in 2022.


(Tasha, Alex, Kat, Ashika)


Social Life

So much of being a teen is making friends and just hanging out. In the big city, there is always something to do, a new place to explore, or hobby to pick up.


Kat: KTV rooms are a huge part of modern Shanghai culture. My friends and I both love and hate them. True, they make us feel like stars, but when you bring a group of people with wildly different music tastes into a room, conflicts are inevitable.

The K-pop fans dance the whole routines to their favorite songs, next someone sings something sad, but most of the time, we try to hum along to songs we don’t know lyrics to.

But, even in a group with completely different backgrounds and cultures, with completely different music tastes, some things are the same. We all yell the lyrics to Christmas songs and “Barbie Girl.”


Alex: Although high school has definitely limited my free time, Shanghai’s abundance of activities never leaves me feeling bored. Due to Covid restrictions, trips to the cinema have lessened but strolls around Shanghai’s old streets have provided a much more valuable experience.

Once, we stumbled across Yongkang Road, where there were local coffee shops and cozy record stores. We ended up ordering a few drinks and spent the next few hours catching a glimpse of the tales behind many local shop-owners.


Ashika: I have friends from all over the world, all different types of families, and we still get along very well. We always like to learn more about each other’s cultures, and that is something great about Shanghai.

You can find many fun things to do from Korean towns, to old French neighborhoods. We also try to find common ground. Karaoke, bowling, and movies are enjoyed by any teen in the world.

Personally, I think Shanghai teens are amazing at trying new things because that is how we find our group of people. I enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons with one group of friends, going to KTV with another, and trying new foods with different friends. The key thing to understand is that you won’t find one person or

group who wants to do all the things you want to do, and that’s normal. You need to branch out and find many people who like to do many different activities. If you are a risk-taker, you won’t hit a rut in Shanghai.



Being the New Kid

Teens in Shanghai are always moving from place to place, country to country and faced with new environments and customs. Adaptability is one trait everyone learns and that wisdom comes through learning from mistakes.


Ashika: The horror of making a cultural mistake is a universal feeling for anyone in a new place, especially for a teenager who wants to fit in. I was at a Shanghainese friend’s house for the first time and wanted to make a good impression, while also being myself. We were at the table eating breakfast. I wanted to drink some soup on my left and needed to put my chopsticks down. I could have just laid them on top of the bowl, or put them on my plate, but no. I stabbed the chopsticks right into the rice.


The horror of making a cultural mistake is a universal feeling for anyone in a new place, especially for a teenager who wants to fit in.


Everyone stared at me for a second then went on to their meals, but I knew something was up. My friend then leaned over and said, “Your chopsticks. It looks like you’re cursing this house.”

I felt embarrassed and confused. More embarrassed than confused. I instead slowly dragged the chopsticks out and put them on my plate. My friend would joke about this moment, but then and there, it was very humiliating. I have lived in China for while, and I thought I would know where to put my chopsticks without cursing a house. But the more you know, the more you know!



Alex: When I first arrived in China, it was in the midst of a scorching hot summer. I had enjoyed swimming, and had always come out of the pool all sweaty and tired. Whenever swim practice ended, my parents would surprise me with a big lunch, and this is where I first had a peak into TCM.

Coming from America, ice-cold beverages were the go-to summer drink. Yet when I asked for ice water in China, the waiters would always have to double check with my parents first before fulfilling my request. Later, I learned that ice cold drinks are not the best for your body, especially during very hot weather. Since then, I have stuck to drinking boiling hot tea wherever I go.


Tasha: Growing up here, with most of my peers being culturally Chinese, I would become familiar with Chinese culture and traditions. I believe many superstitions like not writing your name in red ink, or not using the number four. These subconsciously became integrated into my cultural identity.

I don’t speak Chinese fluently, but I know enough. That’s more than I can say for Indian languages, which I have no knowledge of. That is why I sometimes feel I can relate more to Chinese culture.

I recently started finding joy in learning the Chinese language. Learning this language is also helping me understand and explore a different way to express myself. I can communicate in one way with English, but expanding my Chinese vocabulary is giving me a chance to discover another side of myself.



Culture and Identity

Growing up as a third culture kid (TCK) is a unique and confusing experience when you are not in sync with your surroundings. But the positive side of it is unmatched perspective and diversity.


Tasha: As foreigners, my family attracts taxi drivers’ attention. I enjoyed some of their questions, and it made me feel seen when they were interested to hear about my experiences. However, questions like “Where are you from?” would stop me dead in my tracks. It wasn’t that I thought they were being rude. I just didn’t have a clue on how to answer them.

Over the years, I have managed to come up with two ways to answer this, a short answer and a long one. “I was born in India, but I’ve lived here since I was two,” was my go-to answer. If the driver seemed chatty, I would add, “I was born in India, I lived in Kenya for a year and then moved to South Africa, and after that, I came to Shanghai.”

I often endure identity crises. I felt the need to choose a country because I was under the impression that I had to be 100% this or that. It took me a while to realize the freedom to not choose. What I imagined to be a curse was a blessing. I have lived in four countries. I can choose to be a part of them, or I can choose to make these countries a part of me.



Ashika: I have been a third culture kid my entire life. It only dawned on me recently, that if someone were to ask me “Where are you from?” the answer would be much more complicated.


However, questions like “Where are you from?” would stop me dead in my tracks. It wasn’t that I thought they were being rude. I just didn’t have a clue on how to answer them.


The short version would be that my passport is Indian. Therefore, I am an Indian. But I only lived in India for a few years, after having been brought up all over the world. I am proud of my Indian heritage, but I am aware that I grew up in Chinese and Western culture, and that they are parts of my identity.

Sometimes I find myself in sticky situations. For one, staring is something I’ve had to get used to. There are many types of stares, and not all are bad. As a tall darker-skinned woman, there are many things they could be staring for, but most times it is just out of curiosity, which is completely understandable. But sometimes you just feel off. This happened to me once, but I was feeling chatty and said hello. The person was surprised and smiled back. It was a nice moment. I realized that I was in Shanghai. Everyone was third culture in someway.


Alex: Even though I look Chinese, my lack of experience with Chinese culture makes me feel as if part of me is not worthy of being Chinese. Oftentimes when attending foreign-held events, the first thing I get asked is where I’m from.

Just recently when interning at Jiahui Hospital, I was initially introduced as a foreign student. With that premise, most of the faculty treated me as if I had a barrier blocking me from speaking to them. Yet when they asked me where I was from, I chose to say Beijing instead of America in order to bring myself to a more familial standpoint with them.

Right after I said Beijing, the barrier between the staff and I instantly broke. Suddenly, we were chatting and laughing, and they even invited me afterwards for a private lesson on chiropractics while offering me snacks and drinks. To me, my identity might be a bit muddled, but at the same time it’s really cool, like a separate persona.



Kat: As someone who speaks many languages, I noticed how tied they are to culture and context. For example, the English word tea reminds me of history classes, as our teacher allows us to drink it during lectures. The Ukrainian word for it, чай, makes me think of bubbly guests talking over tea and sweets. The Chinese word 茶 brings images of tea ceremonies to mind, with soft music playing.

It’s like we’re living different lives with different identities at home, at school, with friends, with distant relatives. And this feeling is amplified by speaking different languages.

Even my vocabulary is different in these languages. It’s often hard to talk to my parents about school without awkwardly pausing to translate a word from English into Ukrainian.

And it’s hard to explain something that happened in a summer camp or at my relatives’ homes to my English-speaking friends. But I still have to look up basic words from my childhood, such as one of my recent vocabulary additions, dandelion.



Making a New Home and Saying Goodbye

Living an international nomadic lifestyle involves leaving cities and people behind for new places and faces. Settling in is often a ceaseless process that becomes a constant way of life.



Kat: At thirteen, I got an Instagram account. Quickly, I went down the rabbit hole of looking up people I know and catching up on their lives. For the first time, it really hit me that life went on back home without me.

My old friends were no longer kids. They had their own slang words I wasn’t aware of, their own hobbies and aspirations. I had still pictured them as in our fourth-grade graduation photo. I used to feel like I could go back any moment and feel like I belonged.

When we just moved to Shanghai, my parents didn’t want lots of clutter to grow on us, because living here was temporary. This wasn’t home, and we would need to return someday. I imagined how excited my old classmates would be with me coming back. But, after the Instagram incident, it became apparent that this city has been my home for almost half of my life at this point.

Slowly, we accumulated carpets, pillows, unique furniture, paintings, books, and toys. Now that we’re moving to a different apartment and uncovering layers of memories, I realize just how familiar the city has become to me. I’m not at home, not really. I still often feel like an outsider. Perhaps that is what’s unique about living in a foreign country. Neither your country of origin nor your current place of residence completely feels like home.

As international students living in a foreign country, we all have an unspoken understanding that everything is temporary. The friends we make are all going to live in different countries soon. Anyone can take off at any moment and disappear. Many of us try not to settle in too comfortably because of how suddenly relationships are broken. But, with time, we start to really value the importance of the present moment. Sure, my life in Shanghai has an expiration date, but my life is passing by, and I’m not going to wait for more stable times to live it.


Sure, my life in Shanghai has an expiration date, but my life is passing by, and I’m not going to wait for more stable times to live it.


Alex: A major part of being a Shanghai teen is the insane amount of friends who come and go, and this is where things start to get a bit emotional. I lost my first best friend during 5th grade. I remember him handing me the news during recess, and the sudden drop of my heart as we passed our goodbyes. A few months later, another person had left my life, and I wondered if the loop would never end, and it didn’t. So many people had established strong bonds with me and yet so many of them had deserted me.

As the years went by, I would see my friends posting pictures with their new friends abroad, and this was the turning point of my social life. I started carefully picking out whom I talked to, which concluded to be a select group of Chinese kids with a traditional Chinese background, in order to prevent any circumstances of them leaving me. It’s been almost five years, and it’s safe to say that my plan worked.


Tasha: If you define home as where the people who care about you are, Shanghai will always be my home. Not all my friendships have remained here, but it’s where they started. Before I was nine and settled in Puxi for good, I was the one leaving my friends behind. I moved to make my father’s commute to work easier, and I moved schools twice. I never realized how much that affects a friendship until I transferred to my current school in 2014 with no intention of leaving. I made friends, and every year more people would go.

For my friendships before middle school, before I had a phone, it’s unlikely I can rekindle my friendship and contact them. Now I can stay in touch. The majority of the contacts on my phone are people who have left and people who are planning on leaving. I am able to maintain long-distance friendships simultaneously with my ongoing friendships in Shanghai.


Ashika: My mom tells me that when I was young and we were moving to a new place, I would say, “Oh, where are we going for vacation?” I wasn’t old enough yet to understand the concept of moving. When we moved to Shanghai though, I was very aware. But I also experienced it before so I knew how to handle it. I didn’t cry all the time, or try to convince my parents to stay, and I didn’t run and tell all my friends immediately. I took my time to come to terms with it.

Now that I have settled in Shanghai, a process that has taken over three years, I am grateful I moved. That process of settling in was postponed due to Covid, but the process happened. I found a group of friends I enjoyed spending time with, my parents and I learned the layout of the city, and we started feeling at home. I would see all my friends back home living life, and I would know that I was living life here as well. It took me time to come to terms with that, but what can I say other than FOMO (fear of missing out) is necessary for all teens, including the Shanghai ones.