It’s October 10th at 8PM, I’m sitting at my computer in my apartment in Downtown Los Angeles and I’ve just googled “Jobs in Shanghai.” I’m tired, it’s been a double shift at my two days-jobs, and I had an audition in the morning. I’m supposed to be writing my latest post for Getting There, but here I am staring at the screen and I just see “Jobs in Shanghai.”
I’m not really sure what I’m doing, as an actor I’ve never really applied for a formal job before, but I see a job as an English Teacher at a company called EF. I click it. I fill out an application, write a cover letter, and go to bed.
Three weeks later: I get the job. I’m not really sure what to do. Do people take a job that they applied for half asleep at night after Googling “Jobs in Shanghai?” I ask a few people quietly if I’ve gone crazy and I get the same questions from all of them, “are you running away from something?”
Up until this point I’m not really sure of a lot of things, but without hesitation I could answer that question. “No.” What I do know is that I’ve spent eight years living in Los Angeles and somewhere in there I earned this title of being a “car vegan.” I love L.A., but this car-given freedom I heard about from many of my peers was not shared by me. I became obsessed with a version of L.A. that is post mandatory car ownership. The Spike Jonze, Her, version of Los Angeles. I advocated, educated, and preached to anyone who would listen.
Yet somewhere in that evolution I realized I had a problem. I knew what I didn’t want for the future of the city I was born in, but I knew little about the future I did want for it. I decided I needed to do some research of my own. I needed to see what makes cities livable and how people are moving through them.
So, just as Jonze did when he needed to find his futuristic L.A., I pack up my bags and head to Shanghai.
In late March, I arrive, jet lagged, in a hotel north of Shanghai railway station. This is not the Shanghai I came to see. I’m in a neighborhood that is more akin to dystopian Bladerunner than optimistic Her. Sandwiched between a freeway and soulless high rises as far as the eye can see; I start questioning some decisions.
Then I find a realtor named Richard, who I found by Googling “apartments in Shanghai.” It’s a very efficient way to find what you’re looking for.
Two days later Richard has me on the back of his motorbike and he says he has the perfect neighborhood for me: The Former French Concession. Richard is right. We walk into the second floor of a lane house off a tree-covered street and I’m home. The best part? I can walk to work.
This city doesn’t have all the answers to L.A.’s woes and it certainly has problems of its own. Yet, it is a massive sprawling city of 23+ million people moving, functioning, and living. As the financial heartbeat of the country, Shanghai is often referred to as the NYC of China, and I see the comparison. Yet, in certain ways, Shanghai reminds me just as much of L.A. as it does of New York. It's massive and there is no real center. Pictures show the famous skyline of Pudong, but it's as much the center of the city as Century City is to L.A. Albeit far more more visually appealing, the downtown core of Pudong, known as LuJiaZui, is mostly office buildings with a very fancy mall in the center far from the heartbeat of the city.
In fact, it's pockets spread out quite far and are separated by smaller residential neighborhoods in between. Sound familiar Angelenos? Even though it has the largest metro system in the world, stations are spaced out at L.A. distances, often roughly a mile between each, rather than NY's ten block grid. Its a great laboratory to study urbanization and how sprawling cities are developing with transit.
Fast forward five months, I'm sitting here in my old lane-house studio in Shanghai, with a cup of coffee, my laptop, and the window closed to shield me from the unrelenting Shanghai summer. I'm about to put the computer down and start my walk to work. I've been here for five months now and I've been joyously overwhelmed with the amount of new people I meet each day. Each with a story and a commute. Now that I’ve been here for a while I’m ready to unpack some of what I’ve seen. Maybe in the chaos of this city I’m going to find some inspiration for the home I love.
Los Angeles to Shanghai shown by Google Maps