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November 22, 2011

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Reporting this 'chameleon city'

For two months, New Zealand journalist Andrea O'Neil stayed in Shanghai on an exchange program. She shares her views about a "totally crazy" city she came to love.

The saddest part about leaving Shanghai is that it won't exist anymore when you return. In its place will be a new Shanghai, one resembling the Shanghai you know like a cousin or brother, but not the same.

That old street you liked with the shrimp stalls and stray hens might soon be a neck-craning steel tower. Your favorite milk tea shop, your go-to jianbing (pancake with fried egg, a typical Shanghai street breakfast) lady, that Yunnan restaurant around the corner, will they last the months or years until your return to Shanghai?

Your friends, too, especially fellow foreigners, might be gone. I've only been in Shanghai two months and I've lost mates. It doesn't pay to hold too tightly to the things you love in this chameleon city.

Even when you live in Shanghai, this solid mass of people, taxis and skyscrapers, bound together by a sea of cooking oil and smog, you question its very existence, how real anything is.

You only have to read the local papers for a week before paranoia sets in - will this frozen dumpling or packet of tissues give me cancer? Is that genuine L'Oreal shampoo I'm buying? You start to avoid the front and rear carriages of subway trains.

Or maybe that's just me. After all, I'm surrounded by shock news stories every day at the Shanghai Daily, where I've worked for the past eight weeks. The fact there was bad news reported at all surprised me when I first arrived - my expectations of a Chinese paper was it would be full of nothing but relentless good news.

In fact, there are stories of corruption, incompetence and tragedy in our pages every day (and there are stories about arrests, fines, cleanups and better monitoring). And many stories do not make it onto our pages, but it's not agitprop to the extent foreigners imagine. And there are many excellent English-language blogs and websites to fill in the gaps.

Working in Shanghai has been where I really experienced culture shock.

I come from a country of only 4 million people, so I was expecting to freak out in a city of 23 million. But I soon learned that central Shanghai is a collection of villages, bite-sized and manageable. It's at work that I've been most baffled and where I've had to question whether my way of doing things was the "right" way.

Journalism is a completely different job in China than it is in New Zealand. A diploma in journalism is almost always required to secure a reporting job back home, while, understandably, English-language majors also make up part of the Shanghai Daily staff, who received scant training in nuts-and-bolts journalism and some scant lectures on the proper role of a journalist and on political correctness.

One of the perks of the job in New Zealand is getting out of the office, interviewing half a dozen people a week in my case, getting stuck in sports events, at school fairs or on the political campaign trail. In my experience at Shanghai Daily, which was not in Metro or Business, feature reporters here didn't seem to leave the office very often, and the newsroom phones aren't used much. In cases of interviews with expats, reporters appear to prefer e-mail interviews and use of written materials. However, in the Features department where I worked, there was much less dependence on press releases.

An initial shock was the number of staff at the paper - at least 50 people work on the 40-page Shanghai Daily's editorial content alone (including more than 10 expat language experts), at least double what a much larger paper in New Zealand would employ.

The number of employees in all workplaces constantly surprises me in China - how many times have I arrived at an empty restaurant to see seven waiting staff at the ready? How many security guards and receptionists have I seen asleep from the boredom of having nothing to do?

As someone who spent hundreds of hours learning shorthand during my journalism training, I was gobsmacked at large media events to be the only journalist writing anything down. Nor were the Chinese reporters digitally recording their interviews in many cases. Either they have amazing memories, or they're relying on press releases for quotes. Or they're paraphrasing quotes from memory, a mortal sin back home, and maybe even putting quotation marks around their recollection.

Many young people in New Zealand choose journalism careers with a commitment to the ideals of the fourth estate, holding those in power to account - god knows the salaries aren't a drawcard.

Obviously political reporting isn't an option for most Chinese journalists, but I did wonder why many were in thrall to the opposite extreme of hard news - public relations.

While with the Shanghai Daily I have sat through the most ludicrous press conferences, with wild-eyed PR women hyperactively extolling the virtues of whatever product they were flogging.

I realized why Chinese journalists put up with it when I received my first cash-filled envelope tucked into a folder of press releases at one of these events.

I was outraged on discovering my first "bribe" and have given all to charity, but I realize that wai kuai (extra gains, euphemistically called "gifts") is not seen as an insult to journalists' intelligence and integrity, and this "gift" culture is not likely to change any time soon. (In fact, fighting wai kuai has been a continuous effort in building up the ethics of journalism among all Chinese media organizations.)

Despite the surprises and difficulties of learning to do my job in a foreign culture, I've loved my time at the Shanghai Daily. I've interviewed fascinating and accomplished artists, writers, composers and theater producers, and have profiled inspirational expats who have turned their passions into successful businesses.

I've fallen in love with the city itself. I love the colonial architecture and leafiness of the former French concession, and I love the lights of Pudong.

I love traveling by taxi. I love feeling safer here than I do in Wellington, a city of half a million people.

I love ladies' nights. I love the exchange rate, and the shopping - from Dongtai Road's antiques market to Hongqiao's ugly jersey market. I surprised myself by quite liking bargaining. And of course, I love those soupy packets of perfection, xiaolongbao.

Maybe it's the autumn leaves falling all around us this week, which makes my departure feel so bittersweet, or maybe it's an overdose of (fake) Woody Allen films picked up on Baoqing Road, but as I get ready to leave Shanghai I keep thinking of the final scene in Annie Hall, where former lovers Annie and Alvy part for the last time.

I feel a bit like Alvy, looking back with fondness on my time here, and forgiving all the frustration and bafflement I've been through living in this lovely, mad city. With apologies to Allen:

"It got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Shanghai. I realized what a terrific city she was and how much fun it was just knowing her and I thought of that old joke, you know, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, 'Well, why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much how I feel about Shanghai. You know, it's totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs."

(Andrea O'Neil is a news reporter at the Kapi-Mana News in Porirua, New Zealand. She has worked as a feature writer at the Shanghai Daily for two months in an exchange program initiated by the Shanghai Daily and the Asia New Zealand Foundation.)


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