Ages 18-29 years Become Au Pair in China      

16/02/02AP blogs

Shaoxing vs. Shanghai: “little” and big cities I can call home

The first time I arrived in China was not as an au pair: I was taking part in a semester-long study exchange with the University of Shaoxing, Zhejiang.

The first time I arrived in China was not as an au pair: I was taking part in a semester-long study exchange with the University of Shaoxing, Zhejiang.
Before leaving, I obviously wanted to gather some information about my destination, and my first thought was, of course, Google maps. I opened the web page, zoomed in on Zhejiang province and ascertained that, if Shanghai was “this” big (I was so proud of knowing that Shanghai was “big”…), then Shaoxing had to be about the size of Milan. Big mistake. Shaoxing, a relatively minor Chinese city and one basically unknown by Westerners, has a population of around 5 million people, i.e. almost twice that of Rome and almost four times that of Milan, Italy’s two major cities.
The second time I was getting ready to leave for China (this time as an au pair with a lovely Shanghainese family), on the contrary, I knew I was headed for the world’s largest, and one of China’s most famous cities (the typical Italian knows only Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong anyway, and often mixes the last one up with Tokyo…), which, in addition, is the country’s main economic center. All this information, however, didn’t make it easier to take in the idea that I was going to live for 6 months in a 24 million people city: that’s more than a third of the whole Italian population! Later on, when strolling among the skyscrapers, I often found myself thinking that this or that block probably has the same number of inhabitants as my native city, Parma, which has around 200.000.
During my time in China, however, I learnt that the phrase “everything’s relative” applies perfectly to the two cities I like to call my “two Chinese homes”. The proportion “Shanghai is to Shaoxing as Milan is to Parma” seems to work not only on a numerical basis (more or less…), but also from the point of view of the city atmosphere.
One of the first things I noticed during my stay in Shaoxing is in fact that, despite the number of inhabitants and the size of the city (you need more than half an hour to drive from downtown to the train station), the mentality is still incredibly traditional, almost like that of a small village. Although the outskirts are pretty extended, the inner city is relatively small, and it gives you a gorgeous taste of ancient China: little houses with white walls and black roofs heaped on the edges of the canals, old traditional boats still used for the everyday transportation of goods, even the workers on the street wearing the super stereotyped conical hat, everything reflects an ancient era that just doesn’t want to end, where the people’s way of living is still slow and peaceful. This ancient living style can also be seen in people’s habits: some ladies still do their laundry in the city’s canals, street vendors usually use old steelyard balances and, above all, locals still stare at the few foreigners in the city in a very peculiar half amused, half incredulous way. As I previously mentioned, Shaoxing is not very famous outside China and doesn’t attract too many foreigners; thus, as all those who venture there, I have found myself pointed at, taken pictures of and commented upon almost every time I went out (and you don’t need to know Chinese to notice).

Things in Shanghai are the exact opposite. It feels like you can only describe the city with superlatives: it is huge, densely populated, hyper-modern, and so on. The rhythm of life is definitely accelerated, with efficiency as a watchword: you can see people on the street every morning walking with determination towards their day, ready to achieve who knows what, but confident about all the positive outcomes of it. If, instead of hopping on the first metro, you spend ten minutes just looking at the people passing by in the station, you’ll get a very precise idea of what a melting pot Shanghai is. The city is also the economic hub of the modern China: it is clearly visible in some of its districts, like Lujiazui or Jing’an, where everything is about business, and foreigners, unlike in Shaoxing, are many and from all over the world. During my first weeks in Shanghai I was really glad about finally seeing other老外 (foreigners) like me, but at the same time I felt much, much less special than in Shaoxing! At the beginning, I used to look outside my window every morning and think “come on, it’s impossible to get used to all this. It’s way too awesome.” But then, as time passed by, the glass and steel buildings, the big billboards, the neon lights have slowly become a part of my very personality, changing me into a real新上海人 , i.e. “new Shanghainese”, as my family’s nanny loved to call me.
I wouldn’t be able to choose which one of my “two homes” is my favorite, and I actually don’t feel the necessity of it. What’s sure is that both have shown me fascinating sides of the same China, teaching me a lot about its past and its present and, most likely, even a tiny bit about its future.

About our contributive blog writter:



Dora Musini is originally from Italy and has been a Lopair Au Pair in China from October 2014 to April 2015. She was placed with a family in Shanghai with one adorable little boy. Dora has a degree in Foreign Languages: other cultures are her job and her favorite hobby. She now works as Italy’s Lopair Overseas Representative to allow as many people as possible to do her same wonderful experience.