Foreigners in China: A Look at Identity in Shanghai

Nov 3, 2016 8:30:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

CAPAStudyAbroad_Shanghai_Fall2016_Caleb_Kostreva_Profile.jpgCaleb Kostreva is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A public policy and civic leadership; social science (global studies emphasis) major at Howard Payne University, he is studying abroad in Shanghai this term.

In this week's post, Caleb explores his own identity in the context of Chinese culture, his attempts to as much a part of it as possible and lessons learned along the way.


The most telling thing I listen for from the locals when I am looking to get away from the foreigner-frequented areas of Shanghai is the phrase 外国人 (wàiguórén – foreigner). As a people-watcher, the thing I want least when I am observing people and their way of life is to be noticed. But it is kind of difficult to blend in when I am a head taller than a lot of people and about eight shades lighter. As an American, it is easy for me to feel like an intruder to Chinese culture and ways of life, which is why acclimation is so important to me. I have found that the more comfortable I have become with the Shanghai way of life – the mannerisms, eating habits (yes, even slurping), means of travel, and projection of self – and reflecting it in my own life, the more I become a part of the living city and the less I am seen as a foreigner, thus meaning the less I am noticed (yay!). 

But in “becoming acclimated,” have I given up my individuality? What, if anything, has been exchanged in this process? I would like to begin by saying that I have by no means learned everything there is to know about how Chinese people act or interact. I can’t even speak Mandarin fluently. However, there is an art to getting lost in the crowd, becoming one with the flow of people boarding or getting off the metro, or just walking down the streets like a Chinese person. I think that there is value in standing out from the crowd, but I also believe that using discretion in how to remain part of it and blend into it when appropriate is potentially equally as valuable.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Shanghai_Fall2016_From Caleb Kostreva - Identity1.jpgPhoto: Becoming part of the crowd – blending in

So I suppose the short answer to the question is yes, there is a certain amount of our own individuality that each of us gives up when we decide to acclimate to another culture. I have certainly retained the most important aspects of myself as an individual – my moral standards and the things I find most important about my personality and ways of interacting with others, among other things – but I have also chosen to become more than just that. Upon arrival, I wrote in my orientation blog post that “I hope to understand and live in China’s culture as any Chinese person would – to step into their shoes,” and that is exactly what this post is about: how my identity as an American in China has changed now that I am stepping into their shoes.

However, the shoes do not just “slip on.” It takes a lot of frustration and a lot of putting yourself out there. There have been times when I am trying to communicate something and the conversation just doesn’t make sense to anyone involved. I have been at a restaurant and have no idea what the menu says and have accidentally ordered something I wasn’t really expecting. I have thought I knew my way around, and then gotten lost. I have tried to make conversation with Chinese students, and then walked away having no idea what just happened. It is hard. But it’s worth it. Because after each mistake, each frustration, I know one more thing that doesn’t work, and am able to formulate a plan on how to try it differently next time. But putting myself out there is also extremely rewarding at times. For example, when I went to Huangshan, I went outside my comfort zone and talked to the people on the train, in the hostel I was staying at, and various places during my stay. The result? I came back having some new friends, and memories (and pictures) that I will be able to remember.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Shanghai_Fall2016_From Caleb Kostreva - Identity.jpg
Photo: Sometimes putting yourself out there can be really rewarding!

Shanghai, from my observation and experience, is a very go-with-the-flow city. To get anywhere, you cannot push against the crowd. To be effective, you have to work with people. I have heard that the most successful people will help others achieve what they want, and personal success will often come as an inherent result of that (Karen Woodin Rodríguez). City life in Shanghai is the same, whether it be getting on the subway during rush hour or bargaining with vendors in the markets. It also takes a lot of trying, and failing, but in the end there are a lot of lessons that are learned and shoe-trying-on that takes place.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Shanghai_Fall2016_From Caleb Kostreva - Identity2.jpg
Photo: The subway – another place where “flowing” is essential

Thanks Caleb!

Caleb's journey continues every Thursday so stay tuned. 

New Call-to-action

Topics: Shanghai, China, Official Bloggers and Vloggers