I had the privilege of getting to travel to Shanghai for a business trip this winter, and it was definitely a culture shock. The primary goal of my trip was to train our Shanghai support team on some of our tools at work. It was a very long trip, almost 4 weeks, so there was definitely a lot of opportunities and challenges. But, it was an enlightening experience and I had a very productive, educational, and memorable journey.

Google was nice enough to cover a 5-star hotel for the trip. The hotel was very comfortable, and thankfully, a ‘western’ hotel – real toilets and such. The hotel staff was beyond accommodating, reaching to help carry your bags or press the elevator button without even asking – something that took some getting used to.

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China has a lot of beautiful places, and I got to see quite a lot of interesting scenery from the plane. However, most of the highly-developed parts of China, Shanghai included, are the victim of extreme pollution. Even when I took the bullet train several hundred miles away from the city center, the air was still hazy and thick with the smell of factory fumes. It’s a highly debated topic in China, and pretty much front-page news every day.

My coworkers talked about it a great deal, and I learned that while the consensus of the scientists and policy makers is that the pollution is caused by automobiles and factory waste, a large portion of the developed population attributes the smog to rural farmers in the north burning their agricultural waste. They seem to remain in denial on this fact.  Either way, I was staying on the 71st floor of my hotel, and had quite an awesome view of the city, so I made a timelapse video from my window:

The hotel was in one of the tallest buildings in Shanghai – actually it was the 3rd tallest. The 2nd tallest, the Shanghai World Financial Center was where the Google office was located, and the tallest building was not completed yet (though you might remember the viral video of the crazy guys climbing it – this happened during my trip). The city itself is very vibrant, and sometimes it could be easy to confuse it with Midtown Manhattan.

Unlike NYC though, Shanghai truly is a city of lights (sorry Paris) – every skyscraper seemed to be adorned with thousands of lights, LED screens, blinking strobes, and just about every other way of beckoning your attention. I talked with my coworkers about this, and Bill told me there is an element of pride in Chinese culture from creating an eye-catching structure.

On the first weekend, I visited Qibao (七宝) which is a town in the Minhang District of Shanghai. Qibao is a very old part of town, and a tourist attraction by the Puhui River with traditional Chinese architecture. My coworkers, Bill and Alex were nice enough to show me around town. I sampled some interesting street food (squid on a stick, anyone?), and enjoyed the open street markets. Sort of reminiscent of the Bourough Market in London, there were countless food and craft vendors, and I definitely saw some unexpected types of food (half-developed chicken fetus, pigeon eggs baked in a salt rock, yum).

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On the second weekend, my coworkers Bill, Bill’s girlfriend Angie, and Alex invited me to Suzhou (苏州). It is most famous for its beautiful gardens and traditional waterside architecture. We had a very full day that included a trip on the bullet train, a walk through famous gardens, a traditional lunch, and a visit to revered and beautiful Hanshan Temples. We did some shopping and had a quick bite to eat before we walked through the canal district of the town. Parts of Suzhou seem untouched by time, and the whole city seems to ‘feel’ like it came out of a previous century.

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Possibly my favorite part of the trip was walking the canal streets of Suzhou in the evening. The city is colorful at night – the orange hue of the sodium vapor lights, filtered through the haze, combined with the glow of a thousand tiny shops, makes the canal streets a very idyllic place to stroll at night. It’s a calming place in a way – and it was just what I needed after being stuck in the busy city for weeks.

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This was an incredibly memorable trip that taught be lifelong lessons about Chinese culture. As a Westerner, thousands of miles from home, it certainly took some adaptation to make myself comfortable with my surroundings. But, the culture runs deep in the people’s veins – it’s a completely different kind of society. They work hard, and as long as they aren’t behind the wheel of a car, they can be quite kind and respectful.

I’m glad I had the chance to go, and I believe I was successful in training my teammates abroad.