Love and loss in Shanghai: Yolanda's story

German girl Yolanda has lived in Shanghai for seven years. She's experienced loss here, but may need to leave soon to find love, something that remains elusive in this huge city.

Holin's words:

Yolanda opened an iron door to invite me in, and after a dozen steps of a windy wooden stair, I finally arrived at her two-room, third floor home inside an old lane house of traditional Shanghai style.

At more than 180cm tall, this girl looked so energetic that I guessed she must have been born after 1990. “No,” Yolanda replied directly before telling me she was over 30. 

Before the interview, Yolanda asked me which tea I wanted. "I have green, white, black, Oolong…” I picked Jinxuan tea, and she explained it was a kind of Oolong from Taiwan. That was the beginning of our interview.

Holin Wang / SHINE

Name: Yolanda vom Hagen

Nationality: German

Job: Photographer

Years in Shanghai: 7.5

Holin: Hi Yolanda, could you share with me your experiences before coming to Shanghai?

Yolanda: I initially studied in Beijing while I was still studying photography back in Germany - I did a one year exchange at the Beijing Film Academy. Then I left Beijing for Germany, and two years later, I graduated and some months later I came to Shanghai with a job as the official press-photographer at the German Pavilion. 

Holin: Do you have an impressive Shanghai story?

Yolanda: I tried to hate Shanghai for a long time. Compared to Beijing, the identity is very different, and the people are also different. The Beijing people are much louder and more open — they say what they think, while Shanghainese don't. As a German, I am used to showing my emotions on my face. What we think is visible on our faces. So, it is similar to Beijing. Beijing people are much more reqing ('enthusiastic' in Mandarin).

What furthermore impresses me sometimes is that Chinese cannot imagine that a foreigner can speak Chinese. Let me tell you one of the early stories I experienced back in Beijing in 2006.

I was in a supermarket, strolling around there to buy groceries. Back then I studied Chinese, and tried to not hang out with foreigners, I tried to only hang out with Chinese, so that my Chinese would improve. So in the supermarket there was a Chinese guy who started talking in English with me, and I was annoyed about it.

So, he came like, "How are you?" I didn't answer. He asked me, "Do you speak English?" And I said, "Wo ting bu dong" ('I don't understand' in Mandarin). He kept on, and asked me, "Where you from?" And I said, "Wo ting bu dong." "You don't speak English? How can this happen?" I still said, "Wo ting bu dong." But he did not get curious about that. He should have realized he could speak Chinese with me, since I always answered him in Chinese. But he could not switch, which was so funny.

He was a middle-aged man, around 40 years old. Maybe he is well-educated, he can switch and understand. He told to me, " You came to China and cannot speak English?" You know, that was so funny.

Also there in Beijing, one time I wandered the street to buy some fruits with my Chinese friends, and we ordered two apples. The clerk said, "I don't speak your language" in Chinese. So I asked, "Wo shuo shen me yu yan?" ('Then which language am I speaking?' in Mandarin). Afterwards, I asked my friends, "Is my Chinese really that bad?" And she said, "No, it was good."

So sometimes it is interesting. People put you into a box, and you have a tag shouting out "I am a foreigner." It doesn't matter whether you are shouting out of this box, it won't open. These are some cute encounters I thought about. The first man is in his box wanting to speak English with me, and I was in the opposite box wanting only to speak Chinese.

Sometimes, I will encounter these problems in Shanghai, but not like that seriously. Sometimes, it's still like they don't really want to understand you.

Holin: What do you usually do on the weekends or in your leisure time in Shanghai?

Yolanda:  I do some Yoga, dancing or I go for a walk. I think Xujiahui Riverside is very nice, and I will have a walk along there.

Holin: Yes, you've come to my next question. Which area or place in Shanghai do you like best, and why? 

Yolanda: My favorite area in Shanghai is the Hongkou district around Luxun Park. I think Luxun Park is one of the nicest and most local parks. There are not so many attractions, it's just about going there and meeting people, dancing and doing music and all of this kind of thing. Not everything is so extremely organized like Century Park, for example, where you can pay for this, and pay for that, and you have a stone which is playing music. So funny.

I also like Tian'ai Road. It was built by the British and Scottish society. Tian'ai Road has been actually a shooting range for the British Society. That's why the street is extremely straight. Now its the sweet lovers' street.

Anyway, Hongkou is my favorite area, like Haerbin Road, Hailun Road, 1933 (Old Factory) and Luxun Park. Many different architectural styles like shikumen, Li Longs and art deco.

Holin: Do you have some favorite coffee shops or restaurants in Shanghai?

Yolanda: Everything changes so much. It's a little bit hard. There is a teahouse called Teahood which I really like and it is close to 1913 on Haerbin Road. It is a quiet modern tea house with good tea and the owners are young and modern — it's nice to sit there.

And I also have one in Gao'an Road. There is a small coffee bar with nice sandwiches.

And in Jiashan Market, there is a restaurant called Sisters, they have very good Italian noodles and cocktails.

Holin: What aspect of Shanghai would you say you love?

Yolanda: I like the architecture here because I am an interior and architecture photographer. I like the quiet European urban setup of the city. It makes life convenient — the streets are small, everything is very close, and I ride the bike every day — this is what I like about Shanghai over Beijing. Maybe Beijing people's character comes easier with me, but their urban setup is very inconvenient, everything is super far away. I do really love the romantic feeling in Beijing, but for daily life, I think to be able to ride basically everywhere with my bike, this I love about Shanghai.

And in Shanghai, there are a lot of coffee places. You can sit everywhere and have a cup of coffee. I enjoy it a lot.

What I further like is the positive energy and the international flair. For my projects I have participants from all over the world. I have taken photos of Italians, Mexicans, Ukrainians, French, German, English, Chinese, Mongolians and many other nationalities. I think it's an incredible opportunity for my personal work. I feel free here, very much free. I can cherish my need to connect with common people on the street. I am genuinely interested in the lifestyles and stories of people.

Holin: And what do you hate about Shanghai? Do you have any suggestions to change it or make it better?

Yolanda: I think it is very interesting that when you complain about Shanghainese, they will say that the people I am complaining about, are actually not real Shanghainese. So proud, it's funny. The people who live in my compound are almost all Shanghainese, they do have oral arguments quite often.

Especially the Ayi downstairs, she is arguing with her husband every day, every morning, such as, "the quality of the vegetables you bought is not good enough! The price is too high!" and so on. Every day. She is always unhappy and the son never learnt how to do things. He is a zhai nan (homebody). At 35, he isn't even confident enough to buy his own clothes. Why should he, most probably she will argue about it, which would make even me too tired. It's normal community gossip and some people are happy in their habit of being unhappy.

Holin: Compared to your country, is there anything lacking in Shanghai? Any solutions for Shanghai to borrow from?

Yolanda: I think the main thing lacking here is foresightedness, which means to care about other people, and to see what you are doing and how you influence the others in your environment with what you're doing.

Basically, for example, you have a sidewalk, there is one person with a motorbike, and then he just parks it in the middle of the sidewalk. They didn't think so far that they actually disturb other people (and force them) to walk around. This reflects in many things, including throwing garbage out of the window.

So I feel that this connection, "how do my actions influence my environment?" is often missing.

Last night, there was a fight as well here in my community. After they finished fighting, I went to the woman and asked if she was fine. "Are you OK?" "Yes, I'm OK," she said. You know, Chinese neighbors will never do that.

So in my opinion when everyone would care more about the people from their daily environment I believe our life would be better. This is what Germans are more caring about, such as, "be aware of what you are costing to your environment" and "don't influence others in a bad way." So if I could improve one thing, I would choose this.

Another thing lacking is nan pengyou ('boyfriend' in Mandarin).

Because foreign guys come here to Shanghai just for a short period of time, they are not really looking for long-term or very serious relationships. So for me as a foreign woman, it is quiet difficult to find a decent man in Shanghai. And I am already a little bit old. Most guys coming here are after graduation or just starting work so they are too young for me, or the guys in my age group, they are already married and starting their families.

And I am tall, super tall you know, 184 cm. I guess most Chinese are afraid of that.

Holin: Is this a common problem for your peers?

Yolanda: I think it is a general challenge in big cities. I also know a lot of Chinese girls who have no boyfriends, they are already over 30, super attractive and independent, but they have no boyfriends.

Holin: So, do you think that you will go back to Germany to find a guy?

Yolanda: I don't know. I never thought about limiting my stay here. I am very happy here and I am very happy with my life, with my friends, with my work, I am independent but so far I cannot find a partner — it is very difficult for me, so I might need to go to Europe or somewhere to fulfill my personal life. Still as I am home here, I don't want to upset myself with the thinking that I have to leave. I try to keep open.

Holin: What are your parents' opinions?

Yolanda: No opinion. It is so funny, because when it comes to boyfriends or starting a family, I am totally free — no pressure from my parents. In German education, parents did a successful job when their kids can live independently from their parents. That's an educational goal in Germany. Your kids can live on their own. Perfect! You did a good job. The responsibility of parents is to make you grow up. Then they leave you.

But in China I get a lot of pressure every time, "don't think too much, don't have high demands, just marry and give birth to a baby…"

Anyway, as for my family, there is no pressure — the pressure is more from myself because I would love to have a family. I love children, they love me, it would be nice.

Holin: Will your parents want you to go back to take care of them?

Yolanda: I’m the first-born child. We don’t have this kind of generation concept, so I don’t need to take care of my parents. Our social system makes it possible. But of course, everyone certainly tries to look after their parents as they grow older. I will do everything in my power to support them.

Holin: Could you share any life memories that have impressed on you?

Yolanda: My grandmother died last November. It was something new for me — the feeling of loss. Actually this is the first time I lost a relative.

My grandmother was very close to me, even though I've lived in China the last 10 years. I would go back to see her every year. She was very healthy and died at the age of 94. She left peacefully, not bearing a long period of illness; she just started to sleep more and eat less. And one day, she just fell asleep forever.

I took three weeks off to go back because we felt that she would leave, but in the end, she didn't fall asleep while I was in Germany. Still, I was able to be with my grandmother for three weeks to say goodbye. However, it was painful and hurtful to say goodbye forever to someone who was still alive.

Two months later, she died. I figured out how to appreciate her even more after she died. Sometimes, when you are together with someone you don't recognize some things, only afterwards you will know more.

That loss gave me a lot of struggles mentally and also physically. For example, after I left her I mentally wanted to hold her, so my arms started hurting. I did not really hold anyone, but I just tensed up, in my arms — it was so much pain I needed to take painkillers to be able to sleep. So I went to see the chiropractor. He told it is a mourning effect of loss.

My heart wanted to hold her, to not let her go and this caused physical pain.

It took another two months of mental work and the understanding of where the pain came from till it vanished. When one night my aunt called me to tell me that my grandmother died, the pain suddenly appeared again, being aware of what is happening I meditated and said to myself, "Let her go. Let her go." After 10 minutes my arms released her.

What does Yolanda want to say to her future self? Have a look! Yolanda is sending a message to her future self to watch ten years from now!

Filmed by Holin Wang. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Joan Zheng and Andy Boreham.

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