This is Alicia, the Russian girl who turned her hobby into a career

Five years ago, brave Alicia came to Shanghai from Russia without knowing anyone here. Five years later, the confident girl has turned her hobby into a decent living.

Holin's words:

Five years ago, a brave girl from Russia called Alicia came to Shanghai alone, just after graduation.

Five years later, Alicia has become a professional photographer, successfully turning her hobby into a career. And she's made friends here from all around the world.

Alicia told me, in a solemn tone, that she it was her big dream to become a photographer.

On a sunny afternoon, we met at a small vegetarian snack bar that Alicia picked. Wearing a pair of black glasses, Alicia looked a little serious when we did the interview. 

But when it came time for the video part, Alicia took off her glasses and played around with her hair a bit, creating a totally different style. Then she flashed her grin to the lens, and a fashionable and shining photographer appeared.

Joan Zheng / SHINE

Alicia wears a pair of black framed glasses during the interview.

Name: Alicia Shi
Nationality: Russian
Job: Fashion and commercial photographer
Years in Shanghai: 5


Holin: Five years ago, why you decide to come and live in Shanghai?

Alicia: Basically, my best friend was living here for half a year and working for a plastic surgery company, it was her first working experience after she graduated, in her opinion Shanghai was an exciting place to be, lots of opportunities here and lots of cool people.

I was studying economics in university and as I realized later it’s never been my passion. My major is specialist in international advisements [sic], and basically when I was writing the diploma, I felt it was the right time to decide what I am going to do next.

I wanted to travel and experience new things at the beginning of my adult life. I decided to come to Shanghai and turn my photography hobby into a job.

After one month in Shanghai I found a studio to work for. And then after three years I quit and started my own company, so now I’m working for myself.

Holin: So you came to Shanghai directly after your graduation from university?

Alicia: Basically, I was building up my portfolio for the first three months after graduation in July 2012 and later in October I arrived to Shanghai, so it is almost five years.

Holin: Wow, you are so brave to do that! Have you experienced some impressive things here?

Alicia: My biggest shock or surprise was in the very beginning. When I just arrived to China, basically I have never been here before and I didn't know almost anyone. My friend left before I arrived in China so I had to set everything by myself.

I had a plan to start a completely new life for so long so I decided that Shanghai would be a nice place since it is a developing market, and there are lots of big opportunities.

Holin: Can you tell me what kind of shocks you faced when you came here?

Alicia: New culture, new mentality, new language — it was like a new planet for me. I didn't know how to communicate with people in my daily life cause very few of them knew English. Especially when you just arrived, you need to figure out how to go to your hotel, how to buy SIM card… just basic stuff, but I was lost in communication.

The first few days it was difficult to understand what I should do next. It was hard to believe that I can actually build my career, meet the right people, discuss future projects. I was confused.

Well actually, I had a strange situation when I tried to get my SIM card.

I went to a shopping mall, and a local guy wanted to cheat me and give me a higher price for the SIM card than another seller, so they started a fight right in front of me. It was my first evening in Shanghai and I was so shocked and I couldn't understand anything. I went to the nearest Starbucks and saw some foreigner, I supposed he is able to speak English and I asked him: “Could you help me, I just arrived to China and I need a SIM card."

He brought me to the subway where the China Telecom Store was, he gave me his phone and said, "contact me if you need some help." Then I realized that it's not that bad; there are lots of nice people who could help you in difficult situations.

The city started to accept me and to be more friendly, I think.

Holin: I couldn't agree more. How do you spend your weekends or leisure time in Shanghai?

Alicia: In my opinion in the summer time, it’s really great, there are a lot of outside pools because in Russia it is not that hot, so maybe there’s just like one or maximum two weeks that are hot enough for you to swim outside. We have beautiful nature but we lack open swimming pools, here lots of compounds have their own swimming pools and I think that’s really, really great – something that makes me happy.

Apart from that, there are several significant locations close by Shanghai. I really like Chongming Island because it reminds me of Russia, it occupies big fields with lots of air and it is windy there, so I really like to explore this island. I had a few times shootings there. It is inspiring there, you can also go to Dongtan Park, where you can ride a bicycle.

The next island after Chongming is the Qidong Island, so there are a few hotels with nice swimming pools next to the beach.

One more place which I would like to mention is Bin Jiang Sen Lin Gong Yuan (Binjiang Forest Park.) The park is very big with lots of flowers, it’s a stunning place, but quite far. If you have time, it is great location to visit.

Holin: My next question is the places in Shanghai you like best, and you have mentioned many, but you can tell me more, if you want, maybe more specific places like a restaurant, a park or a café. 

Alicia: I like Fuxing Park, lots of people love dancing there, flying kites, having picnics. Also one of my favorite parks is Xujiahui with black swans and turtles.

And regarding the restaurants and bars, I still like the view to Pudong. Flair is good bar with a view – you can see the whole Bund, which is very inspiring. Then the Peninsula Hotel has a nice bar on the Puxi side. Lost Heaven with Yunnan cuisine is amazing; it offers good food and cocktails with very original designs. It’s always nice to bring Shanghai guests to these venues, they always get excited about these restaurants. 

You know the area of Datong Mill has a lot of bars and cafes, and it reminds me of Europe with chairs and tables outside. Centrale (BAR CENTRALE) has some delicious vegetarian food and it’s not too far from my place, so I often set up meetings there. One more to mention, it is a coffee shop opened by my friend Chen called Paradox on Wuding Road. It is a tiny place with really good coffee.

Holin: Yes, you are a vegetarian. How many years have you been a vegetarian? And could you share the reasons that pushed you to become a vegetarian?

Alicia: Nearly four years. There are a lot of reasons but basically I’ve never liked meat. When I started living here on my own, I reduced the amount of animal products. I was reading lots of information about our health, I had conversations with vegans and vegetarians, after a while I realized that my body doesn't need meat. I still eat eggs sometimes and I like milk products, but cheese, milk and yogurt are not so popular in Asia, so it’s something that I am missing here.

Holin: Thank you for sharing. Let’s get back to the original questions. Which road do you like best? 

Alicia:  I like the former French concession, it is nice there because it looks like Europe a bit; also I like riding my scooter along the river by northern and southern Suzhou Road.

And I love the Bund, everyone does I think!

Holin Wang / SHINE

Alicia took off her glasses and made a little adjustment to her hair, creating a totally different style.

Holin: You have been in Shanghai for five years, so what do you love about it?

Alicia: I like Shanghai cause of the very fast speed of life. Because when you really want to reach new goals, to do something big in your life, when you don't want to waste your time – you stay young and motivated.

Shanghai has a very nice vibe, it’s suitable for young people who dream big. The city has a lot of opportunities – you can really get extraordinary experiences which you never find in any other country because there are so many different cultures here.

You can meet many people from all over the world and become friends with them. Maybe you never heard about some certain country before, and never thought about visiting there, but here is a person in front of you - tiny part of the planet which you don’t know about.

Holin: Which kinds of people that you’ve met have inspired you the most?

Alicia: Actually that is funny, for example Nare you interviewed last time. I have never been to Armenia before, I have never met people from that country and I never thought of actually going there. But after I became friends with her and met some other Armenians, I feel like we have so much in common, and I think it should be an amazing experience to go and explore that country. The same way I felt about my Kazakhstan friend Aya, we also met in Shanghai.

Kazakhstan and Armenia were parts of the USSR until 1991, so basically most of the people are able to speak Russian, beside their own languages. We use the same language, but we are from different countries with different background and cultures, it so wonderful to meet people in Shanghai whom you can call a family.

Holin: What do you hate about Shanghai? Any suggestions to change it or make it better?

Alicia: When I was in Moscow for three days, and I realized that I am missing the art and culture in Shanghai. During my staying in Russia I realized how much we focused on work here, so we forget to develop our personality; we forget to read books, to go to the cinema; we only develop our careers and fight for a better position in the company, we often forget how to enjoy life.

In Russia we have fine art museums, contemporary art museums, a lot of exhibitions. Some museums arrange meetings for the people who have the same hobbies or interest for the same type of art. I really miss that experience to exchange opinions and describe your feelings about some creation to other people, it helps to look at things from the different point of view, it helps you to grow.

Holin: But in Shanghai, we also have quite a few contemporary art exhibitions…

Alicia: I know, but it’s a little superficial sometimes, people don't spend time on analyzing piece of art they have seen.

I just hope there will be more art lovers in Shanghai and galleries, which can exhibit bigger amount of artists from all around the world. I also wish to see more photo exhibitions.

Another thing which would be nice to change a bit is taxi companies. Taxi drivers sometimes call ten times even though they have a map with my location, or take a wrong way.

It would be nice to have English speaking representative from the taxi company to whom I can call and discuss the problem, if there is any. It is not only about language, but also about having a middle person who can offer professional and quick help.

And air pollution is also a long-term problem that needs to be solved. When it’s heavy pollution I feel a bit weak.

Holin: Compared to your country, any shortages in Shanghai? Any solutions for Shanghai to borrow from?

Alicia: I think would be nice to have more art festivals, bigger range of music festivals, such as R&B music or pop music. And I miss Russian food to be honest, It would be nice to have few more Russian restaurants. I’ve only found one, called Flying Elephant. It is next to People's Square.

Holin: Any impressed memory during your life?

Alicia: I think it’s not about my first time I came to Shanghai; but the first time I went back to Russia from Shanghai. I came back home in half a year, it was quite a long period and I’ve never been away from my parents for so long. So it was great feeling that my adult life has started.

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

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

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