‘Shanghai Calling’ is a romantic comedy that tackles issues that many travelers and immigrants encounter when trying to settle down in an unfamiliar environment. The titular character (Sam) is an ABC (American born Chinese) who finds himself being forced to take a business trip to Shanghai, much to his dismay.
Sam struggles to adapt to his new surroundings, a problem that is only exaggerated by the fact that all of the people around him assume that he can speak Chinese because he looks Chinese.
He manages to land himself in many awkward situations that he handles fairly badly because of his lack of enthusiasm and poor understanding of cultural differences including business etiquette, family values and ‘face’.
As one might expect, throughout the course of the movie Sam begins to learn more and more about life in China through the various ‘expats’ he meets in Shanghai.
Of course, all of the characters and situations are exaggerated for comic effect, but the extreme nature of some of the characters also serves to enlighten audiences on the kinds of people and experiences one might encounter, living as a foreigner in China.
At a party, Sam meets a fellow American who makes a living by teaching English in a school (by far the most common job among foreigners in China). This character is an over-the-top version of your typical English teaching expat. He’s silly, drinks a lot, tries really hard to impress people with his language skills and spends a lot of time attempting to woo local women.
Quite early in the story, Sam gets into some serious trouble when a multi-million dollar deal he was supposed to secure begins to fall apart. The main reason that Sam ends up in such a sticky situation is because he misunderstands how the Chinese operate in a business environment.
He wrongly assumes that business etiquette is the same in China as it is in the West and doesn’t even consider social faux pas such as causing someone to lose MianZi (Face) and how seriously the Chinese take GuanXi (Relationships). Sam really should have done a bit of research about how the Chinese conduct business before jumping straight in the deep end!
Cultural differences continue to surprise Sam throughout the entire film; concepts such as personal space and privacy are viewed very differently in China, and Sam finds himself in some tight spots (literally!).
The best thing he could have brought with him to China is an open mind! The language barrier is a major problem for Sam and is a source of much of his frustration as he struggles to communicate even the most simple messages to the people he meets.
One piece of advice I would give Sam – don’t let the language barrier stand in your way. Find other ways of communicating and see every experience as an opportunity to learn something new. If all fails, whip out your phrase book!
The Chinese concept of GuanXi (Relationships) is not the only form of relationship that Sam struggles with. He meets and quickly develops feelings for an American woman who lives and works in Shanghai. This is natural and usually a positive thing, but when you consider the fact that Sam will only be in China for 3 months you can imagine the problems that might arise.
The pair finds it hard to decide whether or not to pursue a romantic relationship, for fear of a broken heart. Do they end up forming a long lasting relationship? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Friends and partners come and go throughout our entire lives but this process is sped up when living abroad. Over the course of 1 year living in China, you will likely say hello and wave goodbye to more people than you can imagine and this, unfortunately, is an aspect of life as an immigrant.
The kinds of foreigners you find living and working in China are usually the type of people who enjoy travelling so naturally you can expect people to come and go more often than you change your underwear!
I’d definitely recommend this film to anyone who is preparing to come to China, to those already living here and anybody else – simply because it’s a very entertaining film!
There’s a lot to learn about life in China from this film and those more established expats will really enjoy and relate to the parodies, stereotypes and references that make aspects of this movie a sort of ‘inside-joke’ for foreigners who have been in China for a while.
There is only a certain amount of preparation you can do to ready yourself for the mysterious world outside of your native land and I’d definitely advise that you do some reading and watching, but there really is no better learning experience than actually making that leap and creating a new life for yourself abroad.