Movie review: Shanghai Calling (2012)

Shanghai Calling is a glimpse into the ex-pat community in modern-day China. The movie focuses on the life of an American sent to China by his business for a few months of work. Arrogant American businessman meets different culture. And clashes.

Sam Chao is an up and coming corporate lawyer in New York City. Highly ambitious. Driven. Type A. Having just brought in business for the firm, he expects to be made partner. At age 30. Instead, the partners call him in and order him to China for an important client. Kind of a downer.

Well, maybe not, but Sam doesn’t see it that way. The China that I knew in the ’80s is quite different from the China of today. Whereas in the ’80s, Chinese tried to marry visiting foreigners to get out of China, in the last decade or so, Chinese have been re-patriating to China in droves. China is the place to be. The place for Chinese and foreigners wanting to do business.

In some ways, the ex-pat community hasn’t changed. People are still sent there (often unwillingly) by their companies. They stay for a few months, a year, and then leave. Or people go there to teach English. People who really have no interest in teaching. It is a way to make money, a way to travel, a way to date (or try to date) Chinese women.

Throughout Sam’s stint in China, we see misunderstanding upon misunderstanding. He doesn’t get it. Or want to. He expects everything to work the same as in New York City. But it doesn’t. From the noisy construction above his apartment, to the live-in housekeeper, to the reliance on guanxi (relationships).

As a former ex-pat, it was entertaining to be reminded of all the little things about trying to live in a foreign country. The one thing that stuck out to me was that Sam Chao didn’t get scolded for not knowing Chinese. Ethnically Chinese but ignorant of the language.

However, people did assume that he spoke Chinese, even after they knew he didn’t. Sam had to remind Awesome Wang to speak English to him. (Yes, in all seriousness, Awesome Wang is the name this Chinese man chose for himself. Just like a guy I knew who was Hilary. Or a student who called herself Moon. Or a roommate that wanted to be called Scarlett after Scarlett O’Hara.)

At a restaurant, the hostess speaks Chinese to Sam and English to Amanda (who is ethnically Caucasian). Only Sam doesn’t know Chinese and Amanda does. Amanda repeatedly answers, only to have the hostess continue to address her Chinese comments and questions to Sam. Not only is it that Sam looks Chinese, but he is the man. Everything should be addressed to him. (I experienced this same dynamic. Utterly maddening to be ignored because you are the woman, even though you are the one that can communicate in the language being spoken.)

The movie does touch on some deeper issues. Like how it feels to be the odd duck. Either a white girl in a sea of Chinese faces. Or a Chinese guy in a sea of white faces. This dynamic explains why the daughter of Amanda, an American relocation agent living in Shanghai, would only speak Chinese, not English, to her mother. Or why Sam didn’t learn Chinese growing up in the US. The need to fit in and not be different.

But when it comes down to it, you never quite fit in. Regardless of your language. Regardless of your ethnicity. Everyone in an ex-pat community is a bit of an odd duck. That’s the beauty. You learn to move between different communities and cultures. Between different ways of speaking and thinking. And it highlights your own culture and informs how you speak, think, and move in the world. Travel as well as study and work abroad deepens and enriches. And can add some amusing situations to your life, situations that appear in Shanghai Calling.


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