Some thoughts on Shanghai Dream

While I was looking for videos for A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear, I discovered Shanghai Dream, a sitcom in Mandarin/English/Shanghainese/Russian about two European and two American young women in Shanghai. I got in the habit of watching an episode when I had a 15-minute block of time on the computer when I wanted to be distracted. By now, I’ve seen all twelve episodes.

I’ve never been to Shanghai, but I’ve been a young American woman learning Mandarin and living in a Mandarin-speaking society, so I feel like I know at least a bit about the reality of this type of situation. And some things in this show feel very untrue.

Such as the fact that these four women get to live rent-free in an upscale part of Shanghai?

Nah, that just seems consistently ridiculous. What does feel false to me is that there are often two characters who are native English speakers and not native Mandarin speakers speak to each other Mandarin. That. Does. Not. Happen. Native English speakers would only do that when they are specifically trying to practice Mandarin, and even then, they would probably slip into speaking English. And these people are in Shanghai, they don’t lack opportunities to practice with Mandarin native speakers. It’s unrealistic that their default language amongst themselves in Mandarin, not English.

Ummm, isn’t this show mostly targeted at native Mandarin speakers?

That is probably part of why this show has such an unrealistic amount of Mandarin, but I think it is mainly because seeing a bunch of yáng​mèi speaking in Mandarin has a lot of ‘novelty’ value. Since I am a yáng​mèi​ who speaks Mandarin, it’s not a novelty for me, but I know how other people tend to react when they hear me speak in Mandarin.

C’mon, be honest. Deep down, seeing yáng​mèi​ speak in Mandarin part of the appeal of the show for you too, isn’t it?

Yes, I admit it is part of the appeal for me, even as I recognize the falseness of yáng​mèi​ talking to each other in Mandarin. Though I literally am a yáng​mèi​ who can speak Mandarin, seeing Mandarin-speaking yáng​mèi​ in a TV show feels fresh to me.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jessica, the only Chinese-American in the core group, is also the one who struggles the most with Mandarin. I’m used to the idea that Chinese-Americans might not speak Chinese at all, or may speak terrible Chinese, but seeing a ‘Chinese’ person struggle to speak Chinese might be a novelty for the target audience of this show.

It’s also very odd that Sophie, who is from France, never speaks in French. She only speaks in Mandarin and English. My guess is they could not find an actress who is fluent in both French and Mandarin, so they cast an actress who can put on a French accent instead.

Are there things which do ring true for you in the show?

Oh yes. For example, in the episode where one of the characters is about to lose her visa, the very first thought which came to my head was ‘go to Hong Kong’ and indeed, the very first suggestion offered was that she go to Hong Kong.

It also rings very true that this group would stick together. In Taiwan, there are so few yáng​rén that if we separated ourselves by nationality too much we would not be able to sustain any kind of cohesive community, so people from New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, etc. all tend to end up in the same social circles. And since most yáng​rén in Taiwan are male​, female yáng​rén​ even more likely to gravitate towards each other (during the years I lived in Taoyuan City, there were EXACTLY TWO occasions when I saw another female yáng​rén in Taoyuan City, and the fact that I remember both of those occasions tells you how much they stick out in my memory). I know that there are probably far more yáng​rén living in Shanghai than in all of Taiwan, and maybe gender ratio is less extreme in Shanghai, but it still makes sense that this group would cohere together regardless of difference in nationality (United States, France, and Russia).

In particular, I can relate to a lot of things Taylor and Jessica experience in the show, though I think it’s a coincidence that I relate more to the American characters than the European characters.

Is there anything you particularly like about the show?

I like the multilingualism. Even though it’s mostly in Mandarin, there is quite a bit of English, Shanghainese, and Russian.

I don’t know how accurately it portrays local Shanghai culture, but I feel like I know slightly more about it than I did before (and I am definitely a little more used to the sound of Shanghainese). For example, the Chinese name of the show is ‘Mó​dū​’ and when I looked it up in a dictionary I learned that it is a nickname for Shanghai, just as ‘the Big Apple’ is a nickname for New York City. (Yes, in the opening song, the name ‘Mó​dū​’ is sung multiple times).

And, silly as the storylines are, they do entertain me. In fact, the silliness is entertaining.

Would you recommend this show to other people?

Everything (except the opening song) comes with English subtitles, so no knowledge of Mandarin / Shanghainese / Russian is required to understand the show. If anything I wrote here intrigues you, then I recommend watching an episode, and if you are not interested, then I recommend not watching this show.

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