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Pu-erh Tea in Shanghai

Cigarette smoke washes over from the table next to me, where two old Chinese men sip oolong tea from gaiwans. I hate smoke, but don't mind it today. If we try to replicate our local culture when we travel, we end up with the cookie-cutter resorts of the Caribbean, each with American-style buffets, locals who speak English with a charming accent, and the lonely company of our fellow countrymen, reducing the experience of travel to almost nothing.

It's the differences from home that create a country's unique fingerprint and make it worth visiting. Each variance says something about the country. China is ambitious and proud of its heritage and insecure about its place in the world. I've only spent three days here and I can see it all around me. It's also gritty, hence the people driving scooters over pedestrian overpasses and smoking right next to you in a restaurant. It's part of the experience.

I'm sitting in the top floor of Huxingting tea house, the oldest tea house in Shanghai, rising two stories from a man made island in a man-made lake in the middle of Yuyuan gardens. The bottom floors of the buildings in Yuyuan are renovated and chintzy: they aggressively sell Chinese knick-knacks and serve fast food. Like just about anywhere in the developed world, there are two Starbucks within a two minute walk.

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