Shanghai has been a roller coaster of both emotions and experiences. It has pushed me to the limits of exhaustion, fear, and stress, yet has also offered mesmerizing beauty, relaxation, and happiness. Shanghai is a city where one day it can be a clear blue sky and 75 degrees and the next day pollution can be at level 450 and you can’t see ten yards in front of you. Shanghai is a city where each day must be approached as it comes. In the past four months I have learned more about the world and more about myself than I could have ever imagined.
I didn’t really expect much when I came to Shanghai. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I was ignorant I really didn’t know anything about China and I never really interacted with Chinese people. Also, I never really shared this, but I really didn’t know the people I was living with. I had gone out with most of them before, but never really talked to them on a personal level, a level that should be known before you decide to live with people. As it turns out, my roommates are some of the best and most interesting people that I have ever met. They are intellectual, focused, yet know how to unwind and have fun. As it turns out, I am actually going to live with two of them when I return to New York. Not only have I met some of my best friends, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself. I think I have found what I am interested in, and what I want to do next summer, which is incredibly important.
Okay, but now back to China and Shanghai. The past four months was a very humbling experience. I’m writing this last post from the basement of the academic center while I watch a group of local Chinese portal students play ping pong, and some made-up dodge ball type game. As I watch them (and wish they would ask me to play), I began to think about all of the things I have learned about them since I have been here. To me, the most interesting aspect of life here that I have learned is that the people are truly run by the government. The CCP, the head of the Chinese government, really have their hand in all aspects of life in China. When I first got to China, I had always been taught that communism and socialism are bad and it must be eradicated from political systems across the world. But now, after living in Shanghai and experiencing China, I don’t agree. The way that the CCP runs the government is the most efficient and practical way to run a country with the internal dynamics of China. Sure, things could be done differently, but nothing is perfect, and I believe over time things will get better in China.
On a more personal level, Shanghai has been an incredible experience. This semester has it its ups and its downs, but overall I am very happy that I took this opportunity and came to China. Being in Shanghai really took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to try new things and look at the world from a different perspective. Being forced out my comfort zone allowed me to grow as a person, both mentally and physically. Sure there are things that I wish I did differently, like travel more and immerse myself in the culture more, but there is no reason to waste time regretting things. I guess it just means that I will have to come back here soon, which I plan on doing within the next 3 years.
First off, clear your mind and be ready to be uncomfortable. You must come to Shanghai with extreme patience. Shanghai will force you out of your normal life and throw you into a life where many “common sense” American ideas do not exist. Be ready for unsanitary supermarkets, very oily food, for people to spit no matter where they are, and for you to not be understood. The last tip is the most important. Go into your time in Shanghai knowing that the overwhelming majority of people will have absolutely no clue what you are saying. When you want a haircut, be sure to bring pictures. When you want to go somewhere, put the address into Google and show the cab driver the Chinese characters. Also, and most importantly you have to have patience when you interact with any local Chinese person. If they don’t understand you, you must not get angry. If they stare at you, you must understand that they are just curious. It seems basic, but trust me it’s harder than you think. When it takes you 10 minutes to tell the waitress that you want a menu, do not freak out, just understand she is equally as frustrated and wishes she understood you.
Secondly, try to live in Puxi. Do whatever you can to not live in Pudong. I understand that you are supposed to live in dorms, but try to find a way out of it and live in a cheap apartment in Puxi. Puxi is where the culture and history is. The clubs, bars, and sites are pretty much all in Puxi and it is a much more beautiful and scenic area.
In terms of academics, do not under any circumstances take practical Chinese. It may seem like a good idea and it may seem like the easiest Chinese class, but it’s not. It has by far been my most time consuming and hardest class I have ever taken at NYU. If you are required to take a Chinese class, I recommend you take elementary one. Although you have to learn characters in elementary one, it is much less intensive. The practical Chinese class is essentially a combination of elementary one and two, and its only 4 credits.
Understand that you are a foreigner here and that law and customs are not in your favor. Chinese written civil law is basic and vague, which allows for the police to make decisions using their “better judgement”. They will 9/10 times try to get money out of you and/or side with the locals. People in China, whether it be a person, or an institutional like NYU care more about their “guanxi” or relationship than anything else. You must always conduct yourself in a way that looks good for yourself and the university, because NYU does not tolerate anything. I hope this isn’t making you worried. Shanghai is a very safe city, you should just make sure you are respectful and make you are being smart.
Despite the negativity of my tips, Shanghai was an amazing experience and one of the most interesting and culturally enriching periods of my life. Following my tips will allow you to more easily integrate yourself into Chinese society.
Reading has become my brain’s drug, its addictive and all encompassing. When I am not reading, all I think about is the story plot and try to predict what is going to happen next. It has gotten to the point where I put myself in the setting of the book. I walk around the streets of Shanghai and imagine it to be 1645 in the Japanese coastal village of Anjiro. I picture the security guards at the academic building to be an elite call of well -trained samurai, and I imagine the taxis to be palanquins. The book I am reading is titled Shogun by James Clavell, and is a historical fiction novel based on the interactions between Western European sailors/pirates and the feudal nation of Japan. Clavell takes you through not only the daily interactions of the main characters, but also puts you into the internal struggles of each character. He has a clever way of pulling the reader into the book, where I almost feel like I am right next to the characters when they are speaking. Whenever I have even a second of free time, I find my subconscious taking control of my fingers and forcing them to open “iBooks” and click on the Clavell masterpiece.
Now, to discuss how this love of reading is an epiphany. Well, considering this is the first book that I have read for fun in about 2 years, I guess that classifies as an epiphany. My time in Shanghai has been very fast-paced and all over the place, I am always operating at 100 miles per hour and juggling five different complex tasks. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I have tried to find something that I can use to separate my mind from work; a task that is both relaxing and readily available (as the cold weather and pollution has moved in I haven’t been able to spend much time outside and sitting in the sun). With the loss of being able to take breaks outside, I had to find a subsititue. One night, while talking to my father on the phone, I mentioned how I needed something that I can use to help me take a break and also help me fall asleep. Immediately, he suggested I read a book. I followed that with a simple “Okay, then what book, out of all books in the entire world would you recommend?” I figured that would have bought me some time, but it didn’t. He immediately responded with “Shogun, no question about it.” That is what brought me to reading and completing my first “enjoyment book” in 2 years.
Finding a love and passion in reading for fun has become a real experience and epiphany. I’ve always approached reading as a mindless boring task, forced upon me by my teachers who have more time than they know what to do with. Obviously there have been outliers, but a majority of readings, whether in high school or college, are mind-numbingly dry and dense. However, once you find something you are interested in or that is enjoyable, time becomes irrelevant. I actually finished Shogun, and have proceeded onto a different book titled Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes…and How To Correct Them. This book is a comprehensive analysis into behavioral economics and is written by two of the most prominent modern economists. This topic, although very very different from feudal Japan in 1645, is also something I am immensely interested in. I figured I should begin to try and find books about are a little more applicable to my major and life path. So maybe my epiphany is two fold, first that I have to explore reading as a way to let my mind relax and breathe from the stress filled life I live and second, that reading something about what you enjoy is key the key to enjoying reading.
Lately, I have been having some very negative and even hostile experiences with local Chinese people. At first, I thought it was my fault due to language barrier and my ignorance of cultural practices, however as I have thought about it, I realize that I have actually not done anything wrong. Two incidents have happened during my soccer games with the NYU Shanghai team, and others while I am walking or out with friends.
One with soccer happened yesterday during my game with Fudan University. A teammate of mine fouled someone during a play. The foul was hard, and warranted my teammate getting a yellow card, but what happened afterwards was very unexpected. The game overall was not dirty, and was extremely friendly, calm, and normal. However, all of a sudden, right after the foul happened, someone on the other team ran up to my teammate and kicked him in the back, as retaliation. He then proceeded to scream profanity, yelled at my team telling us “to go back to America”, and gave us the middle finger. It was completely uncalled for and unexpected.
The other soccer incident occurred two weeks ago, and was even more unexpected. It happened in the first five minutes of the game, and was actually the first foul of the game. I was chasing down a defender who was dribbling into my half. I caught up with him and kicked the ball away from under his feet, which is not a foul by soccer law, and was not even called by the referee. He ended up tripping over my foot, and after he landed on the ground decided to kick me in the ankle. I told him “to get up and relax,” which I guess he didn’t like because he then decided to rugby tackle me, get on top of me and attempted to punch me in the face. When he got off of me, he was given a straight red card and went even more crazy. I, like everyone else on the field, was completely stunned and confused by the actions of this individual. It was a simple foul and did not warrant such hostility. I have played soccer my entire life, have seen both exact fouls countless times, and have never seen such harsh and hostile reactions. I can understand that people get intense in the heat of the game, but I have never seen anything like this.
The other experiences although not violent, are equally negative and have even put a worse taste in my mouth in regards to the local Chinese population. I could probably list ten to twenty of these incidents, but for times sake, I am only going to explain my taxi incidents. I would say that my success rate of flagging down a taxi is about 20%. To me, it is infuriating. I am willing to pay for a service, but I am denied that opportunity for no apparent reason. In America, if the taxi light is on, the taxi will always stop and most of the time pick you up. However, in China this is never the case. It is one of the most annoying aspects of day to day life here. I am not sure if it’s a cultural aspect, if they don’t want to pick up foreigners or if they don’t see me, but to be honest, it is distasteful and has negatively impacted my time here.
I often come home complaining about how I want to go home, how I feel disrespected and uncomfortable in China. I usually attribute it to the cultural differences between foreigners and the local Chinese, how there is something off in our relationship, how it seems like they all just innately resent me. Luckily, my resentment tends to not last long, as my roommate is a local Chinese individual, who grew up in New Jersey, but was born in Shanghai, where he lived for his young life. He is a cool, composed, and patient individual who fits none of the qualities of a stereotypical Chinese person, and all of the qualities of an American. When I come home and speak with him, much of my animosity towards the Chinese people is relieved. It is hard to put it into words, how he does it or why he can calm me down, but hearing him speak with his Americanized style and views makes me realize that I don’t understand the local Chinese and they don’t understand me or foreigners. I know, after speaking with my roommate, that it is possible for a social understanding to come, it will just take time.
As a foreigner there are many aspects of Chinese society that one should be very aware of when they make their decision to spend any amount of time here. One such aspect is the police system and its complete disregard of any rule of law. In China, the police are essentially a self-policing body with limited rules, guidelines, and procedures. On the outside, they look like the police of any other country, strong and powerful looking in their solid blue uniforms. They are everywhere, policing streets, making traffic stops, and keeping the order in this complex society. However, internally the Chinese Police are very sub-par; disorganized and corrupt.After living here for over three months, a couple of things, in regards to the police, have become apparent to me. First, bribes are commonplace and often dictate who comes out the winner. Second, there is no legitimate rule of law, meaning the police do not have to follow by strict guidelines and are left to use their “better judgment” when deciding the outcome of a situation. Lastly, being a foreigner has pros and cons. With the way the police system operates, anything can happen, a simple argument over a receipt total at a restaurant can turn into an ordeal with arrests and jail. In my opinion, the police system has only reaffirmed my feeling that when in China, be prepared for and expect many irrational things to happen.
Rob Gifford, author of “China Road” discusses some of his own irrational police experiences. In the beginning of chapter 7 he discusses how a routine traffic stop for speeding turns into a 4 hour and 250 dollar ordeal. He and his driver, during a long car trip, were routinely pulled over for speeding. What in America would have resulted in a 15 minute and 50 dollar ticket quickly escalated into ordeal with threats and yelling. At first Gifford had a hard time understanding why the incident was such a big deal. His driver, a 17 year old Chinese migrant, explained that “they would have found something wrong anyway. That’s how they supplement their salary.” This notion was confirmed when Gifford describes how the ticket amount was decided. He explains that “ enshrined in Chinese law, that the fine for speeding is between 500 and 2500 yuan, thus conveniently leaving it up to each policeman how much to charge and pass along and how much to keep for himself.”
I luckily have not had any encounters with the lawless police of China, but some individuals I know haven’t been so lucky. According to stories I have read, the police have the sole goal of making money out of any situation. If a fight happens, they will side with whoever gets hurt worse, so they can make money from the other party who have to cover the medical bills.
The police system in China is not as sophisticated as people believe. Gifford describes it as “highly decentralized and very disjointed,” he even explains that as a foreigner sometimes it can work out for you because the police don’t want to deal with all of the extra paperwork that they must fill out for the embassy. However, it can also be worse to be a foreigner as you have no connection to the community, cannot speak the language, and are unaware of the bribing that can be used to win a case.
To me, the police are people who should have no vested interests other than being fair and keeping society safe. In my time here, I have found it hard to feel safe and comfortable, knowing that if anything even happened, I would be at a disadvantage considering I cannot speak the language and don’t really know the customs.