Three Months a Laowai

Three Months a Laowai

Ten years from now, when I look back at my experience in Shanghai, it’s difficult to say what memories will stick out. I imagine I’ll feel nostalgia for the tree-lined streets of Puxi, for memories made traveling to Moganshan Mountain and Beijing and for 12 kuai beef noodles. One of the reasons I have enjoyed this class so much is for forcing me to keep an up to date and thought-provoking travel journal. When I feel the need, I can easily look back and relive the memories of my time in Shanghai. That being said, more than anything, I have the feeling that my time here will serve as a valuable and interesting reference point for the continued growth of China over the foreseeable future. After all, Pudong was poppy fields as early ago as the mid 1990s. The day has already come when this city’s once most prized building (The Pearl Oriental Tower) has become something of an eyesore. It is difficult to fathom the continued growth of Shanghai over the next ten years and beyond.

One thing is for sure, I will lose most of the Chinese that I’ve managed to pick up over the past three months. I’d be fortunate to remember “wo de zhongwen bu hao”, or my “Chinese is bad”. In ten years, it will be simple words like “zhe ge” (this) and “laoshi” (teacher) that persist. On the topic of languages, I think the ability to simply make conversation with strangers will be something that I appreciate upon returning home. It will feel good to watch the communication barrier melt away as I’m greeted with my first “hello” in New York. Above all, it will be rewarding to remove the Laowai (foreigner) label.

In truth, one of my biggest fears is losing the perspective that this experience has afforded me. I do not want to look back in ten years and forget the culture shock that I encountered. I don’t want to forget my first time walking through the local supermarket where live fish stared back at me as I looked for something to eat. I don’t want to forget the experience of rushing to meet a friend for dinner and hiring an illegal cab in the process. I certainly don’t want to lose sight of what it means to be on a truly packed subway (New York does not compare). Most of all, I want to recognize this experience for what it was: a three month discovery phase in lands unknown.

Sure, the ability to stay in touch over long distances makes traveling to China easier today than at any other point in history, but even still, study away isn’t about reliving Thoreau’s Waldo, it’s about expanding one’s boundaries and comfort zones. It’s about taking the edge off differing cultures and recognizing that radically different groups of people share more similarities than differences. The ability to be fluid, adaptable and empathetic towards those who look and think differently will shape my viewpoints for years to come.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The good, the bad and the ugly

To those thinking of spending time in Shanghai, I will find it hard to include all of my praise in a single post. It is hard to characterize the financial capital of mainland China. In fact, I have struggled all year in absorbing the full spectrum of Shanghai, from French-inspired winding streets in Puxi to the distinctive skyline of Pudong. The physical characteristics of this city are as diverse as they are stunning. After three months, it still feels as if I have yet to penetrate the surface of what Shanghai has to offer. I’m going to start by giving a brief overview of the city, with a few recommendations before finishing with a brief, but necessary, disclaimer about the study away program itself.

The City

For those who don’t know, Shanghai is roughly split into two large areas, each with their own individual districts: Pudong and Puxi. The two zones are split by the Huangpu river which is crossable both by bridge and tunnel. The west bank of the river makes up “The Bund” which is arguably Shanghai’s most famous tourist attraction. In past generations, it was the port area of the city where all manner of goods and people filtered in and out. Today, the trading houses which once represented some of the most lucrative commerce centers in all of Asia have largely been converted into luxury hotels and restaurants. The east bank of the river holds Shanghai’s instantly recognizable skyline, which is mainly located in the Lujiazui area. While visually stunning, Pudong mainly serves as a commercial area.

Puxi, on the other hand, is synonymous with old Shanghai. While the legacy of the concession era is obvious, make no mistake, Puxi is a far cry from Europe. One is liable to find live eel for sale, cozy Western cafes and laundry hung in plain view all on the same block. In other words, Puxi operates more as a melting pot than anything else. Western influence can be obvious at times, but the city is unmistakably Chinese.

A few recommendations to get a taste of the full spectrum of options the city has to offer:

Dogtown — 409 Shanxi Bei Lu

A simple hole-in-the-wall bar at street level with six stools and a killer beer menu. Oh and a great selection of tacos/nachos. Be aware: closed for Winter. Reopens sometime in the Spring.

Hai Di Lao Hot Pot — chain

There are a bunch of hot pot spots all around the city, but this chain is the most well-known and consistently fantastic. Great for large groups. Staff will occasionally ask you to dance with them.

Sushi Ichi — No. 5, Lane 50, Gaoyou Road

One of the very best meals I’ve ever had. 12 seat sushi restaurant right in the middle of Puxi’s Xuhui district, yet still difficult to find. Expensive, but worth it for the experience.

Disc Go-Karting — 809 Zaoyang Road

Now I know what you’re thinking, the states have plenty of go-karting spots. Not like this though. Fully stocked bar for post-karting, cheap admission price. All around fun for big groups.

Study Away Program

There are a number of shortcoming about the study away program as a whole that I feel obligated to mention. Firstly, the academic building itself is isolated from the desirable parts of the city. The campus is located approximately 30-45 minutes by taxi from central Puxi. Moreover, the student dormitories are currently located in a long-stay residence called the Grand Pujian, approximately 20 minutes away from campus by bus.The area surrounding the dorm unfortunately does not have much to offer.

Academically, most courses are not as easy as one would expect for study away, but still not overly strenuous; that is, with the exception of the Practical Chinese language course. For anyone with no desire to pursue proficiency in Chinese, please do yourself a favor and study elsewhere. The administration here requires completion of Practical Chinese for study away students not interested in learning Mandarin long-term. The course claims to accommodate student who have a short-term desire to learn a limited amount of spoken Chinese, but betrays that mission by advancing an overly strenuous and somewhat disorganized course-load not fit for a 4 credit class. I would honestly rate the class among the most time intensive that I have ever taken in my academic career.

That being said, it is very possible that this will change going forward given the level of pushback expressed by current students. Of course, the benefits of Shanghai as a city have outweighed many of the cons of the study away program. However, it is something to monitor if you are interested in studying here.

A Simple Shrug

A Simple Shrug

I was in the small holiday island of Gozo, 10km off the coast of Malta’s main island, when I experienced for the first time what one might call a travel epiphany. This was in May of last year; a few friends and I had the idea to rent a house to find some relief from the rainy April weather of London. For all of its beauty, Gozo is a bit of a hassle to get to. The fun begins with a two and half hour plane ride from Heathrow. Upon arrival at the Malta Airport, one must hop in a cab and drive about 45 minutes to the island’s main ferry port. The ferry runs to Gozo once an hour, so without perfect timing it’s normal to wait anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. After a 40 minute boat ride, it takes about another 30-45 minutes to reach the small town of Gharb on Gozo’s west coast. With perfect timing, it’s possible to make the trip in about four and a half hours. With the wrong house address and no working phone, the trip can take all day.

Out of a group of eight, myself and two friends were the first to set out for Gharb. Our flight left on time and landed early, we managed to wait only five minutes for a ferry, and a cab waited for us at the Gozo ferry terminal. The three of us arrived in central Gharb at the town’s biggest landmark – an 18th century catholic church – about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Even the weather was fantastic; abnormally warm for April at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Our cab driver smoothly pulled around the church and down an alleyway where I assumed we would find our homely bungalow. The car came to a halt and our driver plainly stated “here” in English pointing at a boarded up two-story home that stood on a windy street full of attached two-story flats. We climbed out of the cab and walked over to the home’s stoop. The door and windows were covered by venetian blind-looking screens that looked to be nailed down. Shit.

The cabbie stepped out of the cab and pulled at the blinds before delivering a comical shrug which the three of us had no choice but to laugh at. While he spoke only Maltase – an interesting blend of Arabic and Italian – it was his simple gesture that soothed us three lost tourists. My epiphany was not anything profound or previously undiscovered. It was an observation that many likely make at some point in their lives: people are mostly good.
For the next hour, the cabbie came with us as we went door to door, looking for information on our lodgings. Without a common language between us, he understood our situation fully and communicated it to each person we spoke to. Finally, the name of our host clicked with one of the residents and she directed us down the block. We hopped back into the cab and raced down the street. The row of attached two-story flats finally gave way to fields terraced farms and a lighthouse off in the distance perched on a cliff by the sea. Our home rested on a flat piece of elevated land looking out over this spectacular view.

Our cabbie drove us right up to the house’s entryway and helped us with our bags as we showered him with thanks. He climbed back into the cab, waved goodbye, and drove discreetly down the driveway before finally disappearing in the distance.

Gypsy Cab Heroics

Gypsy Cab Heroics

On its face, censorship in China seems to restrict expression. For instance, when posts on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, are found to violate government guidelines, they are struck from the web within 30 seconds of being posted. However, this lightning quick censorship does not apply to physical art in the same way that it does to digital posts. Politically charged artwork is sometimes permitted in China, as in the M50 district of Shanghai which I had the chance to visit this past weekend. The district consists of four gallery-lined streets proudly displaying politically subversive artwork. Paintings and prints use the likeness of political figures like Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping to convey messages which challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China.

M50 rests approximately 40 minutes by cab away from the student dormitory in an area surrounding the Suzhou Creek. Myself and a few friends arrived in the art district at around 3pm on a Friday with the intention of leaving at 6pm to meet another friend’s parents for dinner. The afternoon went mostly as expected with artwork from dozens of galleries providing a fascinating commentary on the attitudes of native Chinese towards the government. Several hours went by and before I knew it, it was time to leave for dinner.

Now up until this point, I hadn’t had very many negative experiences with finding cabs in Shanghai. While the likes of Uber and Lyft aren’t viable here at the moment, usually there are enough cabs in circulation to get from place to place. Of course, on this day when my friends and I were rushing to get to dinner, Shanghai rush hour was the worst I’d ever seen it. For about 45 minutes, we tried everything we could to hail a cab: switching intersections, running up to drivers who waited at red lights and even attempting to bribe passengers. In the end, we jogged several blocks to the nearest subway station only to take it 1 stop in the wrong direction. At this point, the four of us thought the group we were meeting surely couldn’t wait for us to find our bearings on the subway. A cab was our only shot; despite our initial unfruitful search, we decided to run to subway station’s taxi stand.

When we arrived, the line looked to be about 60 people long. Each of us stood there breathing heavily, recovering from what felt like a marathon. As we turned to walk back to the subway in defeat, a man ran up to us jingling car keys and offering us a ride. Of course, we knew better than to get into a gypsy cab, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and so we yelled “Kuai! Kuai!” at the driver or “Fast” and sure enough he took off running. We followed close behind and jumped into his blue 2003 Chevy Malibu. Our newfound friend instantly popped in a mixtape playing older American top 40 songs that he was visibly fond of. We drove out of the parking garage and made it to dinner in about 15 minutes. When we pulled to the curb, the driver turned to us and with an ear to ear grin on his face said “hen kuai” or “very fast”.

Cesare Paverse characterizes travel as a state of perpetual imbalance. Those words held especially true for me as I placed my complete faith in a stranger driving an unlicensed cab.



In comparison to Pudong, the urban density and plethora of flora and fauna create many competing scents in Puxi’s French Concession area. On the same block, one may feel the need to cover their nose from the smell of sewage, before opening their nostrils extra wide to the odor of a beef noodles takeaway restaurant or even a European style cafe. Two weeks ago, I had the chance to eat breakfast in the Puxi neighborhood of Xuhui. The district is known for boasting an enviable amount of green space, which typically borders beautiful living spaces — either private homes or condominiums. After breakfast, I decided to take a stroll through the neighborhood, down narrow streets with tree canopy overhead.

After 10 or 15 minutes of walking, once I had all but lost my entire sense of direction, I was greeted by the strong smell of seawater. Standing at the crossroads of Gaoyu Lu and Fuxing Xi Lu, miles away from the nearest body of water, it smelt as if I was by the Shanghai docks where most of the city’s seafood is unloaded. Out of curiosity, I followed the smell which led me past several tastefully decorate two-story townhouses and a rather expensive looking bridal shop. Just when I thought I’d imagined the scent, I was greeted by a discreet, wood-paneled bay window, stretching maybe four feet high, seven feet across. The wood detailing partially blocked my view into what appeared to be a quaint, family-run Chinese restaurant. I followed the scent down a neighboring alleyway, expecting to see an entrance, but instead discovered several burly, middle-aged asian men dressed in traditional solid blue robes with gold-patterned, silk belts. By their feet rested several large styrofoam ice coolers with what looked to be massive yellowfin tuna and a bag of unshelled raw oysters.

The men quickly shooed me away from what had clearly been the entrance to the kitchen. Beside the window that first caught my attention there was a somewhat hidden entrance, not visible from where I was standing. When I walked in, I discovered the true nature of the restaurant. It wasn’t an ordinary Chinese restaurant, but a 12 seat sushi bar in the heart of Shanghai called Sushi Ichi. A week later, I would return to that restaurant and eat one of the very best meals of my life with several friends.

It is spontaneous scents like this that define Shanghai for me. A city thought to be distinctively Chinese by western standards, Shanghai is closer to Paris than Beijing in many ways. On this particular day, it was the smell of seafood that compelled me to walk north down Gaoyou Lu only to find the best sushi restaurant I’ve been to in my entire life. Friends of mine have shared similar stories where smells of food or nature motivate them to walk off path, and mysteriously a cafe, a restaurant or a hidden green space will reveal itself. Scents can serve an important function in Shanghai: discovery.

Sin City

Sin City

Harriet Sergeant’s “Shanghai” provides a startling rendition of old Shanghai, one that genuinely made me view the historic Puxi area through an entirely new lens. I have written extensively about the ever-changing landscape of Shanghai in my posts; from my very first blog entry when I described a 20 year time lapse of the city, to a more recent one about art where I took a look at the father son art duo Xu Xixian and Xu Jianrong. However, In the midst of Shanghai’s dynamism, Puxi is an area that physically has changed far less over the course of the past 20 years. On a larger timeline, however, looking back to the legacy of the “concession” period in China, it has arguably seen an unparalleled cultural shift.

The history of modern China is largely thought to begin with the end of the First Opium War, which Sergeant argues played a huge role in turning Shanghai into the “most international metropolis the world had ever seen.” Conversely, the Communist Party of China dubbed the country’s first major military engagement with Western powers in more than a 100 years as the beginning of “the century of humiliation”. It paints the Opium Wars not as an important part of China’s growth story, but as a failure by the existing political establishment to resist the influence of Western powers. In this way, there’s a rather compelling juxtaposition between the picture Sergeant’s paints of old Shanghai and that of the CCP.

Interestingly, in order to address this major disconnect between lao (old) and xin (new) Shanghai, Sergeant decides to interview inhabitants from both eras. The modern expatriate living in the city with whom she speaks describes it as “mummified” and sterile, while survivors from the pre-revolutionary days provide an interesting counter view. They speak of Shanghai as a place where wealthy foreigners threw lavish parties, used foot-bound women as sex toys and ran the city from the confines of their lavish, European-inspired homes. A British former banker notes that Shanghai became the center of rapid currency speculation for Westerners, doubling personal fortunes overnight. He also noted the ubiquity of underground crime rings which profited from the immensely lucrative heroin trade.

In many ways, Old Shanghai is portrayed as the epitome of cultural depravity, where Westerns took advantage of a power vacuum that emerged in the wake of the Opium Wars. At the same time, Sergeant argues that the city represented one of the world’s most culturally-diverse cities where the first signs of today’s globally-minded society emerged. I suppose the real question is whether or not the benefits associated with Shanghai, and to an extent China’s, internationalism outweighed the costs of a more than century long hegemonic relationship. Sergeant seems to view the presence of Western powers in China through a positive lens, while the CCP took an opposing view. In fact, during the early days of the Mao regime, the party made it a priority to sterilize much of the city’s identity, transforming Shanghai into a city unrecognizable by expatriates of the early 20th century.



There are a couple of criteria that make a good place great. In my opinion, those criteria vary hugely across different venues. I enjoy it when cafes buzz with conversation and serve breakfast past 11. The library, however, should remain quiet save for the sound of flipping pages and the occasional cough. Great good restaurants live and die by the quality of their food. The most well-decorated eatery in the world won’t get very far without a menu to match.

One of my favorite places to eat in Shanghai is an absolute hole in the wall noodle shop near the student dormitory. It rests on a typical Shanghai street lined with french, medium-sized trees known as platane trees. The two-lane road is filled to capacity with a wide array of different store fronts that sell everything from Western coffee to live seafood. The noodle shop, located in between shellfish and albacore vendors, charges roughly $1.50 for enough noodles to strangle a farm animal. The restaurant, if you could even call it that, sports an automatic door fit for a convenience store and hospital lighting. The floors are cleaned once a week at best while the menu is drawn in Chinese characters and hung, like art, from the walls.

There are no pictures, no english-speakers, and certainly no frivolous decorations. Only incredibly good noodle, or mian, dishes and a friendly waitstaff. The restaurant is entirely run by one large family that even brings their young ones to mess about while the adults cook. This past week, I met a young boy, no older than six, who turned out to be the son of the main waiter. He patiently sat and played with marbles for what seemed like 30 or 40 minutes before greeting several customers and making friends like only a young kid can do. In my view, great good restaurants accel at two of three things — food quality, atmosphere and price. My local noodle shop doesn’t pretend to impress patrons with spectacular design. It does, however, know a thing or two about providing delicious Shanghainese food at absurdly low prices. When people talk about authentic Shanghai, it’s places like this that come to mind.

On the other hand, there are plenty of great good places in Shanghai that don’t quite come across as authentic. In fact, the city is so international, that some of its historical, highly-coveted  districts in no way reflect broader China. Much of the French Concession, perhaps the most desirable area in Puxi, is made up of expat bars and restaurants. As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe in the heart of the city that features 10 European beers, including Erdinger on tap. Moreover, the menu hardly has Chinese characters and instead features English as the language of choice. At this cafe, the ambiance is fantastic and the food savory, but of course, the cost is higher too.

Unlike the noodle shop, nothing about the cafe  is authentically Chinese, yet on either side of me sits Chinese nationals. There’s a really interesting cross-cultural effect that accompanies an international city like Shanghai. Foreigners are able to enjoy both their own cultures as well as more authentic Chinese ones, while Chinese nationals are able to do the opposite.

Cataloging a Timewarp

Cataloging a Timewarp

The most striking characteristic of Shanghai is its dynamism. Convenience stores pop-up overnight, large-scale skyscrapers are approved and built in under two years while a burgeoning art scene struggles to capture the scorching pace of the city. More broadly, art in China does more than capture the assent of the Middle Kingdom; it is often found to express dissent.

In a country that struggles to find a balance between expression and censorship, art is a prime target for state-sponsored sterilization of discord. One interesting wrinkle in art censorship is the relatively slow pace of physical art decimation relative to other expressive channels like video. Even Ai Weiwei, arguably China’s most recognizable contemporary artist, cannot achieve the same hard-and-fast penetration as someone like Pi San, a well-known Chinese web personality.

Pi San became a household name after creating a series of animated videos, voicing dissent against the Communist Party of China. One animated short film featured talking, innocuous-looking bunnies who ultimately are shown ingesting milk handed out by government officials. In a later scene, the bunnies ultimately die after consuming the milk, referencing a large scandal in which the government unintentionally distributed contaminated dairy products to thousands of households. More than 50 children under the age of eight ultimately died from Melamine poisoning.

The video quickly found itself being censored by the CCP, but not before millions of households watched and shared the video. Curiously, physical art rarely approaches the same penetration rate as something like a Pi San video. In the age of digital media, there exists low barriers to capturing physical imagery and passing it along via social media. In China sites like QQ and Weibo take the place of Facebook and Twitter in enabling content to frictionless pass from person to person. Strangely though, conventional paintings rarely make the internet rounds, and therefore, are not a primary target of the censors.

While the readings paint art as a new lens through which to view travel destinations, that view doesn’t quite fit China. While art in China is often focused on the documenting the country’s immense natural beauty and rapid ascension as an industrial power, it also facilitates the expression of political discord; most notably, through digital media instead of typical canvas art. When I read Alaine Botton’s musings on Aix en Provence in her book “The Art of Travel”, it’s rather remarkable to think how different her view of art is from the one I have developed after living in China.

Botton writes that art “guides us to be more conscious of feelings that we might previously have only experienced tentatively or hurriedly.” One photo exhibit that I feel captures this theme is that of father and son Xu Xixian and Xu Jianrong. The story goes Xu Xixian, in the 1980s, prior to both Shanghai’s rapid industrialization and the widespread proliferation of affordable cameras, toured the city taking pictures. At the time, the pictures were nothing spectacular, just an amateur photographer’s keepsakes. But when his on set out to take pictures at the exact same locations years later, the resulting exhibition caught national headlines.

I often think back to the photos of Shanghai from just a few decades earlier as I travel through the now ultra modern city.

3rd Planet

3rd Planet

Over the past year months, I’ve played the consummate tourist. Eight months in Europe and now a semester in Asia have granted me this dubious distinction. As someone who values travel above most competing pursuits in life, the question of authenticity is something I revisit frequently. In “Staged Authenticity”, Dean MacCannell ultimately makes the claim that travel represents a form of religious pilgrimage; and in many cases, my travel behavior fits within this framework. I often feel compelled to follow the same tourist tract that thousands before me have followed. In Prague — the Old Town, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle. In Copenhagen — Tivoli Gardens, Rosenborg Castle, Christianshavn. In London — Buckingham Palace, Mayfair, Hyde Park. In Shanghai — The Bund, the Pearl Oriental Tower, Xintiandi.

I think MacCannell’s fundamental thesis is correct, tourists largely look to cover the sights that they are expected to cover. However, his analysis, in my opinion, undersells the value of many of these influential sights. The reason for their popularity is rarely arbitrary, and hardly ever follows the highest-bidder theory. One cannot create historical relevance out of thin air and sell it to the masses. Of course, there are varying degrees of authenticity. If I were to create my own sliding scale for authenticity, it would feature Gozo, Malta as a tourist destination with the best ratio of genuineness to tourist trap-ness and the Yuntai Gardens in Guangzhou as the opposite. While MacCannell asserts that the level of perceived authenticity in a destination relates only to the sophistication of its tourist system, I hold a more positive view.

With that said, it is terrifying to consider that tourists only “make brave sorties out from their hotels hoping, perhaps, for an authentic experience”, but in the end “their paths can be traced in advance over small increments of what is for them increasingly apparent authenticity proffered by tourist settings.” My classmates in this course and ultimately NYU as an institution share in the belief that travel offers certain benefits. Namely, adaptiveness, self enrichment and even cultural harmonization. Therefore, it is strange to entertain the thought that travel destinations manifest as only a series of stages meant to entertain, and ultimately profit from tourists. The implication would extend to this very course. Instead of the Art of Travel representing an effective channel for those among us who want to share unique experiences abroad, it would instead represent something far more sinister. A course designed to encourage students to fulfill their roles as global consumers and share valuable customer feedback on their experiences.

Of course, it is far-fetched and highly unlikely for this hypothesis to be true, making MacCannell parting words somewhat less stirring. Call me a sheep, but in the interest of validating my decision to spend three semesters abroad, I have no choice but to believe that travel is one of the single best ways to expand one’s comfort zone and ultimately achieve personal development. I’ll continue to hold the belief that my entire travel experience has been lived away from the “front places”.

Censoring the Censors

Censoring the Censors

A red stone wall encloses the decrepit, soot-covered housing blocks that have escaped demolition in Shanghai’s sparkling Pudong district. Like a snake, the wall bends and contorts to keep the boundaries of the Dongfang Jinzuo housing complex fixed. The wall is severed in three spots, forming entryways. Most mornings, I pass through one of the three reliefs in what I’ve come to call the ‘Boa Wall’. A concrete, winding pathway meets the mouth of the Boa Wall at the starting point of my daily commute. The pavement is beset on either side by symmetrical green space hardly large enough to hold several short shrubs. At the opposite end of the pathway lies an asphalt street that provides access to the apartments of Dongfang Jinzuo. It’s on this leg of the journey I encounter something central to Marteen Troost’s commentary on the role of Media in China – a People’s Daily message board.

Known more for his humor and relatability than for any sort of serious political commentary, Troost makes an interesting remark on the role of media throughout the Middle Kingdom in “Lost on Planet China”. In addressing the infamous 2001 Hainan Island incident, Troost jokingly creates the headline “American Aggressor Downs Peace-Loving Chinese Aircraft in Chinese Territory. Chinese Plane Was Delivering Toy Bunnies to Orphans” (Troost 130). While the mock headline is no doubt good for a laugh, it also hints at a larger issue that I encounter daily in Shanghai – the role of state-run media.

Everytime I pass the People’s Daily message board, inside the confines of the Boa Wall, I look for some reference of the Hong Kong protests. I can’t read Chinese characters, so instead, I scan for images. Over the past several weeks, even as Hong Kong consistently made headlines in Western media, not once did I notice a picture on the message board referencing the protests. So I took to the internet, hoping to find a single mention of the most significant protests in China since Tiananmen Square. The People’s Daily english website returned one relevant result for Hong Kong since mid-September: “Hong Kong must treasure economic vitality.” The article makes mention of the incident, but goes on to say “no one but the Chinese mainland really cares about Hong Kong. Some people from the West who hail the protests harbor ulterior motives to do so.”

Troost’s characterization of the Communist Party’s use of propaganda, while funny, is remarkably on point. As I reflect on his Onion-like headline, I can’t help but think of the People’s Daily mention of Hong Kong as pure comedy. Students organize the most successful pro-democratic protests in decades and the CCP responds by publishing an article encouraging Hong Kong to “treasure economic vitality”.

When I glance at the People’s Daily message board each morning, I can’t help but wonder what those reading on either side of me think of events like the Hainan Island incident and Hong Kong. With completeness of information, I can pass through the Boa Wall unencumbered, but I fear that many of my new neighbors cannot.

Through the Wormhole

Through the Wormhole

China Travel Tip #4:
“Hell is a line in China. You are so forewarned.”

Equal parts comedian and novelist, consummate traveller J. Maarten Troost nails the frustrations of urban China with this remark. During my time reading Troost, I decided to simultaneously begin flipping through the NYU-provided Lonely Planet guidebook of Shanghai. For the uninitiated, the skyline of Pudong seems like the preeminent attraction in all of the city, and a cursory flip through the guidebook confirmed just that. Headlining that skyline is a War of the Worlds tripod-like structure named the Oriental Pearl Tower. The zero tenant, 468 meter monolith once stood as the tallest structure in the city, but today its unmistakable silhouette is only third largest.

In its heyday, the tower was something of a statement piece for East Asia’s fastest growing economy. But ever since, it carries one, and only one, characterization — tourist trap. Not just any tourist trap mind you; a tourist trap so unmistakably tourist trappy that the highest observation deck — ‘the space module’ — featured fake shuttle controls, cabin lighting, an astronaut mannequin suspended in ‘zero gravity’ and eight Chinese woman dressed like TWA flight attendants.

As if spending 220 rmb on a bonafide Disney World attraction wasn’t punishment enough, Troost China Travel Tip #4 would make an appearance. The tower has three tiers and, of course, only two elevators on each floor. Three floors of 500-person, snaking lines turned my leisurely tourist day into a defcon four disaster. After several hours of unsolicited crowd-humping, I emerged from the Oriental Pearl Tower searching for the nearest Red Cross stretcher, only to find a giant clusterfuck of a tour group blocking the exit. A fitting end to a day of waiting.

China Travel Tip #2:
“To really see China, go to the market. Any market will do. This is where China lives and breathes. It is here where you will find the sights, sounds and smells of China. And it is in a Chinese market where you will experience epic bargaining.”

Unlike the persistent and lengthy lines that one finds in China, markets are the right sort of bustling. They also feature one of my favorite quirks of China which Troost identifies — bargaining. In general, I’ve never excelled at bargaining. When I was younger my family went on a trip to the bahamas where we paid a visit to the lovely straw market of Nassau. I came into the market with $40 and left with $0 after two purchases. — a tiki mask and a colored pencil set.

In China, though, since the wares are often commoditized, I’ve been surprisingly successful at playing the vendors off one another. A vendor may want $6 for a shirt, but the stall next to him likely has a similar shirt for only $4. Now whether or not $4 represents the “Chinese Price”, as Troost puts it, is up for debate, but my bargaining is steadily improving.

Key phrases and gestures:

Zhe ge duoshao qian — how much is this
Tai gui le — it’s too expense
**Pointing at next stall** ta shi pianyi — something resembling “he is cheaper”


Ritualistic Homemaking

Ritualistic Homemaking

Rolling thunder and the crackle of lightning fill the dorm room. The soft pitter patter of rain increases in intensity as I shift in bed and eventually come to. When I open my eyes, it’s not a stormy morning I see, but blue skies. I turn to face the source of the noise — my alarm clock. In its drowsy state, my brain rarely recognizes the starting point of my daily ritual. I reach for the noisy aluminum handset and manage to clumsily turn off the alarm. Miraculously, my roommate hasn’t so much as turned in bed.

It’s five to seven in the morning, and, as usual, I’m the first one in my suite of six to wake up. Claiming the first shower is incentive enough for me to bite the bullet and roll out of bed before the rest of the room stirs. By 7:30, I’m typically in the lobby of our dormitory, The Grand Pujian Residence. The shuttle to campus arrives at quarter to eight, leaving me plenty of time to enjoy my complimentary, mediocre coffee. I fight with the VPN while trying to connect to the lobby WiFi. By the time I pull up an article in the Wall Street Journal, it’s typically time to catch the bus.

In Shanghai, there are no rules of the road. Bizarrely, there are also hardly any accidents. You’re lucky if cars follow traffic signals; scooters, though, represent an entirely different beast. Scooters think they’re pedestrians. Quick, bulky, impolite pedestrians equipped with horns that amplify in volume each time they’re pressed. In the mornings, the rush hour traffic combined with questionable driving tactics makes my commute downright must-see action. Last week, our two ton bus almost took out a small Asian man carrying ten five-gallon water jugs on a single scooter. Ten jugs! At least he would have gone out a winner. Every now and again, we’ll have an event like this, keeping me on the edge of my seat.

After the shuttle makes it through the gauntlet that is Shanghai traffic, I walk to a Starbucks that rests a few short minutes from campus. This portion of my daily routine always feels slightly embarrassing. One would think I could find a local breakfast spot by now, but alas, every morning I find myself paying Western prices for coffee and a croissant.

I would be remiss if I went this whole post without mentioning Mandarin, which occupies several hours of my time each day. Between lecture and a slew of daily assignments, I spend anywhere from two to four hours each day tackling the unfamiliar sounds of China’s official language. It’s both a privilege and a challenge to study such a complex, yet relevant language. The time commitment, though, can certainly cause some frustration.

Routine develops naturally. In fact, I’m often surprised how ordinary living in an extraordinary country can feel as time passes. When one’s daily rituals begin to form, the feeling of spontaneity and randomness that accompanies discovering a new place seem to fade.

Up Against It: Imaginary and real barriers

Up Against It: Imaginary and real barriers

For the first time in my life, I feel the burden of a language barrier. The inability to communicate with locals in China can feel frustrating, especially when I think back to my last travel abroad experience. Studying away in an English-speaking nation like the United Kingdom couldn’t be more different from facing the unfamiliar sounds of Mandarin each day. When I wrote in response to this same issue last year, I described London as “study abroad with training wheels.” The irony is the thing I loathed most last year was feeling so culturally similar to my peers. In Shanghai, I want nothing more than to share a language and a culture with the people with whom I interact daily.

While I didn’t last year, I now appreciate how routine tasks like ordering food, getting a haircut or directing a taxi can pose an immense challenge abroad. As I write this post, I’m returning from the small water town of Tongli; a rural canal town tucked away in the outskirts of Shanghai. The trip was organized by the NYU Shanghai staff. Had I tired myself to book the same trip, I imagine it would have taken days not hours to find a reputable English-speaking tour company, and even longer to arrange transport and activities.  As I think about planning my own trip for the upcoming national holiday not knowing Mandarin feels like a massive constraint.

In Europe, the biggest challenge I faced for trip planning was rounding up a group to travel with. The pervasiveness of spoken English, of budget airlines and of AirBnB made all other elements of travel delightfully easy and accessible. Here, though, my concerns for travel start with attempting to tell my Shifu (cabbie) how to get to my lodgings in whichever city I choose to visit. It’s not as simple as handing him a slip of paper, since I’m unable to write in Chinese characters. While I’m confident that I’ll laugh at the end of the semester when I reflect on this post, in the interim I’m uneasy about travel in China.

A leading contender for my trip next week is the coastal town of Guangzhou, known to many as Canton, and the epicenter of Cantonese; so even as a fluent Mandarin speaker, I’d again be forced to cope with a language barrier. I’m beginning to come to the realization that communication barriers are ubiquitous and nearly unavoidable in travel. The answer, therefore, isn’t to consistently feel frustration when met with a new language or culture. It’s to accept that no matter how high the communication hurdle, there exists a common understanding between humans based on context.

When the Chinese cabbie sees a laowi (foreigner) hailing him from the sidewalk, he doesn’t drive past, assuming they won’t be able to direct him to their destination. He needs only a business card or cross streets in broken Mandarin to pull away from the curb.

With each passing day, I grow stronger in my conviction that language is a barrier only if you let it become one.

Wǒ bù shuō zhōngguó huà

Wǒ bù shuō zhōngguó huà

The backseat of the cab vibrates as the trunk swings closed with a loud thud. An undersized, elderly Chinese man wearing loose striped pajamas climbs into the driver’s seat and looks at me through the rearview mirror. His brow remains permanently furrowed as he stares.

“Hi, how’s it going?” I say. “Here’s where I’m headed.”

I hand the cabbie a business card with the NYU dormitory address written in Chinese characters. The cabbie pulls a pair of crooked reading glasses out of his pajama pocket and switches the overhead light on. I hear my first Mandarin as the cabbie scratches his head and barks unfamiliar sounds at me.

“Grand Pujian” I say, as if he understands. “Take me to the Grand Pujian Residence, please.”

A minute goes by as the cabbie and I frustrate each other with our monolingualism. Finally, he switches the overhead light off and tosses the business card back at me, before pulling away from the curb. The seatbelt-less, Soviet-era cab is struggling to hit 100 km/h as we merge onto the highway. My eyes wander, eventually landing on the steering wheel. From the back seat, I notice one of the cabbie’s fingernail stretches out at least 3 inches while the rest are meticulously trimmed. I’d later learn that many working class men leave one fingernail long as a status symbol. In that moment, though, through the haze of many sleepless hours, I was positive my cabbie spent his free time dressing in drag. Part of me wishes I never learned the truth.

It’s 8pm China time and I’ve now been traveling for more than 24 hours straight. My legs feel like gelatin as I slouch in my seat, struggling to stay awake. The cabbie is listening to what sounds like a Chinese motivational speaker. The inflection of his voice screams “I did it, and you can too.”

Industry surrounds the cab on all sides as we continue down the six lane highway that began at Pudong International. Soot-covered factories, cranes and smoke stacks fight for space in the skyline — all of a sudden the smog makes sense.

My eyelids finally give in as I begin replaying the day’s events in my head. Two in-flight movies, a random security check at JFK, my parents sending me off. I drift in and out of consciousness until finally the cab begins to decelerate. When I open my eyes, it’s not the Grand Pujian, but the same six lane highway I see. My cabbie turns the overhead light back on and motions for the business card again as he stops the car on the shoulder.

We’re lost.

The cabbie tries once more to converse with me in Chinese as I stare back blankly.. I’m met with a stern “hmph” as we merge back into traffic. “Pajama Sam has no idea where he’s going,” I think to myself.

We cruise for another minute or two before I notice the indicator flashing. Sure enough, the cab turns right at the the next exit. The audio system stops playing and the cabbie notices instantly. He takes the 8-track tape out of the player, flips it over, and reinserts it. The Joel Osteen-sounding Chinese speaker returns.

As I sit and lament over the unexpected detour, the cabbie turns onto Pujian Lu. Grand Pujian — Pujian Lu — we must be close… One last turn and the bright lights of Grand Pujian come into view. I point from the backseat and the cabbie nods approvingly. In ten minutes, I’m laying spread eagle on my dorm bed.

Whether or not five minutes of feeling lost represents true wayfinding is up for debate, but there’s something to be said for the amplifying effect of language barriers. For all I knew, my cabbie was going to drive me around all night, when in reality, he likely asked only for a cross street.


Countdown to Arrival

Countdown to Arrival

Loud knocks fill the room as I sit straight up in bed and stare daggers at the bedroom door. “Wake up, rew. Role call.” my brother yells like a drill sergeant. My eyes find the plain-white alarm clock on my nightstand displaying “5:00am.” “I’m up,” I yell back in a muffled voice; my face buried deep in a pillow. I roll on my side and let the air rush out of my lungs with a yawn.

The bedroom lays in darkness as the last few pre-dawn minutes roll by. It’s August 23rd, my brother’s birthday, and t-minus one day until my 18 hour flight to China–something to look forward to. After some time, I finally summon the courage to swing my feet onto the side of the bed and begin getting dressed.

The coffeemaker whines loudly in the kitchen as it grounds beans while my mother reaches into the silverware drawer. I emerge from the bedroom glassy-eyed and disheveled, wearing a long-sleeve polo two sizes too big. Looking like something out of the Cosby Show, the polo was bought for three euro in Brussels earlier that year–ideal for a day of fishing.

I venture downstairs where my parents and brother sit eating breakfast and chatting. “Happy birthday, Chris!” I say. “Thanks, rew” he replies “here’s your bagged lunch see you on the boat in 10.” The thing you have to understand about my brother Chris is he’s been fishing his whole life. In the months after earning his boater’s license, he would chase down bait fish in the family boat, netting them as they scurried away. In 30 minutes we’re out on the water. The first rays of dawn sunlight make the water shimmer like a sheet of glass. We make our first casts off the boat using diamond jigs and squid. Cast, reel twice; cast, reel twice; cast, reel twice…

T-minus 17 hours.

*          *          *

It’s this moment that I think back to as I travel at 500 miles per hour away from New York. The nearly 24-hour travel day that began with an early morning drive to JFK is almost finished as two bell-like tones fill the cabin of my Dragonair flight. The captain’s voice comes on over the PA system first in Mandarin, then in English. “Cabin crew, prepare for landing.”

The infamous Shanghai smog engulfs the passenger jet as we make our final descent. Through the haze, I swear I spot the Pudong skyline, but the plane banks sharply right before I can tell for sure. In less than five minutes, the plane touches down at Pudong International and I spot my first Chinese character, resting on the tarmac.

The line at customs looks surprisingly short as I wheel my baggage through the terminal. I approach the customs agent, passport and landing card in hand. The agent speaks not a lick of English. I bite my lip, contemplating what would happen if I was turned away. Before I can think up a plan, the gate opens.

The taxi rank rests directly outside the exit to the terminal, lit up with red LED Chinese characters. I hand my cabbie the dormitory taxi card and sit back as he pulls away from the curb. A 45 minute trip from the airport takes longer than an hour as the driver speaks to me in Chinese, seemingly asking for a cross street. Check-in takes only a few minutes and I collapse on my bed.

The Pudong skyline greets me hours later when I awake. Vibrant and smogless.

Familiarly Unfamiliar

Familiarly Unfamiliar

My name is Andrew, I’m a junior, and I’ve been away from New York for 11 of the past 12 months. I began my time away from the square in August of last year. Two semesters in England’s finest city gave me ample time to see much of Europe beyond the colorful local neighborhoods of  Bloomsbury, Camden, Holburn and Marylebone. Now, after a three month stint in San Francisco, Shanghai represents a new adventure for me — something entirely unfamiliar.

With its english street signs and gotham-like skyline, today’s Shanghai stands unrecognizable from the Shanghai of years past. A 15 year time lapse of the city’s ultra-modern Pudong district begins with mosquito-infested marshlands and farmers living below the poverty line. After five years, more than 10,000 buildings are constructed while a high-speed subway line runs every five minutes to and from Pushi — the center of Shanghai. In 10 years, the now famous skyline takes hold with the construction of the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Building and more than a dozen other skyscrapers. After 15 years, the development of Pudong causes Shanghai to jump more than 100 spots in the global urbanization ranks.

For all of its commonalities with the west, Shanghai feels distinctly Chinese to the uninitiated. My descent through a thick layer of smog into Pudong International Airport,  my failure to find a real meal for the first two days, and my first trip to the local grocery store reminded me that I was quite far from home. Lotus — the grocery store nearest to the dormitories– is well-regarded among the Shanghainese, and even described as Western by a few expats I spoke to. With that description in mind, I made my first trip to the store in search of supplies.

My troubles began not long after stepping foot in the store. There was a rather large disconnect between my perception of a Western grocery store and what lined the aisles of Lotus. Live frogs, fish, and crustaceans, sea snakes on ice, and full cow heads greeted me as I walked through the meat aisle. An enormous collection of what I later determined to be fake alcohol lined several smaller aisles on the far side of the store. The fruit aisle stood completely barren with only a few overly ripe bananas, a small bunch of apples and several dragonfruit remaining. After a ten minute cursory walk around the store, I’d seen enough. I left with packaged water and an empty stomach.

Upon arriving home, I bumped into my Chinese suitemate. He sat and quietly listened to my complaints of “no chicken breast” and an inadequate fruit selection before asking if I noticed the pork selection.

“No”, I said.

“Well how about the produce?” He replied incredulously.

“No, I didn’t notice that either,” I replied.

“The bok choy ” He shot back. “Is the best in the world here.”

“Oh,” I said. “I had no idea.”

The conversation continued in that fashion as I began to rethink my first impression of Lotus. After some time, my suitemate pledged to bring me to the store himself — an offer which I gladly accepted.

When I left Lotus for the second time, I could hardly carry my bags home.

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