The strange part about saying goodbye to Shanghai is that I will never again return to the Shanghai in which I studied and lived for nearly five months. I say this not because I think I will not come back to China, because I undoubtedly will, but rather, because Shanghai in ten years will likely look nothing like the Shanghai that I am familiar with.
It is no secret that China is in an incredible period of economic, political, and social transformation. The mere existence of an American university in Pudong is a testament to China’s openness to foreign investment and foreign cultures. The skyline that has sprung up in the last fifteen years has changed the physical makeup of the city and also the socioeconomic breakdown of Shanghai. As this city continues to spread further and further into Pudong, I am sure that the area we live in now, one that is visibly developing everyday, will be full of high rent apartment buildings and corporate office. It will have western brands and look much more like other international cities that my current notion of a Chinese city. This makes me both excited to come visit Shanghai to see the future, but also glad that I was here early enough to see it before some of these changes.
I will, however, have a much deeper understanding of the Chinese place in the world. Prior to coming to Shanghai, I believe I was a little brainwashed by the Western media that portrays China’s rise as a negative effect the world, and the Chinese government as harsh and cruel to its own people. Now, when I talk to my friends back home, I find myself defending many decisions of the Chinese government and making that case that America is too hard on its Eastern counterpart. The one-child policy is an example of a decision which to Americans seems inhumane, but I now realize was not only necessary for China’s future, but also fairly popular among its people. Little cultural nuances like this are something you can only pick up from living in a place, and for that I am thankful that I chose Shanghai. The incredible growth of the Chinese economy will undoubtedly affect the world that I live and work in, and I believe understanding the country and its people a little more will be incredibly beneficial.
I am also thankful that this course has created a way to document some of my thoughts and experiences in real time. Prior to studying abroad, I bought a travel journal, which I intended on writing in every week, if not every night so that I would not forget anything. This was too idealistic of course, and too many blank pages remain in this book. It turns out that a weekly posting for Art of Travel is enough to make me sit down and reflect on not only what I have done, but also how I feel about my experiences. I already feel nostalgic when I look back at my posts from last semester in London and am sure that I will feel the same way when I look back at these posts. I am thankful to have that personal history recorded. And with that, I bid you all adieu and wish you well in your final days abroad!
In my experience, most of the students who end up at the NYU Shanghai study abroad site fall into one of three categories. The first is those students who have family connections to Shanghai or to China—this makes sense. Most of them speak a little Mandarin and have been to China many times before. The second group is those that want to shock everyone back home. They look at the list of possible abroad sites and say which is the farthest away from home. When they are too scared to go to Accra, they choose Shanghai. Finally, there is the group who has to come here because of their program. This is where I fall. Although I never would have chosen to come to Shanghai on my own accord, I think it has been an incredible learning experience.
That being said, I will strongly caution those who may consider coming here. It can be an incredibly frustrating and difficult experience for those that do not enter with the right mindset. One must be fully prepared to be regularly uncomfortable in their environment and accept that you are in a completely alternative system and way of life. To an extent, this is true of any abroad site, but I believe it is especially true in Shanghai—especially those students who come with no language ability.
This is also an interesting time to choose Shanghai as your study abroad choice. This is the first year of NYU Shanghai’s new campus being fully operative, and this is clearly noticeable. The administrative efficiency and quality of the physical space of this new academic center could certainly benefit from a few years of development. The campus is still being built, sometimes right under your feet. Some professors seem to be adjusting to their new role (likely recently transitioning out of college themselves) and the administrative staff often seems more concerned with projecting an image of competence than actually helping students with their issues. No doubt, NYU is committed to alleviating these concerns, but with anything new, it will take time. Perhaps in a few years, this will be the best study abroad option, but for now, I would say maybe take a second look at some of the other choices.
If you are looking for a more traditional study abroad experience, where school is secondary to your experience of traveling, and immersing in foreign cultures, this place may also not be for you. The workload is the same if not more than that of New York classes due to NYU Shanghai’s status as a fully functional 4-year institution, and the additional burden of a daily Chinese course ends up being very time consuming.
That being said, if you do choose Shanghai, you can certainly make it into a meaningful and memorable experience, you just have to push yourself. Push yourself to get out of the NYU bubble and explore the greater Shanghai metro area early in the semester. My biggest piece of advice for future students is to prepare to unprepared. Like I said, unless you come with a background in Mandarin or familiar with the Chinese culture, the first few days and weeks will feel daunting. Overall, despite some frustrations along the way, this has been an experience that I will hold with me for the rest of my life—one that pushed me to my limits and taught me perhaps more about myself than anything else.
Yesterday, I found myself sitting in a Chinese bank (shoutout to ICBC, pictured above), trying to get my credit card back that had been eaten by an ATM (ATMs in China give you your money before your card, making it very easy to walk away with the former and not the latter). It had been nearly an hour now in the waiting area, when one of the representatives came and asked if I had taken a number. At that moment, I was incredibly frustrated by the Chinese bank, the country and what I perceived as the unhelpful and unsympathetic people. After explaining that I had already given my passport to a representative of the bank who went back and found my card, I was told that I still needed to take a number and wait my turn. I could literally see my card sitting on the nearby table—the peak of frustration. In the next twenty minutes, all I could think was that I could not wait to get back to the United States and out of the country in which so many frustrating situations like this had occurred.
About ten minutes later, I watched an older man being helped by a bank teller and I realized that the volume was getting louder and louder. Chinese people tend to speak loudly and aggressively, so I did not make much of it. Eventually, though, the man was screaming, and shorty after, he had stood up and began throwing papers across the room, pointing his finger and causing a big scene. By all accounts, it was a ridiculous spectacle. I desperately wanted more information, but I looked around and all the other customers were simply gazing at their phones, pretending like this was not happening.
Next thing I know, the bank teller had called security and the man was trying to avoid grasp by squirming and screaming some more. I looked around the room and finally made eye contact with another customer. Upon seeing my eyes, she giggled, looked at the man, and looked back at me. At that moment, I believe she realized how ridiculous this situation must seem to someone who cannot speak Chinese. In the next couple of minutes, we kept looking at the man, looking at each other, and laughing.
My frustration melted away with this simple moment of empathy and human connection. It realized more than anything—it was this that I missed most, the ability to connect with people. I missed feeling understood and being able to understand people, not just verbally, but emotionally as well. The combination of language barrier and varying ways of expressing emotion has made this a difficult task this semester. I realized though, that there is nothing inherently frustrating about China, the Chinese people, or about Chinese banks even. On the contrary, perhaps I was consistently frustrated with myself and my inability to overcome cultural barriers and to create connections based on a shared understanding of situations. This “epiphany” of sorts is an important lesson for being in new and uncomfortable situations. It is often easier to blame others for your frustrations, but taking a moment to be introspective about the root of the problem can make all the difference.
My first few weeks in Shanghai, I thought it might be impossible to establish a meaningful connection with a local. My elementary Chinese certainly did not give me the confidence to foster any sort of friendship, let alone an acquaintance. Several months in, however, I have not encountered a once stranger who makes me feel welcome in this foreign place. This “pengyou” of mine comes from an unlikely place—the local Family Mart.
Though my typical trip to this ubiquitous convenience store typically is a result of desperation for food or to get a bottle of water after a night out, it become very much a part of my daily routine. After about my fifth trip there, the woman who seems to work there around the clock. She knew what I purchased every morning (soy milk, and a pork bun), and despite the fact that I couldn’t say these words in Chinese, she would give them to me with a warm demeanor and a smile.
By about my tenth visit, she began calling me “pengyou”—the Chinese word for friend. This simple gesture always makes me smile. Once I learned how, I asked her what her name was. She pointed to her nametag, in Chinese characters that I did not understand. Since then, I call her “wo de pengyou,” which also makes her smile. As time went on through the semester, I began expanding my vocabulary and some nights we have conversations while she rings me up that last nearly 5 minutes—quite the feat for my linguistic skills. In fact, she is nearly the only person besides taxi drivers that I have the opportunity to practice my Chinese with for these extended periods of time outside of class. In that way she has been very valuable to me.
Just last week, as I was taking a study break and getting some snacks at Family Mart, my pengyou began trying to tell me something that I could not understand. She basically said she would not be there tomorrow. When I did not react, she kept saying it over and over, so I took it to mean that it was her last day. We had an emotional goodbye, I hugged her, and we took selfies. I left feeling glad that I had met her, and sad that she would no longer be a part of my experience abroad.
Luckily though, my language skills had deceived me. Apparently she was merely saying that she was switching to the day shift. I’m still not sure why the hugging and selfies took place now, but whatever the reason, I’m glad she is still part of my daily routine. I never thought an employee at a local convenience store could become an important part of my life, but this stranger has given me comfort in a foreign, and vulnerable situation. Maybe in these final few weeks, I will develop the skills necessary to learn her real name, but for now she is just “wo de pengyou,” and that may be enough.
The genius loci of Shanghai is a dichotomy of development that I see outside of my window each morning. On the one hand, I see the incredible skyline of Lujiazui (pictured above) with the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai Tower, and Shanghai World Financial Center. This incredible spectacle shows how rapidly this Chinese city is changing and also represents the vast inequality that exists here. Juxtaposed immediately next to these monumental buildings are the homeless street dwellers, vendors, and those who watched money pour into Shanghai without accessing the benefits.
On the other hand, out my window, I can also see the problems posed by this mass industrialization and development: the serious pollution problem faced by this city, and cities across China. There is of course always negative side-effects of rapid economic development, but this plume of smog, which often obscures the skyline and makes the population put on masks, is a constant reminder of the huge problem this city faces in terms of urban planning and providing services for its population.
Despite these two defining elements of Shanghai’s rapid development, the actual “smell” of the city is likely unchanged from years past. It is that of fried noodles, and durian being sold on the side of the street. It is the fumes of mopeds and motorcycles used by millions of commuters each day. It is the smell of steamed buns from the local Family Mart, and garbage piling up on the streets.
Overall, I would say the smell is not exactly delightful, but it is definitely distinct. On some days, when the pollution is manageable, and the streets are clean, Shanghai reveals its potential to be a world-class city. It still has a long way to go though, as these days are few and far between. Most days, even if I don’t wear a mask to shield the pollution, I feel like wearing one to avoid the stench of construction, garbage, and paint, and the other scents of development.
The one smell that is the most disturbing to me is that ok the constant plume of smoke around this city. I thought I had become accustomed to the less strict public smoking laws while in Europe, but Shanghai is a different story altogether. One particular incident that demonstrated the severity of this problem happened on my latest flight back to Shanghai. As the plane was reaching cruising altitude and I was near a deep sleep, smoke filled my lungs. My first thought was to look at the antiquated smoking light to see if by some mistake, it had been turned off. But, alas it was brightly lit. I thought I must be mistaken, but after ten minutes I asked the flight attendant, who kindly told me that someone must have smoked in the bathroom, causing smoke to escape through the air filtration system. It is situations like this, when I just put on my mask and accept that Shanghai’s “genius loci” may be something I will just not get used to.