This is a bit of an odd farewell. I have lived in Shanghai before and this is not my first farewell. Last time, I was four years old and probably did not realize the implications of moving to another city. However, despite having lived in China for a large portion of my life, this study abroad experience not only reminded me of things that are inherently Chinese but I’ve also seen and learned a lot of new things.
My first realization was a profoundly unfortunate one. Language abilities fade over time. When I first arrived, I struggled greatly to even instruct the driver how to get to the dormitory, the unfortunate toll of neglecting Chinese for over half a decade. However, this has changed over the course of the semester. The most rewarding part of studying away was improving my Chinese. While the Chinese program is definitely unnecessarily time consuming, it helped me improve my Chinese dramatically. I became more confident in my speaking ability. As a result, I felt more relaxed about talking to people, cab drivers, ordering food in Chinese. And I am fully aware that if I don’t make efforts to maintain it, it will surely dissipate as it had already done before.
Next, I realized not only have I not kept up with the language but also the culture. China has changed so much since I lived here. People now walk around with cell phones stuck to their noses rather than cycling around. There is a bustling subway system that goes to the fringes of the city. There are a thousand new TV shows and dramas. Chinese pop is on the rise. Chinese companies like Taobao are skyrocketing in popularity and success. These are things I definitely would not have been aware of had I not come to Shanghai again.
More than anything, this experience has reshaped my outlook on China and its future. While China’s declining economic growth has alarmed many people both in China and internationally, I don’t think this is any indicator of the effect China will have on the world in the near future. The educational and social systems never cease to amaze me. I feel like I am personally witnessing a massive shift in demographic and culture. The rise of new intellectuals, a generation of male-female imbalance, a new tier of ultra-comeptitive students, a new class of consumers, a shifting and wary political system. These are all things that will undoubtedly affect the direction of world politics and economics and our lives. I feel fortunate that I could be exposed and informed to this historic shift.
Next week, I leave Shanghai knowing I’ll be back soon (since I live in Tokyo, Shanghai is less than 3 hours away). However, the eerie realization I had last night was, next time I come to Shanghai may not be for holidays or meeting up with old friends but rather for business. This realization was eerie only because it could happen as soon as a year and half from now!
“The return makes one love the farewell.” – Alfred de Musset
I don’t think much preparation needs to be done before coming to Shanghai. Maybe it would be useful to memorize the name of foods you think you’ll like (especially if you have dietary restrictions). It might also be useful to subscribe to Smart Shanghai. It caters to an expat population and will keep you notified you of festivals, concerts, cultural events and parties.
Next, it took me a while to fully become aware of what I had access to in Shanghai and what was close to my dorm and the academic building. I highly recommend people to explore the streets by the Lancun station (there are a lot of restaurants there). Additionally, in the small park behind the Grand Pujian residence (which I’ve been told will be housing NYU students next semester too), there is a thriving community. Don’t be afraid to go there, exercise with the locals, shop at the street side fruit vendor, point of random foods vendors are making and order them.
Chinese language class will take up a lot of your time whether you want it to or not. So I suggest you mentally prepare for this and embrace it. Everyone, regardless of what level of Chinese, has improved immensely. People who had previously never dreamt of speaking Chinese could now hold (comical) conversations with a Chinese person.
However, despite the Chinese classes, language can be a huge impediment so make sure to have friend that speaks good Chinese. This will come in useful especially when opening bank accounts or setting up your phone. But also, a Chinese friend will also introduce you to local things. I had a Chinese suitemate this year who showed me so many ways of making my life easier. For instance, instead of going to China Mobile to top off my each month, he showed me how to simply charge it using WeChat. Which ties in nicely to my next point: WeChat. Since Facebook does not work without, WeChat is a great resource for communicating. It comes with a lot of fun stickers and add-on features. I’m definitely going to try and see if I can get people use WeChat in the US.
In all, I would recommend this abroad site if you are interest in Chinese contemporary culture, art and politics. My classes were very time consuming so I didn’t get the chance to explore Shanghai as much as some other students did. NYU Shanghai is still very much in its trial and error stages. But they’re learning fast. Despite all the mishaps and aberrations of NYU Shanghai, I am confident that things will only get better with time. Already the facilities are top notched and one curriculum, professors and other details are ironed out, I have no doubt NYU Shanghai will be an amazing campus to study abroad at. So this recommendation comes with a caution. Moreover, as NYU Shanghai reaches full capacity (for the portal students), it will be even more interesting as study abroad students will be able to interact with students who have very diverse and interesting perspectives.
I started this semester taking inventory of what was around campus and my dormitory. To be frank, it didn’t impress me. We live in a new and constantly expanding part of Shanghai called Pudong. It would be an understatement to say Puxi (west of the Huangpu River), is more exciting. Puxi’s streets are teeming with history, culture, expats, locals, stores and often lined with beautiful trees. Pudong, on the other hand, is a completely new area. Prior to the 90’s, Pudong was bare fields. NYU made a long-term investment in locating itself in Pudong where it is projected that Shanghai’s and, arguably, Asia next financial capital will develop. It is in this area that new buildings spring out of the ground on a weekly basis.
In short, Pudong seemed like a shallow and unexciting area. As a result, I felt justified in living in my bubble. At first, I ordered Sherpa for dinner, a food delivery service designed specifically for expats, went to school on NYU’s shuttle everyday and ate my lunches in the school cafeteria. However, throughout the semester, there was a shift. I started getting food at street vendors. Everything was available and plentiful: noodles, fried rices, Chinese pancakes, meat skewers, fruits. In fact, I now know the vendors’ schedules intimately (and even some of their life stories). Scattered around the neighborhood, each vendor offers something unique. The fruit vendor: Over 20 orange and a joke (sometimes) for $2. The skewer vendor: a story while you wait and as many skewers as your heart desires that somehow always cost less than $4 dollars.
I still eat lunch in the cafeteria everyday but my routine has changed in other small ways. Instead of ordering food on Sherpa, I switched to eating at local vendors and restaurants and ordering food on Chinese sites. At first, I was a little nervous because it is not uncommon for the restaurant to call and riddle you with a barrage of questions in rapid Chinese. However, after gaining increasing confidence in my Chinese throughout the semester, this option became more and more attractive. Rather than paying Sherpa’s exorbitant prices and delivery fees, I am now shocked by prices over 30 or 40 RMB (around $4-6) for a full meal. Similarly, I’ve been taking advantage of Taobao, China’s fantastically big and efficient eBay-Amazon hybrid.
I only recently realized the shift in my routine and attitude. I realized that my previous routine was one that could have been the same anywhere else in the world. I was not taking advantage of what Shanghai had to offer. Even though the area I live in is relatively bare when it comes to activities and establishments, there is still a thriving local population in the area. Sadly, I started exploring these small establishments rather late. However, talking on the phone with a restaurant, making small talk with fruit vendor or listening to the life story of the skewer vendor, these are the small but impactful interactions that I will remember after leaving Shanghai (also the ones that helped me the most with my Chinese).
Steve works at the reception of my building so it was inevitable that our paths would eventually cross. However, our paths intertwined in the most unusual way. I could have walked past him every morning and night simply exchanging polite greetings and nods. However, despite our entirely different schedules and backgrounds, our paths entwined.
Steve is a local Shanghainese. He is young, maybe mid-twenties, and energetic. At first, I would ask him for recommendations and directions for places around Shanghai. At first, I only asked him for directions. In fact, one of the first weeks I was here, he recommended I visit the region he’s from, Qibao. The trip ended up being really fun so I went back to thank him the next day. In our conversation I quickly found that that Steve was no ordinary guy. He speaks five languages, jokes about everything and is forever curious. He often tells me about the weird things he observes that American students do, just as I observe the idiosyncrasies of people in the streets. He usually notes things that you or I would consider normal, but to him it seems unusual. It is hilarious when you see things from his perspective.
When I came back from fall and Thanksgiving break, he would ask me all about the trip and actually remember everything I said. He’s also extremely patient. It is not unusual to see him helping out NYU students with their Chinese homework. He’s helped so many people that he is probably more familiar with the Chinese curriculum at NYU than most NYU administrators.
I often try to speak Chinese to Steve and he gladly converses with me (as opposed to other people who sometimes would rather respond in broken English than respond to me in Chinese). Another odd point of connection: Steve speaks Japanese. In fact, he speaks it very well and he is currently studying for a Japanese language proficiency test. As a result, we often speak Japanese (though I’m not sure if I’m much help since his Japanese is a lot better than mine). However, despite his great Japanese, he has never been to Japan, even though the flight is only three hours long. He told me that his brother works in Japan and he aspires to go there one day. It made me realize, I’m so fortunate to be able to come to China to study Chinese. While Chinese is by far my most demanding class and often leads to late nights, it is undeniable that a mixture of the massive workload and my everyday interaction with Chinese people has helped my Chinese improve.
It is through simple conversations with Steve that I begin to appreciate my Chinese and how much it has improved. While Steve and I don’t know each other on a personal level, he still manages to cheer me on everyday. He always cracks jokes, whether it’s at 7 am when I’m heading out or at 1 am when I’m coming back from campus.
My genius loci is located in the backstreets of Shanghai. It is a place, a food and a man (or two). The 串儿 (chuanr) man. Chuanr is grilled skewers which originate from Xinjiang Province, west of China. After 10 at night, by the entrance of a small Chinese community located just behind our dorm, two men travel by moped to set up a grill. With just a large metal grill, a cart for the foods and several plastic trays, a food truck and social center is set up. Ready to brave the cold, drunk customers, endless smell of delicious smoke, and, now, increasing demand, these two men display their selection of foods on their cart: different types of mushrooms, meats, breads, lettuce, asparagus, fish and unidentifiable grub. It is one of the few authentic glimpses into authentic local life I am privy to.
A small community feeds off the skewers. Young couples find themselves sitting around small plastic tables after their dates. Old friends will share beers and baijiu while enjoying several skewers. Sometimes mothers will buy them for their whining children on their way home. The customers are many and diverse. By 10pm, the streets are typically quiet; there is a peaceful ambience. The chuanr vendors usually stay out until around 2am (though they also sometimes say open longer as I have enjoyed chuanr at 3am on weekends too).
To pick your food, you don’t point at or order the skewers you want. You pick up the skewers from the cart, whether it’s one or ten and place them into a tray. Each type of food is in its own tray; mushrooms groups together, chicken grouped together, and so on. Admittedly, I was afraid to eat the meats the first few times I ventured to the skewer cart as the meats just sit in a plastic tray the entire night but I’ve been eating a lot recently and seem to be ok!
The chuanr man then strategically places the skewers on the grill along with other customers’ on sections of the grill with appropriate flame intensity. The vegetables typically take the longest to cool and therefore are put towards the center where the charcoals burn most intensely. Once the skewers are halfway cooked, the man brushes the foods with a salty and spicy sauce. Upon competition, the man picks up the skewers and hands them to each customer. This might not sounds like a special feat, however, even when there are a lot of customs and a lot of skewers on the grill and the skewers are placed in their strategic locations, this man manages to remember which skewer which customers picked.
Getting chuanr is not just to fulfill my appetite. It has become a social activity, as the chuan sellers and the regulars now recognize me as the French guy. They are unafraid to ask a lot of questions (a welcoming change from other individuals who insist of responding to me in broken English). Overall, the skewer cart is a ‘back-door experience’ that I thoroughly enjoy.