As I begin to pack my things and stress about finals I’ve come to realize that my experience here in Shanghai has been one of very high ups and very low downs. I’ve been the happiest I’ve been and the most sad, however it’s all taken place so far away from home. The comforts of home were unavailable to me and it really allowed me to grow attached to the city. Now that I’m about to leave, I’ve realized that I’ve been fortunate enough to come to lean on the city for support. The familiar faces I’ve come to love, the smells I now am used to all come together and have created this twisted and beautiful image of a city in my mind.
Leaving Shanghai is very different than leaving London. I was in London for a year, however I knew the next step in my adventure at New York University was to head off to Shanghai, China. There was something really reassuring about knowing that I was headed off an another adventure, being able to push back responsibilities, job searching and apartment buying for one more semester. However, now that I’m headed back to New York, instead of leaving with a sense of sadness but excitement, I’m filled with a bit of longing. I’m not exactly longing solely for Shanghai (although that is a major part of it), I’m longing for the feeling of being an adventurer. I have loved traveling, being on my own and testing my limits all by myself.
Going back to the city means striving to piece together some sense of stability. While I’ve been here I’ve grown accustomed to trying to put together some sense of a norm, however I’ve known that nothing would exactly feel “normal” because I’d be away from home and away from New York. Now, I’m struggling to come to terms with settling down, it’s as though I’m being put into a cage, even though that cage is New York City.
Have I become to adventurous for my own good? I have achieved all my goals over the semester; I’ve learned a bit of Chinese, made new friends and felt like I could begin to call another city home. These are things I find very important when living abroad, it’s something I consider a must. However, now I’m searching for something more. Perhaps my check list wasn’t enough, or maybe because I’ve completed these things I’m yearning for something more.
I do however, get to go back with a reinstated sense of excitement that perhaps others don’t have. I have the butterflies that I had as a freshmen, it feels as though I’m moving to New York City for the first time again and that to me is the sense of adventure that I’m going to hang on to. While Shanghai has caused me many, many problems and I didn’t exactly love NYU Shanghai, I am sad to leave. It’s a community that I know I won’t have when I am back in the city and it’s sad to leave.
If you’re going to move to Shanghai, let me tell you now that you’re going to need a lot more than just these tips. It’s really an adjustment and while it’s fun and exciting, it requires a sense of dedication; you’ve got to really want it for it to be worth the hardships. I’ve created a bit of a tip list for those of you who are either coming here next semester or visiting in the near future.
1. My first tip is crucial. I mean it. Stay in PuXi, not PuDong. The NYU campus is in PuDong and it’s really quite boring. It’s considered to be the “new” Shanghai and it definitely is but unfortunately it seems that China has really gone all the way with the phrase, “out with the old and in with the new”. PuDong is extremely sterile and lacks any sort of history, night life or really anything good for that matter.
2. Eat Chinese food. Living here as an expat it is easy to get Western food. There is something called “Sherpa” and they deliver almost everything from CPK to Pizza Express. It’s a mix of food, however it’s nothing authentic. I think experiencing a culture really means to go all out and why not try the weird street food, the delicacies and the cult favorites?
3. Don’t let being a foreigner get you down. It’s easy to feel out of place and frustrated, maybe not if you’re just visiting for a short period but definitely if you’ve got some time to spend here. You’ll notice on the subway that people will look at you and your suspicious are probably right, they’re most likely talking about you. This isn’t always a bad thing though, and that’s hard for a lot of people to understand. Many people are just curious about you and where you’re from.
4. If you know any Chinese, or if you’re learning it here, try to speak it! People appreciate even the smallest attempts at speaking Chinese, just as an English speaker would appreciate someone speaking English! In Shanghai, it’s easy to expect that people will speak to you in English but why not practice your skills? Also, people are less likely to overcharge you or rip you off if you speak Chinese. It’s not only a gesture of kindness but also puts you in control.
5. Bargain. If you’re coming here, even for one day, make sure to buy something where you can bargain! It’s such a fun and different part of Chinese culture that it is a must for any foreigner. Instead of in Europe or the States where you can ask for a discount and maybe the stand will give you a dollar off, here it’s an art, it’s apart of the process. The rule of thumb is to ask for 10% of what they originally offer. They will laugh and shrug you off but then you’ve got to take charge! Bargaining is hard but practice makes perfect!
I was in Shanghai in mid August, it was hot and it smelled rank. The people would push and pull you through their crowds; from the moment you got off that plane you knew you did not belong and that you weren’t one of them. It takes one hundred percent of your attention not to get hit by a bus or motorbike. You’re hot and sweat drips down your face and your back and behind your neck. First travel epiphany: never underestimate the chaos of a place.
In September you begin to find routine. Alarms get set and stay set at eight in the morning and you’re on a bus day in and day out by nine. You’ll memorize Chinese pinyin, attempt to use it to waiters and passerbys but you’ll never get it quite right. You’ll have a very divided day, half of which will be spent at school putting in hours of work, the other spent at home trying to do anything that promotes mindlessness. Second travel epiphany: cherish the ability to fall into a routine, not only will it give you a sense of stability, but it will also ease your mind into feeling like it’s home.
By October you’ll be tired, the weather will be a weird mix of cool breezes and sweaty mornings. Traveling is on everyone’s mind and the thought, “I’ve got to get out of here” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. It’s impossible not to nap, the humming of traffic will lull you to sleep and you’ll be excited when you recognize the difference between the honking of a truck and that of a bicycle. You’ll know your way around and begin to converse with cab drivers, telling them where to turn left and where to turn right. Travel epiphany number three: don’t encourage yourself to want to escape, it’ll only make it harder to get used to a new place.
November brings with it a chill and I’ve noticed those around me start to talk about home. You’ll dream of comfort food and take such solace in morning cups of Starbucks coffee. Those around you that haven’t already explored will be itching to jet off and yet you’re still in such a foreign and wild place in everyone else’s minds. Shanghai is home now, we all talk of how we’ll miss it terribly followed up by, “what’s the first thing you’ll do when you’re home?” Travel epiphany number four: traveling cannot be designated by an allotted break, it’s unnatural and rushes an experience worth having.
I’ve gathered these epiphanies by living through these experiences abroad. I’ve currently had a really hard time here in Shanghai with so much negativity coming from back home. I’m constantly feeling this push and pull of wanting to go home and yearning to make Shanghai my new one. I’ve been very sad lately but this has made my happier times that much more happy. Perhaps it’s important to feel these intense emotions when living abroad as it makes the experiences that much more real and the memories much more tactile.
I’m rarely comforted by strangers here in Shanghai. I think that it’s important that I note this upfront. I’m always gawked at, photographed and often laughed at. I’m an obvious foreigner, the dud in the group crossing the street. I’m very self conscious here and find it sometimes frustrating to simply be so culturally and physically different.
With that said, I find comfort in those who do monotonous jobs, ie the maid who comes and wakes me up every Saturday morning, or Steve, the man who works at the front desk of our dorm here, The Grand Pujian. It’s the faces behind the counters that I look forward to seeing and that give me solace, even if we exchange little to no words.
I think moving to Shanghai has been very intimidating. I’m used to traveling and living abroad, however I’m not used to being called a foreigner. Having lived in London for the whole of last year, the most “different” I ever felt was that I was an American and lacked a posh accent. The difference between feeling like an American and feeling like a foreigner is notable though. I find that people watch not only what I do here but how I do these things. It’s as if I’m something to observe, especially if I am alone.
I think this is why I take comfort in the faces of those who hand me my coffee at Starbucks each morning or the women who wipe down the elevator doors at school. I’ve also taken comfort in my Chinese teacher who I see each and every morning at nine forty five am. While I get frustrated with high-school like ways of my Chinese class, I can always count on her for a smiling and friendly face. She always knows what I’m up to, how I’m feeling and what I did the previous weekends.
Strangers here really do intimidate me and I think that is something very important to point out in this post. I always feel watched, like I’m doing something wrong or don’t have the right means to complete my tasks. I don’t like feeling this way and it’s the first time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable alone on a subway or in a store. This isn’t to say I feel unsafe, that too is a very important thing to note. My lack of comfortableness does not stem from strangers but rather from a bit of self consciousness.
This is why I relish in the time spent with those who don’t judge me, those whose job it is to simply help me out, with or without a smile. I think I’ve always taken these people for granted. Perhaps I’ve always assumed that the people who can give you comfort are all around you, but this is not the case here. I perhaps have been naive to think that the people who say nothing at all can say so much.
The spirit of Shanghai isn’t one that is hard to find. It’s in the steam that rises from the xiaolongbao, the whistling of the old men in the street and in the swishes of the flags workers wave in the subway stations. Shanghai has a spirit, it’s undeniable and it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever come to know before.
I’ve come to love the smells around me, not on account of their scent but because they set me in a very specific place at a very specific time. I know when I’m near a Family Mart because it smells of cooking oils and fish sticks. I know when I am near a bus station because they tend to leave the worst exhaust smells after pulling away. When you’re near a big restaurant you can hear the clinking of chopsticks and dish ware even from outside.
I’ve always been fond of perfumery and because of this I find myself very particular when it comes to scent. I’m always trying to dissect what I’m smelling, trying to pull it apart piece by piece.
Smells are a part of any big city, that’s no doubt. However, Shanghai has a reek like an old perfume. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s got a mixture of everything from bottom notes of flowers and fruits to top notes of old people’s clothes and stale cooking oils. Different parts of the city have different smells as well. When you’re in PuDong you smell less street food and more of those interior smells; those ones that smell like a mix of cleaning products and starbucks’. PuXi smells like the meals of those sitting in front of their shops, like hardware stores and hairy crab merchants.
To try and break down a scent isn’t something that is easy to do, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the smells that comprise the greater end result. I think that’s why Shanghai has been such an adventure when it comes to its smells. It is in these that I have found Shanghai’s spirit.
Being that there is such a major barrier between me and being able to fully understand China, I am happy and have found solace in the fact that I am able to digest at least some part of it. I feel that often times tourists have a hard time feeling as though they “get” China and I think this is because so often people search for ways to feel connected to a place that are too complex to understand right away. To truly find the spirit of the city, I think people should try to dissect in by using a means they know. For me it’s scent, for another it might be taste or color. Of course, the spirit of Shanghai isn’t limited to scent for me, as these smells are referencing other things but they’re easily categorized into the over-riding scent that is Shanghai.
For this second reading assignment I read the book “The Dog” by Jack Livings. It’s a book of short stories that deal with the modernizing of China in different manners.
My favorite story and the one I found most relevant to my time here was the namesake of the book, The Dog. Summarizing briefly, it’s about a couple who live in Beijing, Li Yan, the wife, is from there and her husband Chen Wei is from the country side. The story takes place in the 1950’s and gambling has just been made illegal, which angers them because Chen Wei has just gone halves on a racing dog with his cousin. They have had a bit of extra money because the dog has been winning but now that it’s illegal they need to deal with it. They decide they are going to eat the dog so they travel all the way up to the country side to see Chen Wei’s family. Eventually, Li Yan stands up for the dog, not wanting to see it killed and has to go to the market to buy food for the family to cook dinner to replace the lost meal. She is a notoriously bad cook, bargains poorly with the woman in the market and then everyone is rude to her.
With that summary having been a bit necessary for context, I’ll move on to tell you why I was so thrilled with these short stories. When reading about China, I feel Westerners often miss out on a lot of the innuendos or small jokes, especially if they’re about foreigners. For example, Beijing and Shanghai are considered to be posh cities, and especially in the 1940s and 50’s, they were booming and very international hubs, Shanghai especially. There is a part in the short when Chen Wei’s brother makes a joke about the dinner Li Yan is about to cook by saying, “Maybe you need a fork to eat Beijing cuisine?” It’s said in a negative tone and pushes this distaste the Chinese had for foreigners at the time.
Another example of something I feel I may have not even understood before I came here was when the men were making a decision about what to do regarding the dog. Again, here in Shanghai I’ve been taking a history course and have been going on many sight seeing tours, trying to get a really in-depth understanding of not only China’s history but it’s many different cultures. What I have found is that for a long-time and even still today, foreigners are seen as a target. They’re easy to trick, easy to overcharge and easy to blame one’s problems on. In this scene I just mentioned, Li Yan’s father makes a bit of a sarcastic comment when he suggests, “Everyone on embassy row has a dog,” she said. “Sell it to a foreigner.”
I think that this series of shorts is extremely interesting if you’re able to pick up on the cultural nuances that are strewn across almost every page. Livings is actually a European, who wrote the book after having spent a significant time in China. I think this makes a lot of sense because it really does highlight a lot of the animosity that we as foreigners feel and often hear about. Reading these shorts and being able to actually laugh along with the jokes made me stop and think about how many things I have read and just not really understood from other cultures. If you’re in Shanghai, I would recommend you read this book. More importantly, I think it’s really crucial to try to read books that deal with foreigners and how they’re accepted when you’re traveling abroad. Knowing the history of a country’s ideology about “you” is really interesting and puts your category of “ex-pat” into perspective.
Shanghai has been getting me down lately. I’ve hurt my leg, it’s been non-stop raining and my workload never seems to lighten up. I want to go outside and explore but it seems impossible as no one wants to accompany me and, well, I can’t exactly walk without a limp. I laugh at this now, because I have come to terms with the fact that I have done so much already having only been in Shanghai for three months. When I do have time to roam I am always surprised by just how many great good places I have discovered.
Firstly, these places manifest themselves in the form of food shops. There is this questionable (at best) looking dumpling place called “Yang’s” and it’s only in weird malls or near train stations but let me tell you, these are some of the best fried dumplings I have ever had. There is also a bubble tea chain here called “Coco” and it’s literally a stand that makes the best boba. There are many of these little gems hidden all around Shanghai just waiting for people to come and explore them. They are the places locals don’t even bat an eye at but for someone who see’s absolutely every experience as a new and exciting one, they are on my radar as I am constantly on the hunt.
There are also nicer “great good places” when it comes to food. Clearly, food is extremely important to me and it’s really the main thing I like to experience when trying to indulge myself into another culture. Here in Shanghai, there are many amazing restaurants that I’ve either stumbled upon or heard of and had to try. Just last weekend, before it started raining this horrible, probably acid rain, I spent the weekend in PuXi. There I was taken to this amazing, very traditional, Japanese sashimi restaurant, in which the chef would come to your table and prepare your food right in front of you. We got to talking to our sushi chef and he expressed such immense gratitude for our interest in him and his world. He gave us his card and I’ll definitely be seeing him again. Sometimes, it’s not all about the food in the restaurants that gets me so excited/infatuated with a place, it usually includes the people working there.
Besides food, there are many spots to get away from it all. Across from NYU Shanghai there are these little courtyards and these have become somewhat of a safe haven for me. If I’m having a rough day or want a good, long talk with a friend I’ll take them there and grab a coffee. It’s so peaceful and you forget you’re in the middle of Shanghai. There is also a park near our dorm and when it’s not raining (or also not too hot) we’ll go there and play badminton. Great good places are important to me because they symbolize the chance to get away from the hectic qualities of your surroundings, but they still very much embody the place that you are in.
I’ll be sad to leave Shanghai mostly because of these great good places. They become the makeup of your personal map of the city. These places engrain themselves into your memories because they facilitate long talks, good cries and hurtful laughter.
Seeing that I am an art major, it’s only fitting that my favorite part of traveling would be discovering the art scene in each city I go to. Here in Shanghai, there is a constant theme of dealing with China’s modernity. I recently traveling to the Yuz Museum, a museum made up of a private collection all owned by a wealthy Chinese man. The work he has collected deals with the themes of the loss of Chinese tradition, the stigmatism China faces and how it’s become more and more “Westernized”.
My favorite piece I saw at the museum was Yang Zhenzhong’s “Massage Chairs: Then Edison’s Direct Current was surrendered to the Alternating Current”. I wanted to detail this piece in particular because it really made me think of deBouton’s excitement when traveling to Paris to see new art. This is the exact same feeling I had when going museum hopping and stumbling upon this gem. Yang Zhenzhong’s 2003 “Massage Chairs: Then Edison’s Direct Current was surrendered to the Alternating Current” is a sculpture/media work utilizing the mechanical and inhuman nature of the unpadded massage chair and it’s soundscape to evoke an unsettling and eerie viewer response. The artwork itself consists of six “chairs”, which at first glance appear to be pieces of questionably identifiable machinery. However, there are two chairs in specific that give way to their truer identity, because they retain their general shape more so than the other four. The chairs are gutted, giving way to their inside machinery: belts, cogs and pulleys, and various moving shapes meant to knead at the back. The chairs are are metal, there is nothing comfortable about them. They appear bulky and aggressive, frantically moving to achieve no goal. Some of the chairs have portions of their cushions still attached, again giving way to their identity.
Even upon realizing that this piece is a series of chairs, it’s difficult to detect they’re massage chairs until you begin to recognize and internalize the feeling that these robotic apparatus’ inflict physically. The piece requires a certain amount of physical recollection to relay to the viewer what exactly it is they are looking at. Each chair has their own way about them; they’re internal structuring is different, they each make different sounds and they’re moving parts are each extremely individualized. Every chair presents the viewer with a different possibility, a different form of massage to recognize.
The chairs are placed upon pedestals, raising them off the ground to a height just shorter than their average viewer. They are inherently pieces of metal; machines that resemble electric chairs in both appearance as well as the weight they carry within the greater gallery space. Without their padding and upholstery they are mere skeletons of comfort, taking a man-made replacement for human interaction and turning it on it’s audience.
The chairs remain in operation, which furthers the viewers confusion and discomfort even more due to the soundscape the machines create. The timely manner of their individual massages creates a rhythmic phenomenon, emitting a rather inhuman mixture of clicks, clacks, groans, whispers and hums. The pulsation of sounds mirrors the pummeling of the palpation contraptions and echoes loudly into the greater gallery space pulling those towards the sculpture only to be looked upon uncomfortably and with a weary eye.
This sense of perturbation does not simply arise from the peeled apart nature of the massage chairs, nor does it stem from the pulsating hums and groans. The overwhelming resemblance these chairs have to electric chairs leaves viewers feeling un-welcomed and out of place. It aims to push you into a man-made dangerous and distorted situation. This imitates the dichotomy that exists within the stripped down nature of the massage chairs. Artist Yang Zhenzhong took away all the elements of comfort and left his audience with a skeleton of an object they themselves created, which is meant to provide and create pleasure and relaxation.
The artwork upholds the greater theme of the Yuz Museum’s collection by making a larger statement pertaining to the changing nature of China. It comments both on the loss of traditions, in this case Chinese massage, and the move towards a more sterile and mechanical environment. The artwork, comprised of six stripped massage chairs, forces viewers to question the direction of China’s growth and how it is handling bringing it’s rich history into the present.
Living in China forces you to really re-think what you regard as authentic or inauthentic. Whether it’s the fake designer belts adorned by every waiter, re-created ancient porcelain vases or the debate regarding “authentic” mainland china and “inauthentic” Hong Kong and Taiwan, you’re forced to throw out whatever pre-conceived notions of authenticity you came here with. That being said, this push and pull between the two also shows up in different cities.
As we get deeper and deeper into our studies, this idea comes up quite a bit: is such thing as an authentic location here in China. Is there a place that still upholds an authentic, or truer China. Since I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize that there is no one true China. China is so large that it’s hard for them each to develop and evolve in the same ways. What many people would call in-authentic, thrives here in Shanghai and has been a major part of it’s economic, political and social growth.
Today, Shanghai is a major tourist destination for both Chinese and foreigners. However, this is not something new. Shanghai has been a major vessel for how China has reached out to the rest of the world through trade, tourism as well as foreign “invasion”. In MacCannell talks quite a bit about authenticity in “tourist settings”, and Shanghai is definitely that. He makes a point to say, “not all tourists have regarded back regions as socially important places” (pg. 593), however I’d like to say that Shanghai is absolutely an exception to that rule. Here in Shanghai, the “back regions” exclude PuDong, where NYU is, because that is filled with entirely new buildings. What it does include is PuXi, where at one point in time all the foreigners lived. When the British came, they settled in the “British Territory”, where they had their own form of government and would police themselves. The French came and created the French Concession, again lawing themselves. These were all built outside of the traditional Shanghai (the city inside the circular wall), and were very much seperate from the “Chinese”, perhaps “authentic” Shanghai.
Nowadays, most tourists prefer to stay in PuXi, which is a double edged sword of irony in that China has now accepted these once outskirts of Shanghai has proper Shanghai. It also is ironic in that PuXi is now considered to uphold a certain level of authenticity that PuDong, the newer all Chinese built part of Shanghai is said to have lost. So, while I do agree with MacCannell in that most tourists go only to the major sites, eat at critic rated restaurants and stay at Hiltons, Shanghai is a completely backwards city tourists built up the authentic.
This week I finished “Across China on Foot” by Edwin John Dingle. Before I begin my reflection on the work I must say this: read it, it’s an incredible piece of literature and also shows just how important it is to throw yourself out of your comfort zone and experience new things in new ways. With that being said, this book particularly resonated with me because before coming to Shanghai, I spent a year abroad in London at NYU.
Dingle’s piece highlights the British sentiments of China, and while it does go to break many stereotypes and boundaries, it does so (or perhaps I should be saying he does so) in an undeniably British way.
The book itself details his travels of his on-foot journey in which he spent much time in Shanghai, went to Tibet and very rural, river schemed areas and eventually ended up in Burma. He does all of this in 1911, a time when China was going through a major reform and was of particular interest in Britain as they were leasing Hong Kong (to use their port) and also as a novelty exploration space in which Brits could roam around. The book highlights just how many British people there were around China at the time, most of them working as missionaries.
Dingle was a journalist and stated that he set out on this exploration wanting to know more about where China was coming from with their reform and perhaps more importantly, where it was going. The beginning of the book starts out with,
“IN GRATEFUL ESTEEM…DURING MY TRAVELS IN INTERIOR CHINA I ONCE LAY AT THE POINT OF DEATH. FOR THEIR UNREMITTING KINDNESS DURING A LONG ILLNESS, I NOW AFFECTIONATELY INSCRIBE THIS VOLUME TO MY FRIENDS, MR. AND MRS. A. EVANS, OF TONG-CH’UAN-FU, YÜN-NAN, SOUTH-WEST CHINA, TO WHOSE DEVOTED NURSING AND UNTIRING CARE I OWE MY LIFE.” (1)
One would think a British journalist would be very pro Western ideals and not as fair sided when it came to Chinese heritage and cultural norms, but there were many instances when he made note that perhaps the British were in the wrong. He often called his kinsmen “British troublers” or “European paraders”. I found it interesting that at times he went against what we’d expect of him as an Englishman and was able to recognize that perhaps his country wasn’t exactly always in the right.
However, his tone is undeniably British, and it’s something I loved about reading his travel recordings. If something was a bit too intense he’d write how “he didn’t want to print it” or that an event happened that “definitely wasn’t suitable for the ladies”. Lines like these really brought me back to my time in England.
What I think is important to get out of reading a book like this is two fold: I think it shows the real importance of seeing new sights and exploring new territories. I think the biggest thing to take away from reading this though, it that one needs to explore these lands in new ways. It’s so important to get into the rhythm of the locals, to see things through their eyes and that is exactly what Dingle did. He systematically tackled all of China and as you read each chapter you are able to get a sense for that region and the norms of it. Dingle brought with him the spirit of the British adventurer with the mindset of a concerned journalist.
Overall, this book collided the two worlds I’ve been living in and really made me want to go and run all around China. Dingle would always accredit those who helped him and made sure to say thank you to them, even in his book. He got very sick and was staying with a host family and throughout the whole passage continuously said, I need to thank them, I owe my life and my health to them.
I feel as though I’m rambling, and perhaps I am but I think it’s due to having just read quite an exciting journal from oh so long ago.
Read this book, really, it’s incredible, and if you’re planning on coming here to China, consider moving around, taking planes trains and of course, walking.
Read this interesting Biography of Dingle here: http://www.mentalphysics.net/about-ding-le-mei/