I feel like I say it in every blog post I’ve done, but this semester abroad in Shanghai has been a truly unique experience. It really is a completely different place than any I have ever visited or lived. While I have been to several foreign countries and experienced different cultures before, none have been so inherently different from what I am accustomed to. I admit that I spent a majority of my time here either at the campus or at our dorms, but the times that I ventured out of these two bubbles I was immediately thrust into a different world. Shanghai and China in general has a steep learning curve, and requires a good amount of self-confidence and bit of courage to successfully conquer. One must be perceptive and willing to follow their intuition, and not be afraid to try new things or appear a bit silly attempting to communicate with the locals.
The biggest challenge by far was the language barrier. I have never excelled at learning new languages, and working up the nerve to attempt to converse with native speakers was always difficult. Before I had only visited places where either most people spoke English or I was in a tourist-focused location where people knew at least basic English. As I learned very quickly when I got here, this does not hold true in China, even in a metropolitan city such as Shanghai. Very few people speak English, and thus learning to converse in Mandarin was an absolute necessity. Despite the intense workload and tremendous stress, the Practical Chinese course that we have to take has done a pretty good job teaching me basic conversational Mandarin. Throughout the semester, I have had a good amount of awkward conversations with locals, some of which devolved into me just pointing and making gestures. But the handful of times when I have been able to successfully understand what people say and respond correctly have been incredibly satisfying.
Living in and learning about China has completely changed my understanding of the country. When I came to China, my preconceptions had been shaped predominantly by Western viewpoints of China, which often painted the nation in less than favorable light. I learned overtime that China is much different than what I had been led to believe. While censorship exists and the government is authoritarian, the country is not at all a bad place to live. People enjoy a good amount of freedom, and most people don’t seem to mind not having a democracy. While the country has its share of political and social issues to work through, it is still a modern country with a successful, albeit different, way of doing things.
For all the challenges that this semester has presented, it has become one of the most personally rewarding experiences I have had. I have never been so far outside of my comfort zone before, and I have learned just what I am able to accomplish. Shanghai has shown me that I am capable of living abroad in a foreign country and successfully immerse myself in a very different culture. Not many people have this kind of opportunity, especially at such an early part of their lives. I am quite fortunate for having had this experience, and will remember my time abroad in Shanghai as a positive, life-changing experience.
Shanghai, being so different from any other experience I’ve had, took a while to get used to. There are a lot of things that I know now that would surely have enhanced my experience had I understood them when I arrived. There’s something to say for coming into a situation blind and being forced to adapt and learn through trial and error. But sometimes, the blindness makes you miss potentially great experiences or making the most of encounters. That being said, I’d like to offer some tips and advice, in no particular order, that I would have liked to know when I first came to this city.
People spit a lot, and you just have to get used to it. It’s best to not to look at it as unhygienic or disgusting, but as a unique yet fundamental part of people’s lives here.
Lotus, the nearby Chinese grocery store, may seem off-putting. Despite the open bins of meat and lack of usual western food, I would definitely recommend getting your essential groceries there. You can find enough ingredients there to make a nice home cooked meal, which can be a much needed break from the usual chao mein.
Sherpa is every college student’s best friend. While the food pretty good and couldn’t get more convenient, try not to order it too much, as the food can get monotonous and it’ll burn a hole in your wallet.
Spend as little time in Pudong as you can. Across the river is the amazing cosmopolitan city that people think of when they talk about Shanghai. Pudong is new and big, but can be quite dull when compared to the historical and cultural richness of Puxi.
Travel outside of China as much as possible. China is an incredibly large country, and is geographically and culturally diverse. Besides the almost-required trips to Beijing, Xi’an, and a water town, try to make a trip or two to another area. I can personally recommend Inner Mongolia as an adventurous vacation-destination.
Try as many foods as you can at least once. It’s always easy to order a standard fried rice dish when eating out, but Chinese cuisine often masks delicious treats behind slightly-off putting names.
Don’t spend your entire day at the Academic Center. It’s easy to fall into the habit, especially with the class schedule layout that most people seem to have. Go home between classes, or find a place to grab lunch that’s not the school cafeteria. I spend most of my days there, and it can start to feel like I’m back in high school, or worse, in prison.
At times, NYU Shanghai can appear like two separate universities and student bodies operating in the same physical building. Try to cross this proverbial barrier, either by joining a club or an athletic team or taking a portal campus class. Some people I know have become met very nice and interesting people attending the portal campus, and I wish I had made more of an effort to get to know them myself.
Finally, be prepared to spend nearly all of your time on your Chinese language course, regardless of how inclined you are to learning the language as an academic pursuit. Everything from Practical Chinese to Advanced for Native Speakers requires a disproportionate amount of work and effort.
For my first post for this course, I talked about my initial arrival in Shanghai. I capped off my post with a brief account of the first time I looked out my window at the skyline of the city. I was bewildered at the sight, particularly the nearly-finished Shanghai tower spiraling into the clouds. I can still remember the awe that I felt when I saw the city that night.
In the weeks that followed, the view soon lost its sense of bewilderment in my eyes. The once pleasant sight became just the normal view, and it came to be an ordinary display. There were also many occasions when the skyline was not even visible, especially during the day, when the pollution obscures most of the buildings. Like its effect on the air, the pollution dirtied the view and made it less spectacular.
After the first few weeks, I even got in the habit of closing the blinds. My dorm room has a large window that takes up half of one of the walls, stretching all the way across the room. As the workload started to pick up and I spent more nights staying up late doing homework, I began to appreciate sleeping in more, especially on the weekends. The large windows let in considerable amount of light, and I found myself awoken early in the morning by the blinding sun.
For almost two months, the blinds were nearly consistently shut. They were often opened by the cleaning staff when they came to tidy the room, but I would often close them when I returned back to my room. The windows had gone from being lens into a brilliant cityscape to a slight nuisance.
It was only about a week ago, when due to some change in my usual schedule, I had not returned to my dorm until later at night. I prepared one of my typical dinners and brought it into my room to sit at my desk and watch a movie. The blinds had been left open, and when I walked into the room the window caught my eye. It had been a particularly pollution-less day, and the view of the skyline was unobstructed. Perhaps it was the fact that I had been thinking about how my time in Shanghai was winding down, but I felt a glimmer of the same awe that I had initially felt when I first viewed the city.
It dawned on me that I had wasted a significant opportunity. I was living in Shanghai, one of the most interesting and beautiful cities in the world, and I was fortunate enough to be living in a great part of the city with a fantastic view. The cityscape was everything I had looked forward to: neon lights, tall buildings, a cosmopolitan atmosphere. And so I sit here writing this post, the blinds wide open, attempting to enjoy the view while I still can.
Having studied abroad the past three semesters, one of the biggest changes in my life has been how I have acquired food. Before college, I ate the usual school lunches and had either a home cooked meal, or the occasional takeout, for dinner. Even freshman year of college, I rarely prepared a meal for myself, as the required meal plan and the abundance of dining halls made the decision a no-brainer. Once I arrived in London at the start of my sophomore year, the lack of any sort of dining hall and the cost of eating out meant that grocery shopping and cooking meals would become necessary. Fortunately, I’ve come to enjoy cooking a lot, and while I’m no real chef, I’m quite content with the meals I make.
In London, grocery stores were much like those in the US, with very similar food options. Shanghai, on the other hand, is a completely different story. While there are some grocery stores that offer imported western goods, they are not located very close to our dorms and can be quite expensive. My laziness, coupled with penny-pinching nature, has made the grocery store across the street, called Lotus, the only viable option. While delivery in China is very convenient and cheap, the only reasonable choices are Chinese cuisine, which can get mundane after a while. That being the case, I decided from early on in the semester that I would brave the Chinese supermarket and attempt to acquire my groceries there.
Lotus can be very intimidating, even after frequent visits. The meat is left out in open bins, to be poked and prodded by potential customers and butchered into the desired pieces in the middle of the store. Everything is marked in Chinese characters, which can make identifying goods somewhat difficult. And while they may carry items that I think I am familiar with, often times Chinese versions of things are different than what I would expect (I once purchased sweet potatoes that turned out to be purple). The fellow shoppers can be a bit uncompromising at times, cutting in line at checkout if given an inch of room, or awkwardly placing shopping carts and blocking aisles.
While I would like to say that I have become a regular shopper at Lotus due to my mental fortitude and intuition, I owe a lot to the goodwill of the people that work there. While communicating with them at first was difficult, as I began to pick up more words in Chinese, I found them to be extremely helpful. For example, we went there as part as an activity for a Chinese class, and we were told to ask for the locations of several different items. While I initially believed the staff to find this irritating, I was surprised to discover that they were eager to help us out, and soon they were guiding foreign students around the store with a smile on their face.
Even without speaking Chinese, I have encountered several acts of kindness from the people working there. Once I was walking through the store, awkwardly trying to balance several items in my hands as I had forgotten to pick up a cart. An attendant at the produce section noticed this, beckoned me over, and offered me a plastic bag for my things. It is gestures like this that have allowed me successfully navigate Lotus and make a mundane aspect of my schedule a much more enjoyable and comfortable experience.
I have always found smell to be the sense that I associate most strongly with places I’ve been to or experiences I have. I’ve heard that the sense of smell has strong connections with the formation of memories, and in from personal experience I am inclined to agree. When I recall certain past events, the first thing that consciously comes to mind is likely a picture of the event, or the people I was with. Smell may not be the most common associative aspect of a memory, but it has the ability to conjure powerful, deep feelings reminding me of a particular place or thing. When I smell an aroma that I have encountered in the past, I am immediately brought back that moment and have often vivid recollections of the events.
I can consequently understand why the genius loci of a place is often associated with a particular aroma. With the sense of smell offering such a deep connection to the place or thing, I can understand if it’s the closest sensory experience to interacting with the spirit of a place. In Shanghai, among the plethora of different odors, I believe that the scent of Family Mart, and the as a result the place itself, has come to embody the genius loci for me.
When the sliding glass entrance doors open to the convenience store, one is hit with a blast of warm air. The distinct smell of the establishment instantaneously registers, a scent that I can only describe as mix between prepackaged meet and stale bread. The first few times you encounter it, it is as off-putting as my feeble attempt at a description made it sound. But overtime, the smell becomes much more comfortable and less notable, a strangely accurate analogy to Shanghai as a whole.
Much like the first few times in a Family Mart, my first few weeks in this city was characterized by the same sort of discomfort. The culture clash was evident, and the constant spitting, lack of personal space, and perceived frankness of some of the people was as unpleasant as the smell of Family Mart.
Overtime, I began to associate Family Mart with a very different set of feelings. Family Mart is always there for me when I need something quick to drink or a snack, the workers there always greet patrons with a ‘huanying guanglin”, and I’ve more than once found myself capping off a great night outside a Family Mart with friends. All in all, Family Mart has come to mean a place of comfort and everyday good experiences.
I have come to see Shanghai in a very different light than once I first arrived. The original discomfort has been overshadowed by experiences with extremely helpful and kind strangers, incredible sights, and amazing discoveries. I’d like to think that if I ever get a whiff of the Family Mart any time in the future, I will be reminded of the overall positive experience I have had in Shanghai.