Once again I am departing Shanghai. I can’t say however, that my time here has gone by quickly or on the other hand that is has been excruciatingly slow. For once time and perception seem to be in unison for me. After spending a year in London and now this semester in Shanghai I can say an era is ending, no doubt, yet the end of this semester also marks my long awaited return to NYC. It’s definitely a confusing plethora of feelings.
However, I must first mention that I will miss many things about Shanghai. Firstly, the RMB. China’s currency with Mao’s radiant face on it really fit beautifully into my wallet. Most importantly, though, it embodies the incredible amount of things you could get with just a little. I think if I really wanted to (and didn’t have a girlfriend) I could have lived for about $5 a day. I will definitely miss how cheap things are here from $100 tailored suits to long cab rides that cost about 6 bucks. Secondly, I will miss the food. I think right now since it has been so readily available and necessary for the last 4 or 5 months I can’t really enjoy it with the same poise. Yet, Chinese flavors are incredible and they will be dearly missed and sought for in NYC’s own China Town. Thirdly, and I think most tellingly, I will miss the disorder. NYC & London are quite orderly cities heavily contained and controlled- wether one wants to admit it or not. Shanghai and China in general, although heavily controlled in many ways, always have a wild card waiting to appear. It can range from a random child pooping in the street or an overstressed moped in an illegal are to random acts of ‘tuhao’ such as a parade of gold Ferraris celebrating a wedding. This aspect of China always kept things exciting.
This will be the second time I dedicate a brief moment to put in writing my concluding thoughts about a study away experience. Last year, while studying away in London I had the opportunity to take this course. I have found the act of sitting down, detaching myself from the hassles of everyday life and reflecting on my time here incredibly illuminating. Having done the course before, I can really see and compare my experiences here and in London. These three semesters abroad have massively influenced me as a person and shaped my views on life. I can sometimes be critical about NYU in some regards but I think the chance we get to go all over the world is really invaluable. This class has definitely contributed to my appreciation of my seemingly menial daily tasks. I have realized that sometimes there is a deeper meaning to coming into a foreign country and settle even if it’s for a short semester.
While writing the last paragraph I realize perhaps time and perception are not in unison for me, as this little reflexion has made me realize just how quickly everything happened and my departure comes closer and closer. Moments like these truly show how much of a human construction the concept of time is. Sitting down, reflecting and writing this, my final post, is the best I will get at measuring my semesters abroad. I have learned a lot through these exercises and definitely plan on continuing on detaching myself of the situations and cherish the little things, even if they are an incontinent toddler. For now however, I say Zaijian Shanghai and Zaijian to my reader(s).
NYU Shanghai is a tricky place to recommend. I’ve had a lot of fun here, the building is nice and most of my professors are quite interesting. However, that definitely does not tell the full picture. As with many things here in China, it’s much more complicated that what it seems.
I am part of the first batch of students at NYU Shanghai’s brand new campus in Pudong. Before we arrived the students shared a campus and dorms at East China Normal University in Puxi. From what I have heard they had it both better and worse in diverse areas. While they did not have their own facilities, being in Puxi provided a lot of advantages as it’s closer to the real Shanghai were all the bars and restaurants are in addition to most historical sites. I will leave it up to you if proximity to fun things matters more than having a nicer campus. Study Away students suffered a lot just a couple weeks before getting to Shanghai as our accommodations were changed three times. To add insult to injury, every person studying abroad was initially promised a single and with the sudden changes these were made into doubles. It was a rough start to say the least. However, NYU’s own campus is said to be ready for next year, so incoming students will hopefully be able to reap the benefits. Having said that, NYU Shanghai is still prepubescent and in like many of us at that stage is still trying to figure itself out. If they take our comments and critiques into consideration when designing a plan for next year, this will definitely help them improve and reach that pubescent stage they are probably longing for.
As for China and Shanghai, this short summary will definitely not encompass all of the tips necessary to survive and thrive here. I will thus only provide my reader with a phrase, a mantra if you will, to keep present while studying abroad or living here: bite before you are bitten. This is by no means meant in a negative way, as I have said before this has been an incredible experience, I encourage everyone to come experience China and see it develop on a day to day basis. I just likewise encourage you to keep in mind that in many ways this is the wild west (east?), especially if you come from an American perspective. The Chinese have been historically wronged by foreigners from the British to the Japanese to the French. Most of them thus have a predisposed suspicion for their intentions and in an effort to qualm any attempts of wrongdoing, will undoubtedly bite first (I know this is an unfair generalization but it is something that has been present in my experience abroad and in many of my friends’). This predisposition is primarily expressed when bargaining and negotiating but will certainly take different forms. As Machiavellian as it may sound, I have found this mantra useful in my daily interactions. I think as a foreigner one can have a great time in China and particularly in Shanghai, however is crucial to understand and respect the cultural differences between our cultures.
Coming to Shanghai was a big deal for me for a couple of reasons. One of the most important ones was that I would spend the beginning of my junior year here. Junior year is seen as a critical time for when you are in high school going into college and now for when you are entering the real world from college, a much larger step.
Let me preface this little rant by saying that I love my degree and my school. I am currently in the Business and Political Economy (BPE) in Stern and I am very thankful for my high school senior-self to have made the decision to enroll in the program. I always knew I wanted to come to NYU, and I know everyone says this but it’s actually true. I made the executive decision one day as 14 year old me was walking in the lower east side marveled by its coolness and saw an NYU flag. Shortly thereafter I saw these hip and beautiful girls coming out of the building. It was right then and there that I put the goal in my future, but I digress. Initially as a freshman I thought I was the best, as many other freshman do. I immediately felt this self-adoration present in many Sternies and I decided to embrace it to further feed my unworldly ego. However, as sophomore year came around and I left New York to go to London this slowly started to fade away. Notions of direction then started settling in my psyche. Sure I am happy with my program and the people but what the hell am I going to do with it? As a new program (started in 2009) there is little evidence of what field exactly BPE appeals to. It seamed to me that Management Consulting was the best manifestation of both my degree and my strengths. So much so in fact that I decided to take a track in the discipline within Stern. As part of the track I signed up for a series of classes throughout my sophomore year and finally into my junior spring in Shanghai, liking them but never really loving them.
So there I was at the beginning of the year in this class required for my track with some ‘bro-ey’ professor. The first couple of classes were slow and uninteresting but as the add/drop deadline passed I convinced myself it would get better. Half way through the semester I found myself going into the classroom with dreading agony about having to sit through this class for three hours. It then hit me, I don’t really like any of this and never really have. I had always just seen it in the wrong light as a safety net almost instead of something I am truly passionate about and enjoy. This realization happened exactly two days before the deadline to sign up for spring classes so I took it as a signal and decidedly dropped the track arguably wasting the time, money and energy put into it- and yet it just feels right.
So here am I now. Again I find myself lost, having little existential crisis by the hour and with no real plan for my life after NYU. Yet a large part of me is incredibly happy. I feel no longer restrained and wish to embrace this experience to truly explore myself and what I like. I just hope worker-me is just as thankful as college-me is to high school-me.
Traveling is indeed a brutality, as Cesare Pavese observed, and even more so in China. As a ‘Westerner’ coming into this country without much knowledge of customs and culture, this brutality is quite present in my day-to-day life. From how people speak to me to their mannerism and their behavior, I have definitely become frustrated a couple times and at the same time have probably frustrated a bunch of people. One would expect that Shanghai, a city that grew exponentially due to its appeal for foreigners, would tell a different story. Yet China is China and I now know it was foolish of me to expect otherwise.
However, the whole picture is not so grim. Even though it would take years for me and a Chinese person to fully understand each other from a verbal, social and cultural standpoint; I have sought comfort in the little-perhaps menial- interactions of my daily routine. I can’t say I have one particular person that brings me solace in the heavenly kingdom but rather I have several little sparks of ease and tranquility.
American cards are almost never accepted in China. Perhaps a bit more in Shanghai but unless you are in really touristy areas, nothing is guaranteed. Around campus, the only place that accepts non-Chinese cards is Starbucks. Not even the cafe at NYU Shanghai accepts American credit cards. When I’m out of cash I must thus recur to Starbucks. Chinese employees there are encouraged to choose a ‘Western’ name to put on their name tag, which lead to an intriguing variety of names like Horse, Cold and Shadow. However, recently a new employee arrived by the name of Flora. Full disclosure before Flora’s arrival my favorite was Shadow. However, Flora’s shy yet welcoming smile when asking me what size changed that very quickly. Employees there recognize me, as well as many other caffeine deprived NYU students, but none had made a tacit form of recognition until Flora. I came in listening to music in a pretty good mood. As I saw there was no line I ventured straight to the cashier and she said to me: “Hokkaido Sandwich?” The moment was by no means life-changing for either of us, yet it just made my day so much better.
A couple days later, the same thing happened with the NYU Shanghai front desk lady. I always forget my ID (in fact it is currently missing), which is a shame since you have to tap in to go into the academic building. Procedure dictates that in such cases one has to perform the tedious task of signing in with date, time, full name and net id. Once this is done you have to be verified via the computer. That is, if you are not me. Front desk lady and I have a tacit agreement in which I provide my smile and good energy and she touches the button opening the gates to academia. She even jokes with me and says : “Again no key?”. As silly as it may be she, along with Flora and many others, are the strangers that give me comfort in this strange land.
In a country like China, it is beyond impossible to avoid the Genius Loci. In fact, within minutes of arriving in the country, the Chinese Genius Loci will slap you right across the face. Before delving into what expressions of Chinese Genius Loci make it so evident and strong, we must uncover the origin of it all: Confucius.
There can be no real discussion of Chinese culture without mentioning Confucius. His ideas have shaped how people act and conduct business since the Han Dynasty in the 200’s BC to this very day. In its simplest form, Confucianism is about relationships. There are six different types, with a corresponding six different types of entities. In each one of these relationships there is a superior and a subordinate, who must abide by their role-and its responsibilities- with no exception. An example of the relationship is a father-son one, where the father is the superior and must provide for his son and the son is the subordinate and must obey his father. The five other Confucian relationships are similar and are supposed to encompass all possible human interactions.
Modern Chinese people have derived their high regard for harmonious relationships from this ideology. Similarly, mannerisms, eating and architecture have veered towards Confucianism over centuries of state-led ethical indoctrination. The result you see today is a people who value relationships over other aspects of humanity. An illustrating example is the video in which a young child is hit repeatedly by mopeds and trucks while onlookers keep to themselves. Since there was no preceding relationship with the child, witnesses have no moral obligation to it. This same attitude is maintained in most day-to-day interactions; queues, driving around and talking to servers-which brings me to food.
Eating is one of the most important aspects of Chinese life. I would go as far as to say that most decisions in China are made at a circular table with at least two bowls of rice and some Baijiu (local alcohol) as witness. There is a clear procedure for eating but the procedure before you even get to the table is most important. Usually, the host will sit facing the door and will have the most important guest to his right. The importance of the guest will be determined thereafter by his proximity to the host’s right side. After the seating arrangements are decided the cold dishes come out, followed by the hot dishes and finally by the soup. Throughout the meal heavy consumption of Baijiu is not only welcome but expected. In fact, one must make a standing toast at the beginning of the meal, which sets the tone for the following 37 toasts until the end of the meal.
Another key aspect of Chinese Genius Loci is smell. China has showed me that (some) hygiene is indeed a social construct. Similarly, private space is also a social construct. The combination of the two brings about some intense experiences particularly when taking public transportation. As if that weren’t enough, it’s quite normal for young kids to take poops in the streets. It’s also quite common for people to spit heavily and pee on the street. All these factors combined make the Chinese Genius Loci quite pungent and perhaps not what Confucius intended thousands of years ago.