I am not a Chinese person.
Living in Shanghai is something I haven’t necessarily enjoyed, but I’m glad that I experienced it. I know there will definitely be some things I miss about it — the Family Mart welcome jingle, the insanely cheap street food, the Fabric Market — but for the most part, I’m so glad to be going home.
I’ve been abroad for three semesters now. In this time, I’m accumulated many different homes. If I use the word “home” without the right context, it could mean so many different places. In London, it was either New Jersey or the house I was living in there, and in Shanghai it’s the dorm or New Jersey. These “homes” abroad have always felt temporary, but it’s still sad to know that I will probably never return to the building I’ve been calling home for the past four months.
I feel like I’m just starting to get used to being here in Shanghai. Having been on the same schedule all semester, I’ve finally realized that these are the motions and that as time went on, I was handling them better and moving through them more smoothly. Now, I won’t say getting used to being here is a good thing however, mostly because I think it’s due to complacency rather than enjoyment. NYU Shanghai is still starting out and it’s entirely brand new, so there’s a lot that needs to be learned and implemented before it’s a wonderful campus, but the experiences that NYU Shanghai has given me, whether bad or good, have made me grow as a person and learn how to handle situations better.
The hardest part about living in Shanghai for me was the time difference and the absence of some of my closest friends. After spending a summer in New York with my friends, we decided to study abroad at different sites. Getting used to not seeing them every day was really hard for me, especially since we could only talk to each other early in the mornings or late at night due to the time difference between China and the East Coast. But after I realized that my friends would be waiting for me with open arms when I got back home (New York), I felt better and began to have more fun here in Shanghai.
Knowing that I’ve encountered so many things that most people will never see or experience makes me happy for having come here. I’ve loved having this Art of Travel course guide and diversify my thoughts about Shanghai. This blog has been a great way for me to reflect weekly about why I came and what I experienced. Shanghai changed me as a person as I’m sure any experience in China would do to any person.
PS Even though I’ve complained about taking Practical Chinese so much, I actually know a decent amount of the language, and I’m very proud of myself for pushing through and having learned it.
I’m going to start out this post by telling a story about my morning.
I woke up and called my mom. She seemed happy to hear from me, so I decided to take this opportunity to tell her about the tailor-made suits my friends were all buying, and she asked if I wanted her to send me money for some. I immediately said yes when she realized that I was a Thursday morning for me and I should have been getting ready to go to class.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on the bus right now? Don’t you have to go to class?”
When she asked, I reread the email we had just gotten alerting the student community that the water pumps, which control the heat at our campus, had malfunctioned this morning and they would hopefully be fixed before class started. The sky outside looked foggy, but my China Air Quality app informed me that it was actually a pollution of 177 (measured by the US Consulate as “unhealthy”).
I relayed this information to my mom, and she said that if I didn’t go to school, she wouldn’t pay for my suit that I wanted. So I rolled out of bed, seriously considered wearing pajamas to class, then got dressed, brushed my teeth, and walked out the door to catch the daily shuttle bus.
When my friends and family back home ask me how I’m liking China, I say I like Shanghai but not NYU Shanghai. The workload is too heavy, the bureaucracy is frustrating, and the patronization is infuriating. The cafeteria downstairs has not only “Cafeteria Entrance” and “Cafeteria Exit” signs (trust me, the entrance and exit are apparent), but this morning welcomed a new addition of feet stickers indicating which way you should walk into the cafeteria. FEET STICKERS.
As I’ve described in previous posts, the shuttle bus is an independence crusher. The dorm is just out of walking distance from campus, and even if you do decide to walk, the journey is not pedestrian-friendly (this isn’t NYU Shanghai’s fault – Shanghai in general is not pedestrian-friendly).
NYU Shanghai is a brand new campus and the administration is still trying to figure everything out, so I understand that my classmates and me are essentially guinea pigs. I don’t want to influence anyone to come here, but I also don’t want to influence anyone to stay away. For all I know, this could be an amazing campus in a few semesters once the area around is built up a little bit more and the administration does a lot of fine-tuning.
A major reason why Shanghai is giving me a rough time is because of the language barrier. Since I didn’t know any Chinese before coming here, NYU enrolled me in a mandatory Practical Chinese class for the semester. Learning Chinese has made getting around a lot easier, but learning itself takes so much time. 90% of the work that I’ve done this semester has been for Zhongwen ke (Chinese class). If I were to give one tip that will give you a drastically better experience in Shanghai, it would be to know Chinese before getting here. For places to check out, I definitely recommend the quaint areas of Tianzifang and Xintiandi.
I can’t say I’ve ever had epiphanies as harrowing as Theroux’s, but I have felt many realizations while traveling, even if it’s just little ones. For instance, as an airline miles hoarder, the realization that one of my flights has a flight share code with a Sky Team or One World alliance excites me. It seems like such a first world issue (and it is), but international travel is almost something I’ve gotten used to.
Last year while in London, I traveled to over ten countries in my short time there. I constantly find myself internationally traveling, which is definitely a peak experience of my time in college. However it’s finally gotten to me – traveling to the airport early in the morning to catch a flight to Bangkok warrants more apprehension, and the excitement only kicks in when I step off the plane in a new land. I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t normal, that about 50% of Americans don’t even have a passport, and until very recently, I was one of them.
When I think about how much I travel versus many other people, I always try to take a step back and acknowledge how blessed I am to be in places people dream of going. The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai is right next to the mall, and every time I make my way over to go shopping or to get my nails done, I’m weaving in and out of people trying to take the perfect picture. As a New Yorker, I roll my eyes and move along, occasionally pushing people out of the way. But then it hits me – I can walk by the Pearl Tower every day and not be fazed by it. The same is true when I’m in New York and walk past the Empire State Building. I think why is this line here outside this building?, and then I look up and see the Empire State Building.
Probably the moment where I experienced an epiphany like Theroux’s was a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night. I was sitting in the back of a cab with my boyfriend on our way to the IFC Mall, simply observing the city passing us by. I looked at the Chinese characters written on the signs on the inside of the taxi and pondered what they could mean. I wondered if the taxi driver was literate, or if he was ripping us off. I tried to piece together his life in my head: did he live in a compound with his family? Did he like being a taxi driver? When and what did he do for dinner? I looked out the window behind me and fireworks went off (literal fireworks, that’s China for you). I realized that at the moment, I had everything I wanted. It was almost as if I was in a glass box and I wasn’t in my body anymore, but I was perfectly happy in the back of a dirty Shanghai taxi, surrounded by things I did not understand.
In the Parents’ Guidebook of Raising Children, “telling your children to trust strangers” will definitely not be one of lessons. However, it’s a crucial lesson to know for traveling. In a foreign place, strangers are the only reliable resources you have to get around and really know the city.
When I traveled to Beijing over the National Holiday, my friend and I stayed in an AirBnb in an interesting part of town. The first stranger in Beijing we encountered was our cab driver. I showed the map that our AirBnb host sent me the night before to the cab driver, and he nodded indicating that he would take us there. After about 40 minutes on the highway, we finally turned onto a side road, and I was hopeful that we would be at our AirBnb soon. However, we hit a snag when the road we were supposed to turn down was barely bigger than the actual taxi. At this point, I started to get worried – it was after midnight and we were lost. The cab driver kept turning to the back seat to ask in incomprehensible Chinese if we were going the right way. I remember thinking this is it, my organs are going to get harvested. Luckily, that didn’t happen. The driver stopped the car, pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number on the map. After a few minute conversation, the taxi driver pointed to another side street and told us that was where the AirBnb was. A bit skeptical at first, my friend and I were relieved when we saw our AirBnb host walking down the lane to greet us. We all thanked the cabbie as we paid him for our ride, and followed our host down the lane. Without the trust in the taxi driver, we never would have gotten to where we were going.
The next stranger we encountered was our AirBnb host. He told us his name was Mark and that he would be our point of contact for the trip, and if we needed anything we could ask him. He was tall and wore linen pants, and shuffled in his slippers around the courtyard in our abode for the weekend. Mark was beyond great. I didn’t have any phone service, and Mark helped me top it up (a phrase I still use after acquiring it in London). He also called cars for us, including arranging a private car for a day at the Great Wall. And finally, Mark gave us dining recommendations and even a membership card for a discount. Before we got to Beijing, we didn’t know Mark. By the time we left, we couldn’t imagine our journey without him. After our trip, the lesson of trusting strangers became apparent (especially with the language barrier).
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” My advice: don’t go around taking big whiffs of air in Shanghai. Walking down the street lends itself to many smells of delicious street food, but in about 11 seconds the smell goes away and your nose is confronted with the smell of human excretion on the ground.
When trying to think of the “spirit of Shanghai,” on first glance it can be hard not to say dirty. The Chinese government or Shanghainese businessmen would not be happy to hear that, but the observation is quite blunt. There are two completely different spectrums of Shanghai – there’s the shiny, new Lujiazui with gleaming skyscrapers on one end, and on the other there’s the linoleum-lined Lancun Road. In Lujiazui you can encounter Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Morton’s Steakhouse. If you’re lucky, you might catch a man beating a fish dead on the sidewalk during a walk down Lancun Road. Trying to pick one characteristic to encapsulate both of these experiences is, for lack of a better word, pretty damn difficult. Perhaps the spirit of this place can be described as “juxtaposition.”
The best place that describes this juxtaposition is the wonderful Grand Pujian. The Grand Pooj (term of endearment for our lovely abode) is right on one of the largest streets in Pudong, Yanggao Lu. The apartments are fully furnished with maid service twice a week, and the front lobby is full of students doing homework on their Macbooks. Sherpa, the “Seamless” of Shanghai, is the meal of choice for most of the residents (NYU students) who will pay an exorbitant $12 for a Western, vegan meal. To us, it seems like normal college life, and this is our Shanghai.
However, a trip down the lane behind Grand Pujian yields many different sights. The housing compounds are lined with visible grime, and the apartments that have televisions are stuck in the ancient analog years. While the NYU kids back at GP are spending about $100 on food a week, the barbecue street cart (“chaunr guy”) sets up shop at the end of the lane every night at 9:40PM and makes his living on 3 kuai skewers of meat. Shanghai is an international city, but it’s apparent that some people have gotten rich very quickly while many have not seen any portion of this wealth.
So yes, Shanghai is new and shiny, but it’s also dirty and poor. Even in its remarkable growth, it’s easy to tell that Shanghai is still developing. The scaffolding on reflective-surface buildings is still made out of bamboo. To me, that shows exactly the juxtaposition I’m talking about. Everywhere you look, the differences and dichotomy are clear.
For my second travel book, I read Fried Eggs with Chopsticks: One Woman’s Hilarious Adventure into a Country and a Culture Not Her Own by Polly Evans. She talks about her time in China focusing mostly on the comparisons between old and new. She even arrives in Shanghai on a boat, as the “import-export merchants of yore” and leaves on the Maglev, a symbol of Shanghai’s modernity. Her narrative makes it quite clear she is an observer as she moves through the different cities, but I resonated most with her story about being in Beijing.
The book opens with Evans looking into the embalmed face of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. While I personally did not see Mao’s cadaver on my trip to Beijing, I found myself nodding in agreement with every observation Evans made about Tiananmen and Beijing. As she looked out at the roads, she observed flashy BMWs and Volkswagens where armies used to stand. I remember as I stood at Tiananmen Gate, I gazed at the roads and saw cars where tanks used to be to squander rebellion. However the most interesting observation Evans makes in the book is how she notices for “the majority of China’s 1.4 billion residents, this futuristic leap forward, with its magnetic levitation trains and supersonic rockets, didn’t mean a lot.”
The dichotomy between China’s superrich and ordinarily poor is appalling, especially in the big cities. While in Beijing, my friend and I stayed at an AirBnB in a less touristy part of town, and our walks from the tourist attractions to our “home” was eye opening. On days where the pollution levels reached 270 (unsafe by the US Embassy’s standards), we walked around the city with our masks pulled as tight as we could to our faces, yet children ran around and people rode on bikes without the slightest concern.
In Shanghai, it’s easy to get off the wrong stop on the metro and end up in a completely impoverished part of town. Even walking outside, I often find myself wondering how the man selling barbecued street food makes a living as I pass him by with my 30 kuai Starbucks coffee in hand.
Evans wrote her book before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and writes about China being “under construction.” The same is true today. China is still cleaning up and modernizing to show the world its technological prowess and continuing growth. Before the visit from President Obama for the APEC conference, Beijing cleaned up its act by shutting off factories for the week and telling residents to take a vacation. While Beijing went under the cosmetic knife, must as Evans describes happened before the Olympics, the change seemed to be indiscernible for people living here.
Fried Eggs with Chopsticks made me realize that there is dichotomy and juxtaposition all around China, in fact it’s almost inherent. The way people live, the Westerners and the natives, the rich and the poor, the city folk and the rural farmers, the past and the present – China is full of moving parts, and I’m lucky to be observing it.
“Great, good places” are hard to find in China. Not because they don’t exist, but because if one person has found them, so have one hundred. Size matters – everything needs to be scaled for China, especially in regards to the population.
While I don’t spend much time outside my dorm and the NYU Shanghai building, I’ve managed to find a few places. The first is actually in the academic center (and where I am writing this piece). The Career Development Center (unfortunately acronymed the CDC) has the apt fluorescent lighting you’d expect in a modern institution of higher learning, but other things brighten the room up. There are potted plants of all sizes, a bowl of potpourri on the empowering conference table, long black couches, and free coffee and tea. The large windows also lend itself to an expansive view of this gray city (usually from pollution, but today it’s just rain). It doesn’t have as much of a “hang out” feel as our lounges do, but for me that’s a great thing. I often find myself venturing over to the CDC (cringes) to sit at the conference table, make myself a cup of coffee, and be super productive.
Another “great, good place” is the outdoor seating area outside the lobby of our dorm building. In New York, there are so many parks you can go to for relaxing. Washington Square Park is the best mix of skaters, jazz players, and college students either reading or pounding away at their laptops taking advantage of NYU’s long-range WiFi. In Shanghai center city, there’s only one park that I know of, and they charge admission (it’s only $1.50 USD, but it really makes you appreciate New York City public parks). In lieu of going out to Century Park, study abroad students, including myself, take advantage of the tables and chairs in the outdoor seating areas of the Grand Pujian. Everyone is there for a different reason, whether it’s Skyping a relative back home, working on a paper, or having a pizza party celebration for somebody’s birthday. It’s never dull, and it also has the added features of plants and better WiFi than the rest of the building. This seating area might technically not count as a “great, good” place since it’s part of our dorm and thus our home, but it’s where you’ll most often find students hanging out.
Even though we don’t live in the most happening part of town – our area, Pudong, was once referred to as Pu-Jersey by one of our professors – I’ve been able to find “great, good” places, although it has been a challenge for me. As I stare at the #iamlimitless banner in front of me, I remember that I’ve conquered the challenge of living in Shanghai and getting accustomed to China. That alone makes this a really great, good place.
This is actually embarrassing to admit, but I have yet to go to an art museum in Shanghai. In New York and London, I walked by museums everyday. I knew where they were, what hours they were open, and if you could go to the bathroom in the lobby or not. This is my fault (and a little bit of my Chinese teacher’s), but I have not explored Shanghai to the extent that I explored London at this time. I know how to get to school, back to my dorm, and to the pasta restaurant a few blocks away. So unfortunately for me, I haven’t experienced any real art in Shanghai.
However, my friend Haroon posted a picture on Instagram of a painting that he saw when he visited the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai, which I’ve included above. There are a lot of fakes in China, and a lot of fakes in Shanghai, and as I saw when scrolling through my Instagram feed, fakes extend to art. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and this take on the Mona Lisa is unique.
It got me to thinking, why is this one image so ingrained into our Western minds as a single image of a woman painted so many years ago? We’ve all hailed Da Vinci as a genius and have trotted around his work so carefully. This exhibit shatters those preconceptions, just like the city of Shanghai itself.
From what I read online, this “Little Mona Lisa” exhibit contains many different interpretations of the Mona Lisa, and is an interactive exhibit geared towards children. It features different depictions of Mona Lisa from artists in Taiwan and Shanghai. Even though China itself may have this stereotype of being closed off and restricting, this exhibit shows otherwise. Botton writes how after looking at Van Gogh’s paintings, he saw Provence change. Part of this change was climatic, he admits, but I hope the same will happen to me in Shanghai (including the change from summer to fall). After seeing this Little Mona Lisa, I think about how many different “knock offs” I will encounter in Shanghai and how they will change my perception of this city. This knock off, however, has its own flavor, and it is individual. It’s so different, just like this incredible city.
And I’ll try to go to a museum tomorrow, because it really is a shame that I haven’t been yet. Unlike in London and New York, a lot of the art museums in Shanghai aren’t free, but I love art and I think the 50 RMB (about $9 USD) is definitely worth it.
This weekend, I traveled to Moganshan in China. I expected it to be like “camp”: out in the middle of nowhere, trees, mountains, bikes, and that’s it. There were a few things that stood out to me, but the most jarring was the “staged authenticity.”
Going to the back region in China, specifically Moganshan, was exactly what Dean MacCannell describes as a “living museum.” It took us about 3 hours to get from Shanghai to the mountain, and the ride was mostly highway and mountains. Not quite what I expected for China. However, once we got off the main road, our large van ran into a few issues on the dirt roads in the little village. Every few thousand feet would be greeted by a game of chicken with another car. The roads were not large enough, and sharing it with other cars was an intricate art form that I am grateful our driver was experienced in. We passed a bus stop filled with Jaguars, Volkswagens, and Cadillacs, then drove up to the end of the dirt road that was accessible for cars. I was so confused to see two Chinese men actually making bricks and mortar. What was the real Moganshan? The luxury cars or the working men?
When we got to the cabin we were staying at for the weekend, our host told us that Moganshan is actually a popular tourist site for Chinese people and foreigners. Our group rented bikes and went for a ride around the village. The views were filled with a juxtaposition of McMansions and tea fields, stray dogs and Jaguars. We stopped at a lake and swam (well, I didn’t swim, it was too cold!), and we encountered some locals and tried to speak with them. One man we saw was fitted in a camouflage outfit and had a scythe, we assumed for cutting down bamboo. In our broken Chinese, we attempted to find out why this man was here, and he attempted to learn why ten American teenagers were swimming in a cold lake.
After leaving the lake, we talked about this man’s life. We wondered if he knew about capitalism, or a healthy diet, or tourism in general. MacCannell states that, “No one can “participate” in his own life, he can only participate in the lives of others.” While I wasn’t exactly thinking of MacCannell, the thought was present in my mind. The “tourist” attractions were well marked, with signs in English and Chinese, but once we left the guarded path, we stumbled upon people whose lives were so removed from even the slightest idea of tourism. The Moganshan that we could have been limited too was staged, with its luxury cars and homes and American and German beers, but the real Moganshan had a sense of unmistakable authenticity that could only be discovered when veering off the marked path.
While reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China, I was at first taken aback by the brashness of his observations. As early as the introduction, he states “there will be no fucking sunsets in the pages that follow.” Troost’s refreshingly blunt tone makes for an enjoyable read, especially while in the country he is writing about.
One of the most memorable sections for me personally was Troost’s observation of the flight over to China. He starts by saying “It was an awfully long flight.” This unadorned statement of fact mimics the feeling of getting off the flight. It’s exactly what you say to everyone who asks you, “How was the flight?” when you call from the airport and you’re still recovering from the worst sedentary 14 hours of your life. When I flew to London last year, it was my first time being on a flight for more than 4 hours. Leading up to my departure from the wonderful United States to foreign China, I worried most about what I would do on the flight. My in-flight experience was similar to Troost’s, who “endured three movies of sufficient banality…I read. I dozed fitfully.” Apparently, everyone does the same three activities on their absurdly long flights to Asia.
When it comes to traveling to a new country, I’m always frightened of, for some reason, not being let in. Troost describes coyly looked bored while standing in front of the officer at passport control. Especially with a country as formidable as China, the sound of the stamp hitting the pages of my passport brought me great relief as I headed to baggage claim to pick up my luggage.
When Troost gets onto the road, he observes that, “elsewhere in the world, a four-lane highway suggests that no more than four vehicles can move forth side by side. Yet somehow, in China, seven cars manage to share a space designed for four.” This is probably the statement that resonates most with me as I continue to experience Shanghai everyday. Every time I get into a cab with my friends, I count how many near-death experiences we have.
Traveling to China is almost as defining as an experience as living here is. I try not to think about my 14-hour flight back to the United States once the semester is over, but it’s an inevitable fact of life that I must face again. It is comforting to know that when I step off the plane at LaGuardia Airport, I’ll be greeted by the interesting smell of New York City and only four cars in four lanes of traffic.