In Pixar’s Finding Nemo, all of the sea creatures live happily on the coral reef, never daring to swim into open waters. Nemo is the only one brave enough to swim up to the boat and thus wins a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Sydney, Australia.
I feel that NYU Shanghai has become like the coral reef for me- a safety net of English-speakers in a sea of foreign Chinese culture. Though I always want to go somewhere new at least once a week, I’ve been finding myself trapped in a cycle of studying for Chinese tests. It seems ironic that I’ve been learning so much about the language but haven’t been able to utilize it in many ways off campus. Because of classes and studying, I spend almost 12 hours a day most days in the Academic Building (a very depressing fact). It is so much easier to eat lunch and dinner in the campus cafeteria, than it is to spend 1-2 hours going out to find a place that would have English menus and eat out. My weekends are a bit freer but not free enough to venture out to a new place since commuting anywhere usually takes 40-60 minutes from the dorms. I feel about as trapped inside the NYU bubble as Nemo’s fish friends do floating in plastic bags on top of the water.
That’s not to say the bubble isn’t comfortable because in some ways, it is. Why walk down a narrow alley with sewer water and spit at your feet and stinky tofu smell in the air when you can lounge at the school’s air-conditioned café. NYU’s gated community and our mobile apps prevent us from having to experience many unpleasant encounters and interactions. While this might seem great on a regular day, in the grand scheme of study abroad experiences, it is not. I realize that I came here to experience Chinese culture the same way I did in Prague with Czech culture. However, my lack of time and motivation will rob me of any profound experiences if I don’t find a way to venture out and about.
Amidst the stress, a rare moment of free time presented itself last Friday. In the small window of time before needing to dedicate myself to midterms, I decided to explore FuZhou Lu, a road I hear was famous for their stationary goods. My boyfriend and I walked all the way down the street, stopping in to bookstores, stationary stores, and cafes. The weather was amazing, so we walked down to West Nanjing Road and to People’s Square where we found a quiet little park. Though it was a small step outside the NYU bubble, it felt like a breath of fresh air.
Though it is easy to say that I’ll do my best to explore Shanghai, it’s not realistic to think that I’ll go to all the places I want to. I need to find a balance between school and travel, making use of limited free time to go to new places. I think I need to follow in Nemo’s fin-steps if I want to also experience another side of the world, make new friends, and come home satisfied with the journey I’ve taken.