To feel “lost” and foreign in a city that should feel familiar is a rather peculiar sensation. I had previously been to Shanghai a couple of times, with my shortest stay being an airport layover and my longest stay a week-long vacation. However, for some strange reason, geographically, none of the famous sights or structures seemed to stay in my head. Even more so, I honestly could not locate any of the places I had been to on past trips on a map. Therefore, before coming to Shanghai, I spent a large amount of time staring at google maps, trying to figure out where everything was.
From my research, I learned that there are two main parts to Shanghai – Puxi (the west side) and Pudong (the east side). There are also two airports, each located on opposite sides of one another. The one in Puxi also known as Hongqiao International Airport is connected to the Hongqiao High-speed Railway Station. That would be where I would go when I needed to go visit the Zhejiang province to check on the factory I was working with or when I wanted to visit other parts of China during my study away adventures. Pudong International Airport on the opposite side of Shanghai in Pudong would be where I would fly into and would be the airport closest to school. I also knew that the two most famous sights in Shanghai, ‘Dong-fang Ming-zhu’ (Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower) and ‘Wai Tan’ (The Bund), were opposite of one another, both facing the Huangpu river which separated Pudong and Puxi. I thought that with this general knowledge and the fact that I spoke a pretty decent amount of Chinese that I would feel more or less comfortable with my surroundings.
However, what I realized during my first few weeks here is that the famous landmarks that I had spent so much time memorizing were not as important as knowing where the convenient store was when I woke up in the middle of the night hungry from jet lag or knowing where I could go to hangout after class. On the first day of classes I woke up early wanting to grab breakfast before I headed to school. As soon as I exited my apartment elevator and saw everyone going their separate ways, I realized that I had no idea where I could go to eat. I was hit with a feeling of panic and insecurity as I tried searching for places on google to no avail. It was shocking to discover that even though I technically knew where I was, I was actually not familiar with the surrounding area I lived in at all. Without a sense of direction or goal in mind as to where I was headed, I took a right turn and kept walking straight hoping that it would eventually lead to somewhere interesting. I was relieved when I reached a busy street filled with breakfast food vendors. The sense of accomplishment and pride I felt from discovering something new and unexpected that was not marked out for me on a map washed away the insecurity I had felt earlier. It was as though I had created some kind of bond with the city by blindly exploring it. I now know that understanding a city from a map gives you a general sense of the city as a whole but it still does not keep you from feeling “lost”. The sensation of being “lost” is related more to a lack of having an emotional connection or familiarity with a place, rather than a geographical understanding. Physically exploring places and discovering shops and places that aren’t marked on google ( in china’s case baidu) maps is what grounds you and helps to make a new city more like home. In my case, knowing where the closest restaurants are and the best places to eat will be my next goal, although I will still keep going to the breakfast street that I discovered on my first day “lost” in Shanghai.