I do my best to construct a mental image of each city I live in. Some take longer than others but all eventually form through time, exploring, and Google Maps. In New York, the subway teaches you to recognize Uptown from Downtown and Astoria-Ditmars Blvd from Coney Island Stillwell Av. It probably was not until mid-way through freshman year at NYU that I fully understood where all the boroughs were geographically, even though I knew how to put things in relation to each other. My landmarks were Washington Square Park, which represented a base point near the bottom of Manhattan, and Central Park – most places I frequented were in between those two points. In Prague, I learned to place things in relation to the Vltava River since I knew my dorm was on one side and school was on the other. Since Prague is divided into ten districts, I came to identify places and distance according to Prague 1 (campus) and Prague 7 (my home). Possessing such frameworks was important and allowed me to be less reliant on Google Maps to find my way around. Indeed, I think that the ability to give directions and orient oneself in a place without a map is the mark of a seasoned resident.
In Shanghai, I have only the most basic mental image of the city’s layout. I know that both the dorms and academic building are in Pudong, on the east side of the Huangpu River, while the west side, Puxi, contains much more tourist sights and nightlife. While I find that the subway system is fairly easy to navigate, that is not to say there haven’t been some mishaps along the way. Shanghai’s subway signs indicate direction by adjacent stops rather than by end stops like New York. Lines also are on separate sides of a stop which sounds simple when there are 1 or 2 lines but much more confusing with 3 or 4. My boyfriend and I ran into some trouble when we decided to explore the underground shops at People’s Square, a stop with 4 lines. Getting there was no problem but when we arrived, we had no idea which one of the twelve exits to take. On our return journey, we had no idea how to get to the right track since the stop is a massive underground space of stalls, restaurants, and stores. It didn’t help that it was peak rush hour and that People’s Square is one of the busiest stops with a daily traffic of over 700,000 people. We were both frustrated, hungry, and confused as we just decided to follow the sea of people who would hopefully lead us in the right direction. While we finally got home, it was apparent that we both had different approaches when it came to finding directions in the city.
My boyfriend is much more reliant on Google Maps and uses it to plan our routes and find out where we are. I tend to follow my instincts and walk around to find information myself, though this is probably because I still remember how to navigate from my last stay. Though I also use Google Maps, I find that it is increasingly unreliable, especially in its overestimation of travel durations. This plays a large factor in deciding whether or not I want to put in the effort to combat throngs of people to visit a particular place.
Though it is hard to resist the temptation of being at home with precious AC, I know that study abroad is not the time to be passive or lazy. As Lynch writes, “A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He can establish a harmonious relationship between himself and the outside world”. We can only expect to find comfort in our cities through the process of getting lost. Each journey and confusing experience only expands our mental maps, making what was once totally unfamiliar, a little less so.