Wow, I cannot believe I’m already leaving Shanghai tomorrow. How is this possible? It seems like just yesterday I was packing to come here, or even when I was reading other travel blogs about study abroad, trying to imagine what my experience would be like… how does it all happen so quickly? It is amazing how quickly experiences flash before your eyes, in one moment you cannot fathom yourself in some future situation, and in the next you are already leaving.
Now in the middle of packing my bags and finishing up finals, I’m already thinking about my next big adventures… thinking about exploring Beijing with my dad and sister, heading to India with my boyfriend, finally seeing my mom again in New York, and settling into my new studio. But what hasn’t really hit me is that my time here in Shanghai is over, and I may never return.
I think I will spend a few minutes properly understanding how much I will miss Shanghai. Although I’m eager to get back to my life in New York, as my time here has felt like simply a pause on my life back home, I need to think about how much has happened here, how much I have changed, and how much I will miss.
I won’t be able to practice my Chinese anymore, this will probably be the best I ever am at speaking Chinese, I know I will lose it with time. I won’t be able to get steaming hot dumplings and rice right off the street or drink alcohol wherever I want. There will be no more crazy construction stories, no more silly times in the cab trying not to get ripped off, no more smile of “I have no idea what you’re saying” almost anytime I speak. I won’t be able to speak loudly on the subway about anything, and I probably won’t be back in China for a long time, or maybe ever.
Although I’m looking forward to heading home and experiencing new things, I just know one day when I’m trudging through New York snow feeling miserable and cold all over, I will miss China.
And it is so friggin awesome to know that I have all these memories earned and lessons learned here that I will never forget. I went to China for four months!! That truly is an experience I will have for the rest of my life. So thanks China, for taking me in, showing me an amazing time, and keeping me safe. Thank you for the times I will remember forever. Goodbye Shanghai, hope to see you soon!
Hello to anyone thinking of studying abroad in the one and only Shanghai! I would say this has been one crazy experience, and one I would recommend if you have the spirit of adventure and are looking for a study abroad experience you will remember for the rest of your life.
Shanghai is the perfect place if you are looking to actually use a language other than English, as most people you will interact with here only speak Chinese. But never fear! I came here with absolutely no Chinese, but am leaving being able to communicate basic information, have small conversations, and generally get around without too much trouble! It Doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but I am simply amazed with the amount I have learned in these four months, I didn’t believe it was possible. If you are a study away who knows no Chinese, I would recommend Conversational Chinese, it is a fantastic class that allows you to learn more than you would think possible. When it comes to speaking, use it loudly and use it often, as long as you deliver with a smile. People here are excited you are speaking any Chinese at all!
Beyond the language, make sure to make friends with the portal students. They can tell you where the NYU Shanghai hangouts are and where you can find some of the cool foreigner areas. However, make time to bond with the city and explore it yourself. Although it is sometimes inconvenient, Shanghai is loveable if you are willing to experience the good stuff. Don’t be afraid to eat street food, go to the fake market, check out all the tourist spots in the travel book they give you and look for new places too.
My absolute favorite part of the city is Tianzifang, not to be missed. If you’re looking for food around the AB and you can’t find any, head to Red Lobster or Century Mall (neither of those things are what they sound like… ask the portals and you will understand).
The one regret I have is not becoming more involved in things outside of school. NYUSH is sometimes a bubble, so get an internship even though they have to be unpaid or volunteer your time to something awesome within the city. I promise you in the long run it will be worth it.
Good luck and have fun potential NYUSH study aways, show China patience and you will always be happy 🙂
As I walked through the mud between two construction sites on either side of the road, almost getting hit by three motorcyclists, one car, and seven people I realized something: sometimes, I f**king hate Shanghai. Sometimes Shanghai is smelly, sometimes it is too inconvenient, sometimes it is too big and too loud and sometimes I want spaghetti to actually taste like spaghetti instead of fermented tomatoes, plastic, and Chinese noodles.
But about four seconds afterward I had another, more meaningful realization: it’s okay, and more than that, it’s expected. While I had come to China expecting to love every second of my experience, feeling incredibly lucky to be so far away, aiming to distance myself from the small-town American girl I was back home, I realized that’s impossible. No matter where I go, I will always be American. Even if I give up my citizenship and live in a different country for the rest of my life, my kids may not be American, but I still will be. I cannot run away from who I am or what defines me, and my realization was that I don’t have to.
There are things about America that I absolutely love and hope to never give up. I love Christmas, big, huge, giant, amazing, family-filled bright-lights Christmas. I also love so much the convenience of living in the States, and being in a culture in which I feel completely comfortable. America will be the only place in which I feel 100% comfortable, where I don’t have to think about what I’m supposed to do or how I’m supposed to behave for even one second.
I’ve realized while in China, I still sometimes want Christmas or still sometimes want spaghetti. I’ve realized that I am no less “cultured” if I sometimes act like a Westerner, because I am one. Furthermore, being who I am doesn’t stop me from doing certain things that Shanghainese people do on the reg. I eat street food with the rest of them ordering all my meals in Chinese, buy my shoes from the fake market after bargaining like crazy, and squish into the subway almost every day. I deftly avoid steamrollers and cars and scooters and people, can spit at quite a distance now, and am perfectly capable of peeing in a squatting toilet.
Living here for four months has been an experience I will remember for the rest of my life, and it is amazing to know that small-town Miranda fits into the Shanghai life quite nicely…. (most of the time)!
It is difficult to pick a particular misadventure, as being a foreigner in China means you are involved in some sort of misadventure each and every day. I have gotten lost, been confused, or completely messed up something incredibly simple since day one in Shanghai (see post about getting scammed by a taxi from the airport on my first day!). And yet, I persevere.
My latest large misadventure involved a recent travel to Guilin, a beautiful city known for its rice noodles and mountains about a two hour plane ride outside of Shanghai. My friends and I travelled here for an authentic Chinese experience, looking to see the beautiful wilds of China. And the experience was authentic in the street food we enjoyed, a walk along the river that included conversing with local fishermen, and a trip on a boat tour we took which included zero English. And yet, a lot of what there was to “see” in Guilin were beautiful natural occurrences, such as caves and mountain peaks, that were turned into parks and thus charged admission.
On the last, my adventurous (and cheap) side was awoken by small blurbs online about a free national park that was just outside the city. Although there was almost zero information online or at any of the travel agencies, we saw it on the map and I decided that was good enough. So I convinced my friends we should take a trip to this “more authentic” park (as I sold it), and we left the hotel feeling great about our decision.
When we tried to get a cab however, we found nobody was willing to take us. After much arguing in butchered Chinese, we finally convinced one cab to take us with a bribe of 60RMB, signing up for a whole ride of this driver telling us the that “the park is not fun,” over and over in a Guilin accent in Chinese.
“We are so clever!” I thought to myself, believing it was a good sign the driver told us it was far and not fun, as all of the taxi drivers in Guilin seem to have a hook-up with the parks that charge admission, pushing brochures down your throat the first chance they get.
But this feeling of triumph slowly faded as we drove further out… passing construction sites, abandoned buildings, and tractors driving on the road. We realized we quickly reached the middle of nowhere. As we drove around the park looking for an entrance, we quickly sobered up, realizing that perhaps the taxi driver was right, it wasn’t going to be fun and it was far.
Finally, after driving around in circles and stopping multiple times to ask where the front entrance of the park was, we finally arrive at an unmarked gate and drive in. The taxi driver kicks us out, saying he will wait one hour, and drive away if we are not back in that time.
We slowly walk into the quiet, unmarked, and dark forest, hoping not to be left here forever to starve and be lost forever.
Turns out there wasn’t much to see in the forest after all, at least not by walking a half hour up. Apparently, people drive through the park in order to get over the mountain range, according to the one person we encountered while on the path.
Although we made the best of it, I definitely earned a few daggered looks from my friends for attempting to be too adventurous in a foreign country and ending up in an empty forest hoping our taxi driver was waiting at the entrance.
“Final boarding call… Spring Air… final boarding call to Thailand”
Everything about vacationing to Thailand made me worry. I’d never travelled with just friends internationally before, I’d never stayed in a hostel before, I’d never done this before! For me, independence is not an innate trait, but rather something I have been attempting to grow some time. It requires me to constantly provide adequate sunlight and water, even needing the occasional pruning now and then. Even with all this effort, I am always afraid my independence will wither away at the nearest opportunity. So, although I was excited, I was also incredibly scared to take that next step and board the plane.
“Final boarding call for Spring Air…”
But I did take that step and I didn’t regret it for a moment. I explored temples, rode jetskis, tasted Thai street food and snorkeled through crystal clear oceans. I met fellow travellers in hostels and was able to share my own story, contribute my own points of view and my own collection of travel tips. This trip was magical, not only in the things I saw and experienced, but also in what it did for me. It made me realize that I can be the person I’ve always dreamt of being, that I am that person even if I did come from a small town. It made me realize that all that learning and exploring I have dreamt may well be possible for my future, or at the very least, it won’t be my own fears that hold me back if it doesn’t come to be.
Vacationing with my boyfriend and friends from NYU for the first time was also eye-opening in that I was able to see our different perspectives and shared values. We had three Americans, two Chinese, one Brazilian, and one Indian on the trip, so believe me immigration was a nightmare. And yet, though we had different experiences and were able to cherish different aspects of the trip, we all wanted to experience true Thai culture. We all wanted to taste the food and meet the people, not just take pictures in front of tourist attractions (though we did a fair amount of that, too).
What truly amazed me in Thailand was the fact that near the end of the trip, I began missing home. But the home I was missing wasn’t New York, but rather Shanghai. I started missing the street food, the people, and even the little bits of the language I have started to learn. I started to miss my room and my clothes, my routine. I suppose there is nothing quite like leaving somewhere to appreciate all that you like about it. For now, I am quite happy to know that I still have three months left with this city. To more adventures with you, Shanghai.
Although I have never seen the film adaptation of the less-famous yet predating novel Farewell My Concubine: A Novel by Lilian Lee, reading the book became for me a ground-breaking experience in Chinese understanding.
Something I have been told since I first arrived in Shanghai is that the Chinese have a long history and a long memory. Coming from America, where my country is around 230 years old and change, a country’s long history is somewhat difficult to fathom. And yet, in order to even begin to understand Chinese thought and culture, you must grasp that many of the people here use the long-standing history of China to inform their opinions of the country currently and their ideas of the future.
One would think that in a country so rich with 2,000 years of history, respecting and honoring this history and culture of the past would be extremely commonplace in the form of preservation of old architecture, art, performance, and museums. However, as Farewell My Concubine so honestly demonstrates, the story is more complicated.
Farewell My Concubine is a story of love between Peking Opera performers and a former concubine set in early 1900s China. In the foreground of the novel is a love triangle that becomes ever more complicated and tragic, but the background of the novel: a sharp examination of China’s history, including invasion by the Japanese and the beginning of the Communist party, accompanied by a narrative on the changing views of traditional culture that existed in China at the time.
Peking Opera is representative of a long-standing history in China and is highly revered as the epitome of Chinese culture. However, throughout the 20th century, especially during the era of the Cultural Revolution, in which all ties to “Old China” were meant to be severed, many of these traditional practices were scorned and even punished.
As is evident in Farewell My Concubine, China has been forced to negotiate and navigate its ties to its long standing past. Today in Shanghai, there is a resurgence of pride and respect for these cultural practices: what little old architecture remains is being protected or replicated in other parts of the city, new museums both public and private are emerging each day, and the Chinese government even subsides tickets to opera performances within the city.
Farewell My Concubine was able to fully demonstrate the complexity of history and culture in China as well as allowed me to understand this resurgence of cultural appreciation that I am able to enjoy today in Shanghai, as I continue to enjoy cheap opera tickets and an inexhaustible list of museums… it is so exciting to know more about Shanghai than simply what museums exist, but rather understand why they do and what they mean for modern China.
When thinking about a “great good place” here in Shanghai, my mind immediately sprung to the amazing cohort of people and food that gather on the streets each night to enjoy delicious, or “hao chi”, food. My second thought was to realize that I had already written about the amazing street food culture here, and my third thought was to realize I have already had a better experience of a specific “great good place”: Century Park.
When you speak to many Chinese locals about parks, they will tell you parks are gathering places for old people. Yes, I have literally been told that verbatim. And to an extent it is true, many of the elderly in Shanghai gather in parks, as well at in streets at night to perform all types of interesting activities. They gamble, play games, perform synchronized dance exercises, even try to market their children or grandchildren at the “Marriage Market”- a gathering of elderly in Shanghai looking for potential partners for their relatives, prepared with facts and figures about those they are looking for matches for.
Century Park was more than just elderly however. The second I clambered out of the Century Park metro stop I was bombarded with sights, sounds and smells. Makeshift stores advertised colorful kites, bubble blowers, and flying planes to use as we made our way to the entrance of the park. Delicious smells greeted me as a man made caramel in the shape of mythical animals to sell to children and a woman yelled about her tasty cotton candy for sale. A person in an almost-but-not-quite Mickey outfit attempted to accost me multiple times, trying to grab me to insist on taking a picture and eventually getting paid for it (luckily, he couldn’t chase me very fast with his overly-large mouse head).
Though we had to pay a small fee to enter the park, I soon realized the few cents it cost was worth the experience. Once inside the vast park, I truly began to see a great good place all around me. There were tons of children, running about and playing with one another. Young couples held each other close in the brisk air. Budding photographers took pictures with impressive cameras all around us. In fact, picture taking was quite the hobby in this park, and we quickly adjusted, pulling out our smartphones and queuing up to take cute pictures on top of rocks with the city skyline as the backdrop. As I continued through the park, I spotted people asleep in hammocks they had brought from home, others squawking as they attempted to boat along the river. I also saw a great number of families who had brought food and tents camped out along the treeline of the park… were they planning on staying the night there? Is that allowed here? I still have no answer.
Though some aspects of this experience were incredibly foreign to me– the squatting toilets, the squid flavored chips people munched on, the games they played, and the words they spoke to one another, there was also an incredibly comforting familiarity of people enjoying nature. That human experience is universal, and certainly makes for a “great good place” no matter the country.
I don’t generally consider myself an art person. It is true that I will spend hours in a museum, but I will often have as many opinions about the curation of the museum as the works themselves, and enjoy natural history and sciences just as much as I enjoy their artistic counterparts. I can’t say that I am well versed in the art world- though I could tell you about the most famous artist and perhaps one or two that I have done a project on over the years, most artists names escape me. I also do not create much art- I don’t believe myself very good at it (especially when I am not given a specific project to complete) and I often get frustrated with any personal artistic attempt and quickly give up any pursuit of my fleeting creativity.
And yet, while here in Shanghai, I have found myself in so many contemporary art exhibitions and galleries, speaking to so many local artists, that one might mistake me, of all people, for an art person. I believe the explanation for this undeniable attraction can draw on de Botton’s “On Eye-Opening Art.” Just as de Botton looks to van Gogh’s work to learn the beauty of the initially unimpressive Provence, I find myself looking to contemporary Chinese artists to explain China to me in their eyes. As opposed to unimpressive, my experience with China through my own lens has been one of overwhelming information and a foreignness that can sometimes feel alienating. By exploring Shanghai’s emerging modern art and local artist scene, I can understand more about China from an insider’s point of view- seeing all the beauty in calling China home.
My most recent experience with this eye-opening art was just yesterday, as I stumbled into a small gallery in the one of the many artsy-districts with a few friends. It just so happened that the artist as well as the artist’s manager were in the gallery. As we began speaking to Han Beishi, a fantastic contemporary artist with acclaim around China, his almost cartoon-like paintings that surrounded us took on so much more meaning. In a conversation composed of both Chinese and English with Han and his manager Moony, we discovered that his most recent collection depicting a small girl in a frog costume represented people’s relationship to the environment. In Chinese, “baby” and “frog” are pronounced the same: “wa.” Beishi chose to represent a child in a frog costume to remind us that we are closer to nature than we think, and we have a responsibility to it, as we are interconnected. Each detail revealed further meaning in a way that was so surprising and interesting, granting me further access to this artist’s understanding.
His other work in the gallery reflected on rapid development in China, through the lens of his childhood home that became quickly developed and was unrecognizable when he returned home years later.
Beishi’s work has been just one experience of a larger trend in contemporary art in China: a medium to express various views that may be more politically difficult to speak about in words- issues of rapid development and changing identities for a new country and a new city while at the same time preserving Chinese characteristics and uniquenesses in the face of rapid change. The more contemporary art I see, the more I feel connected to the people that hustle and bustle by me. Art had granted me a connection to those around me whom I sometimes cannot connect meaningfully with words. Maybe this very barrier has been the reason I have found myself silently wandering through white galleries, examining canvasses as I usually examine words.
Technology has changed the way we travel, just as it has changed the way we learn, the way we interact, in short, the way we live.
I as a true millennial, find myself staunchly defending the age of the internet to those of other generations who dare criticise it, and yet just as frequently complain to my peers about what technology has taken away from us. The truth about technology and travel, as with many things, lies in this duality: a change that has created both amazing and unfortunate consequences. So, as to best examine how travel has changed in the internet age, I find it most appropriate to examine a sample from the internet itself: an easily digestible list of things we miss about travel before the internet. Of course I will add my own comments along the way, examining both the positive and negative side of these changes. So let’s start…
“ People back home didn’t freak out when you were out of touch for days on end. Today, miss a status update, tweet, or Instagram post, and they’ll think you’ve moved to a monastery.”
Negative: It’s true, in the modern age it is much more difficult to ever be truly “off the grid” anymore. In fact there is an expectation of constantly keeping those around you updated. Before I came to China, there were many a distant relative reminding me to “post lots of pictures!” or “keep us updated so we know you haven’t been kidnapped!” I would argue however, that this attitude of constantly wanting children to be safe is less a product of the ability to send updates, and more a product of the 24 hour news media that scared our parents into thinking abductions happen every day. It is true that I am nostalgic for a time I have never experienced: when kids were able to roam their neighborhood in freedom, returning only for dinner.
Positive: On the other hand, is it really that terrible to send a 30 second update to a parent? I am sure with this ability to communicate, travelers are more safe, and family members back home feel much less worried than they have in previous generations. Does communication really take away the fun and mystery of an experience? After all, you can still send a WhatApp message before hopping on a riverboat down the Nile or while dancing in a ladyboy club in Thailand.
“The paper trail was part of the fun — from marking up guide books, maps, and napkins to collecting receipts, coasters, and tickets to record your trip. Often these would end up taped and glued in awesome travel scrapbooks.”
Negative: It’s true, there is less paper to collect, and yet I still have ample amounts of a paper trail left for a scrapbook I plan to put together when I get home (whether that actually happens or not is a different story…). You can still collect all sorts of memorable items along the way, while people that do not plan on putting a scrapbook together (i.e. most people) will not be given loads of paper they will proceed to throw out incredibly quickly.
Positive: Social media allows for a free scrapbook of every experience you wish to share throughout your life. Much less awkward than taking out a scrapbook for each friend that visits, your social media account tells the story as you create it, and is instantly sharable with your friends and family.
“With no Yelp or TripAdvisor to influence, you followed nothing but your nose into every restaurant, café, pub, club, or hotel opinion-free. This was how you found the best kept secrets.”
Negative: Though one can fall into the habit of using Yelp for every restaurant, which may take away the magic of discovering a place yourself, Yelp alone does not take away this experience.
Positive: There is no Yelp here in China (at least not in English) and I can tell you that I end up eating crappy food I don’t enjoy much more frequently than with Yelp in NYC. I believe this one is all about how you use technology. You can still explore a city, stumble upon an amazing smell, and discover that special hole-in-the-wall food place. I know Yelp would not prevent me from following my nose to a magical discovery. However, what Yelp does prevent is the endless frustration that comes from scouring a neighborhood for food in the middle of the night, it prevents getting poor quality food at an exorbitant rate, and it prevents the sadness that comes with wanting a certain type of food and not being able to find it. We all know that there are times we want food and use Yelp, and times we wander aimlessly, waiting to discover someplace on our own.
“Before photography became compressed to a near endless amount transmittable pixels and bits, you were limited to 24-to-36 shots per roll of film, and the camera was saved for the most special of moments.”
Negative: I could go on for hours about how documentation ruins truly experiences a place, as I see so many people look at something truly amazing, turn around to take a selfie, and then leave.
Positive: …and yet, the people who come to a place just to get a picture are not at fault because they took a picture, but because they aren’t taking the time to appreciate and enjoy. These same people with selfie sticks now were still at these travel destinations before social media. They would travel there in order to say that they traveled as opposed to showing it. Perhaps the issue here does not derive from the internet either, but from a personality that uses social media to amplify their travel bragging. The infinite nature of pictures we can take now serves a great purpose to capture moments we wish to save forever, to the point where we can get the perfect shot of whatever we want, and then settle down for an amazing picnic. I would argue that this digital photography enhances most tourism and travel.
“The proverbial “hidden gems” were kept hidden, for want of coverage. If you found one, you felt like one of the lucky few. Now, with virtually every square foot of the world tagged, linked, and listed somewhere online, it’s nearly impossible to find somewhere truly untouched.”
Negative: The internet certainly shatters the illusion that you have discovered an untouched place. Though you can continue the illusion by not searching for the places you go on social media or the internet at large, it may feel much more difficult when you see the “TripAdvisor Recommended” sticker in the window.
Positive: However, the truth remains that the “hidden gem” illusion is just that, an illusion. Before the internet, places all over the world have been visited by all sorts of people. Now, we can see, hear, and interact with the people who have gone before us, creating connections that had never previously existed. Furthermore, the availability of information about travel experiences today allow for the sharing of information and knowledge about travel. It allows amazing travel to be not just for the wealthy or those “in the know.” In a sense, the hidden gem trope is exclusionary, in that you are the knowledgable and privileged, and those around you will never see or discover this hidden gem. Now, travel can be for anyone. Whether you think that is an improvement is another story.
Those are just a few things the people of the internet miss about traveling before there was an internet. And as a person who has never truly traveled before there was an internet, I must say that my observations may be totally uninformed and inaccurate. Change within the art of travel is a difficult topic to discuss, because there is no consensus on why it is valuable or how best to enjoy it. Why exactly do we travel?
Polly Evans’ trek across China in her Fried Eggs with Chopsticks is so relatable to the experience of any foreigner here that I sometimes felt I was reading my own words. How do you eat fried eggs with chopsticks? That is a conundrum I still have yet to figure out here. People on trains gaping at your foreign face, sometimes calling out the few English words they know, sometimes feeling it almost impossible to order food even with rudimentary Chinese skills, these are situations Evans describes so accurately it hurts.
As a woman travelling through China by public transportation, Evans brings you on a hilarious and honest journey through a place and a culture still considered quite mysterious, even today. She is not afraid to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly about the things she experiences… even her own self is not off limits to this brutal honesty. The true power of the book however, is the historical context Evans provides. As she looks upon Mao’s body in Beijing, not only does she tell us of the history of Mao’s reign, his economic successes as well as his social and political cruelties, she also informs us about Mao’s more personal habits, such as his lack of hygiene and fondness for women, as sourced from his personal doctor at the time.
With a unique voice, a unique collection of historical truths and oddities, and a sense of never-dampened excitement, Evans’ experience in China provides a fresh way of looking at the country. Though her brutally honest tone sometimes borders upon critical or even (in my opinion) incorrect, Polly Evans unapologetically looks at China through a Western lens. She at one point blames her inability to learn kungfu on the fact that she learned to think creatively in school, while Chinese students are taught only to memorize. She insinuates Chinese students would be equally unable to perform “independent thought” as she is to memorize the moves of kungfu (106). This, in my opinion, is the Western view leaking out, believing any inability to perform in Eastern society must have a logically explanation as to why, as clearly Western values are more valuable and useful in most situations that matter.
Although Evans examines her experiences through this lens, she is never afraid to praise what she finds praise worthy, such as the Chinese ambition and determination to improve their standing in the global landscape, a feat they have accomplished even more so since Polly Evans explored China.
Though Polly completed her journey as recently as 2003, I am living in a different China than the one she experienced. Twelve years makes an incredible difference in one of the fastest moving places on Earth. Heck, the restaurant I went to three weeks ago is now undergoing major renovations and is being converted into something completely different! I think the truly amazing thing about being here now is that China will never look just as it does right now. Each day the city around me changes and becomes something new to explore and attempt to understand.
One of the most difficult transitions in Shanghai so far hasn’t been the language or the people or the places or the food: it’s been the school. As one of the three degree granting campuses within the NYU nexus, NYU Shanghai has it’s own unique characteristics, people, customs… it’s own personality.
As some background information, I am a firm believer in “fit” for a school, and came to NYU New York because I believed it would fit me. I chose NYU New York from the schools I got accepted to because I went to a tour on campus and fell in love with the feel, the culture, and the vibe of the school and the city around it. I loved that it was a gigantic school, that nobody knew nor cared about you unless you made the effort, that you could eat in a dining hall and sit alone, undisturbed. I loved that everyone had vastly different interests, that I couldn’t name all the schools, let alone the majors at my school, and that when I walked into a new class I didn’t already have an identity. In my 8am I could be the person that barely shows up, in my 11am I could be the person who was always early, talking to the professor and chowing down on a muffin, at 2pm I could be the overly-friendly one and at 4pm I could be the quiet person in the corner who only grunts in response and never participates.
When I came to NYU Shanghai, all of that changed. At a school with around 700 students currently attending classes, there is no room for anonymity. With the most recent time I have attended a school this small being 2nd grade, my daily routine here is certainly different.
All students are in the JinQiao dorms, a total of three buildings in one complex about twenty minutes away from school. In the morning, we all stream out of our dorms laden with messenger bags and backpacks to the sound of friendly chit-chat, calls of greeting, and early morning yawns.
We all head to the free shuttles (cough cough school buses cough) as it is the easiest way to get to the “AB” or academic building, our only academic NYU Shanghai building. It houses our one dining hall (cough cough cafeteria), our classrooms, the auditorium, and the faculty offices.
I must admit that at first, I was completely out of my element. I would be taken-aback and even startled when multiple people would wave or say hello on my way down the hall. I sat down in the cafeteria alone, ready to enjoy my solitude, when I realized I felt uncomfortable with nobody sitting at my table, as if others would think I was lonely or unpopular. I became hyper conscious of my appearance to others— who was I to them? Should I uphold that view or struggle against it? Am I the person who participates too much? The girl with terrible hair? Am I weird? Is that okay here?
And yet, as my routine became normal, my life normalized too. I wake up and take the buses with everyone else, enjoying the morning small talk and studying for the next Chinese quiz with my classmates. After grabbing free tea from Health and Wellness in the morning, I head to class where I know every face and have memorized almost every name. In between classes, everyone spends time in the AB because it doesn’t make sense to go anywhere else. You run into friends in the cafeteria, in the library, in the lounge. I head home on the shuttles as well, greeting many and asking about their day. I almost never eat a meal alone here, whether on campus or off, and most of my weekdays are filled with hanging out or doing homework.
As I have found here, there is something to be said for knowing everybody and everybody knowing you. In a strange way, you can rely on one another. The NYU Shanghai portal students especially are an amazing resource. They can tell you the best places to eat, where the best nightlife is, even the best art galleries or street food. They can tell you which taxis are scams or where to get the best eggplant in Pudong.
It is also possible to become very close very quickly here. For example, I just went on a week and a half long vacation with six other people, five of whom I hadn’t met before choosing Shanghai. I also know more about my peers and they know more about me. I can tell you where most people in my classes are from, what their major is, and whether or not they speak good Chinese. When I see people from NYU Shanghai in a restaurant, I can walk up to them, introduce myself, and eat with them, even if we have never spoken before.
At home, New York City is my community, which is amazing and breath taking, but too large to ever truly know or understand well. But here at NYU Shanghai, I have two communities: the city and the school. Though the school sometimes feels insular compared to New York, it gives me experiences I never would have dreamed of. Not only am I getting to know Shanghai, I am getting to know the people who study there. I am learning their perspectives and world-views, their travel experiences and future plans. I’m getting to know the people around me, people I never would have interacted with back in New York. And this kind of unique learning experience is worth a little loss of anonymity… at least for a semester that is 😉
Sizzle sizzle sizzle crack! “Da bao!” “Bu la??” “Pijiu!” “Yi ge?”
These are the sounds of a Chinese street food spot late at night. It is amazing to watch them come alive. This sizzling, delicious smelling, yet slightly unsanitary looking orgy of food and people meshes together to create my favorite part of Shanghai so far.
Last night I arrived at my neighborhood street food venue ready for a delicious and cheap meal. Though many travellers and even soms native Chinese are wary of street food, I find it some of the most delicious food in Shanghai so far. It may seem unsanitary, being prepared on a mobile cart, with meats and veggies being pulled from coolers dragged to this location on a moped; and yet each night simple streets and alleys across the city become huge outdoor resturants, complete with small tables and plastic kiddie stools as chairs. And people flock to them, looking for cheap delicious food and a night of excitement.
As I navigate through the crowd of people pushing past or sitting idly, I point to uncooked skewers of hard-to-identify meat, signaling to the cart owner my choices for dinner tonight. I pick a table, pulling a grimy yet colorful plastic stool around it and ask a street vendor for some 3 quai piju, or 3 dollar beer. As I wait for my food to magically appear in front of me, as the woman who makes my food taps into some special power to find all of her customers within this incomprehensible maze of people and food, I take in all that is happening around me.
This street, just an ordinary sidewalk during the day, becomes an amazing community staple exactly at 9pm. Once I came too early, at 8:50 to be exact, and was confused to find no vendors at the usual spot. I explored down a side alley and found the noodle lady. Confused, I ordered her noodles, sad that the place wasn’t set up as usual. But five minutes into cooking my delicious chow mein in her steaming wok, I began to hear frantic shouts in Chinese all around me. Noodle Lady motioned for me to get out of the way as she wheeled her cart, wok and all, at a surprising speed down the street. As I followed after, I saw all the usual street vendors rushing out of the woodwork, taking up positions and setting up tables all around me. Suddenly this deserted street became my street food place once again. Within 5 minutes, the place had become it’s nighttime self again, complete with all its customers that were missing mere seconds before.
It’s the customers, the people that surround me as I eat, that truly make the experience what it is. As I look around now at the faces all around me, they seem to be a sampling of Shanghai, that same blending of old and new. At one table, there are three twenty-somethings all intently messaging in WeChat on their smart phones. A table away from them, there are two old men chomping, laughing, spitting, and talking happily. By the amount of empty Tsingtao (China’s most popular local beer) on the table, I can tell they’ve already been here for at least an hour.
All of these sights and smells and tastes come together to create my favorite part of my new city. It is amazing to feel something so temporary leave such a permanant impression. There, squatting on pink plastic as I chew on spicy squid, I feel a part of my new home, a part of Shanghai.
I remember one evening back in the US, I was watching Modern Family with my (modern-ish) family, enjoying the antics of Gloria, a Colombian woman married to a significantly older man, played by the beautiful Sofia Vegara. Now Modern Family is a great TV show in that it plays into, only to later whole-heartedly reject, “modern” stereotypes. Throughout this episode, the whole family enjoys poking fun at Gloria and her hilarious mispronunciations, such as “old tomato” instead of “ultimatum.” And although it was so enjoyable for the family and the audience, at the end of the episode, Gloria angrily tells her husband “…I wish you knew how smart I am in Spanish.”
This small moment in a silly TV show really gave me a reality check, and granted me a huge respect for people who speak multiple languages. Now in China, learning the language for the very first time, it is me who wishes people knew how smart I am in my own language. Or at least that I am not the illiterate idiot I am in Chinese!
The amount of times I have fumbled in this language are innumerable, because the amount of times I know I have messed up are the just the tip of the iceberg.
I knew I was in for an interesting four months from the second I got on the 14 hour plane ride here. I sat next to a Chinese gentleman who knew very little English. Paired with my then zero Chinese ability, I assumed communicating would be completely impossible.
And yet, I found myself looking over and nodding in greeting, offering the armrest, as he gratefully accepted. We exchanged glances as a rude lady yelled at a flight attendant for no reason. Later, when we found out his TV wasn’t working, and would not work for the entire flight, I offered a sympathetic gesture and a sad smile, which he returned. Every time food came around, the man would offer me food first, and make sure I was served. He would make sure I was getting up and stretching each time he got up, and would not sit down until I had enough standing time. We looked longingly out the window together, and often glanced at the air-tracker available on my TV.
I wondered to myself what his purpose was in China, or what it had been in the US. I am sure he wondered the same of me, as I was one of the only “laowai” or foreigners on the plane. As we neared Shanghai, both of us looked wistfully out the window, and expressed mutual disappointment that we could not see the city. As we landed, he attempted to speak English to me, saying something along the lines of “China one, One China.” I thought he was trying to say that there is only one China, that it is unique, so I tried to speak about never visiting. But then it occurred to me that maybe he meant culturally it was one? As in together, or the same? I tried to speak back to him, but our eyes told each other what our language could not: we had no idea what the other person was saying. And so we laughed and smiled, content in the fact that we would never understand one another.
I had been wrong when I had gotten on that plane. Many times over I have read books describing different people being unable to speak the same language, but still able to create understanding, laughing and enjoying one another’s company. Every time I had read a scene described as such, I had no idea how this could possibly happen. I would become frustrated, thinking “how can their be any understanding when you cannot say anything!!??” But now, here in China, it all makes sense. There are universal experiences, feelings, and cues, that language does not cover. All around the world, though we may not say the same things, we still often feel the same way. We all share that human experience, living in this age and this time.
While in China, I have certainly not been a silent observer. The sound I have used most often since coming here has been my laugh, used each and every time I have no idea what to say or how to say it. I used it when trying to buy pharmacy supplies, when trying to order pork and have been given a pen, when I say something ridiculous and am only alerted to that fact when everyone bursts out laughing.
Fumbling to communicate in Chinese makes me feel like an idiot all the time, but it invariably makes me smile, knowing that even though they don’t know the specifics, the people around me still understand me, and I them.
(This is a picture I took of some non-sensical T-shirt I saw in a store. There are even better T-shirts that say words but make no sense. New York and Brooklyn T-shirts are also incredibly popular, so when I saw a woman wearing one, I tried to tell her I was from New York. It soon became clear that she did not know what her shirt said, so I appeared as a crazy person pointing rudely at the words written on her chest.)
In terms of feeling lost in my new city Shanghai has felt both completely foreign and completely comfortable at the same time. The feeling of comfort stems from all the familiar trappings of city life: crowds and taxis, nightlife and subways, fluorescent lights and constant noise. All of that is incredibly familiar, despite most of the signs being in Chinese characters instead of English that is.
However, the inescapable truth is that I am a foreigner here, as my experience with being lost the very first night demonstrates.
My first night in the city consisted of my boyfriend and I getting a cab from the airport to the dorm. We spoke not a word of Chinese between the two of us, so we dutifully took out our Chinese cards provided by NYU Shanghai that detailed where we were going. We found our way into a cab with a driver who spoke zero English and he began driving while repeating something over and over in Chinese. We hoped for the best, considering neither of us had working phones at that point and even if we had, a map of the city would tell us nothing. About 20 minutes into the drive, the taxi driver pulls over to a random street and lifts up the hood of his car, as if he were having car troubles. He pulls out a calculator and proceeds to tell us the drive costs 250 RMB, which is roughly $40, an outrageous amount for a cab here. Luckily we knew the fixed price to anywhere from the airport was 150 RMB, and we successfully haggled with the taxi driver to that price by putting on angry faces and punching in different numbers into his calculator. Finally we give him 150 and he flags down another taxi to take us the rest of the way.
After speaking in Chinese and laughing with one another, the second driver takes us. By this point, I am convinced we are part of an elaborate scam that involves something much more sinister than getting ripped off, and as we climb into the second taxi, my boyfriend is attempting to quell my ridiculous fears of kidnapping or worse. After panickingly yelling different commands to the confused second driver for about 20 minutes, we reach our intended destination for only 40 RMB. I cannot describe the relief I felt, but I can tell you I haven’t been ripped off by a cab since. Apparently we got into an unmarked cab, which scams every person that enters them. Now, just 2 weeks into living here, I know exactly how to communicate with taxi drivers and how to spot an illegitimate cab, and am amazed I was once so clueless. I would know exactly where to go, how to say it in Chinese, and even how to haggle in Chinese, saying it was too expensive or that I refused to pay that much.
It is amazing how quickly you can adapt to a place when it is necessary, and though Shanghai has a different feel than New York, it already is starting to feel like home.
Before reading the assigned articles, my post about Shanghai was going to be completely different. I was going to detail my various misadventures thus far, from getting ripped off by taxi drivers to trying to buy laxatives without speaking Chinese, making sure to speak about how Chinese KFC really is better. But now I realize I haven’t had the chance to truly reflect on my experiences since I arrived in Asia and what it has meant to me so far, so I think I will speak to that instead.
As a girl from a small town about two hours upstate from the city, traveling the world has always felt like a huge dream that was just far enough into the future so that I didn’t have to do any real planning about it. Though I have seen Mexico, Canada, and parts of Europe with my travel-happy dad, somehow that type of travel didn’t feel quite… real. It was his itinerary, his country of choice, and his vacation, I was just along for the ride. And though I am amazingly thankful for those experiences, they were not the type of travel I pictured late at night, when I allowed myself to dream big.
I imagined myself choosing a country and going there. But more than that, I imagined living there. Not just spending a week taking pictures of the sites that are already pictured in the guidebooks I read, not escaping the second I started missing pizza, but actually living in a place of my choosing, far away and far more interesting than the place I grew up.
So, as you might imagine, making the study abroad decision felt like the first time I was actually doing it. Shaping my future into what I dreamed it would look like. And choosing to live in Shanghai, a city I had never been, in a country I had never been, on a continent I had never been… it was the epitome of experiencing something truly different. Not to mention the classes fit my International Sustainable Development concentration and I could make major strides in my Public Policy and Management minor.
I spent the summer, as Alain de Botton described in “On Anticipation,” imagining what it would be like once I got to China. Reading guide books, watching documentaries, learning basic Chinese phrases, I developed static images of what my experience would be like: a subway station ten times more crowded than NYC, mysteriously beautiful temples, and hip street food vendors with new foods that inevitably taste delicious.
But as de Botton so accurately describes, there is more to travel than these images we conjure up. There’s the inevitable anxiety, there’s the distractions, and most importantly, there are things we don’t expect. Like the fact that there is seemingly five times more police in NYC than Shanghai, that Chinese speakers don’t seem to mind that my Chinese is terrible and we laugh off the fact that neither of us can understand the other, and that yes, I absolutely hate some of the food here.
So far being here has felt like a strange whirlwind of experiences, mostly good, but some bad and some ugly. When I was thinking about my first big trip, planned and executed by me, I didn’t expect the bad or the ugly. In fact, I thought that if there was any aspect of living abroad I didn’t enjoy, it meant I wasn’t cut out for the life of a traveler. I really must be a girl from small town America, destined to be uninteresting.
But today, when I failed miserably at grocery shopping in a Chinese market, feeling frustrated that I could barely recognize any food, I realized that isn’t true. I am from a small town, and those experiences make me who I am today. It is those experiences that make it hard for me to buy fresh fish from the same tank where dead fish float at the top. But it is also those experiences that made me want to be here, and make me incredibly optimistic about each day, despite the faux pas of the day before. And luckily, in terms of who is “interesting,” it all depends on where you are standing. Just as I hope to get to know local Shanghainese people, most of them seem to want to get to know me, even if I am from a small town called Mahopac.
So I look forward to the next four months, where things will sometimes feel uncomfortable or lame or gross or weird, and I will be able to tell myself that it is okay, because you know… I think it really will be.