First off, clear your mind and be ready to be uncomfortable. You must come to Shanghai with extreme patience. Shanghai will force you out of your normal life and throw you into a life where many “common sense” American ideas do not exist. Be ready for unsanitary supermarkets, very oily food, for people to spit no matter where they are, and for you to not be understood. The last tip is the most important. Go into your time in Shanghai knowing that the overwhelming majority of people will have absolutely no clue what you are saying. When you want a haircut, be sure to bring pictures. When you want to go somewhere, put the address into Google and show the cab driver the Chinese characters. Also, and most importantly you have to have patience when you interact with any local Chinese person. If they don’t understand you, you must not get angry. If they stare at you, you must understand that they are just curious. It seems basic, but trust me it’s harder than you think. When it takes you 10 minutes to tell the waitress that you want a menu, do not freak out, just understand she is equally as frustrated and wishes she understood you.
Secondly, try to live in Puxi. Do whatever you can to not live in Pudong. I understand that you are supposed to live in dorms, but try to find a way out of it and live in a cheap apartment in Puxi. Puxi is where the culture and history is. The clubs, bars, and sites are pretty much all in Puxi and it is a much more beautiful and scenic area.
In terms of academics, do not under any circumstances take practical Chinese. It may seem like a good idea and it may seem like the easiest Chinese class, but it’s not. It has by far been my most time consuming and hardest class I have ever taken at NYU. If you are required to take a Chinese class, I recommend you take elementary one. Although you have to learn characters in elementary one, it is much less intensive. The practical Chinese class is essentially a combination of elementary one and two, and its only 4 credits.
Understand that you are a foreigner here and that law and customs are not in your favor. Chinese written civil law is basic and vague, which allows for the police to make decisions using their “better judgement”. They will 9/10 times try to get money out of you and/or side with the locals. People in China, whether it be a person, or an institutional like NYU care more about their “guanxi” or relationship than anything else. You must always conduct yourself in a way that looks good for yourself and the university, because NYU does not tolerate anything. I hope this isn’t making you worried. Shanghai is a very safe city, you should just make sure you are respectful and make you are being smart.
Despite the negativity of my tips, Shanghai was an amazing experience and one of the most interesting and culturally enriching periods of my life. Following my tips will allow you to more easily integrate yourself into Chinese society.