When technology and English fail you…

In 2. Wayfinding, The Art of Travel, Shanghai by KD1 Comment

In Kevin Lynch’s first chapter of The Image of the City, he states that with technology, signs, and other people around you it is a rare experience to be lost in a metropolitan. (4) While this is true, I have never felt so lost as I have been my first week in Shanghai.

My first Saturday and my second full day here, I had nothing planned. Orientation happened the day before and I hardly felt confident finding my class let alone navigating Shanghai. My roommate and I woke up around 3 AM (jet lag), awake and ready to start our day. One problem with waking up so early, or late?, is that nothing is open. Starving we tried to find a place to eat on Trip Advisor and planned the way to get there and everything. However, when we left later that morning neither of us knew we would just be hopelessly lost for the rest of the day.

After about 20 minutes of walking, we realized we must have done something wrong as we planned for the trip to only take 10 minutes. Normally, when I go abroad I do not buy a SIM card because I have T-Mobile and get 3G speeds globally. By the 5th day in China, I realized I needed my phone way more than in other countries and 3G speeds were not cutting it. Additionally, for the first few days, I had trouble getting my phone to connect on to NYU’s VPN. Neither of us could access Google Maps on our phones nor could we read Chinese to use the Chinese equivalent of google maps. We thought we would just turn around and check back at the dorm but somehow this just got us more lost. Unlike New York where skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and the Freedom Tower act as visual cues in Manhattan, Shanghai’s skyline is mainly large, identical, apartment buildings. While there are a few buildings that are unique to the skyline here, I do not know the geographical orientation of those buildings to the rest of the city.

During, this experience we were truly lost because while there were signs and other people around us, my roommate and I could not read nor could we speak Chinese. So to us, the signs and people around us were no help in finding out the way back to the dorm. In fact the presence of all these signals that should be helping probably only intensified our sense of being lost. We ended up getting back to the dorm 7 hours later and only with the help of an expat we saw whom we could get directions from. A personal landmark for me to know I am back is a sign that says JinChow Hotel with an acorn on it right outside of the dorm. (This dorm used to be the JinChow Hotel) This little cue tells me, I am back, I have made it! And wow was I glad to see that acorn that day.

So far in Shanghai, I have realized I have taken for granted how English and technology have made navigating the world around me so easy. Even in other nations most signs are bilingual or finding a person who speaks English is not that hard. Now that I have a VPN on my phone and a SIM card I still find it hard to navigate as restaurants etc go by different names sometimes only in Chinese characters that Google Maps does not pick up on. Where I might be staring at my phone in New York for directions, here I have to focus on buildings, neighborhoods, restaurants, etc. I hope this focus on detail and not technology with improve my self of Shanghai and my experience here. (Learning some Chinese might help too.)

(Image: JinChow Hotel Front ; Source: Hotel Elong)


  1. I totally commiserate with feeling dependent on your phone for maps. My first week abroad I kept running out of data and frantically was trying to reach someone at home to help acquire more, which was a difficult process due to the shoddy WIFI in my dorm. I realized how much I wish I wasn’t attached to my phone but it is a crutch for me. I depend on it to know where I’m going. I’m trying to look more on physical maps just to get into the habit of positioning myself incase I’m without data again

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