Let me just say first off, the term “concrete jungle” is far more applicable to Shanghai than NYC. There’s ivy growing up the overpasses and public parks are bountiful, which was a nice surprise considering I thought there would be nothing but high rises and asphalt (there’s plenty of that too of course). There’s so much similarity to what I’m familiar with, but even common things like malls seem foreign to me. Speaking of malls, holy cow, there are SOOO many malls here, and they’re huge. If you are a big shopper, this could be heaven (but not so much for your bank account). I’m staying in the Xintianyou Hotel that is associated with Donghua University, which is where we take the language and internship classes. Thankfully it is only a 10-minute walk to class from my room, as I am infamously not a morning person. The jet lag wasn’t too bad and it only took a week or so to fully settle into the sleeping habits of this time zone. There are twelve people on our program total, and we all get along well. There’s a broad range of backgrounds, some people have been to Shanghai multiple times while others have never left the U.S. The level of fluency also spans a broad range from no prior knowledge at all to practically fluent. I was mildly concerned that I would have forgotten everything my 2 years of college Chinese had taught me after a year of not taking classes, but was pleasantly surprised to find out this was not the case (although I am definitely rusty). It’s amazing how much comes back to you once you get immersed in language classes where the 80% of the instruction is in Chinese.
One of the major differences I’ve observed thus far are the traffic patterns/public transportation. The cars and motorbikes don’t really follow “normal” traffic rules. They don’t yield to pedestrians and are generally unpredictable, so you really have to look when you’re crossing (even if you have the light). The scooters and bikers will ride up on the sidewalk without any hesitation and if you’re not paying attention, you might get sideswiped. The subway and bus system, however, beat the pants off any public transportation system I’ve ever experienced in America. The subway is very foreigner friendly with every stop labeled in English as well as Chinese and the trains run every 5 minutes on the dot. You might not get a seat, but it’s really the cheapest, most efficient way to travel here as far as I’ve found.
Another noticeable difference is the lack of potable water. At school or at home, if I needed water, I would fill my reusable bottle up at the tap or a dispensing station, readily available at a moment’s notice. In China, however, anytime you want water, basically you need to buy it at a convenience store or at the restaurant. It’s super cheap, but as someone who lives the reusable life because it’s an easy way to reduce waste, it is somewhat frustrating to not be able to refill during a long day’s trip if I run out. Thinking about all the plastic water bottles I’ve used in the last 2 ½ weeks makes me cringe (although many of the bottles come in super interesting shapes and packaging relative those in the US).
Speaking of cheap prices, China has some of the cheapest prices in terms of food and small item purchases I’ve ever witnessed. An amazing bowl of noodles or a rice omelet might cost 16 yuan on average, which translates to around $2.35 with the current exchange rate. Of course you can go higher or lower depending on the area and what kind of food/atmosphere you’re looking for, but these prices would seem almost criminal in the states. Ordering from a new place can feel like a Russian roulette game, but it’s often good no matter what you get and many menus have pictures so you can just gesture to what you want (although I’d suggest you learn the characters for “noodles” and “rice” as they come up a lot). As someone who is accustomed to eating at home most of the time, the transition to eating out almost every meal has felt a little odd (there’s no fridge or microwave in the hotel), but I have to remind myself the prices are way lower than American restaurants and they are often home-cooked meal style. Donghua’s dining halls also happen to be renowned in Shanghai as having exceptionally good food for low prices. Our language partners often give us recommendations on what dishes to try, which is much appreciated with the somewhat overwhelming array of options from which to choose. There are also street side fruit shops, but there aren’t a lot of places you can get raw vegetables, so if you have a hankering for a plain salad, you’re going to have to search around a bit.
One thing I did not anticipate was the restroom situation. In most public buildings, like those in the school, many malls and parks, and some older residencies, there will not be toilet paper dispensers in every stall or even at all in many cases. There might be one dispenser on the wall from which you can take with you or you may be expected to bring your own. However, most restrooms I have been in do have Western-style seat toilets (I was afraid it would be exclusively squat-style for the duration of this trip, although I have now tried those as well and they’re not as intimidating as I had feared). There’s also the expectation you will put any waste in the trash can inside the stall rather than flushing it (I’m not sure if this is because the plumbing isn’t built to stand it or if it’s just a culture thing). It also doesn’t hurt to carry hand sanitizer with you in the event the bathroom has not hand soap.
I believe I have a slightly stronger sense of smell than average, but you’d be hard-pressed to miss the assortment of odors that fill the air in Shanghai. They range from amazing aromas of sizzling food to stank that makes you understand why people wear face masks on the regular. The thing that gets me is the number of people who smoke here. I knew it was more common in Asia in general, but it’s really prevalent everywhere here and they just recently outlawed smoking inside public buildings (people still do it in doorsills and such though). Either way, traveling through the city really is a multi-sensory experience, which is something I think that makes it different than cities in the states I’ve visited.
I come from Virginia which means I’m used to humid, hot summers. I packed mostly shorts and t-shirts based on what I had read about the typical weather in the area. What I didn’t fully account for was how humid it would be (nearly 100% every day this week) and the fact that summer is basically monsoon season for Shanghai. It seems to rain 4 out of the 7 days of the week and when it rains, it can really come down. I’m wary of being caught without an umbrella even if I’ve checked the forecast the night before (raincoats also work, but umbrellas give you better full coverage and most locals opt for them so they’re probably onto something). If I don’t get wet from the rain, I’m still somewhat damp after returning from any trip purely from sweat due to the high humidity. For this reason and the fact that there’s not really any public laundromats, I’d recommend bringing plenty of extra clothes to change into if you’re staying for any longer amount of time (unless you’re just planning to buy an entire wardrobe while you’re here, in which case, more power to you). The air quality hasn’t bothered me personally, but you can check monitor it regularly online.
We learned the phrase “入乡随俗” in class, which means something along the lines of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and I aim to do just that for the rest of my time here. Whether that means eating frog or carrying an umbrella at all times, this city has a lot more to offer and I’m just getting started.
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<p>Hi there! If you like cranberries, coffee, or swimming recreationally, you have come to the wrong place (but I'm sure there are blogs for those things elsewhere). I am currently a junior at the College of William and Mary and am studying Sociology and Marketing. I enjoy NPR tiny desk concerts and living vicariously through other people's Snapchats.<br />
Also, I make some pretty decent Spotify playlists and am willing to make one for your next life event, whether it be a wedding, a party, or your dog's teeth cleaning. Join me as I journey through the bustling city of Shanghai and attempt to experience everything in 8 weeks!</p>