Being adopted from China, I always knew that going back to “the Motherland” would be a trip I had to take. After nearly twenty years, I found IES Internships and decided to go to the completely wrong area of the Motherland: Shanghai.
I was born in the far south region of China, Guangdong province, somewhere near Guangzhou. They mostly speak Cantonese and that’s about all I know for sure about Guangdong. For most of my life identifying as an adoptee and as a Chinese American wasn’t important to me, but that changed in the past few years. My decision to intern abroad in Shanghai and learn Mandarin doesn’t really connect directly back to a soul search for my heritage, more of an interest in the land where I came from.
I really started caring about where I came from during the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing. I remember watching the opening ceremonies and being totally amazed. Since then I’ve taken an active interest in learning about China, but especially my identity within the Asian American community. Now I want to become as fluent as possible in Mandarin, and in 2022 I'll come back as a reporter for the Beijing Winter Olympics. I got some language learning apps, watched a Taiwanese drama or two, and took a language class last summer, but nothing compares to being fully immersed in the place.
I chose Shanghai over Beijing because Shanghai seemed like the one of the most cutting-edge cities in the world. As a journalism major, understanding China now sets a reporter apart. I want to understand this part of my identity and get a job when I graduate in two years-- so a summer internship and language class seemed like the best of both. My program started about a week ago and now we're past the crash-course orientation, awkward get-to-know-you phase with my classmates, and getting hopelessly lost every time we leave the dorm. Shanghai has gone from being this amazingly massive city to a new place to understand with some of the best culture (and food) to explore.
I don't feel "at home" or a special connection to the Motherland yet, I feel— and speak Chinese— like any other Westerner stumbling around the city. But I am glad I finally made the journey "back." Seeing China for myself means so much more than reading a book or seeing it online. None of it's familiar, but yet so much reminds me of places everyone knows. The touristy places? That's like Paris. The crowded streets? Just like New York City. The subway? A bit like Boston's T— if it were cleaner, on time, and faster. I've stayed around some pretty highly developed and privileged areas so far, but Shanghai isn't some Exotic Wonder of the Orient. It's a world-class city, possibly even classier than most in the States.
With over twenty million people, throwing myself into China’s biggest city might have been a bit ambitious. But I’m a bit ambitious, and now that I've been here for a little while, I'm not as overwhelmed. I figured out the subway, the people at my internship are great, and I like my classmates. I’m sure Shanghai will become home in no time.