Before I begin, a pro-tip to anyone reading: when going abroad on an amazing program for four months in a non-tropical location, pack a few extra pairs of pajamas, and a heavy coat. You never know when it’ll suddenly be the coldest week of all winter, and possibly one of the coldest in a few years in Shanghai. You also never know when your heater may inexplicably stop functioning, leaving you very, very cold for your first few nights away from home.
And on that note, hello from Shanghai, China, (arguably) the world’s largest city, and my new home for the semester! I have, against all odds, survived my first few days here. It’s been a little intense but this semester is shaping up to be a crazy, thought-provoking, spectacular semester in China.
I arrived here on Wednesday after a grueling 14-hour flight from my home in Chicago, where I met up with some of the other students at the Alliance for Global Education’s various programs. I’m at the 21st Century City program, which is focused on China’s society and culture, as well as Chinese language acquisition. After failing to sleep, listening to the United Airlines’s interpretation of what pop music is, and watching Talladega Nights, I made it to Pudong International Airport. We met up with all the Alliance students and set off for dinner, which would be my first introduction to the glorious world of authentic Chinese food.

Did I mention that I’m a vegan in a land of pork, eggs, and seafood? Eating has been simultaneously difficult and wonderful

Here’s how most meals work in China. They’re communal, meaning that everyone shares food.5-10 different dishes are brought out and put on a large rotating platform, and you spin it around and take food with your chopsticks to put in a little bowl or plate for yourself. Actual Chinese food is nothing like what we have in America. For one thing, there is no Chinese food; different provinces have their own drastically different cuisines. Rice is common in the south, millet in the north, numbingly-spicy food from Sichuan in the southwest, flatbreads in Xinjiang in the northwest, etc. Having a Chinese food restaurant is like having a European food restaurant. You can have Italian, French, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, and Greek food at the same restaurant, but it would be a bit strange and pretty broad. Food here is super cheap, too. You can get a good meal for 20 yuan, which is around $3. In any event, most of the meals here involve a bunch of interesting dishes from various parts of China, most of them delicious.
Well. So I’ve been told. Did I mention that I’m a vegan in a land of pork, eggs, and seafood? Eating has been simultaneously difficult and wonderful. The few dishes at every meal that I can eat have been really good, though. It’s hard, because food is such a powerful part of culture, but I’m making it work, one bowl of steamed vegetables and tofu at a time.
After a dinner of socializing with the students, we set out to our new home at Tohee International Student Village. Technically, we’re enrolled with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE), but we live on our own little location not far from campus. It’s a really great place, spacious and nicely furnished, close to a bunch of restaurants. Unfortunately, it has also been bitterly cold in Shanghai. I had read that Shanghai around this time has 50 to 60-degree weather, which is a great break from Chicago. It’s been in the low 40s, which would normally be fine, but I didn’t pack for very cold weather. Additionally, my room’s heater didn’t work, so my first night was a very long and cold one.
Thursday was a good day. We had orientation, which mainly consisted of ways not to get robbed blind in China, and how to have a study abroad experience actually be meaningful. The goal here isn’t just to have delicious food and hang out in another country; we’re trying to become interculturally competent, and learn how to approach other societies and behavior internationally. After that, we set out to get Chinese SIM cards and go shopping at Walmart. That sounds pretty normal, but it was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. See, Chinese Walmart looks like a Walmart was dropped on a Chinese silk market. Red lanterns hang from all over the ceiling, Chinese cartoon decorations adorn the walls, and the first floor is essentially a large fruit market. The whole building is a few floors, with escalators for your shopping carts. They’re definitely illegal in the US, though they are really cool. The entire experience feels sort of surreal, like you’re in a completely Chinese store, complete with new years decorations, and yet the capitalism and Walmart signs everywhere beg to differ.
Getting home from Walmart turned out to be an experience in its own right. Riding in a Shanghai taxi is a harrowing experience. Taxi drivers fear nothing; not death, God, or the police. Traffic laws are at best a suggestion, and at worst an open challenge. Riding shotgun treats you to a terrifying view of endless near-collisions with pedestrians, other cars, fearless lunatic cyclists, and the elderly. Sitting in the back is no better; for some inane reason, there aren’t any seatbelts. Or more accurately, there are seatbelts, but no buckles. I think that’s worse, because they could have let the car remain safe, and went out of their way to prevent that. After shopping, I bundled myself up in two pairs of sweatpants and three shirts to stay warm, because I’m done being freezing at night.
Day three started off with a tour of SUFE’s campus, which is really nice, if totally deserted. It was still Chinese new year, meaning that most people are away from school to visit their families, as millions of people return for a week to meet with loved ones. After another delicious lunch, we settled in during the late morning for the language placement exam. I was feeling pretty nervous because my Chinese has been a bit rusty. I’ve studied 3 semesters, and I was hoping to place into 4th semester Chinese, so I needed to do well.
The test wasn’t hard. The test was mentally and emotionally debilitating. The test picked me up and “Dark-Knight-Rises-Bane-VS-Batman-Sewer-Scene”-style broke my back over its knee. I left thinking I’d maybe make 2nd semester Chinese if I was lucky. Most of the people felt pretty much the same way. To help console us over our crushing defeat, we set out to an amazing acrobat show, which was really fun. People did flips, caught porcelain vases thrown 15 feet into the air on the back of their necks, and performed magic and slapstick comedy routines. That evening, I continued settling into my room, which was now pleasantly warm thanks to a working heater.
After a quiet weekend, we headed out Saturday night to the Yuyaun gardens in downtown Shanghai. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people converged for the lantern festival, which ends Chinese New Year. There were massive throngs of people, beautiful lanterns to welcome in the new year, and lots of crazy decorations. There were spectacular lanterns in the shapes of chickens (it’s the year of the rooster), and Chinese cartoon characters. Glittering strings of lights criss-crossed overhead as we wandered through the crowd, buying food and admiring the lantern craftsmanship. It was amazing to see so many people enjoying themselves together. I also found the greatest thing ever created. They’re caramelized sour plums on a skewer. It is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I will dream about it for the rest of my life.
Anyway, after a nice weekend of settling in, I’m getting ready for classes. Which, by the way, start tomorrow! I should probably go study for my 4th semester (made it, against all odds!) Chinese dictation…but in any event, Shanghai is turning out to be an amazing place. The city is beautiful, the people are friendly and interesting, the food is excellent, and the fellow students are nice. I feel like I’m finally ready to study abroad. There are so many other little things that I experienced, but I need to memorize 25 words for tomorrow’s Chinese class, so I’m going to go do that!
I’ll leave you with a parting fact: instead of “cheese”, people here say “qiezi”, which means eggplant. They both get you to open your mouth into a smile, which makes sense.
And here’s this week’s worst English sign: It says “A Drod of Iced Inevery Cup”. I’ll include a picture.