Shanghai’s Hidden Gems

When I left Minneapolis and finally said goodbye to the States, I spent a lot of time mentally preparing myself for the next six months. I’d been to China before, but this time I was going to enter an entirely new environment. I was going to spend the next eight weeks at a language program where I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t leave, and most importantly couldn’t speak English. I spent a lot of that plane ride trying to figure out how I was going to navigate China without knowing a lot of Chinese and without the luxury of speaking English. But the thing about China is that no matter how much you overthink it, the minute you step off the plane you have no choice but to find a way to snap out of it.

There’s something comforting about eating at the same small restaurant every single day for five months in a row. The restaurants are no bigger than the average master bedroom and seat no more than twelve people but usually there’s never more than four or five people eating at one time. There are never any new cooks, no foreigners, and whenever you walk in it feels like you’ve entered a space where time passes really slowly. My first time coming to China I ended up going to one of these this by mistake. I didn’t know how to say anything other than chicken, and the only man in Shanghai who understood my pronunciation of ‘chicken fried rice’ was at the small restaurant down the street around the corner. But at his corner restaurant I started to learn more about China from the people who ate there. There weren’t any expats or other study abroad students, just people who got off from work sneaking in a quick snack. They were all eager to talk to me about one thing or another, never shy. One thing I’ve noticed is that no matter the city, the community in these small restaurants (for the most part) remains the same.

Other than ordering a couple of dishes, I couldn’t speak any Chinese my first time in China which made my Beijing restaurant experience much more interesting. My roommate and I were learning Chinese and the husband and wife who owned the shop were eager to help. Every day my roommate and I would walk in, they would smile that we came back for the nth day in a row, make us dumplings and help us practice our Chinese. The small restaurant in Beijing also became an unexpected home away from home.

Fast forward to my time in Shanghai. Surprisingly, this has also been one of my favorite parts about Shanghai. Up to this point, I knew small restaurants were fun and something I consistently enjoyed going to, but I never really knew how much I liked them until coming back to Shanghai. Being far from home made it hard to find a sense of community, but the store owner smiling and throw you a light-hearted joke, or expressing concern because you haven’t shown up in three days became the closest thing to it. In Shanghai, my Chinese improved a lot and I was able to have more meaningful conversations. People didn’t hold back with their questions either. Some questions I didn’t have the answer to in English or Chinese. Other times people would explain their point of view on issues in China, America, or another place, but most of the time it was lighthearted and they’d always show me something new.

These places always led to funny interactions, interesting experiences, new faces, and new ideas. Overall, this trip had many ups, but to me, the most constant (not exciting, but underratedly interesting ) thing was practicing Chinese with the people at the corner dumpling shop. I always learned something new, got a WeChat ID, or ate a good meal, and I’ll definitely crave it when I get back to the States.

 

北京:Wangfujing

All of this travel through China has been awesome. Every city has a unique personality and millennia of history makes them fun to visit. Of the cities I’ve been, Beijing has my heart. For me, what makes the city so great is how lively the culture is. Before my first Beijing visit, I was expecting the capital to be serious with a business first mentality. I was very wrong. Through travel, spending the summer in Beijing, and our short time in the city I learned to appreciate every playful gesture, photograph, and invitation to eat Beijing duck that I’ve ever received. Our visit made it clear that Beijing’s liveliness truly mirrored the rest of the China, and at its core, no place did that better than Wangfujing.

Although we never made an official trip to Wangfujing, our hotel was mighty close. It was also the first time I’ve been to Beijing without my weather app notifying me that my skin will burn within my first 10 minutes outside. Also, the President of the Dominican Republic was in town, so we ran into some smog-less sightseeing. From that point on, I knew autumn in Beijing was something special.

With that, we wasted no time on our journey to Wangfujing. I had been many times, but the street never loses its luster — watching the reaction of a friend who has never witnessed so many people casually eat squid on a stick and listen to great music will always be priceless. I spent the summer in Beijing so I had been to Wangfujing more times than I remember. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away once more. However, I’m thankful this trip was geared toward understanding the cities development through the ages. As a tourist, student, and eventually someone hungry for scorpion on a stick, my previous visits to Wangfujing ignored its history and how far the street has come. S/o to the Davidson in China program for encouraging us to do more than just eat the snacks. From that point of view, I was very blown away.

As Westerners and students abroad, Wangfujing is so foreign compared to anything we’ve ever seen — that’s what makes it so great. The crowdedness, singing, face painting, and gimmicks designed to get you to buy sticked-scorpion make for a great day.

If you were hoping this blog post would be a food review: 4/5. Acquired taste.

Yuhu

Up until now our travels were comfortable. Suspiciously comfortable. Although we were warned about the altitude, few of us have experienced the effects that nearly two miles of elevation can bring out, and like most, I was honestly pretty curious to see how this one would turn out. The constant warnings of altitude sickness bred a sense of alertness before we took our first steps. Knowing the altitude may be too strong for some, our group took on a silent sense of comradery. True to the spirit of the adventurer, together we walked, onwards, but mostly upwards.

As we made our way into Yuhu I couldn’t help but notice the pace of life. Not just human-to-human interaction, but the serenity that made up most of the village. I first remember observing the slowness of the mosquitos living at such great heights. After watching a man taking his work break slowly swat at an even slower mosquito, I caught a glimpse of the tranquility so many of the villagers enjoyed. For a moment, I thought this coolness came withouts some of the luxuries we appreciate today. However, what I saw next offered a new perspective: A local woman riding a horse and using an iPhone to pay for street food. I was surprised. To see such a modern thing seamlessly make its way into everyday life was interesting for me. So many little things went into that brief moment to create a mixture of the past and present. Before our trip to Yuhu we discussed how all cultures have a right to pick and choose how they’d like to change – that moment was the perfect picture to better my understanding.

It was also interesting to imagine what Joseph Rock would’ve seen. The dedication to preserve his old house was telling, as well. It was cool to learn that some older members of the village still have memories of him from their youth.  At the town museum, I was able to see a picture of Rock. He really looked like he owned the place. I immediately thought, “This probably isn’t a good thing”, but apparently some elderly villagers had happy memories of the 外国King. Our visit was short, I left without fully grasping his impact on the village, why he looks kingly in all of his existing photos, and why he’s immortalized in Lijiang. Thinking about this puts me somewhere between a rock and a hard place (I had to), but from the local people’s perspective there was nothing to worry about. That aside, although our journey into Yuhu marked the beginning of our upward adventures, in many ways it was the first time we could smash our preconceptions of rural China, and see China from a new perspective.

The group in front of Joseph Rock’s old home

 

 

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