A Memorable Experience in Shanghai

Over the duration of the four months I’ve lived here in Shanghai, while valuing my experience here, encountered many challenges. From adjusting to the different foods to figuring out how to communicate with limited Mandarin speaking skills, my entire time here has definitely been eye opening. I came to study abroad in China to further understand my Chinese heritage, improve my Mandarin, and to overall comprehend the Chinese culture through a hands on experience. While the majority of my time was spent on studying/working for my classes, the most memorable activity within Shanghai was learning about the Friends café and being able to spend time there.

The FRIENDS cafe had originated from the TV show friends, as I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with. As one of the biggest TV shows in the U.S. and one of my personal favorite shows, it’s no wonder that there are replicas. At first I was slightly confused as to how this coffee shop was even available, as most U.S. television shows are censored in China, but according to research a lot of Chinese citizens actually watch friends in order to learn English.

Through this initial research on the cafe, I discovered the Friends cafe was a mockup created by a friends superfan named Gunther (if you haven’t seen the show, Gunther is the owner of the coffee shop the main characters frequent), and he opened up friends cafes in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Since friends is such a popular show within China, he wanted to emphasize that demand for the show and portray it as a reality. As it’s shown in the show, the Friends cafe has a giant logo on the front with the name central perk, and the inside is almost identical to the show itself (as seen in the figure below). All the items on the menu, from coffee to snacks are all modeled after food items from the show as well.

I thought this coffee shop was a perfect place to analyze through the lens of western influence, as not only is the cafe based off of an American T.V. show, everything on the menu is westernized as well. It was amazing to me to see how big of an impact such a specific aspect of American culture, that being a T.V. show, influenced a single Chinese citizen to create these three independent coffee shops. From the menus to all the signs and decorations, everything was completely in English (the menu and the T.V. did have Chinese subtitles). As with my initial thought of how it was possible for Friends to be so popular in China, once I reached the cafe, I was surprised to see how few foreigners were there and how many locals were enjoying the cafe – and not even just the food, most of the people were either studying and enjoying the ambiance, or watching the show itself.

The main significance I found was how casual and normal the entire experience was. From what I’ve learned about China within my courses, and just from personal experiences from living in Shanghai for the past couple of months, I had never seen, on such a large scale, both foreigners and locals just drinking coffee and enjoying the ambiance in such a heavily westernized environment. Usually in my experience, for a such a small, heavily western, independent place, the majority of customers would be foreign.

This particular coffee shop allowed both foreigners and locals to come together to enjoy coffee and T.V., and while in a westernized environment, the Chinese cultural aspect was still present through the Chinese subtitles, needing to speak Chinese to the waiter, and unusual/hard to find location. As China continues to open up, accept foreigners, their influences, and their cultures, Chinese people are continuously becoming more and more globalized – taking the best aspects and influences from foreigners and creating their own new innovative take. Coffee shops around the world create an atmosphere of coming together, and as China continues to open itself up, that same sense of causal community bond over even such a small aspect of western influence of coffee will become a part of China’s culture as well.

My Experience Abroad in Shanghai, China

I have to say that coming to China for my fall semester of junior year was one of the best choices I have ever made. Initially, I was very hesitant to even apply to this program in fear that I would not be able to complete my major once I return to Davidson College or that I would be missing out on something back home. However, now I can say with utmost certainty that everyone should go abroad at least once! Being in China has taught me many things about myself and how I am able to handle being in a new environment completely on my own.

While in on the Davidson in China program we did a lot of traveling as a group. Our first stop was Yunnan Province. While there we were exposed to various Chinese cuisines and cultures. We were in Dali, Kunming, Lijiang and other places as well. The most notable thing while traveling around those different places were the people that we interacted with. Even though each place is roughly three to four hours away from one another each city was completely different from the previous one. In Kunming, it felt like I was in a less chaotic Shanghai, but when I was in Dali I felt like I was in a rural area surrounded by mountains. It was like going from Boston, Massachusetts and in a couple of hours landing in the midwest of the United States.

Aside from traveling and interacting with the people that live in those areas, the food in China is amazing! There is this app called Dianping that many of us found useful when trying to find new places to eat. That app is similar to what the Yelp app is in America, only it is completely in Mandarin. If you love spice and are willing to try things that initially may not come off appealing then living in China will be easy. There were some places where I was able to get a taste of Western food when I was feeling a little homesick. The best experience I had while in Shanghai was eating at a rooftop restaurant on the Bund at night. It was beautiful to just sit above the Huangpu River and enjoy my delicious Italian meal while admiring the Pudong district across the way. Basically, just try everything while in China because you never know what dishes you may end up falling in love with.

There were some culture shocks that I was not expecting. I knew that not having a Western toilet was going to be a little challenging, but I did not realize what it would mean to be Asian in China. I have had both positive and negative interactions while explaining my nationality to some of the local people. On one hand, I have had people be fascinated and continue to ask me questions, while I have had others blatantly exclude me from conversations or argue with me that I am Chinese once I told them I am Cambodian. This was something I was not prepared for nor knew I would experience, but it still does not take away from my overall experience in China. I would return to China in a heartbeat if given the chance. It is amazing to be able to immerse yourself into another culture and being able to speak a different language. This was my first time ever traveling outside of the United States and it has convinced me that I need to travel even more. 

I wanted to include a picture of a woman that I ended up having a close but distant relationship with. She is the bing lady next door to the building I attended class in. I went to her stall every day to order the same thing and after the first or second time I went she began to remember me. She would greet me with a smile every day and smirk at the fact that I was back again. Her shop has been open for 10 years and I can understand why. If you end up being on the Davidson in China program, go to 国年路 and visit her. It is interactions like this that make going abroad worth it. I loved the community that I lived in and the experiences that I had while traveling.

Temple of Confucius

To start our November on a high note, we visited Beijing’s Temple of Confucius on an aptly crisp, autumn afternoon.  The Temple of Confucius is a local where people paid homage to the great thinker educator during the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. It also served as a testing site for the imperial examination held prior to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The temple was built in 1302 and additions were made during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. This temple in Beijing is the second largest temple in China constructed for Confucius.  Architecturally speaking, the temple consists of four courtyards each with similarly beautiful and exquisite carvings of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. The blue skies, yellow leaves, and blue birds of autumn accentuated the picturesque scene as we traversed the temple. What a beautiful place kept well preserved for hundreds of years. The dense history of the Temple of Confucius was palpable when approaching row upon row of 198 stone tablets each engraved with hundreds of names of Jinshi – the advanced scholars of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties.  Exactly 51,624 names are showcased to this day, honoring the men who studied the ways of Confucius and achieved this high honor.

Watch Out! It’s the “Touch Evil Cypress.” – The Temple of Confucius 2018

Not far from these tablets stands a gnarled, ancient evergreen called the “Touch Evil Cypress.” It was explained by our tour guide  that the name of this 700 year old “Chujian Bai” is associated with an ancient legend: during the Ming Dynasty, an official by the name of Yan Song came to worship the cypress the when one the branches of the tree fell and almost crushed him. Since Yan Song was known to be corrupt, the tree seemed to know his fate. People came to believe that the ancient cypress could distinguish between those who are good and those who are evil; hence the name, “Touch Evil Cypress.”

To end our time at the Temple of Confucius, we had the opportunity to witness a dance performance inspired by the students of Confucius. Young men and women dressed in clothing of the Qing Dynasty danced to music of the time. Although the movements were simple, the uniform grace and style, not to mention the majesty of the dancer’s red and blue attire, made the five-minute performance quite a spectacle. As a modern dancer on campus, I have to say that I received some inspiration from the performance. It is clear that Confucius continues to teach and inspire to this day, even through the art of dance.

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.

Shaolin Kung Fu Show in the Beijing Red Theatre

After traveling around Houhai in Beijing, we were treated to a kung fu show based off the famous Shaolin Temple. Thankfully, the tickets were relatively cheap with the price of about 160¥ per person, which is about $23. Before we were allowed to enter the theatre, we were greeted by a young boy sitting pretzeled-style with two wooden sticks that every so often he would bang against the bell in front of him. To say he greeted us was an understatement because during the times he was not ringing the bell he would stare intensively past everyone crowding around him, never uttering a word. Once 30 minutes had passed all 19 of us were ushered into the theatre by our wonderful tour guide William the first. Luckily, we were able to snag seats very close to the stage!

The whole show was beautiful and engaging. It told the story of kung fu while demonstrating the countless abilities a kung fu student obtains while studying at the Shaolin Temple. My favorite scene would have to be when the couple had a whole section of the show used to display their intimate feelings for one another. This was an important part within the show because it was the catalyst for the turning point for the main character. Additionally, the colors and the way the actors utilized the stage was absolutely captivating! Aside from the romance scene, there were times when I was cringing and wishing for the show to end. This would happen when one of the students would place himself atop a spear with his bare belly and spin around on it. Before the student would perform the stunt they would use fruits or some other prop to prove that the spear could actually puncture him. Other than moments like that, the show is definitely an activity that you should do when visiting Beijing.

Just in case this description was not enticing enough, I have provided a link for reviews and a trailer of the show. Personally, I have always loved watching kung fu movies like the Ip Man series and The Grandmaster, so being able to see kung fu transition from a screen into a show was amazing. Just from watching the show you can begin to understand the hard work that the kung fu students must endure during their day-to-day training. Besides the actors and actresses, the props that they use are incredible! Their ability to morph the stage into any type of environment is mesmerizing. Whether they are displaying the inside of the Shaolin Temple or the training grounds, you feel as though you are a part of the show rather than a spectator. The only negative comment I have is that I wished they served regular popcorn rather than caramel or vanilla. The Shaolin Kung Fu show is a must see when visiting Beijing!

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