Goodbye to Shanghai


It is hard to believe that the semester is already ending, but I have finished up my last homework assignments, bought all my last-minute gifts, and started packing. Although I came into this semester as a rather sheltered student from the suburbs, I feel like I’m leaving it as a jet-setting international traveler.

I have loved my time in Shanghai. Every time I ride in a taxi and look up at those big skyscrapers at night, I can feel that I’m at the center of a passionate global city. From eating street food at night near Tonghe to walking along the Bund, it has been an amazing semester.

My time in Shanghai is ending, but Shanghai will always have a very special place in my heart. I made such meaningful friendships and had such wonderful experiences in one of the interesting cities in the world.

My Semi-Eco, Shanghainese Lifestyle

Trying to be environmentally mindful in a city like Shanghai takes a great deal of blind faith. It takes blind faith because almost every “recycling” or “sustainable” facility doesn’t look like that at all. In a country where I don’t speak the language or know much about local sustainability, I simply trust and hope that a few of my recyclables end up somewhere other than a landfill.

The air quality suffers in China, which means that my lungs suffer, too.

I lived in Davidson College’s Eco-House during my last academic year, so I had a relatively well-established routine in trying to be environmentally thoughtful. Of course, that routine was drastically changed when I arrived in Shanghai. In some ways, my carbon footprint has significantly increased, but in other ways, I have actually become more energy efficient while living in Shanghai.

Here’s an example of the advantages and disadvantages of an environmental lifestyle in Shanghai. In the United States, I carry around a CamelBak filled with tap water. In Shanghai, I carry around huge plastic bottles of mineralized water. The major downside is that I drink massive amounts of water, insane amounts of water according to my friends. I am always well-hydrated, so I amass piles of plastic bottles. I put them outside my apartment door with the rest of my trash, and I cross my fingers that the Tonghe employees throw them in with recycling. Or if walking on the street, I throw them into one of many old trash cans with two sections labeled “recycling” and “other waste.” I really do not know the ultimate outcome, though.

Fingers crossed that these get recycled.

Luckily, I am more energy efficient in other ways. For example, I hang-dry my clothes. The washing machines are not equipped to dry clothes, so like all the other nearby apartments, I dry my clothes on the porch or in my room. It saves energy, but I never actually started hang-drying my clothes until coming to Shanghai.

Hang-drying clothes is also a stylish way to decorate a dorm room.

Environmentalism is a complex topic for most developing countries, but especially for China. Shanghai had a global environmental spotlight for some time because Chongming Island was originally planned to be the world’s first purpose-built eco-city. As Chai Lu, Feng Ran, and I have researched throughout the semester, that eco-city has not come to fruition. Many of the environmental initiatives around Shanghai seem similar: they are great in theory but hardly executed in practice. Still, Chinese environmental efforts are definitely still active and on-going. My plastic water bottles might be plentiful, but I do believe that at least some of them are being recycled.

NPR In China

what is the world beyond Tonghe, our international student dorm?

I have several necessary characteristics that change my dorm room into a home: lighting incense, wearing my wool socks, making tea, and putting on NPR. Like any addict, I go through phases where I listen to hours and hours of NPR. I have been known to listen to NPR during the entire drive from Virginia Beach, my hometown, to Davidson College–that is a solid six hours. Listening to the audio in China has been one of my strangest NPR experiences of all, though. I can listen to NPR and sometimes find out what is happening outside my own window in Shanghai.

Listening to NPR is relatively pretentious, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

I listen to NPR for endless reasons: to be better educated, to hear about the world, to fill the silence, or to soothe my boredom. Although I know that bias and perception influence any news story, I have never been more aware of that fact than while listening to NPR stories on China. I have only noticed a few stories on China, and most are in the context of the U.S. What does China mean for the U.S. presidential election? What does China mean for the U.S. fiscal cliff? Although I am living abroad in Shanghai, these stories do not mean much more to me than they did before traveling. These stories are written for Americans with an American education and cultural bias, and I easily fit that model.

Other new stories, though, have become exponentially more meaningful to me since coming to China. Stories that I used to ignore now represent and mean so much. For example, there was a very brief recent story on Haagen-Dazs winning an infringement lawsuit in China. General Mills, the owner of Haagen-Dazs, sued a clothing company named Harga-Dazs for name infringement. If I lived in the United States, I would not think twice about such a short snippet. But since living in Shanghai for four months, I can see more and more how small snippets like that one relate to the greater themes of globalization, intellectual property, shanzai (a name for Chinese copycat products), and cultural heritage.

As I thought about returning home to the United States, I reflected on how my study abroad experience will translate to my home life. I realized that studying abroad has changed my life in countless ways, even with small moments like listening to NPR. Studying abroad has widened my perspective on an infinite number of topics, and even  the most mundane details, like eating Haagen-Dasz ice cream, will now have a more global meaning for me.


My Own Personal “Fear Factor”

When I was younger, my family would all sit down together and watch “Survivor” and then “The Fear Factor”.  On “The Fear Factor” reality show, contestants have to face their fears by outlasting the others in uncomfortable or disgusting situations. It was always a good time to scream or laugh at the awful conditions people put themselves through for the cash reward. The second phase of the competition was always eating something mentally repulsive. Contestants would try to gag down taboo meats like ox testicles. My family would always debate about whether we could eat the strange meals. I have eaten duck or pork intestine three times while in China, and each time I flash back to watching “The Fear Factor” with my family. If I were on that reality show, my training in China would definitely help me eat a few gag-inducing foods.

Obviously I know that the repulsion I feel towards certain foods is completely culturally constructed. But when I’m trying to swallow down a piece of chicken foot or duck blood, that understanding hardly helps me. I definitely don’t have a nuanced palate either. I have tried my hand at ostrich, but in general I tend to pass on any meat besides chicken. Before I came to Shanghai, though, I decided that I could not let my squeamish stomach limit me. If anyone was going to be eating strange foods, it would be me.

China is a great place for a cultural experience with food, too. Vegetables don’t necessarily taste like vegetables because they’re loaded with MSG. Chains of restaurants can make your stomach sicker than street food. Meats are plentiful, full of bones, and sometimes look still living. One of my best friends went on the Davidson in Peru program, and she brought me back a book called “Extreme Foods.” About one-fourth of the book’s examples were Chinese foods. A nervous American in China might spend days eating at McDonald’s while an adventurous eater can eat everything from dragon fruit to dog meat.

Although I was very nervous at first, intestine really isn’t too bad. I almost gagged during my first encounter, but by the third, I was eating some just for fun. It looks and tastes like I imagined intestine would (very, very chewy). Eating has been one of countless great benefits of coming to China. After eating so many culturally different foods, I doubt I’ll ever fear a food again.

Shanghai’s Wet Markets

In the United States, meat is neatly packaged, clean, and always perfectly pink. Or at least that is what advertising tells us over and over again. We hardly ever see the live animal that we are eating, and most of us do not want to. With the exception of seafood, American consumers like their meat to look as unlike meat as possible. The antithesis of American meat-phobia is Shanghai’s wet markets.

For our Chinese Marketplace class with Professor Pan Tianshu, my group is investigating the idea of hygiene and freshness at Shanghai wet markets compared to American grocery stores. For freshness, we are interested in how long it takes for the meat to go from animal to food on a table.  For hygiene, we are interested in the cultural relativity of cleanliness and food preparation. To that end, we visited a local wet market with many stands of meat, vegetables, eggs, and fish. The food is plentiful and very different from markets in the United States.

In Shanghai, there are fruit stands on every corner, but the wet markets with meat a little less common. It is rare to see a foreigner visiting the wet market, but the markets are packed with locals in the early morning. The wet market is lined with little stands, which are often run by one or two family members. When visiting the wet market, one can easily find live chickens and fish, many different bird eggs, pork, beef, and most vegetables and fruits.

The first stand we visited was serving live fish in tubs of water on the street. There were several vats of water categorized by type of fish. Each shallow layer of water had a tube running from it, which presumably oxygenated the fish’s water. The fish would flop around and slowly swim on their sides in the tub. I suspect that the water was not completely oxygenated because the fish were very lethargic, which is good for the sellers but bad for the fish. At one point, a man drove up on a moped with a huge plastic bag strapped to the back. He parked next the vats, pulled the container off, and started filling a new tub with water. At that moment, we noticed that the bag was actually squirming slightly on the ground. After the tub was filled, he pulled the bag open and started dumping out the fish. Fish would rush out gasping for air, and most would plop down into the tub. A few escaped and flopped onto the street, but the man deftly caught any escaped fish. It was an interesting sight to watch, and it was certainly not one that you would find in the United States.

Another memorable point about the wet market is the perception of food safety. Although there is a grassroots movement against factory farming, most Americans assume their meat is safe and the animals are well treated. In reality, that often is not the case, but most Americans do not ever see or come in contact with the reality. In China, a shopper can exactly see how their meat was prepared. Fish are killed, descaled, and chopped on a small stool right near the shopper. Chopped meat is laid out on an outdoors table for hours with a fan to keep the flies away. Live chickens are crammed into small cages, or they sometimes even walk around the shop without any restraint. It is beneficial that Chinese consumers can see the status of their meat, but at the same time, some of the wet market conditions are rather unappealing. For example, the sight of loose chickens wandering around next to meat that has been in the sun all day would bother me. Of course, that is probably a result of my American background.

Food is always cultural, and the wet markets are great evidence of that fact. Visiting Shanghai wet markets is meaningful because they show that food does not have to be frozen and packaged like it is in the United States. In the United States, we are so distanced from the animals that provide our food, so it is great to see a wet market where the underlying fear of meat is not present.