A first look at life in Shanghai

When my plane landed in Shanghai, I remember feeling instantly overwhelmed. I’d just traveled for nearly seventeen hours across time zones and the Pacific Ocean, and now I faced a multitude of taxi drivers shouting prices in Chinese. I managed to find one who didn’t overcharge me, and as I watched the city lights from the car window I began to understand what a vast, new place I had come to.

Last summer at that time, I would have had no intentions of ever learning Chinese, let alone going to China. My  public high school offered just two languages, both with unimpressive programs. When I arrived at Davidson, I decided on a whim to take Mandarin, and that reluctant choice led me to an elementary Chinese class that I absolutely loved. I attended lunches at the Chinese table and applied for Davidson in East Asia, not thinking that I’d be living halfway across the world in a matter of months.

Before this trip, I’d never even flown by myself. The first night I spent in Shanghai, before my roommates arrived, I slept in my small apartment bed, knowing that I was 12 hours ahead of everyone I cared about back at home. From our window on the 25th floor, I could see the skyscrapers, busy streets, and overpasses that I’d be navigating for the next couple months, and I wondered how I would possibly survive in Shanghai.

The next day, I went exploring for the first time. I bought a SIM card from a store down the street and ordered the wrong meal at a restaurant, ending up with a single fried fish instead of the noodles I thought I’d ordered. My life, at least for a while, consisted of little mistakes like that one: mispronouncing words, bumping into tables in crowded restaurants, and getting lost in the subway. Once I gave the taxi driver the wrong address and ended up under a bridge in a different part of the city until I could hail another cab.

I made many mistakes like these during my first few days in Shanghai. I had no choice but to stand out, and once I accepted that I was navigating a new place, meeting new people, and speaking a new language I felt less scared than before. I learned that I didn’t mind making grammar mistakes or mispronouncing words in front of locals. I didn’t mind people staring at me on the metro or laughing when I ordered the wrong food at a restaurant. In fact, throughout my travels to different regions in China, I found that as a whole, Chinese people treat foreigners with unparalleled kindness, curiosity, and respect — an attitude vastly different from the way many Americans treat those deemed outsiders.

The people I met wanted to practice their English with me and to teach me new words in Chinese. They wanted to know where I’d come from and most of all — why I’d come to China. At the time, I didn’t have a complete answer to that last question. I knew that Shanghai was the complete opposite of my North Carolina hometown and of Davidson, too. I knew that something had compelled me to fly far away from both. Maybe it was a need to be a part of a larger, global community. I found great comfort in being able to participate in city life by walking to work each morning and eating a quiet breakfast on the train.

Maybe it was a need to remove myself from my own life for a little while. I was far away from my family, my friends, my school, and my country, and I was able to look at each with the needed perspective of someone on the outside.

Maybe I didn’t have a concrete reason for going to China at all, but going there has certainly changed the way I think about myself, about other people, and about the world.