An Introduction to Shanghai

The view from The Bund, on my first full night in the city.

Coming from a small town in Vermont, city life has always intrigued me. When I was growing up, the most exciting part of going to a city was riding the escalators and elevators in buildings that had more than two floors. But, as I stepped off the plane at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, after a 14-hour flight, I was painfully aware that this city had more to offer than moving sidewalks and rotating doors. I was to spend nearly two months, primarily alone, halfway across the world, in a city that houses over 20 million people. Needless to say, by the time I made it through customs at the airport, I was running purely on adrenaline and anxiety.

The primary reason I was relatively petrified when I arrived in Shanghai was how unprepared I felt, as an inexperienced traveler who barely speaks the native language. The vocabulary and grammatical structures that I studied for three semesters at Davidson immediately eluded me when I stepped off the plane, to the point where all I could mumble was “对不起 (I’m sorry),” “听不懂 (I don’t understand),” or “谢谢 (thank you).” Ready to point and nod my way into a taxi to take me to my housing, I was met with an unexpected, but unbelievably gracious, surprise: an acquaintance from high school and her lovely parents were waiting at the airport gate to pick me up.  I stepped off that plane and immediately felt mothered. My temporary hosts were impressed when I said “thank you” in Mandarin, and gave me warm smiles as my friend translated during our conversation.

People’s Square on a sweltering hot afternoon.

The ride to my apartment was an introduction to Shanghai unto itself. After navigating our way through the traffic surrounding the airport, I finally saw it. Or at least I thought I saw it. I very quickly realized that it is simply not possible to see this city. I’m not sure it’s ever been done, even by Shanghai natives. This metropolis is unfathomably large and stretches far beyond any limits I ever had the chance to explore. But my friend and her family made sure that I made it to my apartment and got settled in, so I was able to go to bed on my first night in my new home with a full stomach and a functioning router.

Out to lunch with my coworkers and boss from the Shanghaiist.

I was entirely exhausted, enormously intimidated, but unbelievably excited. A year ago, if someone would have told me that I would get to spend the summer in China, I would have never believed them. But in those first few days, as I explored my neighborhood, figured out how to get around on the Metro, and began my internship, it all became incredibly real. Skyscrapers stretch endlessly in every direction until you forget what the horizon looks like. People traverse the city on subways below you, bikes next to you, and freeways above you, in a chaotic but seamlessly functional infrastructure. And although I am halfway across the world, although I am surrounded by more man-made structures than I ever have seen or ever will see, although I don’t really know anyone in this massive city, I am still surrounded by people. And people, wherever you go, are, for the most part, dependable, kind, and willing to help someone in need.