Settling into Shanghai: the highs and the lows

Having never been to Asia (or anywhere near) and with very little exploration into the culture that I was about to immerse myself in, I was going into this journey with no experience of the language and an incredibly warped view of what I thought Shanghai would be like. You could definitely say that I was nervous as I sat on the plane that flew from England to Shanghai.

Getting settled into life in Shanghai, and the entire journey that I would go upon throughout my 6 weeks there, was an eye-opening experience. I truly believe that my summer experiences have fundamentally changed some things about how I live my life, and will continue to influence the way in which I attempt to tackle the world around me. I am incredibly grateful for opportunity that this program has given me, and it will forever be one of my most important memories whilst at Davidson college.

Making my way from the airport to the apartment was a journey within itself; getting a taxi was an interesting experience on that side of the globe. In all honesty, managing to bargain the price from 650 to 200 yuan, with the non-existent Chinese that I had, is something that I will boast about for many years to come. Despite being a relatively little challenge, it was something that proved to me that, hey, maybe I can actually do this!

The first thing that I remember being struck by once being dropped off, was the intense humidity and general chaos of the streets. Walking through the tightly packed streets, dragging my luggage and holding a heavy sense of jetlag along with me, left me feeling both exhausted and disheartened. I had no idea whether the taxi driver had even dropped me off in the right place, and had no way of contacting anyone to ask whether I was actually in the right area of Shanghai. Daunting is definitely a useful word here. I was feeling very overwhelmed. It, somewhat embarrassingly, took me over an hour and a half to find the apartment that was approximately 100 feet away (not my finest moment). However, I managed it and added it to my list of little accomplishments that I would begin to treasure through my weeks there. After finally managing to get myself to the apartment, I went inside and was somewhat disappointed. Smh had mentioned that it was smaller than we had both envisioned, but seeing my 5ft bed in the corner of the room made me feel slightly apprehensive – I may be short, but I am definitely longer than 5 ft – the next 6 and a half weeks were going to be interesting. However, my feet hanging off of the edge did not stop me from napping… for a very long time.

The next day I was able to explore China with my roommate and fellow Davidson student, Sam Armas. I discovered an incredibly vibrant and chaotic city, with people going to and fro at all times. Wherever you go you have to be aware of fast cars, crazy mopeds and incautious pedestrians. You have to be on guard at all times! It is both incredibly exciting and exhausting. Running through the streets of Shanghai allowed me to soak up as much as I could about the daily life of people. From tai-chi in the park to incredible streets food and bubble tea chains, there so many things that I will remember about my Davidson In East Asia experience, and will forever treasure as what was my first journey to, and around, Asia.

On my third day in the city I badly injured my foot – to the point where I was unable to walk without serious pain. Despite several days of rest and ice, it refused to get any better; here began my trip to a Chinese hospital… not something I had been expecting of my first week in a new city where I didn’t speak the language. Luckily, I had a Chinese co-worker that was willing to accompany me on my day trip to the hospital and I knew full well that it would have been a very different experience had I been alone.

We began the day lining up to get myself registered – there was some trouble with my identification, as the worker had a lot of difficulty understanding why I had a middle name, as this is not common within China – and one difference that I began to realize that there is less of a sense of order within Shanghai. Lining up for registration was chaotic and disorganized, with people pushing and pulling trying to get to the front of the group. I found this infuriating, especially as this was an environment that I expected to be organized.  This is a theme that remains throughout my entire journey within Shanghai – chaos is an environment within which the population thrives.

Throughout the day I had many great conversations with my co-worker, and felt as though I was getting a closer glimpse into Chinese culture. I discovered that being a doctor was not considered to be a prestigious profession. This was shocking to me, as in both the US and the UK, those who are pre-med and go to medical school are considered to be some of the brightest people in the country. This discussion led to my discovery that those who were considered to be the most intelligent were encouraged to go university for things like business and management. This was interesting for me to discover, as it is so different from the cultural and societal norms that I have grown up with. At Davidson, being premed is an incredibly arduous task, and those that attempt it are considered to be some of the most intelligent and hardworking students on campus.

Luckily, after many hours and an X-ray, I discovered that nothing was broken! Yay! In fact, the doctor simply said “flat feet.. better shoes”. I bandaged it up. bought some ice-pack and prepared myself for some serious hobbling as I tried to soak up as much of city as I could. I was not about to let flat feet stop me from experiencing as much as I could.


*Disclaimer: I did indeed buy better shoes and am walking around as good as ever before.*

Siân Jessica Lewis

Davidson College 2020