My Experience in Shanghai

I still remember the first day I landed in Shanghai. As one who grew up in Tokyo, Japan, Shanghai seemed similar to Tokyo in a way that everything was so accessible. Although as I spent more time and explored the local way of living in Shanghai, I grasped the difference. The mix of global elements and traditional culture in Shanghai taught me both the new evolving part and traditional side of China. What fascinated me the most about this place is that when I thought that I had explored enough, I always discovered new sites and the allure of Shanghai. Even the largest fake market that I visited multiple times, I found out about the best tailor located within the market only two weeks ago.

Even though I do not speak fluent Chinese, people in Shanghai has always been very welcoming and friendly. Even though it’s a three hours flight from Japan to Shanghai, by the end of the program, I view Shanghai as one of the places where I want to come back to as my second home.

Learning language in the country is a completely different experience than learning it in a foreign country. Even if you do not speak the language fluently, interaction with local people in their language not only improves your language skill, but also teaches you the side of language you have never been exposed to. I hope to come back to this amazing place sometimes with polished Mandarin to immerse myself into the culture even more.

Interning in Shanghai’s French Concession

Exploring Shanghai’s French Concession after work at Rethink. Fall 2018

This past semester, I have been an intern at Rethink Manufacturing Solutions, an American owned Manufacturing Consultancy in Shanghai’s French Concession. Rethink is owned by two  young entrepreneurs from Portland, Oregon. Their objective is to connect American and European startups with Chinese manufacturers for their manufacturing needs. My supervisors were  amazing to work with and made my time in Shanghai a period of professional growth. As an intern, my jobs included creating and managing social media, writing articles about sustainability practices within China’s manufacturing industry, and developing was to ease the contact process between Rethink and their clients.

As an environmental studies major with great interest in entrepreneurship, I found this internship to be quite beneficial. Prior to accepting the offer, I was hesitant to agree to work with Rethink partially because of the bad press China’s manufacturing industry receives. This industry rightfully deserves such media coverage; China’s manufacturing industry is the main contributor for air and water pollution in the country, not to mention poor working conditions in many factories. However; during my time at Rethink, I learned that, while China is far from adopting better Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices, some factories do exist in China that pride themselves on their sustainability practices and working conditions. Foreign manufacturing consultancies such as Rethink do their best to place their clients with such factories with high CSR values. While at this point in time it is impossible to always match American and European companies with factories with the best CSR values, in a decade, it is my belief that China will offer more factories for those that view sustainability as a paramount practice in their supply chain.

Interning with Rethink has inspired me to continue this path along the intersection of sustainability and manufacturing. While mainland China is a few years away from developing the political practices and framework ideal for a sustainable manufacturing industry, Taiwan is a place where I wish to explore their top-notch sustainability practices within their circular-economy based manufacturing industry and continue learning Mandarin.

While I grew much as a professional in the sustainability field as an intern at Rethink, I was also able to explore a part of Shanghai not easily accessible from Fudan University’s campus. Working in Shanghai’s French Concession, I had easy access to many amazing restaurants and cafes. It is important to realize that Shanghai’s French Concession is a bustling part of the city that is home to many foreigners wth a long history starting in the 19th century. For this reason, this area contains a diverse range of eateries from Tacolicious, a delicious Mexican restaurant, to Pain Chaud, a aromatic coffee shop; not to mention the many restaurants offering the best Shanghainese cuisine offered in the world. The French Concession represents the immense diversity and entrepreneurial spirit found in Shanghai. In this part of the city, I never felt out of place. I developed a sense of belonging that I never thought I would have experienced in China.

I anticipate returning to Shanghai over the summer as to learn more about this entrepreneurial spirit unique to Shanghai. During my return trip, I look forward to calling the French Concession home once again.

Unpacking China

I spent my last semester in Hangzhou, an hour bullet train ride outside of Shanghai. An academic advisor described Hangzhou to me as “Shanghai on vacation.” It is smaller than Shanghai and has a more relaxed culture, but the features are pretty much the same— each as a body of water, malls, and a booming economy.

I was quite confident that after having a semester in baby Shanghai that this semester would be an absolute breeze, but I was wrong. When I came to Shanghai, I already knew how to use Chinese apps, the Shanghai subway, and felt pretty well-adjusted to Chinese culture. However, there are certain challenges of living in China that just don’t go away no matter how much time you’ve spent in the country. For me, a lot of these challenges have been intellectual.

Last semester, I was bound to a Chinese language pledge and didn’t get much of an opportunity to interpret a lot of the cultural, ethical, and even situational challenges that I grappled with while in China. Many of my questions stemmed from comparison to the Western context. All of my professors were Chinese and because of media censorship in China, many of my concerns related to issues and information that was censored in media and sensitive to discuss. Within my cohort of American students, we lacked the language skills to be able to tackle a lot of our burning questions. Because I had a VPN to allow me to access Western news, I was able to read about the Muslim internment camps in Xinjiang, op-eds about the societal effects of social credit, or environmental atrocities in western China. But I couldn’t really talk about any of it.

This semester, in my Davidson course and independently with my peers, I was able to unpack a lot of the questions I’ve had sitting in my brain for the past 8 months. But just because I was able to talk about it more, the uncomfortable feeling remained of knowing all this information while the rest of the country does not. The odd frustration of absolutely loving the country I’ve been living in for the past year, but disproving of its institutions doesn’t go away. This semester, I was able to take an upper-level political science seminar, conduct independent research on how public information is used in China, and learn more about civil and corporate law in China through an internship. These opportunities only served to open up more questions.

Studying China comes with an impossibly steep learning curve, and although I’ve been studying the language for six years and have spent a year in this country, I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface. To me, that’s incredibly exciting.

Shanghai’s Hidden Gems

When I left Minneapolis and finally said goodbye to the States, I spent a lot of time mentally preparing myself for the next six months. I’d been to China before, but this time I was going to enter an entirely new environment. I was going to spend the next eight weeks at a language program where I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t leave, and most importantly couldn’t speak English. I spent a lot of that plane ride trying to figure out how I was going to navigate China without knowing a lot of Chinese and without the luxury of speaking English. But the thing about China is that no matter how much you overthink it, the minute you step off the plane you have no choice but to find a way to snap out of it.

There’s something comforting about eating at the same small restaurant every single day for five months in a row. The restaurants are no bigger than the average master bedroom and seat no more than twelve people but usually there’s never more than four or five people eating at one time. There are never any new cooks, no foreigners, and whenever you walk in it feels like you’ve entered a space where time passes really slowly. My first time coming to China I ended up going to one of these this by mistake. I didn’t know how to say anything other than chicken, and the only man in Shanghai who understood my pronunciation of ‘chicken fried rice’ was at the small restaurant down the street around the corner. But at his corner restaurant I started to learn more about China from the people who ate there. There weren’t any expats or other study abroad students, just people who got off from work sneaking in a quick snack. They were all eager to talk to me about one thing or another, never shy. One thing I’ve noticed is that no matter the city, the community in these small restaurants (for the most part) remains the same.

Other than ordering a couple of dishes, I couldn’t speak any Chinese my first time in China which made my Beijing restaurant experience much more interesting. My roommate and I were learning Chinese and the husband and wife who owned the shop were eager to help. Every day my roommate and I would walk in, they would smile that we came back for the nth day in a row, make us dumplings and help us practice our Chinese. The small restaurant in Beijing also became an unexpected home away from home.

Fast forward to my time in Shanghai. Surprisingly, this has also been one of my favorite parts about Shanghai. Up to this point, I knew small restaurants were fun and something I consistently enjoyed going to, but I never really knew how much I liked them until coming back to Shanghai. Being far from home made it hard to find a sense of community, but the store owner smiling and throw you a light-hearted joke, or expressing concern because you haven’t shown up in three days became the closest thing to it. In Shanghai, my Chinese improved a lot and I was able to have more meaningful conversations. People didn’t hold back with their questions either. Some questions I didn’t have the answer to in English or Chinese. Other times people would explain their point of view on issues in China, America, or another place, but most of the time it was lighthearted and they’d always show me something new.

These places always led to funny interactions, interesting experiences, new faces, and new ideas. Overall, this trip had many ups, but to me, the most constant (not exciting, but underratedly interesting ) thing was practicing Chinese with the people at the corner dumpling shop. I always learned something new, got a WeChat ID, or ate a good meal, and I’ll definitely crave it when I get back to the States.



TL:DR Shanghai is awesome, Mobike > Ofo, Chinese Street Food is YUMMY, Frisbee & Friends

Welcome to my final blog post. While I feel like I could write a 100 page novel about all of my experiences, I know that 1) No one wants to read that much and 2) more importantly, that would take lots of motivation that I am now lacking at the end of finals. Anyways, I hope you enjoy the following.

Shanghai has been a very enlightening experience. Coming from a relatively small town in the US, I have never had to adjust to city life. Despite the slight language barrier, I think Shanghai was the perfect first city to live in. The public transportation is fantastic, the people are friendly, and most parts of the city are fanatically cleaned. Compared to New York, Shanghai excels in all of these categories. Specifically, the subway system throughout Shanghai is extremely well kempt. There is no trash on the ground or on the rails themselves. In addition to cleanliness, the subway’s intercom also speaks in English as well as Chinese. This made the transition to China much smoother as I didn’t have to constantly ask for directions.

(Some friendly Shanghai residents)

Rentable Bikes. Let me first explain how these work. You download an app corresponding to one of the multiple different businesses (Mobike, Ofo, or Alipay) and then make an account that is linked to your banking card. After getting approved, you can rent that company’s bike by using their app to scan a code on the desired bike which in turn unlocks the back wheel. While riding, you get charged by the hour. When you have arrived at your location, you can park the bike wherever you want (but make sure you lock it!).

In America, I have seldom seen rentable bikes anywhere. My first encounter with them was actually on Davidson’s campus. I think a large part of this comes from the fact that bike lanes are hard to find on any road…and we are lazy. In Shanghai, and China more broadly, people ride bikes all of the time, and there are always bike lanes. I do not intend on going into the politics of this issue; however, being able to rent a bike when running late to class or just to get somewhere in a quarter of the time has been wonderful. I must say though, the quality and availability varies between companies. I’ll compare the different companies to cars in America to make the comparison easier to understand.

Ofo = your neighbor’s clunker or Bumblebee in the 700th Transformers sequel (yellow and dilapidated). While they are pretty prevalent around the city, oftentimes the chain or the brakes are broken. Even more frustrating, the app will randomly stop working, which makes it extremely frustrating use. In addition, Ofo charges 3 kuai per ride (This is less than 50 cents, however compared to Mobike, it’s a rip-off). Analogously, they work once you get them started, but are keen to never start/ break down.

Mobike = a new or slightly used sedan. Like Ofo, they are everywhere throughout the city. However, I have personally had much more success with them than Ofo. You can almost always rely on successfully renting a bike when you see one as they are seldom broken. The app is easy to use, reliable, and only charges you 1 kuai an hour. They have even introduced a ‘new model’ (Cadillac-ish …?) that comes with an extremely adjustable seat. Overall, the preferred choice.

Alipay = a friendly Bentley. When you rent them, the bike says hello to you (hence the “friendly”). Sitting on an Alipay seat is like sitting on a deep, leather couch. They rock nice blue and white colors for a sleek and easy ride. The app is easy to use; however, just like Bentley’s in America, they are hard to find. (hourly rate MIA)

(The Bentley store of Shanghai)

Apologies for the length of that rent-a-bike breakdown, but I thought it was necessary. On to the street food, Shanghai provides a wide variety of options that are CHEAP. This includes jianbing (crepe/egg base, crunchy fried bread, peanuts, lettuce, sweet sauce, and whatever else you want all wrapped in a burrito-like fashion), shengjian (pork dumplings fried in a giant pan) and pork buns (seriously the juiciest and tastiest pork I think I’ve ever tried inside a crisp bun) which are probably my favorite three. On average, you can eat one of these filling options for less than a dollar. I am going to include Bubble Tea on the street food list as you do in fact find it on the street. I thought Bubble Tea stores were highly overrated after arriving in Shanghai, but their accessibility, chewy bubbly goodness (tapioca pearls) and assortment of drinks has changed my mind.

(Jianbing, Fried Dumplings, and another Jianbing lady)

In terms of actually getting involved at Fudan, after a month in China I joined Fudan’s Ultimate Frisbee team (aka the Crazy Saints) and found a few language partners. To begin with, joining the Crazy Saints was probably my favorite choice that I made in Shanghai. It allowed me to not only play frisbee (great sport btw), but more importantly utilize my Chinese in a completely different setting. The culture around Ultimate Frisbee is also slightly different in China. While it still has the weird energy and silly cheers of its American counterpart, there is much less contact and more foul calling. Also, at the end of games, everyone circles up and compliments the other team. This was a quite the unique experience, especially given that I hardly understood a word they said.

(Ultimate Frisbee Tournament)

Finding language partners was probably my second favorite choice as it allowed me to both practice my Chinese and get to know Chinese students of all ages from all over China. I participated in some Master’s research as a foreigner that was learning Chinese, got treated to meals, learned some calligraphy and helped translate/ correct grammar in some of their assignments. Hopefully they all will remain my penpals in the future.

Finally, the usage of phones. Everything seems to be digitalized here. No matter where you go, even if it’s a small street vendor who only works twice a week, they have either WeChat or Alipay. You can use both of these simply by scanning the appropriate QR code with the corresponding app. This has made purchasing extremely easy and efficient throughout my stay in China.

Shanghai was, overall, a wonderful experience abroad.