Shanghai 2018

It’s been quite the journey here in China. Even in one semester, there is a lot to take away from being here. However, I regret to inform you that I must conclude my trilogy of posts for this semester. Welcome to the final blog, Blog 3: Shanghai. I hope you have so far enjoyed reading my (and everybody else’s) posts from around China!

To wrap up this epic finale of a post, I will write about where the magic all began: Shanghai. It’s a city of wonders, a magnificent city that shines radiantly in the darkest of nights. It’s a cosmopolitan city that has historically welcomed all kinds of foreigners, including me. Most of all, it is in my opinion the heart of modern China. It’s a city that only knows one direction: forward.

However, Shanghai does have a historical legacy that still lives on to this day despite economic transformation reshaping the identity of the city. It is possible to see that aspect of traditional Shanghai in Tianzifang (located in the French Concession), but I must admit, Tianzifang has now transformed into a tourist destination of art galleries. What I mostly saw were coffee shops, gift shops, and snack stands. But at the same time, Tianzifang had that kind of soothing feel, even when I was trying to make my way through the crowded street of people. The urban restoration project that changed the entire neighborhood still made me feel cozy over there, throwing me back in time to the days of when Tianzifang was simply a residential area. I wished I could see some spirits of former residents for the full experience, but oh well. Maybe in a movie, who knows. But those art galleries in that place were amazing. What a creative, bustling place.

Subways are absolutely amazing here. The trains are almost always on time, so much more reliable than the delayed NYC subways with their broken, aging tracks. Did I mention clean? Yes, the Shanghai subways are so clean! As a native of New York, these subway stations are literally from the future. I mean, Shanghai only knows one direction, and that is forward. Digital pay? Check. Sophisticated food delivery service? Check. Clean and reliable subway system? Check. Be right back, I’m going to get some bubble tea before I finish this post.

Fudan’s got a beautiful, wonderful campus. It’s pretty big, coming from a dude who’s only seen small campuses. I had to bike to my classes for once, which is something I don’t do in Davidson. Classes are definitely bigger, both in classroom size and number of students attending. Basically, here at Fudan, I received a liberal arts education (nothing new), but bigger! In a way, it kind of made me feel like home: our big culture in America, or is that just Texas?

I highly recommend students coming to Shanghai, whether for vacation or studying. However, I highly recommend knowing how to speak some Chinese. I did not find that many people in Shanghai who knew how to speak, or understand, any English. But this city made me feel very safe and comfortable. I never felt like I was in danger at any point. There are good Western restaurants here as well. I was able to get around places in Shanghai in three different ways: rental bicycle (ex: our beloved orange bikes on campus), subway, and Didi, the Chinese version of Uber. China has its own version of Amazon – Taobao – which you can apparently buy pigs from (not joking). In my honest opinion, Shanghai is a highly convenient city perfect for foreigners. I would definitely return here again, maybe even visit my Chinese teacher whom I will miss very much. (*tries not to shed a tear but it’s too hard*) Sayonara Zai jian Shanghai! And I mean that literally: “See you again Shanghai!”

Shanghai Experience

My time in Shanghai was incredible. I fell in love with the city the moment I got here. I did not know how beautiful the Bund was until I visited it at night. I spent most of my free time exploring the Shanghai food scene; I explored the city by traveling to recommended restaurants in different neighborhoods. After becoming acclimated to the food, I decided to focus specifically on finding the best food, which almost always ended with me ducking and weaving between waves of people and bikes swooshing back and forth the French concession.

I am pretty exhausted. I have had to manage time my last week studying for finals, connecting to VPN, exploring those last few places on my DianPing list, and emotionally preparing myself to leave this fantastic city. I must admit, I have not been happier at any point in my college career than I have been during this abroad experience, but I am also looking forward to bringing my recharged self back to Davidson for my last year-and-a-half (fingers crossed.) Either way, I’m just going to toss out my final thoughts:

I have to admit, I expected local people to be more reserved when talking to foreigners, but quickly realized that my ability to communicate using the local language automatically side-stepped any surface-level reservations. At the beginning of the semester, my conversations with my taxi drivers were limited to my favorite Chinese dishes and to talking about the weather. By the end, I was talking about the future of electric cars, beauty standards, and China’s soft power.
I did not have one favorite place in Shanghai; I know it sounds corny, but every week I found a new place or district that I ended up revisiting a few times, only to move onto the next new place. I do have to admit, I went to the Fake Market over 10 times during my stay here– bargaining became more of a hobby than a shopping tactic… (at one store, Lucas– my bargaining partner– and I were able to bargain a custom leather jacket down from 2000 kuai to 800.)

Oh, and I love Mobikes. I will be very sad not to have them once I return to Davidson.

Davidson NEEDS a Daxuelu, or at least a 1/5 of it, or AT LEAST a noodle place.

My time in Shanghai allowed me to learn what kind of learner I am, and I feel like it was an invaluable life experience. I made some incredible connections with the people at Fudan, the restaurants, the Didis, the markets, and just by walking around the city. I I feel like I owe the city after it treated me so well this semester, and I am excited to see how it has changed next time I return. I will be back Shanghai, and I will come bearing presents.

Shoutout t0 all my peers, teachers, and friends who have joined me during this experience, 我爱你们. I cannot wait to share all my experiences with my family and close friends!

Huangpu River Tour & Shanghai

Our time in Shanghai these past four months was incredibly fleeting. It seems only yesterday that we arrived at the airport, jet-lagged and in desperate need of a shower, and headed to our dorms for the first time. The adjustment to life in Unijia, life at Fudan, and life in Shanghai in general was difficult at first, but we slowly grew more accustomed to our new way of life in this part of the world. It’s been an incredible experience, and I am so glad to have spent my semester in China.

One of the most rewarding experiences during my time in Shanghai was our boat ride on the Huangpu River. We met up as a group for dinner, and immediately went downtown afterwards for a boat ride on the water. Although the weather in Shanghai has gotten significantly colder in recent months, this was one of the last temperate nights before the arrival of winter. Upon arriving at the dock, we made our way to the top level of the boat so we could enjoy the best view of the Bund. I was especially glad to partake in this experience because last time I was in Shanghai, my high school group had organized to take this same boat ride with our Chinese host families, but my sister got extremely sick the day before. I stayed back at the hotel with her, and was unable to take the boat ride that our classmates raved about for days afterwards. And now, I see why. It was an incredible experience to see the Bund and the downtown area lit up at night.

Another one of my favorite experiences in Shanghai was a dinner I attended with my Chinese teacher and some of her friends from the ICES Language School at Fudan University. I am enrolled in this program for the spring of 2019, and my teacher was kind enough to introduce me to some of the current students. We met up for dinner at a restaurant near Wujiaochang and spent the evening discussing not only the program and the structure of the classes, but also about life in Shanghai in general. Two of these students were Moroccan, and the other was Italian; we spoke for the majority of the dinner in Mandarin, but we switched between English, Arabic, and Italian (and some Spanish!) as well. I was grateful for this opportunity to meet other people and learn more about their experiences in Shanghai. We got to swap stories and bond over common struggles (mostly related to our VPNs), and it was interesting to meet other foreigners studying Chinese. Since I am staying in China for another semester, I am really glad that I chose to remain in Shanghai – there is still so much to see and do within the city. I learned a great deal over the course of the semester, and feel as though I’ve become more confident in my Mandarin speaking. I still can’t believe it’s the end of the program, but I am glad to have taken part in this experience!

 

The Great Paradox of Religion in China

Coming to China directly from the Middle East is no easy task – you develop a taste for all things sweet, bread, and all around not great for your health in the Arab world, and suddenly you find yourself in a country where things that are sweet, bread, and not great for your health (other than cigarettes) are quite difficult to find. As our Davidson in China program began five days after my Arabic program in Amman, Jordan ended, I was thrown into this exact type of culture shock when I arrived in Shanghai.

However, when you know what you are looking for, remnants of the Middle Eastern caravans that found their way into China centuries and centuries ago, bringing their religion, culture, and cuisine with them, are everywhere. When we traveled to Yunnan province, I saw a number of restaurants that had the Arabic word for “Halal” on them. When we traveled to Gansu province (not on the program), I remember being shocked by the number of mosques I could simply see from my seat on a four-hour train ride through the mountains. I spoke Arabic to the owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Shanghai. In both Shanghai and Beijing, “Muslim” (yes, this is what they are called, although I place it in quotes here because I still find it odd to refer to a cuisine by the religious faith it is associated with) restaurants are everywhere, and good luck finding a table at one of them at dinner time. This continuous search for the things I missed from the summer kept me entertained while I adjusted to life in China, and all the things that come with it.

In November, I came across a website that talked about the Xinjiang street food fair that takes place in Shanghai, on Changshou Road, every Friday from 10-3 pm. It was located down the street from the Huxi Mosque, so I figured that I would go and eat all of the beef baozis, bread, and lamb kebabs my heart desired in the morning, and visit the mosque in the afternoon. When I got to the street in the late morning, I was somewhat shocked as to what I was seeing – it was a real street, with cars and motorcycles trying to meander their way through, and also literally hundreds upon hundreds of people standing in line at the make-shift tent restaurants on both sides of the street. I had to push my way through the crowd just to see what food was being sold, despite being on a two-way street. The smoke from the vendors filled the air so that, by the early afternoon, you could hardly see the buildings towering over the road. There were all types of food, and also, all types of people – mostly Chinese, but also some foreigners here and there. If you happen to find yourself in town, I would highly recommend the beef baozis – I waited over an hour in line for them, and I would do it again and again if I returned.

I went to the mosque afterwards. Despite it being a Friday, there were non-Muslim Chinese people touring it, who were not dressed in what is usually deemed appropriate attire for a mosque, accompanied by an older Muslim man and woman. At around 1:00, people began preparing for the Friday salah (prayer), and I stuck around, somewhat timidly, because I was interested to see how mosques in China operate, but unsure about the specifics unique to praying in this cultural context. I went upstairs to the women’s prayer hall, and watched as the women, who were mostly Chinese but some foreigners, did their individual prayers. I did not want to intrude because it had been quite some time since I had prayed in a mosque, but an older Chinese woman urged me to go in with her. I took off my shoes and she poked at my hair until none of it was showing, then brought me into the room, and led me through the prayers. She was from Sichuan province, and her name was Salimah. I don’t think I understood one word that she said (my Chinese vocabulary about Islam is obviously limited), but I followed her movements and was grateful for her patience and kindness. I was likewise grateful to hear the Chinese Imam who began speaking in perfect Arabic. But then he transitioned to Chinese, and once again I was lost.

Unfortunately, my classes this semester were more time-consuming than I was anticipating, and I did not get to learn about Muslims and experience Islam in China as much as I was hoping to. But this one day will always stick with me, especially in the context of current government policies toward Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in western China. Xinjiang cuisine is among the most popular in Shanghai. “Muslim” restaurants are always packed. There wasn’t one food stand at the Xinjiang street food fair that I didn’t wait at least twenty minutes for, despite there being probably close to 100 stands. I think about a song that recently came out, with a quote that says “You can’t love the culture and hate the people.” It makes me think about how heartbreaking it is to witness what is happening to many people right now in Xinjiang province, and compare it to the popularity their culture, food, and traditions enjoy in other parts of China.

 

A Memorable Experience in Shanghai

Over the duration of the four months I’ve lived here in Shanghai, while valuing my experience here, encountered many challenges. From adjusting to the different foods to figuring out how to communicate with limited Mandarin speaking skills, my entire time here has definitely been eye opening. I came to study abroad in China to further understand my Chinese heritage, improve my Mandarin, and to overall comprehend the Chinese culture through a hands on experience. While the majority of my time was spent on studying/working for my classes, the most memorable activity within Shanghai was learning about the Friends café and being able to spend time there.

The FRIENDS cafe had originated from the TV show friends, as I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with. As one of the biggest TV shows in the U.S. and one of my personal favorite shows, it’s no wonder that there are replicas. At first I was slightly confused as to how this coffee shop was even available, as most U.S. television shows are censored in China, but according to research a lot of Chinese citizens actually watch friends in order to learn English.

Through this initial research on the cafe, I discovered the Friends cafe was a mockup created by a friends superfan named Gunther (if you haven’t seen the show, Gunther is the owner of the coffee shop the main characters frequent), and he opened up friends cafes in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Since friends is such a popular show within China, he wanted to emphasize that demand for the show and portray it as a reality. As it’s shown in the show, the Friends cafe has a giant logo on the front with the name central perk, and the inside is almost identical to the show itself (as seen in the figure below). All the items on the menu, from coffee to snacks are all modeled after food items from the show as well.

I thought this coffee shop was a perfect place to analyze through the lens of western influence, as not only is the cafe based off of an American T.V. show, everything on the menu is westernized as well. It was amazing to me to see how big of an impact such a specific aspect of American culture, that being a T.V. show, influenced a single Chinese citizen to create these three independent coffee shops. From the menus to all the signs and decorations, everything was completely in English (the menu and the T.V. did have Chinese subtitles). As with my initial thought of how it was possible for Friends to be so popular in China, once I reached the cafe, I was surprised to see how few foreigners were there and how many locals were enjoying the cafe – and not even just the food, most of the people were either studying and enjoying the ambiance, or watching the show itself.

The main significance I found was how casual and normal the entire experience was. From what I’ve learned about China within my courses, and just from personal experiences from living in Shanghai for the past couple of months, I had never seen, on such a large scale, both foreigners and locals just drinking coffee and enjoying the ambiance in such a heavily westernized environment. Usually in my experience, for a such a small, heavily western, independent place, the majority of customers would be foreign.

This particular coffee shop allowed both foreigners and locals to come together to enjoy coffee and T.V., and while in a westernized environment, the Chinese cultural aspect was still present through the Chinese subtitles, needing to speak Chinese to the waiter, and unusual/hard to find location. As China continues to open up, accept foreigners, their influences, and their cultures, Chinese people are continuously becoming more and more globalized – taking the best aspects and influences from foreigners and creating their own new innovative take. Coffee shops around the world create an atmosphere of coming together, and as China continues to open itself up, that same sense of causal community bond over even such a small aspect of western influence of coffee will become a part of China’s culture as well.

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