Learning How to Explore Shanghai

Shanghai Pearl TowerNanjing Lu

For my STEP Experience I participated in OSU’s “Shanghai, 1750-2050: Global Mega-City, Hub and Treaty Port” study abroad program. As participants in this program several of my fellow OSU classmates and I travelled to Shanghai China to attend classes at East China Normal University(ECNU). We spent half of our day attending language classes to improve our Putonghua or Standard Mandarin, and the other half taking a class on the history of Modern Shanghai. Our history course included trips to museums and cultural sites around Shanghai such as the old walled city, the Bund and the Shanghai History Museum. We also went on weekend excursions to Suzhou and Hangzhou.

I came to Shanghai hoping to gain some understanding of the city and its people, but now as I am about to leave I realize that I can’t understand Shanghai in fact I don’t even understand my own home city of Columbus Ohio. Shanghai as a city is difficult to categorize, certainly many people have tried over the years, the Shanghai brand that first created during the late treaty port era of the early twentieth century has been revitalized by the city’s municipal government, and by private businesses to market the city to modern investors and tourists. The image of Shanghai as a cosmopolitan metropolis, the home of the gleaming Pearl Tower, and for the more historically inclined the stately Bund has been spread across the world (and throughout China) on postcards and travel shows. Yet As the home of 23 million people and the temporary residence of thousands of travelers Shanghai obviously has a vast existence beyond the Bund, the Pearl Tower, or any of the other sights listed in the dozens of guidebooks that promise to introduce you to the city. Shanghai, like all cities, is impossible to understand in its entirety, it can only be experienced as it is in this moment, as it never was before and as it will never be again.

For all that I have learned about Shanghainese history and culture on this trip, I believe that is the most important lesson I learned; That I cannot remove myself, and my individual perspectives and experiences, from my understanding of the world around me. I cannot tell someone about Shanghai (or Hangzhou or Suzhou) I can only talk about my experiences in the small part of Shanghai that I was able to visit. This epiphany has helped to embrace the uncertainties and nebulousness that comes with living and learning about a foreign country. It has freed my thinking so that I feel comfortable comparing life in Shanghai and life in Columbus as well as my experiences in other cities; it has helped to feel excited about being in a primarily Chinese speaking environment; it has helped me to embrace the multifaceted nature of Shanghai’s history as well as contemporary understandings of that history; and it has made me more appreciative of my experiences both in Shanghai and in America.

When you first think about the differences between the United States and the People’s Republic of China the first thing that pops into many people’s heads is that the United States is “free” and the People’s Republic of China is not. Yet although the USA and the PRC clearly have different systems of government and public policies as an American staying in Shanghai I found that the cultural differences that I observed while in Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou were much more complex then the simple dichotomy of free vs. un-free. There are clearly some restrictions in China that are not present in the United State’s, perhaps the most obvious one for American students being that Google, YouTube and many other websites are blocked in China. Still for the most part my daily life was more effected by cultural then by political differences. Some of the differences that I noticed were ones that I never would have expected.

For instance one of the differences I kept noticing was in how energy and resource conservation are handled in China. In one of my early journals I noted, “In many ways in China you have to opt into destroying the environment whereas in America you have to actively choose to opt out of doing so”. For instance in China you have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery store which gives people an incentive to bring their own reusable bags from home, whereas in America it is assumed that you will be given plastic bags to put your groceries in. Sure some environmentally conscious people choose to bring their own bags but the system is still designed around the idea that people will be using plastic bags. In this way and in several other ways it seems that Chinese society (or perhaps the Chinese government in some cases) is more proactive about conserving resources then is American society. This was especially interesting to observe because in America China is often viewed as a country that does not care about preserving natural resources. This perception is likely due to the pollution caused China’s recent rapid industrialization and urbanization. Still in some ways it makes sense China would be more conscientious about resource use and pollution then the United States since China is a developing country that has faced serious consequences from its air pollution.

Traveling to Shanghai has taught me how to be aware of my surroundings. I am normally a pretty aloof person, and I often let my mind wander, distancing myself from the situation at hand, but I could not allow myself to do that in Shanghai. In Shanghai I had to constantly remind myself to be aware of my surroundings and try to be fully present in the moment, soaking up every detail of what was around me. This hyper awareness was crucial since did not want to waste one moment of my time in this vibrant city. Furthermore anyone who has walked down the street in Shanghai will tell you that even if you are not interested in “savoring the moment” Shanghai streets are not compatible with daydreaming. With pedestrians, motorbikes and car all trying to make it from point A to point B as quickly as possible Shanghai streets, and even sidewalks can be a dangerous place for the unprepared. Thus being in Shanghai taught me to savor every detail of my experiences, to really look at the people who are passing me on the street, to consider the implications of the knickknacks sold in convenience stores and of course to watch out for speeding motor vehicles. In the future I will try to employ the same mindfulness when walking down the street of Columbus so that I can be more aware of the many small wonders that the city possesses.

Living and studying in Shanghai has not only helped me to learn about Shanghainese history and culture, it has also taught me how to survive in an alien environment and how to remain aware of the world around me. It has also taught me that cities, and really all communities, refuse to be simplified. I am grateful for all the lessons that this city and this program have taught me, and I hope that I will be able to return to Shanghai again someday.