Summertime in Shanghai

With the help of my STEP funding I spent the month of May studying abroad in Shanghai, China. From May 9th to June 6th I lived and studied at East China Normal University with eight other Ohio State students. At ECNU I took a “survival” Mandarin course as well as a class on the history and urban development of Shanghai.

Prior to my study abroad in Shanghai I had not studied any Chinese history, culture, or language. I chose to study abroad in Shanghai because I wanted to immerse myself in something entirely unfamiliar and challenge myself to embrace something new and adapt. After spending a month in Shanghai I learned that I am not only capable of adapting to new surroundings, but that I really enjoy experiencing new cultures, seeing new sites, and meeting new people. My experience in Shanghai gave me a lot of confidence because it showed me that I can live and endure anywhere. It’s freeing to realize that if I ever choose to, I can pack up my bags, settle somewhere entirely different, and still be perfectly content.
There were a lot of aspects about life in Shanghai that took some adjusting to, but by the end of the trip I felt very at home in Shanghai and in particular at ECNU. In the beginning however, the hardest thing to cope with was the language barrier. I had never studied Mandarin before, and knew absolutely nothing upon my arrival in Shanghai. Additionally, nearly all the food was very foreign and I was extremely wary about what I ate. I don’t like seafood and unfortunately, much of the food contained it. Lastly, the sheer number of people everywhere we went was overwhelming. Shanghai is the largest city proper in the entire world, with an estimated population of more than 23 million (more than 27 times larger than the population of Columbus)!

Despite these challenges, I was able to adjust and learn how to live comfortably in Shanghai. As I said, being unable to communicate and express myself was very challenging. In the beginning, whenever I went out in public I felt as though I was trapped inside my own head. Not only was I unable to ask simple questions like, “Where is the restroom?” but I couldn’t even articulate an apology if I bumped into someone. Thankfully, we were tested and placed into “survival” Chinese classes right away. I of course was put into a beginner class, along with two of my fellow students from Ohio State. Our teacher was incredibly patient and kind and we were able to start learning and using Mandarin right away. Our language acquisition was extremely accelerated because we were surrounded by people speaking Mandarin all the time. By the end of the trip I knew enough to say thank you, sorry, excuse me, what I like and don’t like, order food, and most importantly ask where a restroom is (along with much more). I was really excited about the progress I made and I loved being able to immediately go out and put what I had learned to good use.
Once I knew a little more about the language, I was able to start finding and trying food that I liked. I learned how to read enough characters to decipher some basic menu items and most importantly I learned how to ask if something had seafood in it. Once I was able to better control what I ate I felt free to try a lot of different foods. I discovered so many dishes that I love! Even today, one of the things I miss most about Shanghai is the food. Chinese food here is nothing like real Chinese food, and I wish it was possible to eat some of the wonderful things I had in Shanghai without traveling half way around the world.
Finally, I learned to go with the flow… literally. While at first the large population and the population density in areas like the metro station and shopping centers was overwhelming, eventually I grew to feel comfortable being part of an ever-present, ever-moving crowd. There are many great things about being surrounded by people: there’s always someone new to meet, there’s always someone to help, there’s always something exciting to watch, and you never feel alone! Shanghai is a city that never sleeps; there are enough people that you can find a friendly face at all hours of the day or night. Returning to my suburban hometown after the end of my time in Shanghai was quite jarring because even major roads were empty of cars by about 11PM. There are certainly things to be said for both settings, but I would argue that there’s no city as lively as Shanghai.

My time in Shanghai was really significant to my life because not only did I learn more about myself, but I got to learn about and experience a whole other culture and area of the world. I’ve known that I love traveling ever since my parents started taking my sisters and I on summer camping trips in northern Ontario when we were little girls. Since then my wanderlust has only grown. My love of traveling prompted me to major in International Studies, to minor in both French and German, to teach English as a Second Language, and to seize every opportunity that I can to see another part of the world. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to live somewhere so unfamiliar and make it familiar. The ability to adjust and adapt is priceless and I know that I’ll be honing and using those skills for the rest of my life, as I plan to continue picking up and setting down all over the world.