After months of preparation and fourteen hours of flying, our group of sixteen finally arrived in Shanghai, China on Monday afternoon. Once we collected our luggage, we loaded everything on to a bus bound for our home for the next four weeks: East China Normal University (ECNU). The campus is located in the heart of the city, just a short metro ride away from many of Shanghai’s famous landmarks. Despite its location, the ECNU grounds are a picturesque oasis of green space, which is nice change from the bustling city just outside the University gates.
It’s surprising how easily we’ve able to navigate the city considering that most people in our group can’t speak any Mandarin besides “hello” and “thank you,” at least initially. When we stop to ask someone for directions we usually just point to an address, written in Chinese, and follow in the general direction the person points. A few times we’ve walked up, said hello in Chinese, and pointed to the address, and the person has begun rapidly dictating instructions. After about 15 seconds they looked up, saw the blank looks on our faces, and realized that we didn’t understand a word they were saying. They then laughed and began gesturing until we figured it out. Luckily, the street names and subway maps all have English as well as Chinese, which has made using the public transit systems very simple.
The city of Shanghai is beyond anything we could have imagined. From malls towering eight or ten stories to flashing lights that fill the evening skyline, it is far from the modest Wisconsin towns where many of us grew up. On nearly every block there is something new to see or eat, but, in comparison to other metropolises like New York or Tokyo, the prices are quite low; a pleasant surprise for many of us college students on Ramen noodle budgets. A typical meal of dumplings and soup costs just twenty or thirty Yuan-about three to five US dollars.
To say our first few days here have been busy would be an understatement. By Friday, we had sampled spicy Sichuan cuisine, begun our classes in history and international relations, completed an “amazing race” around the city, visited the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, toured the Shanghai Film Museum, attended an acrobat show, toured the hundredth floor of the World Financial center, and explored countless shopping centers and malls. One of the best cultural learning experiences so far has been our interactions with our Chinese buddies. On Wednesday afternoon we headed over to a quad in the center of campus and played a series of games (human knot, three-person four-legged race, etc.) to get to know the group of Chinese students. Next we all paired off and were shown around campus to supplement our brief tour from Tuesday. They took us to some of the main buildings on campus, including their dorms, and then we ventured off campus to go explore. It was fascinating to learn about their experiences as students growing up in China and the similarities and differences between our lives. For instance, learning English was basically a given for them from a young age as students have to be proficient to go to a university.
The Urban Planning Museum was a learning experience in a different sense. While our Chinese buddies taught us about individual experiences in China, this museum helped give us a sense of a communal Chinese identity. Since a lot of new construction has happened in the past few decades, the architecture reflects many Chinese values. For example, one of the exhibits talked about the way the average living space has increased and how people have designed their homes. Another exhibit detailed the environmental problems in Shanghai and how the city has reacted. Lots of green areas have been created in rings around the city and along the highways to better the air quality and to preserve some natural influences. In a more literal sense, the museum also helped us understand where we’re living. On the third floor there is a huge model of downtown Shanghai that shows where the major landmarks are in relation to one another. It also illustrated just how massive Shanghai actually is. The model shows every place we’ve been so far, while it’s only representative of about 1/60 of the city. The Shanghai model symbolizes our experiences here so far. What we’ve seen has been fascinating and illuminating, but only scratches the surface of the the vast wealth of knowledge, experience, and history that we are interacting with, and in, for one month.