University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Day in the Life

Wow.  I cannot believe I have been in Shanghai, China for almost a month. The time really does fly. I feel myself starting to mimic Chinese customs in small ways and I know my Chinese has gotten a lot better over this last month. China has become so normal to me, I can’t decipher what I used to think was so different when I got here. Luckily, I’ve been keeping notes wherever I go about little things that are different/strange/ would not been found on a Madison campus. We can just start with the fact that when you walk up the main drag of campus, there is a 30-foot statue of Mao with his arm out-stretched to you. My (American) Chinese Politics professor said that when his 2-year old son saw that statue, he called it the “high five” statue and that’s what it’s known as now in his family. Another small difference is that on the walk to class in the morning (and sometimes at lunchtime), music is blasted from speakers. There are all different types. One time I heard Mika’s “Lollipop”. Another time I swear I heard a “Lion King” song in Chinese, but no one can back me up on that. But my favorite is almost every Monday and Tuesday at 9:40am, there’s this upbeat classical music and this cheery lady screaming Chinese numbers at you in rhythm, “Yi! Er! San! Si! Wu! Liu! Qi! Ba! Yi! San! San!” I can’t tell if it’s for a dance class that is located somewhere on campus, or just part of the music, but the first time I heard it I nearly burst out laughing and now every time I hear it I just smile to myself.  None of the Chinese students even notice, or at least react to it.

At the beginning of the trip I was walking with a few friends down a main street right outside school, and we passed an elementary school. There was a class outside during what must have been gym class. The teacher stood at the end the yard and the kids were just running in a circle. No games, no races, just run in a circle until the teacher says stop. I can’t imagine something like that happening in America.

But despite some unique differences, I love it here so far. I have a pretty set schedule now, at least for Mon-Wed. Thursday I don’t have any classes in the afternoon, and Friday I don’t have any classes at all.

Here’s a typical day in the life of Michelle:

8am: Wake up, shower

8:30-9:30: Review my Chinese vocab words for the day, go over my homework

9:50:Walk to class (about 15 min), stop on 4th floor for free apple and steamed bun

10-Noon: Chinese class (only 5 students!)

Noon-1: Eat lunch at the very sketchy cafeteria, but I’ve finally found something good to eat there (details below)

1-4: One of my area studies classes (Chinese Politics/ Issues/ International Relations)

4-6: Start homework for next day

6-8: Wonder off campus to eat noodle soup/ dumplings/ etc. at a very small restaurant for about $2-3

8-9: Required Chinese tutoring with a Chinese student

9-11: Finish homework with friends, talk with friends/parents at home(they’re finally up!)

11-12: Watch a “Breaking Bad” episode, or two, (I’m only on season 2, ok?) and go to bed

“How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting”

China is known as being the place for getting cheap/fake things. I can attest to that, I have my 70 RMB (around $10) Tory Burch bag sitting next to me which I (ok friends, ok ok Rebecca) bargained down from somewhere around 300 RMB. But fake purses aren’t the only off-brand thing here. Pretty much everything is. I tried some Lays potato chips today that were lime flavored and tasted like key-lime pie. I’ve seen Steak-BBQ flavor, prawn flavor (that’s a biggie here), and my personal favorite (which I haven’t tried yet): Mexican Tomato Chicken. The Oreo’s are birthday cake flavored. Or strawberry flavored. (They also have regular ones too). And DON’T try the white Pocky. Or maybe you should. You thought it was white chocolate? So did Rebecca when she bought them. They were milk flavored, and while I tried them for the experience, I will never be trying them again.

Also you want to buy your soap/lotion at the local convenient store? Fine, just know that is “whitening soap” or “whitening lotion”. I don’t know what the means is in it but I know people here like to be pale. If it’s a very sunny day, expect umbrellas everywhere, long sleeves, and avoidance of the sun like it’s their job. I, on the other hand, think I’ve gotten a little bit of a tan since being here. It’s been 85 humid, sunny degrees almost everyday since we’ve been here. Yesterday was the first day that it was finally acceptable weather for pant wearing.

There’s also some obvious difference in behaviors between Americans and Chinese. For instance, crossing the street here is easily one of the scariest/ most life-threating situations I’ve been in. The intersection directly outside my school is insanity. One of my Chinese professors says it’s one of the worst intersections in China. And while I really don’t understand how there aren’t more accidents there on a daily basis, I’ve begun to accept that it’s part of what I call the Organized Chaos.

“Organized Chaos”

Back to this intersection. There are 4 corners, with a strip of sidewalk in the middle of the North- South road. The bikes and mopeds have their own lane, but if it’s too crowded in the road, they’ll just cut across the pedestrian lane and even ride on the sidewalk. And if you are a pedestrian, don’t believe the walk signal. Yes it means cars aren’t coming in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t mean cars who are making right hand turns will stop for you. The advanced Chinese street-crossers don’t even look at the cars inching closer and closer waiting for a gap of people to drive through. But being taught my good old American street- crossing skills of looking left, right, and then left again, I can’t help but make eye contact with every car that looks like it’s about to hit me. And that’s the mistake, because when you look at Chinese drivers, they think it means they can go and they will. But now, I walk confidently along with my Chinese counterparts. I don’t look at the cars that will literally come up one foot in front of you and honk; I just hold my hand up to them and walk with my eyes straight ahead. This will probably lead to some problems back in America, but for now it works just fine.

Another very chaotic, but very organized, place is the school cafeteria. Wow, has the cafeteria here taught me to be grateful for my beautiful Gordon Commons, and that was before it was redone. When you walk in, the first thing you see are all the cafeteria tables, in lines that stretch from one end to the other. They are in columns of 4, back to back, and there are rows of them. Then the food is at the very back. Everything is behind a wall with a window for you to point to. The first experience in the cafeteria went something like this:

I walk up to the window. The Cafeteria Worker takes a silver tray and puts some rice on it. There are about 8 trays of food, and I have literally no idea what any of it is.

Cafeteria worker: 你要什么? (What do you want)

Me: 那个, 那个。(That, that . I pointed to the greenest things I saw. They still had meat in them.)

CW: Some jumbled Chinese I could not understand. Motions for me to put my ID card on this little machine. She punches in a price; it automatically deducts it from the card.

I tried a few more dishes over the next few days but after day 3 I decided I could longer sit through a 3-hour class on a lunch of half a cup of rice and some green beans. That’s when Rebecca and others informed me that down by the little convenient store at the very end of the cafeteria there was a make your own soup station. You get a little basket and tongs and fill it up. They have all different types of veggies, 3 types of noodles, and unidentifiable meats and dumplings. I filled it up with cauliflower, some dried noodles, and lots of greens. You hand your basket to the counter and they give you a number. When your number is called, you go up and they have your basket contents cooked in a bowl. They ask if you want three types of spices, I just nod because I have no idea what they are, and then they pour the broth over. I take it back to my table and try it. I can’t even describe to you how good this soup is, especially after my days eating rice and unidentifiable green things. I will be having it every weekday, for the rest of the year. And the best part it is, it costs less than $2. But if you can’t get a good bowl of noodle soup for less than $2 in China, you’re doing it wrong.

“Chinese Values for the Win”

In America, honking at someone with a right of way to walk is considered rude, but here it is most definitely not. Honking in general is more of a “hey, wanted to let you know I’m here” type of honk rather than the “watch out!” type of honk I’m used to back in the States. But part of adjusting to living here has included adjusting to social/ cultural behaviors. Besides the honking, the Chinese are found of staring, and sometimes taking a picture to make that stare last longer. (Side note, I became sort of famous for a day. See my picture in a credible Chinese online news source here: http://www.chinanews.com/tp/hd2011/2013/09-20/247483.shtml) At first it was strange to see someone inconspicuously take out his or her cellphone and take a picture of me (Who me? But I’m just a college student from Wisconsin!) but now it seems normal and I’ve just accepted that it’s part of life here.

Besides having a little lack of attention with personal space, I’ve experienced nothing but good things with Chinese people. Just last week, I was at Tesco (the Chinese Wal-Mart) and I only had two things in my hand. Same as America, the lines were long, the cashiers were tired, and people (including me) had places to be and things to do. There was the cutest old man in front of me. He moved a little slow, and as he was unloading his cart onto the conveyer belt and checking his list, I couldn’t help but imagine he had this adorable old Chinese wife at home who had sent him because they were having the family over for dinner. As he placed his last item onto the belt, he saw I only had two things in my hand. He spoke some Chinese to me, of which I could not understand, but then motioned for me to go in front of him. I politely refused. He motioned again, but I refused again after thanking him. I wasn’t sure if that was the correct thing to do but I was so flattered by his gesture that I was caught off guard. Nothing like that has happened to me in the United States.

Shanghai is chaotic. It has to be. There are 24 million people living here and they all have things to do and places to go. China is the second largest economy working on becoming the first. But for the amount of craziness in the driving, eating, and living, there is an insane amount of organization. Moped drivers know how to weave around people on the sidewalk, and buses know how to get to their destinations on time without running over pedestrians in the cross walk (while getting very close to it). Everyday I become more in tune to the cultural similarities and differences. I can take a step back from a chaotic situation and notice that it’s not all chaos: it’s patterns, it’s organization, it’s life here. And I love it.