I’d never considered living in China before (in my naïve brain a vast and homogenous country of pandas and communism, where all my worldly goods are produced), and if not for the scholarship I will briefly write about in this post, I think I would never have had the chance or the means. In my final months at QMUL I received an email from our undergraduate office about studying in China for a semester at the expense of the Chinese government. I quietly applied and was accepted, happy to have something to between graduation and the unfathomable rest of my life.
I had the choice of over 200 universities around China but I chose Shanghai for a few reasons: as a foreigner it’s probably the easiest city on the mainland to get around; the weather isn’t too oppressively hot or mercilessly cold, and the Mandarin programme at Donghua would only have me in class until midday – after which I thought I could probably explore the city a bit.
In the interests of word count, I will fast forward through the summer months in London to my arrival in September. It’s so hot in Shanghai, and my post-flight fug leads me onto the wrong metro line and eventually into an unmetered taxi where I pay slightly over the ordinary fare. The West Yan’an Road campus is located pretty centrally, and since I arrived at about 10pm a passing student helped me to check into my room on the 16th floor – the highest I have ever lived.
I had about a week before classes started, during which I met my gentlemanly and kind Swiss room-mate and became close friends with other visitors to the campus Wi-Fi shop, of all places. But that first week, probably the first two weeks, were a real challenge. I wasn’t used to the constant socialising of dormitory life and I couldn’t do much alone – I soon found that Chinese is essential even in comparatively international Shanghai. One of my big early setbacks was my food problem. I don’t eat meat and fish so I had found online and printed a phrase sheet including ‘I am a vegetarian,’ ‘I don’t eat meat,’ and ‘I don’t eat fish.’ In the West, this would be a clear sign that the holder of this phrase sheet is a Vegetarian™. Stumbling into the small campus snack hut on my first evening and thrusting forward my sacred scrap of paper, the staff duly offered me a hamburger.
Friends helped me to order, and with a full stomach I started to enjoy the city more. The classes were going smoothly, and after four months I could successfully make my way around the city and have basic conversations with Chinese speakers. I can now also read and write around 500 characters. Learning characters is the hardest part of the course, although perhaps my carpal tunnel-inducing rote method is not the wisest. The good thing about the writing system is that the characters often actually look like the ideas they represent. Person or people is written 人, the curves representing the figure’s legs. Big is written as 大, which shows a figure stretching his arms out as if to say ‘this big.’ The four tones of the language are a bit harder to master, and foreign speakers can often be seen madly waving their arms in front of them while talking to indicate their desired tone.
I often think that Shanghai is a city that can be really expensive or really cheap, with no middle option. My meals at the school canteen range from £1 to £2, and there’s a pretty wide variety of choice even for a veggie. A large portion of rice costs an infinitesimally cheap 5p. A drip coffee at Starbucks, however, sets me back £3. As a foreigner, I can drink for free at clubs for which Chinese citizens pay through the nose (this gets old very quickly). Getting into Jing’an Buddhist temple for the bell-ringing ceremony on Chinese NYE costs £125. Shanghai is a place of vast contrasts, where the poorest members of society eke out a living foraging for plastic bottles in recycling bins while the city’s businessmen and socialites are among the wealthiest in the world.
I haven’t loved every day in Shanghai – sometimes studying is a real slog, the weather’s terrible, your favourite bar closed down and disappeared without a trace overnight, and you accidentally ate congealed duck blood because asking if something has ’meat‘ only encompasses actual flesh. That said, every day has been a real adventure where I’ve learned something new, unlocked a new piece of the city and a slice of Chinese life and culture. About a month ago I made the decision to stay here an extra semester, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back to studying and reviving my favourite Mandarin saying (which is the title of this post) – three days fishing, two days drying the net.