Whilst my time in Shanghai inevitably revolves around my schooling, a year abroad wouldn’t be complete without some extra-curricular activities. The great privilege of a year abroad is complete immersion in a different city, country and way of life. Whilst I can be taught in the classroom about the ins and outs of the Chinese legal system and delve into ancient Chinese culture, this is nothing in comparison to getting out and exploring the world at your doorstep.
Coffee convert. As a brit I am always partial to a cup of tea, but coffee is my main plug. Id happily spend hours roaming back streets in search of the perfect cappuccino. Moving to China, tea culture is an art. Each season correlates to a different type of tea, and each type of tea is thought to have a range of properties. Green oolong tea for example is supposed to aid digestion and blood pressure. A great deal of mysticism surrounds tea and each region has claim to a reasonably infamous tea. Xi’an for example is famed for its Lychee Black Tea. Apparently created during the Qin dynasty as great female warrior had a particular appetite for lychees. The soft fruit were not easily transported and kept, so the leaves were infused with the juice creating a beautifully delicate and flavourful tea. Whilst I still seek out the odd Americano, the aisle in the local supermarket of different berries, flowers and leaves allows one to feel like an ancient medicine man creating a special brew for any manner of purposes.
Day-tripper. With the incredible railways that fill China it is impossible to avoid the lure of day-trips. Trains are easily booked, even if tickets are less easily collected as you jostle in an oddly formed line to collect said tickets. Once you’ve boarded the train you shoot off at 300km towards your destination. Suzhou and Hangzhou were my first places of call.
Suzhou, Venice of the east, is how it is referred to in China. The city is one of two parts, the modern and the old. You can easily slip between the two different worlds by following the pathways. Once at the ancient city wall the feel of it all changes. Small people carrying boats line the waterways. Rock and monumental gardens are littered round the old city and tea shops beckon with sweet smelling aromas.
Hangzhou is a larger more industrial city nearby. The large west lake offers a peaceful tranquillity in the bustling city. The waters edge offers up several pagodas for one to become steeped in culture. Gold gilded ceilings and impressions tells stories of ancient times. Hangzhou was once the capital city of China and therefore has many stories to tell. Another attraction of Hangzhou are the tea fields, I have not yet been but several of my friends have visited and taken part in this years tea picking.
Both of these cities are within a two-hour train trip from Shanghai and offer a perfect weekend getaway.
Culture consumption. Art normally offers a trickle-down reflection of the culture around you. Art is rich in saturation in Shanghai. Two art districts offer full immersion into galleries and street art in the heart of the city. The many galleries and museums cater for any and all tastes. Recently I have visited Jing’an sculpture park, MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] and Yuz Museum. Jing’an sculpture park is a sprawling greenery with pockets of well placed and varied statues. MOCA’s most recent exhibition was graffiti art from around the world. Large canvases of modern street art raised to a gallery audience. Yuz Museum featured an immersive experience. A rain-room. As I was clearly missing wetter weather of England. One walks steadily through the room and light refraction stops the flow of water. It is a slightly surreal experience and does not always work completely, as my friend found, leaving the room looking like she’d been submerged in a swimming pool.
Besides art there are other ways to gain an appreciation of culture. The Shanghai wedding market draws incredible crowds during the weekend. Peoples park features many older people perched with their umbrellas upon which they place they advertisements. The product ‘on sale’. Their child. The advert features name, age, height, salary, ownership of a house and a car. No pictures are shown. Every weekend parents gather to try and arrange a suitable partnership for their children. A world away for our western ideals of romance.
Parks hold the heart of Shanghai. Zhongshan park is closest to my house. A quick stroll through the park holds many gems. Old men practicing Tai Chi, women engaging in early morning aerobics. Elderly couples keeping fit with Chinese ballroom dancing in open squares. Anything can be found from calligraphy artists to badminton players and martial artists.
Culture is easily attained in Shanghai. Even without the benefit of the language, I have been able to gain a greater appreciation of Chinese life in the months I’ve lived here.