Stories from Shanghai

只是一个探索上海的留学生

Goodbye, Shanghai!

I’m not in Shanghai anymore! After just over three months, I packed my bags and am in Hong Kong for my last week abroad. I can’t believe this is it! It feels like it’s been no time at all. But it has been a whole semester, and I have been lucky enough to explore Shanghai over that time. Here are a few of the places I visited and tips I have to share that I’d recommend to anyone coming to Shanghai for the semester, or even just on vacation.

 

Tips:

First, make sure you know that many people in Shanghai and southern China have an accent where the “sh” sound is reduced to just an “s.” Remembering this can remove a lot of confusion, especially when you try to pay 4 rmb (si kuai) for something that is actually 10 rmb (shi kuai).

Next, if you’re coming in the spring, know that it rains a lot. But also know that it rarely rains very hard or for very long. It’s generally just the damp dreary day that discourages you from wanting to go outside. Fight this feeling!

Have a map of the metro on your phone. It’s really an easy system to navigate, but this can help you if you’re in a rush and trying to figure out where to connect and transfer. Don’t be afraid to walk! The raised platforms over busy roads make this city very walkable.

Bring your student ID everywhere! So many museums and attractions are free or half price if you have one. This goes for all of China, not just Shanghai.

Have a go to dish for ordering that you know how to say in Chinese. If you are going to a new restaurant or one that doesn’t see a lot of tourists, there might not be an English menu. Sometimes I just ask for egg fried noodles, or garlic cucumbers, or some other simple dish without bothering trying to decipher a menu. At least you know what you’ll be getting!

Don’t be afraid to explore alone. Some of my favorite days have been when I woke up early and took off on my own. This lets you see everything on your own schedule. Your friends will still be there when you get home!

 

Top places to visit:

M50 is Shanghai’s art district. It’s a cute collection of small streets filled with galleries, street art, and artistically decorated cafes. Definitely check out my favorite gallery, Island 6, which is filled with cool digital and interactive art. The Undef/ine Café has a calm interior if you’re looking for somewhere to grab a coffee and relax, and maybe even do some homework. Bandu has the cheapest food in the area, and I went here for a classic lunch of noodles with tomato and eggs.

My favorite museum by far was the Shanghai Propaganda and Poster Museum. It’s a small two room museum in the basement of a residential building, but if you like history it’s a must visit. Each poster and work of art has an explanation in English, with a header for each section explaining the political climate of the time period. I ended up buying a few original posters while I was there because I was so excited about it.

One of the more interesting cultural phenomenons I’ve witnessed in China has been the People’s Park marriage market. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at People’s Park, which just happens to be ten minutes walking from my apartment, parents and grandparents of single men and women gather to exchange information and set up dates for their 25-40 year old children. They set up umbrellas with resumes and pictures taped to them, and will occasionally proposition even a foreigner inspecting their signs! I’ve been four times this semester, and was blown away each time by how crowded, lively, and serious this event is. The rest of the park is nice to stroll around in as well, and has two free museums on its premises, plus the Shanghai Urban Planning exhibition.

If you like temples and gardens, head to the Yuyuan area. Yu garden and temple are both very inexpensive to enter, and are full of traditional architecture and design. Yu gardens was one of the few places that I was able to remember from the first time I came to Shanghai 6 years ago, and is definitely worth a visit as a traditional garden. The surrounding area has shops and food and souvenirs on sale.

The Bund of course is an incredibly famous tourist attraction. I think the view is gorgeous by day or night, but I’d recommend finding a rooftop bar or restaurant to enjoy it in the evening or for dinner since the lights are really striking at night. The lights on the iconic colorful pearl tower and the other buildings are switched off around 11, so make sure to get there in time if you’re going out for the evening! Bar Rouge has a great view, and so does The Captain, a small restaurant on the roof of a hostel.

I’ve talked about this last place in a blog post before, but Qibao is also worth a visit if you don’t mind a longer subway trip. It gives you a miniature experience of what it’s like to visit a watertown, and it’s much more digestible for an afternoon than any of the others. The area has a clear map of where different cheap exhibits and museums are located, and has all the classic snacks, souvineers, and bridge views that you could find in a larger watertown.

I could list a dozen other places I’ve visited, including several other parks, neighborhoods, temples, museums, and shopping areas (definitely check out Nanjing Road Pedestrian Strip if you’re a shopper), but these were the experiences I enjoyed the most this semester on my weekends in Shanghai. Of course, there are a million more things I could have seen or done. Hopefully I’ll return in the future and continue learning about this city that has been my home for the past three months. I’ll miss you, Shanghai, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing my family and friends back home.

Our Final Hostel Days: A Weekend in Zhangjiajie

This past weekend I ventured to the Hunan province with two of my friends from my program. After Guilin, I was looking forward to visiting another place where I could escape from the city to hike and breathe fresh air. When my friends and I read about Zhangjiajie, we knew it would be the perfect weekend escape. The mountains there were the inspiration and location of many scenes from the movie Avatar, directed by James Cameron. They are every bit as beautiful as you can imagine.

Our trip got off to a nerve-wracking start when my two friends arrived at the airport just in time for last call boarding. Two hours later, we landed in Zhangjiajie city, found a cab to take us to our hostel, and passed out late that night around 1am. The next morning, after finally tracking down the bus station, we headed to the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is home to a glass bridge, which up until this year was the longest in the world. Unfortunately, most of the year in Zhangjiajie is pretty rainy, so we weren’t able to see much from the bridge besides fog. That didn’t matter though, because once we descended into the canyon itself, we were able to experience close-up views of what we only would have glimpsed from above—turquoise blue waters, tropical looking trees, and beautiful cliffside paths. I can’t stop looking at my pictures from this hike! According to my phone, we climbed over 45 flights of stairs that day.

We spent the afternoon back at the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. One of my friends headed to the hostel for a nap, but my other friend and I got our park passes and went to the Golden Whip Stream. Inside the park, bus transportation is free. We jumped on the first bus that passed the entrance and pointed at our map to show the bus driver where we needed to go. Upon entering the stream’s hiking trails, I was completely surprised to find monkeys strolling along the paths beside the tourists. At first, we were completely enthralled by the monkeys, but soon they began to get aggressive. One stole a tourist’s bag of snacks, which led to a monkey brawl that my friend and I had to leap out of the way to avoid! The rest of the trail was much less crowded, and the only dangers we encountered were breathtaking views of the cliffs on either side of the path.

We spent the evening working on homework assignments in our hostel, since we would have two final exams upon returning to Shanghai. I do my research when choosing hostels, and I always try to pick ones that either serve food or have restaurants adjacent so that finding breakfast in the morning is convenient and so dinner isn’t far after a long day of traveling. For whatever reason, most of our hostels have actually served western food! The only times I’ve been able to conveniently eat pizza since I’ve been in China have been at hostels. I bet you can tell what I ordered for dinner that night.

Our second day began early, since we wanted to get to the park before tour groups were bussed in by the hundreds. Luckily, it was raining so we didn’t have to worry about crowds. Unluckily, it was raining so we were wet and chilly for most of the morning, and couldn’t see views from the peak of Tianzi Mountain through the fog. We ended up playing cards in a shelter until the weather subsided a bit. The day really turned around when we headed to the Avatar cliffs. The sun was shining, and the cliffs rose up from the valley below to greet us. It really did look like something straight out of a movie. We didn’t even realize we had been hiking around one of these narrow cliffs until we crossed a bridge and saw it from a distance. Here, we found more monkeys, just as cute and aggressive as the ones from the day before.

Our third and final day was definitely the most dramatic of the trip. We took the hour-long bus ride from Wulingyuan to Zhangjiajie city, where we would begin our ascent up Tianmen Mountain. After checking our backpacks at the base, we decided to board a bus rather than wait in the hours long line for the cable car. The bus ended up being more like a crazy amusement park ride than merely transportation, as the mountain had what seemed like hundreds of switchbacks, steep inclines, and insane views of the mountain range on either side of us. Finally, we reached the steps. We knew our method of ascension would require some hiking, but I hadn’t expected a vertical staircase with hundreds of steps! At the top of the staircase I could see clouds surrounding part of the mountain. We began to climb. Half an hour and many breaks later, we reached the escalators. A series of 6 escalators finally brought us to the summit.

At the top of the mountain were different hiking trails, Cliffside paths, and glass walkways. We took a lap that went all the way around the mountain, with a stop at the most beautiful temple I’ve been in since being in China (and I’ve visited a lot of temples) and two glass walkways, with unobscured views of the drop below us. By the time we made it to the cable car, we’d been hiking for five hours and were thoroughly exhausted from the weekend. The cable car ride down was a ride of its own as well. It was over twenty minutes long, bringing us up and down the mountain range we passed over, all the way back into the city. One traditional family style meal later, we hopped in our Didi and headed to the airport early to avoid a similar situation from our flight three days earlier.

This is the last trip that I’ll organize myself out of Shanghai while I’m here for the semester! We have one more excursion with the program to Hong Kong, but then its back to the US. It’s crazy to think that in just three weeks I’ll be back in New York. I’m going to miss this freedom. Now, I just need to finish a few papers and the semester is really over.

Public Transportation Appreciation Post

This semester has been my first time living in a big city. Although I’ve lived 45 minutes away from New York City all my life, I’ve never experienced what it was truly like to navigate city life. My university is technically in a city as well, but has its own campus to separate us from the outside world. Besides, you can’t compare Ithaca to NYC, let alone Shanghai. With 25 million people, wild traffic, and sprawling layout, I thought that navigating Shanghai would be difficult. In fact, I still get lost using the NYC subway system. But after living here for three months, I can tell you that from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up using public transportation or living in a city, there is nowhere I’ve been that is easier to get around.

Shanghai’s public transportation has been extremely convenient for me. Our program’s apartments are located just a two minute walk from the nearest station. Every morning, we take the metro to get to class. On the weekends, we use the 12 metro lines to explore the city. The maps of the subway are easy to read—every line is color coded, and every station has color coded arrows on the ground, pointing towards where to walk to reach each line, making transfers very straightforward. If I miss a train on my way to class, I am never concerned because there’s always another train about a minute and a half behind it.

The metro is surprisingly clean for a city of such massive size. I’ve never seen trash on its floors and the walls are sparkling. There’s usually a convenience store at each exit of a station too, which has been really convenient if I’m running late and need to grab something to eat for breakfast. There are even several stations with arcade games, cafes, or entire markets located inside.

Shanghai’s bus system is also really accessible. Your metro card can be used on the buses, so no need to purchase a new ticket. At each bus station is a screen that not only displays when the next bus will be arriving, but also whether or not the next bus is crowded, and where each bus’s next stop will be. The metro system is so extensive, however, that I have only actually taken the busses a few times. On a class field trip a few weeks ago we took a bus to a ferry, which was also included on our metro cards, and crossed the Huangpu to explore Pudong.

If you’re going somewhere that isn’t quite far enough to jump on the metro, or if the weather permits, there are several bike sharing apps available and frequently used in Shanghai. Mobike and Ofo are the two most popular, and there is always a free bike in sight. Every Wednesday, after emerging from the metro station closest to Fudan University, we ride Ofo bikes for 10 minutes to class, which has really made the commute more convenient, and much more enjoyable!

If it’s late at night and the metro has closed or if we’re feeling really tired, my friends and I use the Chinese equivalent of Uber, called Didi, to get around. Most of my friends have Wechat pay, the most commonly used method of online payment through the main social media app in China. I haven’t been able to set that up for myself, so if the Didi drivers don’t want to accept cash one of my friends will use their Wechat money and we pay them back with cash later on. There are taxis in Shanghai of course, but they are much more expensive, and if they think their customers are unfamiliar with Shanghai, the drivers might take a longer route or drive around before taking you to your destination.

Despite its convenience, there are some aspects of commuting in Shanghai that I will never get used to. The first is the sheer number of people on the subways that will cram themselves into the same car, despite the next train coming in under two minutes. It’s also not the convention to say “excuse me” on the metro, but rather just push someone out of the way if you need to get onto or off of a train. I have been knocked around here more than I have been in my life.

When I’m getting around Shanghai by foot, I always need to be on high alert. Traffic laws are rarely obeyed by motorbikes and scooters, which are commonly used here. No matter the color of the light, they always seem to have the right of way. Motorbike riders even occupy the sidewalks. Often, there are so many bikes littering the sidewalk that people are forced to walk in the bike lane and dodge scooters in their territory too. I have jumped or been pulled out of the way of a motorbike countless times.

Going back to my town in New York is going to be strange. Since driving is the only form of transportation, I’m at the mercy of my access to a car to get around. I have so much freedom here with the metro and bike system, although I won’t miss being pushed around.

Getaway to Guilin: River Rafts, Biking, and Countryside Views

Last week I planned a trip to Guilin for myself and 3 of my friends. I don’t have any lessons to share from planning or going on this trip other than that it was the coolest place I’ve ever visited and everything I planned for the most part went accordingly for once!

We flew into Guilin on Thursday night with just enough time to find dinner in the city before crashing in our hostel. I had read that the best things to do in the area were all outside the city, so I had a 7am trip to Yangshuo booked for the next morning. We all woke up with time to track down breakfast—traditional Guilin rice noodles—before heading to where our bus was supposed to pick us up.

The bus drove us to a pier about 45 minutes from our hostel. This area was on the most famous section of the Li river and is depicted on the back of the 20 rmb note. My friends and I hopped into our motorized “bamboo” raft, and spent the next hour floating down the Li river with the beautiful karst mountains on either side of us. We passed the famous “9 horse hill” mountain, and tried to make out the horse figures on it. The boats dropped us off in Xinping, where wandered around until our bus picked us up and took us the rest of the way to Yangshuo.

We were left in the downtown area on the famous West Street, a bustling tourist walking strip with dozens of bars and shops, where we could find lunch. My friends tried the local specialty, beer fish, while I opted for a fried rice dish. After lunch, we had a taxi drive us out into the countryside where our hostel was located. We rented bikes from the hostel and spent the remainder of the afternoon riding around looking at the mountains and farms. We found a bee farmer and my friend bought honey, and we rode past an ice cream shop where, of course, I stopped for chocolate ice cream. The evening was spent playing cards and relaxing with a beautiful backdrop.

For the next morning we had booked real bamboo rafts on the Yulong river, a smaller tributary river of the Li river. Our guide had a long bamboo pole, which he used to propel our narrow raft down the river. Every 15 minutes or so was a small drop in the river and a waterfall, which made for an exciting but wet experience. Later that afternoon, we rented scooters and used them to get to the hike at Moon Hill, a famous rock on the top of a mountain in Yangshuo with a hole at its peak shaped like a crescent moon. The hike was vertical and completely made up of stairs, but was worth it for incredible views of the all green spiky karst mountains from the top. I sent a picture to my parents, who sent me back a picture of them in the same spot over 20 years ago! Next, we stopped by a cave that had hot springs and a mud bath inside. Sounds relaxing, but it turned into a mud fight between my friends and I. Back at the hostel I spent ages scrubbing mud out of my hair. That evening we went to the outdoor Yangshuo impressions light show, which represents minority life in Yangshuo, then headed home.

The next day we took a private car for the 3-hour drive to the Longji rice terraces. Though some of my friends took naps on the car ride there, I stayed up to watch the landscape change. When we got to the Longsheng scenic area, the mountains looked less spikey and more similar to ones I’m used to back in the northeastern US. But every other mountain had terraces carved into it, used for farming rice. We finally arrived at a small village at the base of one of the mountains, but the hostel I booked was a 45-minute hike up the mountain to a smaller village called Tiantouzhai. Just when my friends were starting to grumble about my planning, we arrived at our hostel and saw the incredible view we had from its balcony. That evening we played foosball and cards and enjoyed the sunset.

I had wanted to get up for sunrise the next morning, but I was too tired, and the day was too cloudy besides. After a leisurely morning of cards and foosball and a late breakfast, one of my friends joined me for a short hike to a lookout point. There, I met three German travelers. We chatted for a bit, and I ended up joining them for a longer hike that afternoon up to a peak where they planned to ride a cable car down the mountain. The views from each look out point were incredible, and to celebrate I got an ice cream cone to eat on my solo journey back to the hostel.

The next day was my last day of the trip. My friends and I bussed back to Guilin where we had enough time before our flight to explore Reed Flute Cave, a large cave of stalactite and stalagmite structures lit up with different colored lights. We then relaxed in a coffee shop until it was time to head to the airport. By that point I was exhausted and ready to come back to Shanghai, but now that I’ve been home for a few days all I want to do is go back to Guilin. Seeing a more rural area of China was incredible, and I’d love more time to explore Yangshuo especially.

Mornings in Shanghai’s Parks

Shanghai is full of tiny green oases that offer beautiful scenery and nearby refuge from the city’s constant traffic. During the early morning, these Shanghai parks are popular hangout spots for China’s retired population. Right now, the retirement age in China is low—50 for women and 55 for men. Every few years, the government intends to increase the age until both men and women reach retirement age at 65. For now, the large population of retired people in Shanghai spend their mornings in its many parks exercising and socializing.

My Chinese class arrived in Lu Xun Park via metro around 9am this Thursday for a class trip. We had interview questions on a worksheet from our teacher to ask the retirees, and we were curious to see this social scene we’d been hearing so much about. As we walked into the park, we heard music playing. We came upon groups of dancers on either side of a square on the park’s periphery. On one side were couples paired up practicing a technical choreographed routine while a man with a speaker counted the steps out loud. On the other side was a group of about 30 women dancing repeated steps over and over in what seemed to be an exercise routine. We approached these women to learn about their activity.

 The women were really friendly, and willing to answer all our questions. They explained in Chinese that they all come to the park every morning for several hours, and that some of them have been coming for over ten years. The dancing is an exercise for their health. After speaking with these women, I noticed a man practicing movements with a sword. I approached him to ask what he was doing. Again, he didn’t mind my questioning at all. He explained that the sword and his movements were a form of Taijiquan (or Tai chi in English)—a graceful Chinese exercise involving slow movements and focusing of the mind and body.

We continued into the main area of the park and encountered a massive group of elderly Chinese people dancing. Though the exercise moves were still simple, the music was upbeat and inviting. My classmates and I jumped in to follow the dancers. It reminded me a little of a zumba class. We got a lot of stares, but people were mostly entertained to see us join in. After about ten minutes of dancing, we walked away from this square and wandered around many others with other groups of people, large and small, dancing alone and in pairs, all with their own contrasting music. It was quite a lively atmosphere.

The next open square of the park we came upon had several groups of people doing Tai Chi. My teacher encouraged us to join in, so we assumed our positions alongside the athletes and copied their motions. At the beginning, the movements felt almost painfully slow. After a few minutes though, my motions felt more fluid, and I felt completely relaxed. We finished out the rest of the Tai Chi practice with the group, and afterwards all stood around discussing how long they had been practicing Tai Chi and coming to this park. All were under the impression that it was important to practice every single day in order to improve and stay healthy. None of them had missed a morning in the park in years.

As we wandered down some side paths out of the main square of the park, we were startled to hear loud cracks snapping in the distance. When we got closer, we found a smaller area with a handful of retirees twirling and snapping ropes and chains, making loud cracks like a gunshot. Instinctively, I covered my ears, but after standing and watching people perform with their whips for a few minutes, we were approached and offered to give it a try. The rope was pretty heavy, and after a few spins my arms were already tired. But I couldn’t get the rope to snap quickly enough to produce the cracking sounds, so the man teaching me encouraged me to keep trying. After a several attempts, a few of my classmates and I had managed to just barely reproduce a whip like effect with a soft snapping sound. The skill to really work with one of these ropes or chains clearly takes years to hone.

The community in the park was really amazing to witness. I was in awe at the agility and strength of the hundreds of retired folks we had met and the few we had spoken with that morning. I was also inspired that despite not working any more or having a schedule, Shanghai’s retired populations all migrate to parks like these every morning. It creates such a community for them to socialize in each day, and is a big part of the culture in Shanghai.

How to Plan an Escape from Shanghai

Watertowns– There are upwards of 10 water towns that are accessible from Shanghai as day trips. My group bussed for a day to Xitang, and were able to see the whole town in a few hours and be back in Shanghai by dinner. I’ve heard it’s one of the better maintained watertowns, and after visiting I would recommend it as long as you don’t mind crowds. If you want to read more about Xitang, check out my earlier blog post under the “stories” section! If you’re looking for something more convenient/don’t have access to an automobile and don’t feel like figuring out the high speed trains, there’s a neighborhood right in Shanghai called Qibao that can give you a small taste of watertown life. Qibao is a small water-street with a few side streets branching off the canal. It’s very touristy, but has a nice temple nearby and several small museums set up throughout that are each 5 rmb to visit. It’s an affordable afternoon right off the metro in Shanghai.

Hangzhou– If you love beautiful views and natural scenery, this is the weekend trip for you! The path around the lake is dotted with pagodas and temples, and taking a boat ride on the lake is inexpensive. The city is about an hour outside of Shanghai by high speed train. I’d recommend a one-night stay in a hostel or air bnb to better appreciate the day and not feel rushed to get back to Shanghai in the evening. If you’re interested in Hangzhou, check out my blog post all about my visit!

Suzhou– Suzhuo is only about a thirty minute train ride from Shanghai. The city is known for its beautiful gardens. In two days, we were able to visit 4 unique gardens and a Buddhist temple. My favorite garden was Lion Grove, and it was entirely made up of a maze of rocks that, if you use your imagination, look like lions. Suzhou is definitely an easy to organize trip because many of the gardens are located in the same area. The old street with a canal is also centrally located and easy to find dinner along. 2 days is sufficient to see the sights.

Nanjing– If you like history, go to Nanjing. It’s 2 hours outside of Shanghai by high speed train and has both beautiful nature and lots of city sights. We hiked the purple mountain scenic area to visit mausoleums for Sun Yatsen and Ming dynasty royalty, spent time exploring the city, took the Qinhuai river cruise, and visited some temples. Nanjing is also home to the Nanjing massacre memorial and museum, remembering those lost in the Nanjing massacre during World War II. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see it and instead visited a museum dedicated to the imperial civil service exam, which was much closer to our hostel. I would recommend 2 nights in Nanjing to experience more of what it has to offer tourists.

My friends and I have loved seeing different cities and parts of China, and small trips like these are great because we can plan them on a Thursday afternoon after class and leave the next day. To plan the trips, I first do a little research to find out what a city’s top sights and activities are. After I pick from those, I look for a hostel that is located in an area with restaurants, access to public transportation, and near wherever our last activity of the day will be. I always read every review of the hostel I choose to make sure we are staying somewhere clean and safe. I recommend using Hostelworld to make reservations. Next, I book our train tickets through Ctrip. Trains leave almost every twenty minutes from two different stations in Shanghai—Hongqiao and Shanghai Railway Stations. Tickets are only available to buy one way at a time, but we book both sets of tickets in advance and then pick them up all at once when we get to the railway station we are departing from in Shanghai. This was a lesson we learned after nearly missing our return train from Hangzhou because the line to pick up tickets was so long.

This weekend we have two extra days off for a holiday break, so I’m planning a longer trip to Guilin! Planning this trip was a similar process to the shorter trips, but required putting much more time into researching transportation. We’ll be going from Guilin to Yangshuo to see the Karst landscapes, and then from Yangshuo to the Longji Rice terraces and staying in the small village of Tiantouzhai. Wish me luck!

Inside Shanghai’s Migrant Schools

Before I came to Shanghai, I knew there was a risk that I’d be scared to get out of my comfort zone. I started looking into ways to experience more of what real life is like for people who live in Shanghai. I wanted to be able to see outside of my foreign exchange student bubble and really learn new ways of viewing the world. Additionally, I was interested in not only taking positive experiences from my time in Shanghai, but also in leaving a positive mark on the city.

I’ve lived in Shanghai for about a month and a half now. Our program is halfway through, and I’m feeling pretty well adjusted to living in Shanghai and my daily routine of commuting to campus on the subway, eating in the student cafeteria, and attending classes at Jiao Tong and Fudan. My program is pretty small, and only has about 20 other students. It’s easy to settle into a comfortable routine of being around these 20 people, who have now all become close friends of mine, are in all my classes and live in apartments next door to me, and neglect to experience new things around Shanghai. Our program does set us up with Chinese language partners, but they all speak perfect English and generally join us on program-organized events.

I found a program online back in February that involved teaching English in elementary schools for migrant children. I applied, and a few days later began the online training. According to the videos, and to my study abroad program’s staff and teachers who have spoken about the issue before, Shanghai experiences massive amounts of people immigrating from other provinces looking to find work. Unfortunately, Shanghai segregates migrant children from Shanghai children in the public education system. More often than not, these migrant schools have limited resources and underequipped teachers. Learning English can give the kids a leg up in their futures.

After I completed the online orientation, I signed up for a training session to attend during my second week living in China. Myself and the other new volunteers were taught how to run the classroom and create a lesson plan to effectively teach English as a foreign language. I was assigned a school that I would teach at over the course of the entire semester, and was to start in a week teaching two classes at an elementary school located about an hour and a half away from where I live.

I was nervous for my first time in the classroom, but as soon as I walked in I relaxed. The kids were excited to see us, and kept repeating the few introductory phrases to us that they’d been learning for years—“Hi, How are you! I’m fine thank you, and you?” And “What is your name?” Luckily, the other co-teacher for our classroom volunteered to create the lesson plan that week since she had previous experience teaching at some of the rural schools the program works with. I assisted by demonstrating the activities and dialogues with her, and helped keep the children engaged as she taught.

The next week was my turn. I prepped my flashcards, reviewed the textbook about a million times, created games, and planned out the entire class. When I arrived at the elementary school, I received a wechat message from my co-teacher telling me she was running late and would miss the first class. She had printed my flashcards for me, and I had no materials with which to teach. Oh well! I walked into the classroom and started with the song we had decided to use each week, and proceeded to rely on my artistic ability to teach class. Instead of flashcards with pictures to teach new vocabulary, I drew on the chalkboard. It went pretty well and the kids and I all had a blast! For the next class that day, even though I had my materials and co-teacher, I kept some of the improvised elements I had developed during the first class.

The best part about teaching English to these kids is that throughout the semester I get to watch them make progress. At the beginning of each week we review the previous week’s words and sentences, and most of the children remember them and are excited to expand their vocabulary. I’m really looking forward to spending the rest of the semester with them, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in something that will really help part of Shanghai’s community.

New Country, New Language, New Confidence

One of the major reasons I chose to study abroad in China was to improve my Mandarin speaking skills. I’ve been learning Mandarin in school since the 8th grade, but I never had the opportunity to practice speaking in context or with native speakers who weren’t my professors before now.

I’ve been interested in learning foreign languages since I was young. My younger sister and I would try to invent a new language to use with each other so that we could communicate without our parents knowing. This desire to find new ways to communicate translated into taking two foreign languages, Spanish and Mandarin, throughout middle and high school and continuing to learn Mandarin throughout my time at Cornell.

When I tell people I’m learning Chinese, they’re generally shocked. As a tonal language that uses characters instead of a phonetic alphabet, Mandarin is much different from romance languages. However, Mandarin always came to me more easily than Spanish—I never could keep track of all the tenses and conjugations involved. Chinese characters have visible history woven into their strokes, allowing you to see their meanings and remember them. I wanted to come to China so that I could finally have the opportunity to put my years of studying Mandarin to use, and to apply it in its cultural setting.

I arrived in Shanghai in the last few days of February. I hadn’t taken a Mandarin class since May, so I was rusty even with the basics. My first interaction in Mandarin was almost immediate. I told my cab driver my address in Chinese, and he immediately launched into asking me series of questions about why I was in Shanghai, where I was living, what I was studying, and how long I had been learning Chinese. Luckily, these topics have been heavily drilled during my Chinese classes over the years, so once I overcame the initial shock of relying on my limited speaking skills so soon, I was able to answer in patchy Mandarin.

Even after this first encounter, I was cautious to speak Mandarin outside of class in the first week, deferring to students on my program who seemed to know more Chinese than I did, or asking if the person I was speaking to knew English before I attempted to speak any Chinese at all. I was afraid to embarrass myself, and besides, I was taking 12 hours of Chinese lessons a week. But this wasn’t the kind of language practice I was hoping for when I decided to come to Shanghai.

I’m now convinced that the most important part of speaking any foreign language is having confidence. I wasn’t getting anywhere with my speaking skills before I realized this, despite the extensive class time. After watching the more adventurous students on my program engage in lengthy conversations with Chinese people—conversations that I could fully understand—I realized I needed to try harder to put myself in situations where I could practice speaking Mandarin. Its been just over a month now, and for the past few weeks I’ve been trying my best to exclusively use Mandarin to ask for directions, order food, grocery shop, and for all the other daily activities of living in Shanghai.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that stress enables me to speak more fluently. When my friends and I are frustrated with trying to describe to a cab driver where we live, I can suddenly describe all the nearby landmarks using vocabulary I learned years ago. Or, when arguing with my Mandarin teacher about an unclear test question, I am able to clearly articulate my argument in Mandarin with more advanced grammar than I would normally use.

I struggle most understanding people’s regional accents and keeping up with the speed that native speakers converse at. A man I spoke with on the train last week pronounced the word for “chi” (the word for “eat,” which I have known for over 7 years) as “si.” He had to write down the character on a napkin for me before I finally understood.

I have an extremely long way to go, but I’m happy with the progress I’m making here. I plan to continue working on my confidence and listening comprehension, and expanding my vocabulary. By the end of my time in Shanghai I just hope to have fully taken advantage of the opportunities I have here to talk with native speakers.

Suzhou

Planning Predicaments in Hangzhou

Before arriving here for the semester, I created a list of places to day trip from Shanghai to, and places within Shanghai I heard were important to check out. At the top of my list was Hangzhou. Located about an hour from Shanghai by the high-speed trains, Hangzhou is where the beautiful West Lake is located and somewhere I was extremely eager to see. Our day trip last weekend to Hangzhou was the first time we ventured out of Shanghai on our own, without the guidance of our program’s staff.

My friends here were all on board to visit Hangzhou too, but since I’m a natural planner, I took the lead in researching and planning our day trip. First, I booked train tickets for 5 of us on Ctrip. Shanghai’s Hongqiao raildroad station, which is where the train would leave from, is roughly an hour by metro from my apartment. Next, I looked up the best sites to see on a one day Hangzhou excursion. It seemed like the best way to get around the lake was by bike, so I wrote down details about how to put a deposit on a card to use the bike share system, and then coordinated an itinerary of things to do around that. Besides my usual crew of 4 girls I’ve been spending time with, I was also hosting a friend who had come to Shanghai from London to visit me. Even though I like planning travel, I felt the usual pressure of wanting to make sure everyone has a good time and that everything goes smoothly.

The next morning, we made it to the train station with plenty of time to pick up our tickets and head to our gate. So far so good. An hour later, we arrived in Hangzhou. We figured out the metro stop closest to the lake after asking a few locals to help us interpret the subway map, and then hopped on for a quick 20-minute subway ride. This is where my planning went off track. When I couldn’t immediately locate the counter to buy our bike rental cards at, my friends suggested walking over to the lake to check out if we even needed the bikes. I agreed, because from where we were standing outside the subway station I could see West Lake glimmering and couldn’t wait to finally go see it. The idea of biking was abandoned for good.

We headed over to the lake, and in a moment of spontaneity, boarded a small boat that was docked nearby. We weren’t sure where exactly the driver was taking us, but had no direction at this point and wanted to begin sightseeing. The next 40 minutes were an incredibly relaxing tour around the lake. The captain took us near the banks, where we could see pagodas and different trees lining the water. We watched other traditional looking leisure boats float by, and took pictures from afar of the mountains in the background. It was beautiful and relaxing, and completely unplanned.

We convinced the captain to drop us off on the other side of the lake rather than taking us back to his starting point. He pulled up close to a path, and without him docking we all jumped from the boat to shore. A walking path lines the perimeter of the Lake, which we then began to stroll around admiring the scenery until we came across an outdoor lunch spot. We slurped noodles while sitting in the sun, then proceeded on our walk. When we came upon Leifang pagoda, we decided to enter and climb to the top for views. The pagoda itself was intricately designed, and from its top floor we had a view of the entire lake.

In my research I had come across a temple that I was excited to visit. Unfortunately, without the bikes the temple was pretty far, and we had a train booked for later that day that we didn’t want to miss. But since we’re an ambitious group of girls, we decided to attempt walking there. After about 20 minutes we realized our plan wasn’t realistic, so we asked someone if any of the local busses could take us there. We waited at a bus stop along our route for a while. Three busses that weren’t ours had come and gone before we decided to just go enjoy more lake scenery before heading back to the train station. However, by the time we got back around the lake to the area where boats were docked, they had all been closed and abandoned for the afternoon. At this point we were all tired and beginning to worry about missing the train. We still had plenty of time if we could get a cab or bus, but walking back would cut it close. We tried to hail a taxi, but none would stop for us. Again, the right number bus didn’t come soon enough. Instead of waiting we decided to just walk quickly along the Lake’s perimeter.

By the time we got back to the metro station and made it to Hangzhou railway station, our train was scheduled to leave in 20 minutes. The lines to pick up tickets were long, and something I hadn’t come across anywhere online was that the ticket counter was only open until 7pm. We made it to the front of the line by 6:59, but the man at the counter put up a closed sign after the person before us walked away. Immediately, all 5 of us began pleading with him to remain open. Though he looked irritated, he gave us our tickets. We ran to security, rushed through to the departure area, and heard our train number announced over the loudspeakers. I think we all breathed out sighs of relief as we finally sat down in our seats on the train.

Despite the hiccups in my planning and nearly missing our ride, I’m so glad we got out of Shanghai for the day to experience nature for the first time since being in China. I was originally feeling stressed about how pressed for time we felt in the later part of the trip, and felt guilty about my planning going wrong, but quickly got over it once I realized how great of a day we really had. We saw West Lake, enjoyed a boat ride and beautiful scenery, and spent the day with some great people. Up next, a weekend in Suzhou!

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Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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